Thursday, December 12, 2002


Non-human rights
Dec 13 Michael Pollan

`The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.' (Gandhi)

The first time I opened Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, I was dining alone, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare. If this sounds like a good recipe for cognitive dissonance (if not indigestion), that was sort of the idea. Singer and the swelling ranks of his followers ask us to imagine a future in which people will look back on my meal, and the steakhouse, as relics of a backward age. Eating animals, wearing animals, experimenting on animals, killing animals for sport: all these practices, so resolutely normal to us, will be seen as the barbarities they are, and we will come to view "speciesism" - a neologism I had encountered before only in jokes - as a form of discrimination as indefensible as racism or anti-Semitism....

..."The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"

Bentham here is playing a powerful card philosophers call the "argument from marginal cases", or AMC for short. It goes like this: there are humans - infants, the severely retarded, the demented - whose mental function cannot match that of a chimpanzee. Even though these people cannot reciprocate our moral attentions, we nevertheless include them in the circle of our moral consideration. So on what basis do we exclude the chimpanzee?

Because he's a chimp, I furiously scribbled in the margin, and they're human! For Singer that's not good enough. To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he's not human is no different from excluding the slave simply because he's not white. In the same way we'd call that exclusion racist, the animal rightist contends that it is speciesist to discriminate against the chimpanzee solely because he's not human.

But the differences between blacks and whites are trivial compared with the differences between my son and a chimp. Singer counters by asking us to imagine a hypothetical society that discriminates against people on the basis of something non-trivial - say, intelligence. If that scheme offends our sense of equality, then why is the fact that animals lack certain human characteristics any more just as a basis for discrimination? Either we do not owe any justice to the severely retarded, he concludes, or we do owe it to animals with higher capabilities....