Major philosophers with significant ethical differences on human rights agree on the morality of animal exploitation . Aristotle outlined a hierarchical “ladder of life,” “reflecting degrees of perfection, and ranging from the zoophytes to man” (Bynum 1975:4). Moreover, “in his Politics, Aristotle wrote that ‘animals existed for the sake of man’ and nature made all animals for his sake,” principles echoed in the Talmud and Bible (Patterson 2002:18). However, ‘might makes right’ is the maxim of the powerful and ethically invalid in Aristotle’s conception of human affairs (Sandel 2009:193). Moral dilemmas at the limits of debate help illuminate ethical principles (Bayer and Fairchild 2004:475; Sandel 2009:24). This paper will examine two case studies with public health implications: experimenting on and eating animals.
Case Study 1: Experimenting on Animals
Human and animal experimentation provide stark ethical contrasts. The medical experiments practiced on Nazi victims are, to this author’s knowledge, essentially universally condemned. Arising out of this exploitation “was the basic belief that no individual should be required to participate in research endeavours [sic] – no matter how important for the public good – without his or her informed consent” (Bayer and Fairchild 2004:474).
Obtaining informed consent from those with whom one cannot communicate is obviously problematic. Yet in answering Kant’s self-imposed query on morality, he ventures that all humans, as de facto rational beings, would conclude that human rights are universal (Sandel 2009:122). (Interestingly, Sandel concedes that “most animals” are not rational (2009:109) while on the previous page contending that rationality “make[s] us distinctive, and set[s] us apart from mere animal existence” (2009:108).) Indeed, Rawls comes to the same conclusion, with his own cogito: I am human; therefore I want universal human rights, e.g., justice (Sandel 2009:141). Speaking for all humans who have ever lived or will live is unproblematic for these theorists; thus, surmising the will of other animals is well within the bounds of their ruminations. It is no more a cognitive leap to argue that human experimentation is a violation of elementary moral principles than it is to maintain that animal experimentation is, too.
Legalized animal experimentation in the United States is in accord with public opinion: 59% support and 34% oppose the practice (Gallup 2010). Furthermore, the ethics of animal experimentation is contested even within the animal rights movement. For example, Marcus (2005:220-221) argues that activists should avoid criticism of animal experimentation for tactical reasons, in order to focus public opinion on more egregious abuses.
Bentham provides an important counterpoint to Aristotelian disciples. He contends (1907: Chapter 17, note 122):
What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the [sic] question is not, Can they reason? nor [sic], Can they talk? but [sic], Can they suffer?
Lethal animal experimentation has yielded vaccines that have saved millions of human lives. According to Chomsky (2003:49), “those who are seriously interested in understanding the world will adopt the same standards whether they are evaluating their own political and intellectual elites or those of official enemies.” Extending his argument, is it ethical to torture millions of humans to save the lives of millions of anything?
Sandel (2009:33-34) reveals another utilitarian critique of sanctioning torture or murder even if more lives are saved. “Allowing such a killing might have bad consequences for society as a whole – weakening the norm against murder.” Sharing this viewpoint, Patterson (2002:12) plausibly argues that “the violation of animals expedited the violation of human beings.” Thus, animal experimentation might weaken humanity’s moral code and outweigh the medical benefits.
Case Study 2: Eating Animals
Animal rights are closely linked with public health. The connections between disease and eating red meat are well known. Thorogood, et al. (1994:1669) conclude that there is a “roughly 40% reduction in mortality from cancer in vegetarians and fish eaters compared with meat eaters.” The American Heart Association website (2011) states that “many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease…, high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer.” Specifically, red meat consumption is correlated with higher rates of colorectal, esophageal, liver and lung cancers (Cross, et al. 2007). Consequently, the American Heart Association (Lichtenstein, et al. 2006:83-85) advocates replacing red with lean meats, while limiting processed meat (bacon, hot dogs, sausage, etc.), while the American Institute for Cancer Research (2010:18) recommends that individuals limit their consumption of red meats and avoid processed red meats entirely. Even accepting the dictum of the dominant, it is unclear that humankind benefits from eating animals.
The theory and practice of animal exploitation reinforce each other. Contemporary Americans implicitly accept Aristotle’s premise: currently, it is estimated that only 3.2% of American adults are vegetarians and 0.5% vegans (Vegetarian Times 2008). Although the percent of vegetarians who become so because of concern over animal welfare is unknown, two samples (n<100) have estimated the proportion at approximately one half (Jabs, et al. 1998:196-199; Fox and Ward 2008:427). Additionally, animal welfare has been found to be the salient factor in vegetarians’ decisions to continue not to eat red meat (Lindeman and Väänänen 2000:56).
What of utilitarianism? Bentham (1907: Chapter 17, note 122) contends that killing animals can be morally permissible, since:
They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have. The death they suffer in our hands commonly is, and always may be, a speedier, and by that means a less painful one, than that which would await them in the inevitable course of nature….But is there any reason why we should be suffered to torment them? Not any that I can see.
Clearly killing nine billion (Mercy for Animals 2011) to partially feed three hundred million each year is perverse from a utilitarian perspective and thus the American social contract relegates animals to subhuman status. Or, as Aristotle justified it, “slaves and animals do little for the common good” (quoted in Patterson 2002:19).
Conclusion: Whose Maxim?
Applying the same standards to animals that are applied to humans leaves no doubt that eating and experimenting on animals violates basic principles of morality. However, whether one accepts animal exploitation depends on whether one accepts the credo that ‘might makes right.’ Even if one accepts this maxim and restricts his focus merely to the human species, then the notion that exploiting animals benefits humanity is far from clear.
Major Question 1: Should universal rights be extended to animals? Why or why not?
Major Question 2: Do you agree or disagree with Aristotle’s “ladder of life?” Is this different from
“might makes right?”
Major Question 3: Even if animals are considered “less” than humans, is it ethical to experiment on
and/or eat animals?
(Insert picture of “ladder of life”)
Minor Question A: What separates humans from other animals? (Kant, Bentham)
Bentham asks (1907: Chapter 17, note 122), “Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the [sic] question is not, Can they reason? nor [sic], Can they talk? but [sic], Can they suffer?”
Minor Question B: If you were to be born as any animal, what would be utopia? (Rawls)
Animal experimentation has yielded vaccines that have saved millions of human lives. However, annually killing nine billion to partially feed three hundred million is ethically dubious.
Minor Question C: Does experimenting on animals violate the principle of informed consent? (relativism)
Human and animal experimentation provide stark ethical contrasts. The medical experiments practiced on Nazi victims are universally condemned. Arising out of this exploitation “was the basic belief that no individual should be required to participate in research endeavours [sic] – no matter how important for the public good – without his or her informed consent” (Bayer and Fairchild 2004:474).
Minor Question D: Does animal exploitation weaken humanity’s moral code? (utilitarianism)
Sandel (2009:33-34) suggests that torture or murder might be unethical even if more lives are saved, as in a ticking bomb scenario. “Allowing such a killing might have bad consequences for society as a whole – weakening the norm against murder.”
Minor Question E: Do the health benefits of eating animals outweigh the consequences? (utilitarianism)
The connections between disease and eating red meat are well known. Thorogood, et al. (1994:1669) conclude that there is a “roughly 40% reduction in mortality from cancer in vegetarians and fish eaters compared with meat eaters.” The American Heart Association website (2011) states that “many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease…, high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer.” Specifically, red meat consumption is correlated with higher rates of colorectal, esophageal, liver and lung cancers (Cross, et al. 2007).
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