Meddling with Animal Morality
Cheetahs kill gazelles. Alligators kill egrets. Hawks kill mice. Lizards kill crickets. Sharks kill dolphins. It’s a wild kingdom out there. And it’s defined by the bloodthirsty quest for genetic preservation. Why, given the essential nature of these murderous acts, should humans not have the right to play a part in the wooly game of death, killing the animals who kill?
It’s an important question. If our lives, or the lives of loved ones, are threatened, I suppose it would be excusable to commit acts of violence in the name of direct self-defense. This is the same standard I’d apply to humans. But the condition of self-defense doesn’t bear on the “animals-kill-each-other” justification for humans killing animals. To say I can justifiably kill an animal because animals kill animals requires a separate defense, one that I think is very difficult to make.
Many animal rights supporters who oppose the “animals-kill-each-other” rationalization object to the kill-kill-kill portrayal of animal life, condemning in particular the Animal Planet-like tendency to focus on animal violence. With considerable evidence, they counter that animals also engage in systematically altruistic and cooperative behavior. The excellent work of Jonathan Balcombe has been central in promoting this perspective, and every week I get a little video from HSUS of a pig and a cat or some such cuddled up and what not. It’s usually very sweet.
Those who counter-attack through the lens of altruism, however, sometimes take the additional step of arguing that animals have what humans would recognize (if we looked) as moral standards. It is here that I pause. My feelings about this claim are ambivalent. As you’ll see, I think animals probably do have moral standards, but that doesn’t mean that morality necessarily matters when it comes to animal rights.
There is virtually no doubt that many animals are much more than instinctual agents responding with pre-programmed imperatives. They clearly make an impressive range of situational choices and are, as a result, weighing options when they act, be it altruistically or not. But to place this situational flexibility in the framework of morality comes with risks—risks we don’t have to take in order to justify an animal’s right to avoid unnecessary exploitation.
For one, we really cannot prove concretely the existence of animal morality with any scientific assurance. Now, typically I would say that the inability to prove the existence of a phenomenon should not preclude an acceptance of it based on thoughtful observation and common sense. However, provided that we do not need to grant animals a moral sensibility as a precondition to respecting their rights, I suggest we don’t try to do it. I make this case on the grounds that we should, in our attempt to make a case for animal rights, engage in as few speculations as possible.
Such speculation can lead into mucky territory. If we are going to grant that animals possess a moral sensibility that encompasses a basic sense of right and wrong, then what do we make of the fact that they are very often killing each other when they do not have to? Of course, humans who (for the most part) possess moral codes kill each other all the time. We hack each other with abandon in the streets on big cities. But: we rectify this behavior with systems of justice that explicitly acknowledge and reflect our articulated moral standards. We adjudicate.
Animals don’t do this. Which raises questions: does this lack of an “objective” system of justice grant us the right to bring justice to the animal world? When a fat greedy cat kills yet another blue jay, should we intervene and mete out justice on the assumption that morals are being violated? They did it in Medieval Europe. In any case, this is the kind of muck you end up in when you grant sentient animals a conscious moral system.
Why not skip all that difficult business and pragmatically propose what most people are already inclined to think: that humans are unique (not exceptional, just unique) in our ability to articulate, disseminate, and accept a relatively coherent system of basic morality that can be codified in custom and reified in law. Do this, and then promote the basic moral precept that, as morally aware humans, we should do everything in our power to reduce unnecessary suffering, and you have just laid the basis for respecting the rights of most of the animals we currently eat. Animals, in other words, don’t need to have a moral code to benefit from ours.
We just need to follow our own.