Monday, May 27, 2024

How Far Should We Carry the Logic of the Animal-Rights Movement?

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Despite these decades of foment, the publication of “Animal Liberation,” roughly a century later, came as a shock. In fearsomely logical prose, Singer argued not just that we ought to treat animals better but that we had no right to treat them any differently than we treat one another. His radical repudiation of speciesism, defined as “a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species,” forced readers to reconsider a range of practices that they had learned to regard as normal. The power of the idea lay in its simplicity, which left Singer free to devote much of the book to considering the practical implications: the intentional horrors of animal-research laboratories, and the unintentional—or perhaps just unnecessary—horrors of factory farming, in which animals are often crammed together in miserable conditions and subjected to painful operations such as “de-beaking,” to prevent chickens from pecking one another to death, and “tail-docking,” to prevent overstressed and understimulated pigs from gnawing one another’s tails into bloody stumps.

Singer followed the chapter on factory farming with one about how to become a vegetarian, and he included, at the end, a list of recipes, which probably introduced more than a few Western readers to a form of “bean curd, sometimes called bean cake, or tofu.” In “Animal Liberation Now,” the recipes have been updated, with more variety and no more cheese. Singer has become what he calls a “flexible vegan” (he has said that he sometimes eats eggs, provided they have been taken from free-range hens), but he doesn’t seem inclined to worry much about either the purity or the deliciousness of his diet. “Frying the tofu is optional,” he tells readers, in the new recipe section, adding that “it tastes better, but I don’t like to consume too much oil, so sometimes I do it, and sometimes not.” Generations of readers probably learned to loathe McDonald’s from reading Singer, but he himself is too practical-minded to hold a grudge, and so in February he startled some of his fans by praising the company, on X. “Let’s give credit where it is due: @McDonald’s have reached their goal of sourcing 100% their U.S. egg supply from cage-free hens, as they pledged they would,” he wrote. “It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a step forward on a long march.”

Singer acknowledges his debt to Bentham, whose question is at the heart of much of Singer’s work: “Can they suffer?” But, as a consequentialist, he realizes that his book will likely do more good if it offends fewer people, and so he deëmphasizes his suggestion that infanticide might sometimes be justified, though he doesn’t retract it. He has excised his claim that there “seem to be certain measurable differences between both races and sexes,” and that “we do not yet know how much of these differences is really due to the genetic endowments of the different races and sexes.” Singer’s point, in 1975, was that these differences, whether between sexes or races or species, do not justify discrimination. Still, he believes that some differences do matter, especially differences in sentience, because sentience is what enables suffering, and suffering is what we ought to want to prevent.

In many ways, this is a generous approach, one that asks us to search everywhere for mistreatment, and redress any that we find. Bentham and Singer’s alertness to cruelty, when their contemporaries were happy to ignore it, is part of what can make them seem like visionaries today. But the focus on sentience and suffering can also seem pitiless. Singer’s approach leaves no room for speciesism, which means it leaves no room for the idea that every human is valuable because of his humanity—no room for what Christians call grace, the sense that all people have something precious and perhaps sacred in common. Singer puts every living creature on the same scale, each with its own chance to earn, through sentience, the right not to be mistreated. This means that humanity is on the scale, too, and so perhaps are individual humans, all of us liable to be judged on precisely how sentient we are.

Singer, to his credit, is motivated by a desire to solve big problems, but this means that the small lives of animals don’t figure much in his book. Nussbaum, by contrast, views a wide spectrum of creatures with both affection and awe; they seem “wonderful” to her, as to so many of us, and she thinks we should pay more attention to that intuition. (The book is dedicated to her daughter, Rachel, who worked as an attorney for an animal-welfare group, and died in 2019.) “Wonder suggests to us that animals matter directly, for their own sake—not because of some similarity they have to ourselves,” she writes. What she opposes is not speciesism but its cousin, anthropocentrism, a world view that puts humans at the center, and values animals only to the extent that we decide that “they are (almost) like us.” To her, Singer’s view, with its focus on suffering, misses much of what makes animal life meaningful—meaningful, that is, to the animals themselves. Nussbaum is known for developing, with the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, a framework called the capabilities approach, which focusses on insuring that all people have the ability to thrive. Now she wants to adapt that approach to account for the different ways that nonhuman animals, too, “strive for flourishing,” and are frequently blocked. “We are all animals,” she writes, “thrown into this world together, striving to get the things we need, and often thwarted in the attempt.” Nussbaum is horrified by factory farming, deeply moved by the plight of whales, and cautiously optimistic about the future prospects of pets, which she refers to as “companion animals,” to remind us that they exist not merely to please their so-called owners but to flourish in their own ways.

“And I dont think this cablenews panel of experts is helping in these counselling sessions at all.”

“And I don’t think this cable-news panel of experts is helping in these counselling sessions at all.”

Cartoon by Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby

What does flourishing entail? For humans, Nussbaum has developed a list of entitlements, which may seem suspiciously well matched to the interests of a humanities professor. (The list includes the ability to experience and produce “literary” and other works but not, explicitly, the ability to trade goods.) As for animals, the entitlements will depend on both the species and the individual. She suggests that we heed “experts who have lived closely with a certain type of animal and studied those animals over long periods of time”; working across national borders, those experts could help us draft “a legally enforceable constitution” for every kind of animal. Dolphins, for instance, would be granted the right to roam, to socialize, and to have as much or as little contact with humans as they choose. She holds that, because animals generally “seek maturity as a central goal,” killing the young is probably harder to justify than killing the old. And she writes that virtually all creatures under human control should be guaranteed “at least one or two chances at sex and reproduction.” This means that companion animals might permissibly be spayed or neutered, but only after they have had a chance to find some companionship for themselves.

But why care about the flourishing only of animals, and not of a coral reef, or an ocean, or a forest? Singer’s suffering test provides one answer. Nussbaum’s answer is complicated, and the more she explains it the closer she draws to the anthropocentrism she says she opposes. In one passage, she points out that a cat can be said to engage in the “active pursuit of ends.” Elsewhere, she notes that a plant “lacks the sort of situational flexibility that makes us conclude that fish are sentient creatures,” adding that “a plant is basically a cluster entity, a they, rather than an it.” It is not that the distinctions she makes are indefensible. On the contrary, they are eminently defensible, because they reflect the things (activity, flexibility, sentience, individuality) that we humans tend to value in one another, and therefore in the world around us. It is hard to imagine a more anthropocentric view than one that surveys the natural landscape and sees creditable strivers, surrounded by less consequential organisms and entities that don’t measure up in the striving department.

Speciesism is easier to renounce than it is to abandon, because most of us share a sense that human beings have rights and responsibilities that set us apart. “To speak of ‘animal rights’ is, in the end, as absurd as to speak of ‘animal duties,’ ” Matthew Scully wrote in National Review in 1993. He wanted to assure his readers that they could object to cruelty without endorsing any weird metaphysical claims. By the time he published “Dominion,” he was working as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, for whom he helped coin the phrase “axis of evil,” and he was already rethinking his skepticism of “animal rights.” Observing that people seemed to have little trouble extending compassion for the weakest in their midst, at least in theory, Scully wondered why animals should be offered less. He defended pets, both the concept and the term. He remembered reading Singer’s book as a teen-ager and then scrutinizing his own beloved dog. “Try as I might, I could not discern in his furry face any desire at all for liberation,” Scully wrote. Indeed, he encouraged his readers to visit a factory farm, if they could, and consider the idea that the cattle confined there were “morally indistinguishable” from the animals they loved at home.

Scully took his title from the Book of Genesis, in which, shortly before His vegan commandment, God grants man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Scully wrote not necessarily as a Christian (in one early interview, he mentioned that he had never been a regular churchgoer) but as a thinker who took the Bible seriously, and who was sure that Biblical “dominion” meant taking gentle care of the natural world, rather than simply dominating it or, worse, emulating its cruellest attributes. Unlike Nussbaum, who endeavors to figure out what we are each striving for, Scully accepted the mysteriousness of life, suggesting that God made all creatures to “serve some purpose beyond our full knowing.” What he wanted for animals was not justice but mercy—a kind of gift, freely given by humans to animals. “There is no such thing as a right to mercy, not for the animals and not even for us,” he wrote.

This is a poignant formulation, but one that does not easily lend itself to a program of social reform. And so “Fear Factories” chronicles how, in the years since “Dominion,” Scully has grown increasingly comfortable advocating for the “rights” of animals, as a way of insisting that how they are often treated is wrong, in ways that demand government intervention. In 1868, the editors of Our Dumb Animals boasted that their board included “Roman Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, License men and Prohibitory men.” Scully, by contrast, has found allies virtually nowhere: few politicians in either party seem eager to crack down on so-called “canned” hunting—in which the quarry has essentially no chance to escape—or to tighten regulations on hog farming. When, in 2000, he told the strategist Karl Rove that the Republican Party’s platform might add a line about animal cruelty, Rove’s response did not rise even to the level of noncommittal. “Hey, man, at least you’re thinking outside the box,” Rove apparently said. “I like that!” And though Scully defends his having worked with Governor Sarah Palin, who backed a government-supported program of aerial wolf hunting, he admits, “The pile of moose and deer antlers on the campaign plane, gifts bestowed on the candidate at every rural stop, did get to be a little much.”

Scully, in fact, has something important in common with Palin: like many of his fellow-Republicans, and vanishingly few animal-rights activists, he is firmly opposed to abortion. This sets him apart from Nussbaum, who has argued that “access to abortion” is an essential component of “human dignity.” And it sets him farther apart still from Singer, who has questioned whether even newborn infants have “an inherent right to life.” Scully can’t help but see parallels between factory farming and abortion. “Both industries are blunt, practical solutions to hard moral problems that the people who advocate them have despaired of dealing with in some gentler way,” he writes. “I have never heard a single compelling argument for why the unborn must die or why the animals must suffer.” Of course, there is a powerful movement in America to ban abortion, and no similarly robust effort to ban meat. When the pro-life and the animal-rights causes seem to be, in many ways, natural allies, why do they continue to belong to such separate worlds? It is certainly possible to oppose abortion while also opposing, on feminist or prudential grounds, efforts to force all pregnant women to give birth. But it’s strange that the people most concerned about the fate of human blastocysts take little interest in the fate of cattle or chimpanzees, and that the people who think carefully about the nervous systems of crabs take little interest in the nervous system of a human fetus. Often, the overlap occurs strictly at the level of rhetoric. “Voice of the Voiceless,” the title of a 1992 compilation of mainly vegan straight-edge bands which raised money for the Animal Liberation Front, is also a phrase used by pro-life advocates, who are equally convinced that they are expanding the circle of human compassion.

There is something unsettling about the animal-rights argument, which is partly a matter of scale: the dizzying numbers involved can make it hard to know where to start, or stop. The use and abuse of animals is tightly woven into our world, which is why people who think seriously about it so often end up calling for broad changes that might seem unwise or even indefensible—at least, at first. My own years of veganism ended gradually, as my social surroundings changed, and I found myself wanting to be less of an outlier. I returned to cheese, and then fish, and then meat, having convinced myself that killing an animal is not necessarily an act of cruelty. I’m not eager to be at the leading edge of the vegan revolution, which may yet succeed, but neither would I wish to be at the tail end of the meat-eating resistance. And I am sympathetic to the frustration of advocates who can’t figure out why, nearly half a century after “Animal Liberation,” cattle are still sailing the world knee-deep in shit. A weekend with the work of Singer, Nussbaum, or Scully will likely make your next trip to the supermarket significantly more uncomfortable, and probably that’s as it should be. But these advocates also, in different ways, remind us that important causes have a way of redrawing ideological lines, turning some of our opponents into allies, and some allies into opponents. It is not easy to think carefully and consistently about what we do to animals. If the people who try often end up endorsing proposals that make us recoil, this may say as much about us as about them. ♦

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