Animal ethics

This one’s been kicking around in my head for a while now, so I finally sat down to order some of the thoughts – put my ducklings in a row, so to speak. For the sake of easier writing, I will be using the term “animal” to simply mean “not human,” even though I am well aware that humans are animals too.

Animal rights, and the ethical treatment of animals, is obviously a subject of enormous contention. Underlying it are a significant number of assumptions that bear examining, if only just to help us understand not only why we personally feel the way we do, but why others may disagree.

Let’s start with the established idea that empathy is a social trait that provokes the cooperation of Homo sapiens amongst ourselves, making us one of many species that works better as a collective than as individuals. We can put ourselves into another’s shoes, feeling their pain and frustrations and identifying with them, because of an internal drive that rewards such – which does sometimes fail. But without it, we would have far more individuality, more competitiveness, and virtually no reason to have friends, neighborhoods, villages, and so on. Some species really are this way – most reptiles, for instance, and quite a few species of insects. I’ll tackle some of the more interesting aspects of the competitiveness that we do have in another post.

Coupled with this, we have the drive to take care of, coddle, and protect infants – I hope the reasons for this are obvious. Again, without it our species would die out rather quickly. We can see the myriad ways that species cope with fetal development in something as simple as an eggshell or a secluded nest, sequestering the vulnerable developing offspring until a time when they can fend for themselves better, and in the protectiveness of mother bears; some fish species even hold their fry within their mouths in times of danger (I am obliged to wonder whether the insides surfaces of their gills are as covered with little stickers as the back windows of many cars that I see.) Humans develop very slowly in comparison to other species, so the drive to nurture must be strong and long-lasting – it won’t work if it only provokes a casual effort in child-rearing.

What becomes interesting is how unspecific this really is. We identify with many other species as well, unwilling to cause them pain or discomfort, and we can get ridiculously soppy over the infants of species that not only have nothing to do with us, but the adults are the very critters that we had to avoid throughout the vast majority of our history. Lion and bear cubs are still cute, and even when a species doesn’t pose a direct threat (or much of a benefit for that matter,) we can still fixate on traits that trigger certain unconscious feelings – think kittens and fluffy bunnies.

There is virtually no point to such feelings at all. We are, to anyone not hopelessly blinded by the above influences, undeniably omnivorous. Our teeth and digestive systems are not what vegetarians should have, and our development requires far more protein and a more-rounded mineral content than plants could provide until the establishment of large-scale agriculture and transportation. Any vegan that wants to argue is invited to exist in latitudes above 45° for the winter months without a market. But what it means is that we, like many other species on the planet, have to rely on animals for food. There is nothing unnatural about the bear eating the salmon, or the snake eating the duckling. And at least half of the people reading that last sentence had entirely different feelings about the two scenarios – now ask why. And there remains nothing unnatural about humans eating cows or deer or any other animal.

But then, it’s easy to raise the question of “Should we?”, and there’s nothing that dictates that we have to follow the evolutionary path that we took to our current point, either – evolution is a process that weeds out some flaws, but slowly, and it works only with what it has. We have, for instance, used cultural pressures to change our attitudes about sex, social status, good spousal traits, and so on – part (most) of the benefit of our wonderfully abstract thinking processes is the ability to direct ourselves into better behavior rather than waiting for nature to do it. So taking steps to promote animal rights isn’t going against nature’s design, per se – but it cannot be argued to be following it, either. The foremost impetus within any such pursuits, quite simply, is how they make us feel.

There’s a trap in that kind of thinking. What we feel isn’t really a guideline on what is right, as only a moment’s thought will show (try bigotry if you need an example.) Extensive efforts to eradicate feedlot cattle because someone doesn’t like how it makes them feel is a poor rationale – actually not a rationale at all, but a kneejerk reaction to internal drives. It would be easy if everyone felt the same way, but clearly, not everyone does. The empathic feelings we have towards other animals – or only some other animals, as I hinted at above – is most likely the unspecific survival trait to help only Homo sapiens survive, which is too sloppy to prevent other species from getting swept into it. So, what direction should our abstract brains take us: towards more animal rights, or more efficiency to help us survive? Or somewhere else entirely?

The interesting thing is, we can’t really rule out the emotions even if we tried, and it may not be a good idea either. Sheer unemotional rationality (aside from scaring people) is extremely hard to implement, since it is emotions that guide us towards decisions anyway – but at the same time, strictly emotional reactions can lead us in ridiculous directions. Some balance is needed.

The vegan that considers all meat-eaters to be evil, corrupt, or simply selfish is not really accomplishing anything; their arguments are solely emotional, and in fact what they’re communicating is that their own emotions are important, while those of the people they disagree with are inconsequential. Moreover, in many cases their concern doesn’t have anything to do with their diet being more beneficial to humans, but only that animals are not suffering for human benefit. Is this noble? Well, that’s a decision that is solely our own; no other species on the planet bears such a concern, or hesitates to obtain food in whatever manner is necessary. In fact, it is probably safe to say that such attitudes originated only recently in our own species, and only in cultures that had progressed past the point that starvation was a real and imminent threat.

So if suffering is the concern, what about simply preventing the suffering? Are organizations like PETA spending way too much time trying to convince everyone to become vegetarian (usually in crass and condescending ways,) rather than pushing to improve livestock conditions? How many animal rights groups alienate more people than they reach by encouraging extremism and ignoring functional improvements? I ask this, by the way, as a naturalist, conservationist, former wildlife rehabilitator, and someone who spent over a decade in humane organizations – I feel obligated to point that out because there’s a great deal of “black or white,” “Hatfield or McCoy” thinking when it comes to these topics.

Closely related is the topic of animal captivity – zoos, petting farms, and so on. There are those that argue that all animals should be wild and free, away from the shackles of captivity and living carefree existences without human interference. While not an invalid argument, it is often based on the idea that either animals don’t actually face myriad threats to their existence on a constant basis in the wild, or that they view ‘captivity’ in the same way that humans do. Pay attention whenever you encounter either this topic, or the one above, and see how quickly the word “exploit” comes up. It’s a nice word for such purposes, since it has negative connotations, but how much can an animal be said to be exploited? Even when we kill a cow for food, how does this differ from a wild existence? Does the coyote exploit the chicken? If we raise a panda in captivity, showered with veterinary care, proper diet, and controlled living conditions, is this somehow putting it at a disadvantage? “Exploit” is a human word, intended to stir our emotional reactions to lack of justice or choice; ironically, we are exploited by the very use of the word ;-)

Animals in the wild usually live only one-half to one-tenth as long as they have demonstrated in captivity. Death in a ‘natural’ setting comes from countless untreated illnesses and injuries, very frequently assisted by opportunistic predators, and occasionally by the actions of other members of the same social unit – many species chase off weaker members of the pack/group to reduce the detriment that they might bring. When we eat a pig, we do not hamstring it or drag it down with multiple jaws latched onto its throat, and we do not aim for the young or the feeble. Nor does the pig spend any part of its time running from danger, much less every day of its existence. They’re fed quite well, and never have to forage or go hungry. If we’re going to argue ethics, we at the very least need to do so from the standpoint of realism, rather than some naïve impression of what typical conditions are.

I’ve heard, countless times, the arguments that zoos are prisons for the animals, catering to ignorant gawkers. Again, this seems to be very often a case of applying human ideas where they cannot be supported. The effectiveness of a prison, for instance, is not in the conditions as such, but in the idea of it, the selective isolation and deprivation for those humans who demonstrated their anti-social aspects. It’s safe to say that no animal has the faintest understanding of this, and only those who had some significant existence in the wild even have anything to compare against (very few zoos, at least in progressive countries, will even accept wild-caught animals anymore.) As an exercise, think of the children playing on abandoned tanks in war-torn countries. We’re horrified by it, or see some form of irony in it at least, but they have nothing to compare it against. Think also of your own childhood, growing up without your own personal swimming pool or polo pony; were you deprived, or constantly unhappy? No, we’re only unhappy when we feel we’re not receiving what we should, some minimal standard dictated by our cultures. Animals, in general, are unhappy when they’re ill or threatened, and even the stress from threat is a transient state, unable to be maintained – when no danger materializes, virtually every species we might keep captive will relax. Even sexual frustration, which some might bring up, is a highly dubious anthropocentric argument, since most species are not sexually active year-round like humans, and many respond only to specific triggers such as estrous displays – without these, there is no sexual desire. And let’s not ignore the number of animals in the wild who fail to win the sexual competitions anyway, and may even suffer injuries in the process of losing.

Let’s shift tack here a little, and look at the overall aspects. Are zoos and such really accomplishing anything? Well, that depends on the individual structures in each, so generic questions (or presumed answers) of this sort are pointless. But many take the opportunity to not only provide numerous educational functions, they also promote conservation, awareness, research, and endangered species programs. And they work because a very large number of people have a distinct interest in animals. The activist who denigrates zoos is often, in essence, blaming others for having the exact same emotional attachment to animals that they do. The irony is rife in this topic, isn’t it? And I have to add that not one activist that I’ve spoken to or heard from had even the faintest idea how to generate the amount of support for, and education about, wildlife that zoos produce. Some may argue that televised nature programs can fit this bill, but these haven’t supplanted zoo attendance, any more than travel programs have sated people’s desire to travel. On the contrary, nature programs may show a close parallel to travel programs, in that they are at times directly responsible for zoo visitation: “Hey, our zoo has coatimundis! Do you want to see real ones next weekend?”

I cannot leave out animal testing, of course. But again, this topic is far too broad to paint with one brush, which doesn’t stop many people from trying anyway. The questions that reside within are countless, but the most important one perhaps is: how do humans stack up against other species? In terms of medical and safety research, which makes up the vast majority (if not the entirety) of animal testing, the usage of animals is to determine the likelihood of adverse affects to humans. Without such testing, we would see a greatly increased number of illnesses and deaths from reactions that we do not possess the ability to predict or detect (I’m well aware that many animal rights activists believe that we can accomplish the same tests without animals, but this belief is not grounded in reality.) I would like to think I’m safe in saying that humans dying are not any more acceptable than animals, but the truth is, the pure emotional reactions sometimes bring this into question. I was in a theater watching “The Road Warrior” and had witnessed several instances of violent death, a bloated corpse, torture, and a rape, but a disturbing number of the audience went “Awwwww!” when a rabbit was shot with a crossbow. Animals, especially cute animals, are innocent – but that’s both baseless and meaningless. It’s these impressions that we probably should be aware of falling for, because they’re examples of where the emotions take over and leave the thinking far behind. If there’s anything that we can argue is of paramount importance, either rationally, emotionally, or simply through natural selection, it’s the preservation of our own species. Does that seem selfish or elitist? If so, why?

So, how many animals are allowable to die to save one human from severe illness or death? Does it matter what kind of animal? Is there some altruistic benefit to sacrificing ourselves to prevent animal testing? Because it starts, very quickly, to look like activists are far more concerned about animals than people, and I admit that such a thing disturbs me far more than any animal testing procedure.

No, let’s be serious. I’m pretty comfortable with the belief that most activists really aren’t promoting the idea that people should die to save animals – despite many misgivings, I am willing to extend that much credit to mankind. The majority of the problem is likely due to activists never having considered the implications in the first place, remaining blissfully unaware of the consequences while indulging in some rather juvenile emotional appeasement. Animals are cute, so anyone that harms them is a big meanie. There is a reason I push critical thinking so frequently, and it’s because we can really do without so much effort being provoked by such indulgent emotional goads as this.

Let me ask another question, in a dirty and manipulative way: How many animals equal one human baby? Is it okay for a baby to die to save ten rabbits? You know this is different, but why? The purely emotional response doesn’t offer much guidance.

One of the other problems with emotional responses is that they don’t encourage considerations or compromise. “Stop animal testing” or “Go vegan” are slogans that express a gross inability to fathom the various aspects of animal use, settling instead for over-generalizations and the fatuous belief that there are simple solutions. But since neither of these actions are viable, what then?

Or, should we be capable of considering compromises, optimal approaches, and reasonable goals? Because some feedlot and egg farm conditions are dismal, should we wipe these out completely, or is it possible to consider setting higher standards? Should animal testing be outlawed, or should it be approached with an eye for necessity, humane conditions, and alternatives where feasible? Would these meet with more approval and produce a more rational appearance? Are they also capable of eradicating the very conditions that we react to in the first place? And isn’t getting a half-measure accepted a far greater benefit than having a full-measure rejected?

It bears noting that, of the two ‘compromise’ examples set forth above, both are already accepted and implemented, even legislated, to varying degrees; reasonable goals are always easier to meet.

Finally, I ask, what of the plants? Are they too undeserving of our consideration that we can slaughter them wholesale and bear not the slightest qualm? While this seems like a joke, plants have lives as well, and in their own way react to external stimuli and suffer from poor conditions. We differentiate them due to the idea that they do not feel as we do; we do not relate to them in any kind of empathic manner since they have no faces, no sounds, no recognizable actions. The argument that they lack a central nervous system is trivial, since plants do indeed communicate hazards and benefits throughout their tissues, and in some cases even to other plants. Fathoming the distinctive differences in our attitudes towards animals and plants is the first clue as to how we can rationally handle those attitudes.

There’s no conclusion that I want anyone reading to reach; I’m simply making the point that so many of our opinions about this topic are colored by deep-seated ‘instinctual’ reactions, mere side-effects of our imprecise evolutionary development. Far too many people seem to believe that if they feel strongly about something, then it must have value or be grounded in rationality, but this is far from true; in fact, it might be false more often, since careful consideration usually reveals the numerous factors and grey areas that make firm conclusions so hard to settle upon. So, since another evolutionary development is the frontal lobe area of our brains that lets us select the most advantageous approaches, it seems like we should let it have some input as well.

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