Pages Menu
TwitterRssFacebook
Categories Menu

Posted by on Oct 13, 2012 in Animals, Philosophy | 17 comments

We Are Animals

Lately, I’ve seen a spate of books and blog posts on our moral obligations to animals. Some of these have been written in the context of disproving a loving God. Others are attempts to establish how we should behave in respect to animals, unrelated to religious doctrine. In any case, I’m glad to see these books and concerns out there, because I love animals, and presently share my home with five of them. But…

October Kitty

We are animals, and we owe no greater obligation to animals than they (we) owe to each other, which is arguably no obligation at all. In the real world, animals treat each other cruelly, with no consideration for the pain of the weak, for other packs and tribes, or for their prey. They do what they need to survive, and so do we. For some of us, that means eating animals, and for all of us (even vegans), that means using either products tested on animals or products that include animal-based ingredients, at least  to some degree.

If by virtue of having more highly-developed thinking capacity we are able to empathize better than other animals, then our first goal should be to extend that empathy to fellow humans. Note, I’m not arguing that humans are more important or valuable than other species; according to many philosophies, they aren’t. I’m merely saying that a species that can’t extend empathy to other members of the same species is unlikely to successfully extend its empathy beyond it. In an ideal world, of course, we would do both, but we are so far from that ideal as to make these questions purely academic. Nor do I foresee a world where we sacrifice the lives of fellow humans for the sake of saving the lives of animals that exist below us in the food chain. That strikes me as unnatural and unrealistic. It also goes against the fairly well-established principle that humans are most likely to extend empathy to those closest and most similar to themselves.

Seally

On the other hand, human beings have been the most destructive and abusive species to other humans, to the environment, and to other animals. This is, in my mind, unacceptable. At the very least, we should strive to make the world better for all. An attempt to do so does not require examining the difference between a dog and a spider and attempting to assign relative values to the lives of each; but it does require treating all living things with a modicum of respect. It involves not killing except out of necessity or defense, and employing the most quick and humane methods possible when killing is, indeed, required. Further, it involves limiting animal testing to that which is necessary to save and/or extend the lives of humans and other animals, but not to enhance our “beauty.” When getting to know other humans via the internet, it quickly becomes apparent that real beauty is on the inside, anyway (she says as she heads out to get her nails done &  her hair colored  — with color not tested on animals, of course).

  • bluharmony

    Strangely enough, I wrote that before reading this cringe-worthy post by PZ Myers: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/10/12/blaming-the-victim/. I hate the idea of generating blog hits for him, but don’t miss this before it disappears.

  • prussian

    An excellent article. I particularly liked this:

    We are animals, and we owe no greater obligation to animals than they (we) owe to each other, which is arguably no obligation at all. In the real world, animals treat each other cruelly, with no consideration for the pain of the weak, for other packs and tribes, or for their prey.

    It’s amazing how many people who think themselves smart ignore this truth.

    That said, I’d suggest you take a look at Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics. One of our defining characteristics is that we, alone as far as we know, have consciousness and self-consciousness. In this vast waste of matter and radiation, it may be only we who know that it’s all going on. And part of that is that we can “rise above” our primitive, tribal, animal state.

    There’s a lot of religious folk who complain that there’s no glory in the atheist view of the Universe. I’d say that fact is glory enough, no?

    • bluharmony

      Chimps have been shown to have consciousness and self-awareness comparable to that of a three-year-old. I don’t recall who did the studies or how they were done & don’t know if they’ve been criticized. Dolphins are another subject of some debate.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/incongruentelements/ Beth Erickson

    Very thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing. I particularly liked:

    “This is, in my mind, unacceptable. At the very least, we should strive to make the world better for all. An attempt to do so does not require examining the difference between a dog and a spider and attempting to assign relative values to the lives of each; but it does require treating all living things with a modicum of respect.”

    After my husband’s heart attack ten years ago, we’ve been eating a low fat vegan diet to keep his cholesterol in check. It’s amazing how that simple diet change has affected my outlook on how animals are treated. Your post verbalized many of my thoughts on the subject, thanks again for sharing so honestly. — Beth :)

    • bluharmony

      Thank you. xo

  • Smilodon’s Retreat

    I take a slightly different tack. That’s only because animals can’t protect themselves from us. We have the obligation to treat every living thing (with the exception of mosquitoes and fleas) with utmost respect.

    I spend my efforts to take care of animals. There are lots of organizations and programs to help people, but very few that help animals. Many of the animals (especially pets) are the way they are because we made them that way through tens of thousands of years of natural selection. Now, through them, we’ve made new ways of destroying environments.

    Feral house cats have almost eliminated rare birds on many islands. Escaped pythons are living and thriving in the florida everglades. Heck, even lionfish from aquariums are thriving in Atlantic reefs where they have no predators or parasites.

    All of those things are our fault, not the animals. They are just doing what comes naturally to them.

    I’m sure I had a point in there somewhere. If you find it, let me know.

    • bluharmony

      In pragmatic terms, I agree with you completely when it comes to respect for the environment — this is important for our own sake, not only for the sake of other animals — and I also contribute to animal charities when and if I can. Usually, that means giving either money or time to local no-kill shelters, since I’ve always lived in the company of dogs and cats. It also means taking responsibility for the animals that I own and care for.

      As for mosquitoes and fleas, that brings me back to the question of the inherent worth of any living organism. Even before humans arrived on the scene, animals became extinct all the time, often because of the actions of other animals. At what point do we draw the distinction that one animal’s (or species’) existence is more valuable or important than another’s? While it’s imperative to fix the environmental problems that we’ve introduced simply because we’ve done so at such an extreme rate (especially recently), in reality we are not the only species that has had an impact on the environment or on other living things. The main issue seems to be one of magnitude.

      When it comes to harming the environment, though, I would argue that with heightened awareness comes heightened responsibility, and that it makes sense to extend this argument to how we treat other animals, beginning with fellow humans. Which, I guess, brings me full circle to my original point.

      • Smilodon’s Retreat

        Yes. 99% of all species that have ever existed are extinct. It’s just that humans seem to be overachievers in the causes.

        There’s a lot of research going on about if the majority of species can adapt to the rapid climate change that we are causing or will this be another Permian level extinction event.

        The Earth can recover, but even before humans took over, the planet was well below previous diversity levels. The ice ages took care of a lot of that.

        It seems like the really cool species are some of the most fragile (tigers, cheetahs, etc) while the most annoying species are the toughest (cockroaches, fleas, etc).

        • Vic

          “while the most annoying species are the toughest”
          I consider myself to belong to that category. :D

          In regards to animal rights and how we treat animals: While I am perplexed at the notion that somebody might hold the life of an animal as dear a human’s, I definetly agree that, even if our motivation is merely pure self-interest, should try to understand our place in the biosphere and how our technology enables us to change it.

          No, a single species which goes extinct will bring about ecological collapse. Yet despite the best efforts of biologists our understanding of the long-term consequences of the observed rapid, accelerating extinction of species and how to deal with those consequences if we cannot avoid a critical loss of bio diversity.

          How much is critical? And how much influence will it have for agricultural societies? For industrial societes? How to cope with negative effects? Is it possible to reverse damage?

          There’s still so much to discover. And despite having a rather cynical view on humans and human society, I am not convinced we won’t find a method to balance economic and environmental issues in the post-democratic administration that seems to hold most of the power of the world, since we will most likely suffer if we neglect either one.

          • Smilodon’s Retreat

            since we will most likely suffer if we neglect either one.

            You assume that everyone realizes that they are not the only thing that exists on this planet. I, sadly, don’t hold that belief.

            I really think that a big chunk of the human population is perfectly content with destroying every plant and animal other than themselves.

  • Zed Zero

    I generally agree with your premise but, I have an exception:

    “Nor do I foresee a world where we sacrifice the lives of fellow humans for the sake of saving the lives of animals that exist below us in the food chain. That strikes me as unnatural and unrealistic. It also goes against the fairly well-established principle that humans are most likely to extend empathy to those closest and most similar to themselves.”

    The scale of difference is small but, this is not exactly true. There are several large NGO’s in Africa that fund and staff wildlife conservation efforts there at the expense of the local population, especially in the area of elephant and lion conservation, both of which compete with people directly for food and outright kill people. They do not do this explicitly but, but they are aware of what they are doing and privilege the animals and their fund raising over local people.
    Also I would consider the billions spent on the care and maintenance of non-working animals (pets) in the areas food, shelter, medical care and judicial projection to be done indirectly at the expense of extending the same level of care to impoverished, distant and/or undesirable people.

    • Zed Zero

      FYI: Maybe y’all don’t care but, I think this is really interesting…

      Actual Sales within the U.S. Market in 2011
      In 2011, $50.96 billion was spent breakdown:
      Food 19.85 billion
      Supplies/OTC Medicine $11.77 billion
      Vet Care $13.41 billion
      Live animal purchases $2.14 billion
      Pet Services: grooming & boarding $3.79 billion

      http://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp

    • bluharmony

      I think that’s a good point; one of my biggest expenses is pet care, which includes insulin & regular screening for a diabetic cat. Pets are immensely expensive. The only question I have is that if I weren’t spending this money on my pets, would I think to give it away to the poor? Probably not, because the pets are very much a selfish thing. I’d like to think I would, but…

      • Zed Zero

        I have lots of extra money in the grand scheme of things but, my charity only extends pretty much to myself, my fellow Americans and Skeptics.
        I put “distant” as a qualifier because proximity matters in our moral decisions. Our altruism takes into account distance, usual line of sight or tribal identity. It could be said our altruism is defective. It includes some people but, marks some people for extermination. Also it selects cute animals for parental nurturing sometimes, in modern times, at the expense of child baring.
        My beef with moral philosophy is that it focuses on us as moral actors as they wish us to be rather than how we are. When coupled with people who think we are intrinsically intelligent, I start to see these philosophers and the atheists that repeat similar ideas to be believers in the special creation.
        When I ask myself what is a human being is really? I only manage to confuse myself.

  • Copyleft

    “We are animals, and we owe no greater obligation to animals than they (we) owe to each other, which is arguably no obligation at all.”

    I disagree. Any species capable of a moral sense has an inherently greater obligation to exercise it. It’s the price you pay for sentience. ‘With great power’ and all that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/natty4bumpo Chuck Hamilton

    “Man* is an animal, suspended in a web of significance he himself has spun.” – anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

    *By “man” Geertz meant the human race as a whole, not merely man as opposed to women.

    • bluharmony

      That’s a lovely quote.