The Difficulty of Taking Animals Seriously

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

A proposal to give comprehensive rights to non-human animals highlights just how many ways there are in which we are not taking them seriously.

I previously wrote about a proposal to recognize animal rights in the Finnish constitution – radical because it proposed really taking them seriously as opposed to treating non-human animals as accessories for human use. I also wrote that I would be taking part in a small group of philosophy majors at the University of Turku who were asked to comment on the proposal.

As this group had its first meeting, I realized there are even more ways in which we are not taking non-human animals seriously as individuals. In fact, it seems that there are ways in which we cannot, not even if we made it to the point of making such radical changes as to stop meat production.

Opponents have caricatured the proposal by saying it would lead on a slippery slope to giving rights to plants and bacteria. This makes no sense at all. It’s a very clear distinction to draw to limit rights to sentient beings. It’s limiting them only to humans that’s arbitrary.

However, we might ask a similar question that really seems to follow from the proposal: would it make it illegal to kill mosquitoes? If nothing else, such an implication is going to cause people not to take the whole thing seriously. And the Finnish proposal pretty much only talks of putting all animals on the same line (except humans still ahead in some ways). Yes, it’s sensible and prudent to think they may all be sentient and hence have some value, but maybe further distinctions would be in order?

There are other ways in which even the people behind this proposal are not taking animals seriously as individuals – and maybe we should not, because maybe we cannot. Perhaps the biggest question is whether we should interfere with processes that are natural.

Naturalness is a terrible ethical argument that people appeal to justify or vilify whatever they feel like, making “naturalness” mean whatever they want each time. In human affairs, appeals to naturalness are often untruthful excuses for injustice. However, when we start looking at all of nature, it may really be that interfering too much with what is natural ceases to make sense.

Consider lemmings, which have a breeding pattern that causes them to have huge population growth at certain times, presumably until effects of overpopulation kill off enough of them again. We can say we should not interfere to save all the individual lemmings on those years like we should intervene to save starving people… And we probably can’t intervene, at that, but if we don’t, we are not valuing those lemmings as individuals the same way as we do humans.

It seems we need to draw some moral lines, not because other sentient beings are not valuable, but because we can’t start interfering with all of nature’s cruelty.

The Finnish proposal is commendable, but when we start thinking about animal rights and human duties seriously, we can see there’s a lot of thinking that hasn’t been done yet.

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