14 March 2019

The ethics of dealing with fellow animals

The ethics of dealing with fellow animals

We are familiar with some of the arguments about animal rights and many people are even active in promoting animal rights. So you will forgive me if I focus on the Ethics and the language side of the topic question and not the well known arguments on animal rights (1).

On the ethics side, I want to ask a simple question: By what means does an ethical system give a benefit to a party but does not require a reciprocal duty from that party to follow the normative principles of the ethical system? More simply, why should we apply ethical principles to animals when they don’t reciprocate?

But first the language involved in the title subject. The words “fellow animals” are fully loaded with meaning that we need to disambiguate it. The function of the word “fellow” is to imply that those in the general set “animals” have not only the same status as us, human beings, but that we are also members of the same set of animals. The implication of this situation is that any ethical system that applied to us must also apply to other animals in the general set of animals. And of course, vice versa, any member of the set (i.e. other species) who can establish an ethical system, must, ipso facto, also apply to us.

Under this scenario the set of “animals” includes all animals and us as equal members of that set: set All Animals = ((animals – humans) + (humans)), we can call this the Equal interpretation. We might even take this idea to extremes with: set All Animals = All biological creatures. In effect this represents the modern trend in thinking about our relationship with animals. Irrespective of the emotional attraction to this position we still need to tease out the philosophical issues of this Equal interpretation position.

The traditional attitude towards animals has so far been, at least at face value seems to be, that Human Beings are not only superior to other biological creatures but that animals have no rational value. Western religions are very fond of professing the difference in substance, if not in form, of the sanctity of human beings compared to animals. The traditional attitude towards the human – animal relationship is: humans animals, we can call this the Superiority interpretation. The traditional form of this relationship is that animals are chattels and cannot have any qualities which humans enjoy either empirically or metaphysically: the list starts from souls to consciousness. In effect, under the Superiority interpretation of this human-animal relationship, the subject of our meeting is a load of nonsense.

On a biological level the Superiority interpretation is false since there are many empirical similarities and commonalities between humans and animals that we just cannot exclude ourselves from the biological set of creatures. We might very well be something else apart from biological creatures, and I will show that we are, but we are certainly animals as well. I will also show that especially under the Superiority interpretation we have a moral responsibility towards animals.

The question I put forward earlier was: By what means does an ethical system give a benefit to a party but does not require a reciprocal duty from that party to follow the normative principles of the system? As already suggested, under the Equality interpretation, a human ethical system would have the same value and binding force on other members of the general set of all animals. The nature of an Ethical system is that it is binding on all members who are subject to that system, but how can we make other species to follow an ethical system by the human species? We might and can enforce an “ethical” system within species but not intra species. And what would an ethical system devised by spiders be like that also binds human beings?

It is clear that the Equality interpretation is seriously flawed and it is flawed for a number of reasons. The main reason is that there are no ethical systems in nature. In the natural world there are only the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. Ethics is a human system that makes sense to humans; we understand our ethical system but animals can never understand our reasoning. This is not to say that other species might not have their own “ethical systems” but nothing that will or can involve human beings.

Another reason is that how on Earth do we communicate our ethical system to other species; and vice versa. Specifically, what language do we use to “communicate” what is good and what is bad? What is the meaning of acceptable and unacceptable for other animals? Indeed, how will spiders understand our meaning of good or bad? For those who are fascinated by this issue they would do well to start with the paper by Thomas Nagel “What is it like to be a bat?” Although this paper is more about consciousness the issue is how can we be conscious of a set of rules that out brain cannot even begin to assimilate as part of our epistemological environment?

Even under our present ethical system it is unfair to assume that we are equal to other animals when in reality we are the equivalent to animals what a nuclear bomb is to a hamlet with half a dozen cottages. Having said that, viruses and microbes do give us more than just a good run for our money, some are deadly to us. So basically the serious problem with the Equality interpretation is that we do not have an equal rights relationship with animals: firstly because the concept of ethics is a human concept and secondly because we are the predominant predator on Earth now. But we most certainly have a “duty of care” towards animals.

In the celebrated appeal case in the House of Lords UK), DONOGHUE (Pauper) v. STEVENSON 1932 ((2): I referred to this case many times in my essays: the snail in the bottle case) Lord Atkin says: “…….the lawyer's question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour?........”

Therefore, taking this case as a model for Ethics, I would argue that we have a duty of care towards animals not because they are our equals but because they are our neighbours in the biological sphere. And more importantly there are many acts and omissions that we “can reasonably foresee” to avoid harm towards animals. Under the biological rules all creatures can use other species for their own gain: it is the biological right of every cat or every dog to steal your sausages. The difference for us is that we have evolved and supplanted* our biological rules and rights for rational rules and rights to enable us obtain massive gains and advantages from our environment. A state of affairs that cannot be reached with only the biological rules and this means we have a duty of care towards other animals. Indeed, it is a well accepted ethical principle that the strong have a duty to protect the weak or disadvantaged.

The problem is that ethics is all well and good, but it doesn’t solve such problems as eating animals, blood sports and mass breeding. As I said under the biological rules eating animals is allowed, although wasting animal meat might not necessarily be strictly within these rules. As for hunting or blood sports we need to understand why such activities were started in the first place. We need to distinguish between a necessity, hunting for food or fighting predators, and that necessity evolving into a cultural meme many centuries later. This chain of investigation is all within our intellectual capacity to investigate and then devise a model to reconcile the meme with the ethical norm of our time.

Those who are following Brexit at an engaged level would have come across the case of the “chlorinated chicken”. Basically in the USA they disinfect chicken with a chlorine treatment to remove bacteria, whereas this is banned by the EU. Brexiters in the UK argue that imported American chickens (post Brexit) are safe to eat even though they are chlorinated; and the EU agrees with them. The reason why the EU bans chlorinated chickens is that this allows American breeder to have “poor hygiene behaviour” (3) during the breeding and processing stages of chickens thus creating “harm” to chickens whilst at the same time giving unfair financial advantages over humane breeding practices in the EU. In a way these issues are low level solvable ethical problems; emotional yes but not hard hitting ethics as this US chlorinated chicken case demonstrates.

In the meantime if you really want hard hitting ethical questions about dealing with animals how about: do we have any duty of care towards human microbiota, microbes in general, fungi, viruses and especially the common cold virus?

* 5:30pm 15/03/2019: in retrospect, maybe we have not completely replaced (supplanted) the biological rules, but for most part we employ the rational rules (duty of care or build bridges) whilst still employing the biological rules for our biological survival: we still need to eat, or drink but impose degrees of rational rules. 

(1)  Animal Rights our meeting June 2007

(2)  M'ALISTER or DONOGHUE (Pauper) Appellant v. STEVENSON. Respondent (PDF File) – also check Wikipedia.

(3)  Chlorinated chicken explained: why do the Americans treat their poultry with chlorine? By Julia Glotz in The Grocer.

Best Lawrence

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