Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

ar·bi·trar·y/ˈärbiˌtrerē/Adjective

1. Based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.

2. (of power or a ruling body) Unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority.

 

All animals are heterotrophs, meaning that we must eat other things in order to survive. Most often, those things we eat are (or were) other living things. How should we human animals, as rational moral agents, decide which of the living things we ought to eat?

 We could make a arbitrary decision. For example, we could, as human beings, decide without any real and independent reason, that only birds are fit to eat, or that only dogs are. We could decide that only cows raised on small farms where they get to live in rolling pastures are fit to eat, or only the eggs of chickens who are kept in large enough cages are. There are all kinds of arbitrary decisions we could make about what we consider fit for human consumption. Every other living creature, in some culture or another, at one time or another, is fair game for our gustatory bill of fare. Every animal – other than the human one – is on the menu for some diner somewhere and that’s arbitrary.

But wait, it will be said, it’s not an arbitrary choice to eat other animals but not humans. It’s a reasonable choice that can easily be defended. No, it is not. There is no relevant difference between the human and other animals. Choosing to not eat humans just because they happen to be human is arbitrary, just as it would be arbitrary to choose to not eat dogs just because they happen to be dogs – as opposed to cows. Or to not eat parakeets just because they happen to be parakeets - as opposed to chickens. Or to not eat cats just because they happen to be cats – as opposed to pigs.

The reason most Westerners do eat pigs, but not cats, has nothing to do with any relevant difference between pigs and cats. There’s nothing special about pigs – as pigs – which makes them somehow demonstrably different as sources of protein. There’s nothing special about cats which makes them completely unsuitable as sources of sausages. Other cultures do eat cats. And cockroaches, and leeches and the brains of monkeys. Those who eat pigs eat them just because they eat them. There is no relevant difference between pigs and cats when it comes to eating one and not the other. We eat pigs largely as an arbitrary matter of acquired taste (and because a huge industry does everything but force feed them to us).

Now what would be the relevant difference between human beings and other animals that would justify eating other animals but not people? It’s tempting to think that the “yuck” factor isn’t an arbitrary matter of taste when it comes to eating other humans, and certainly the bond of kinship is an important one. We do tend to protect those most closely related to us. So, perhaps, if it isn’t an arbitrary choice to eat other animals, then the cultural taboo against cannibalism is a sufficient reason to not eat other humans. But that taboo doesn’t justify our eating of other animals and we still need a non-arbitrary reason for eating them.

Could that non-arbitrary reason be that other animals can’t talk? or reason? or build buildings?or create works of art? or any of the other things we think humans are uniquely capable of? No, those reasons, taken one at a time or taken all together, are not non-arbitrary reasons which will justify our eating other animals. In fact, employing those reasons would be just stacking the deck against them. Perhaps if we look this from a different angle, what I am trying to say will be more clear.

Suppose that we ask Which qualities do women lack such that they should receive lower pay than men who perform the same jobs? Now, supposing that women are as qualified as men and are able to perform equally to men, then it would be arbitrary to say things such asMen deserve more pay because they are stronger, or Men deserve higher pay because on average they are taller. Both of these things may well be true, but since neither thing is relevant to the performance of the job in question (remember, we posited that the women were as qualified as and performed as well as men). So, even though those differences might attend, they are not relevant as to whether women in this case ought to be paid equally to men. Moreover, there is a certain circularity to the reasoning in the first place. It is a condition of the human male to be, on average, stronger and taller than the human female. So to then say, Men are worth more because on average they are taller is just to say Men are worth more because they are men. That’s no reason at all.

Differences in attributes are not necessarily accompanied by any differences in moral value or worth. A short and gentle man has the same value as a living being as does a tall and robust one; a woman has the same value as a living being as does a man. So it is when comparing humans to other animals. The human animal on average is more suited to performing well on human intelligence tests, but that says nothing about the value of other animals as living beings. A grizzly bear or an orca has greater strength than any man, but that says nothing about the value of men as living beings.

So, just because other animals may not possess the exact same attributes as do human animals, that doesn’t mean that other animals therefore have less moral value or worth than do humans. Attributes such as language or the ability to reason don’t have anything to do with moral value. No-one should seriously believe that a human being would have less moral value just because she happened to be born without the ability to speak, hear and talk. Neither should anyone seriously believe that intelligence or ability to reason confers moral value – the hopelessly mentally incompetent are still entitled to live the best lives available to them. It would be arbitrary  to decide to kill other animals for reasons which would not justify the killing of human animals. Therefore it is an arbitrary practice to kill other animals and we ought not to kill other animals.

But certainly plants are living things and even the most dedicated vegan must benefit from the deaths of at least some plants in order to live? What is the relevant difference between plants and all the animals of the world that makes it such that it is morally acceptable to kill and eat plants but not other animals? What makes the choice to kill plants not also an arbitrary one?

It is this: Plants are not the sorts of beings which have experiences of life which plants care about.

Whatever else we may say about the lives and deaths of plants, plants do not possess any of the biological structures which we know with near certainty would be necessary for plants to be able to have an existence which contains awareness. Therefore, we know with near certainty that plants do not experience life. For example, we know that plants have leaves which turn into the sun not because of any desire to do so. The leaves of plants turn into the sun despite the fact that plants have no thoughts or beliefs about the sun at all. Additionally, we know tha plants do not conceive of any “self”, because plants are not the sorts of beings who have conceptions; plants are not living beings, plants are living things. Because plants don’t know what it is “to be”, because plants cannot know or believe anything, then plants have no interests in living or in not being harmed. Therefore, plants cannot be harmed – at all – in the same ways other animals can be harmed.

Other animals can be harmed in the same ways we can be harmed.

Other animals are the sorts of beings who have experiences of their own lives which they care about. Whatever else we may say about the lives and deaths of other animals, they do possess many of the very same biological structures and attributes which we know with near certainty are necessary and sufficient for us to be able to have an existence which contains awareness. Therefore it is reasonable to say we know that other animals have experiences and care about them; they prefer to live in order that they can continue experiencing.

Just as human beings can be harmed – either by having their ability to have experiences restricted in some way, or having the possibilities for their experiences removed altogether – other animals can be harmed too. Locking a human being in a closet for days on end would harm them by limiting their freedom to have the experiences they might otherwise prefer. Cutting off  a human being’s arm would harm them, by cutting of their abilities to have some experiences. Killing a human being would harm them, by denying them any opportunity to have experiences altogether. In the same ways, other animals can also be harmed by denying them their liberty, compromising their bodily integrity, or killing them. Just as we ought not to harm other human beings, we ought not to harm other animals either, because they have the same desire as we do to not be harmed, and because we have no compelling relevant reason to.

There is a final question which ought to be answered. Are ALL other animals the sorts of beings who ought not to be harmed? In other words, is every other animal in the world the sort of being who has experiences which they care about? Are some other animals more like plants than they are like animals? We don’t know. Perhaps simple worms and mollusks don’t care about the experiences they have. Perhaps some other animals don’t have anything even close to experiences in the first place. There are bound to be difficult cases. Considering that our decisions about these cases are literally matters of life and death, perhaps we ought to err on the side of caution. But, when it comes to almost every other animal human beings we routinely interact with, we know that they are the sorts of beings who care about the experiences in their own lives.  To harm or kill them would be an egregious error itself.

Dogs care whether they have food and water. Cats care whether they have warm and dry places to sleep. Cows care whether they get to live the lives which their natures give them (and to not have those lives cut short in the slaughterhouse). Chickens care whether they get to keep the beaks they were born with and it matters to them that male chicks get to live (despite their having no value as egg-layers). Dolphins and whales, blue-fin tuna and mackerel, mako sharks and octopuses all care whether they get to swim free in the waters of their births. Simply, we ought to let them and there is nothing arbitrary about any of this.

 

http://timgier.com/2011/07/18/arbitrary-decisions/

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Comment by AR Makes Sense on August 1, 2011 at 2:16

Thanks for again for your reply Tim, and thanks for your thoughts on this.

I think that in the end that's all any of us can do is try to present a "case" for what we believe to be "right", along with the reasons why it would benefit all of us to try to live that way, and we just hope that some folks somewhere will connect with it. That's certainly how it happened for me when I read Tom Regan's book The Case several years ago. One day I ate meat and wore leather without the faintest hint of a problem with doing it; one week later the idea that I could ever have done that made me almost pysically sick. I've never looked back. The effect of his book, for me at least, really was that marked, with no exageration. Strange how somethings will "click" with some people just like that.

 

Maybe that's the secret; getting out the most appropriate message for a particular person at the right time in their lives. The message and timing of it may need to vary in order to be effective for a given individual; it's just making it happen in the right way (easier said than done of course)

I imagine you'll agree that the biggest problem, even if attitudes are in the conscious realm and are "free" to be intentionally changed each of us, is getting the message "out there" in the first place, but that's a whole new topic of conversation for another day.

Once again, good talking to you Tim, and it's been helpful for me to have someone to "bounce" some thoughts and ideas off; much appreciated. I look forward to catching you again on the forums.

Regards

Neal

 

Comment by AR Makes Sense on August 1, 2011 at 2:15

Thanks for again for your reply Tim, and thanks for your thoughts on this.

I think that in the end that's all any of us can do is try to present a "case" for what we believe to be "right", along with the reasons why it would benefit all of us to try to live that way, and we just hope that some folks somewhere will connect with it. That's certainly how it happened for me when I read Tom Regan's book The Case several years ago. One day I ate meat and wore leather without the faintest hint of a problem with doing it; one week later the idea that I could ever have done that made me almost pysically sick. I've never looked back. The effect of his book, for me at least, really was that marked, with no exageration. Strange how somethings will "click" with some people just like that.

 

Maybe that's the secret; getting out the most appropriate message for a particular person at the right time in their lives. The message and timing of it may need to vary in order to be effective for a given individual; it's just making it happen in the right way (easier said than done of course)

I imagine you'll agree that the biggest problem, even if attitudes are in the conscious realm and are "free" to be intentionally changed each of us, is getting the message "out there" in the first place, but that's a whole new topic of conversation for another day.

Once again, good talking to you Tim, and it's been helpful for me to have someone to "bounce" some thoughts and ideas off; much appreciated. I look forward to catching you again on the forums.

Regards

Neal

 

 

 

Comment by Tim Gier on July 31, 2011 at 4:22

Neal, without question, whether the inability to "make the right choice" when given the evidence is something hard-wired into the primitive structures of our brains, or whether it results from the structural norms and values placed on us from the society we are embedded in, or whether it is the result of some other process, it does seem that the inability often exists.

And yet, we are capable of transcendent thought - we can recognize and reflect on our actions, even if in some way we are bound to act as we do. The Stoics would have said that our actions are caused, but not constrained - necessary but not necessitated. So, we are going to act, and our actions are bound in some respects to be what they are, but we still have choices in how we respond to the causes acting upon us. We are not like a ball, which when pushed has no choice but to roll. When we are pushed, we will do something, but exactly what remains within our control somehow. Furthermore, how we accept and react to those causes as well as our own resultant behaviors will then change the conditions in which future causes affect us.

I guess I am optimistic then, even if the world is deterministic, that there is something about the nature of animal consciousness which, as an emergent property of physical stuff, is more than just the sum of its parts. 

How do we "awaken" the consciousness in others, so that they see what we see? I don't know that there is any one answer, as there are 7 billion individual human consciousnesses in play. I don't even know for sure that what I see is what is really there. I think it is, and I have thought about it in as many ways as I can in order to test those thoughts, but I still know that I might be wrong.

For me then, the answer, such as it is, lies in presenting myself as honestly and openly as I can, mindful that other people are much like I am, not evil or good, but trying to be the best they can be in a very complicated and imperfect world. I will always be asking questions of myself, and challenging others to question themselves too, and I will never be satisfied with any answer, even this one.

Comment by AR Makes Sense on July 31, 2011 at 3:53

sorry, didn't finish that. I was just going to say that one could go one for ever and ever thinking about that. Maybe you're right, it's just too much for our "simple" braqins to cope with.

 

Comment by AR Makes Sense on July 31, 2011 at 3:51

Yes, thanks for that Tim.

 

I agree with what you're saying here, and yes Ialso agree that this has moved away from an obvious connection with AR and the original point you were making (i.e. about the abitrary nature of people's choices - esp. with respect to non-human individuals).

 

The connection for me is that I'm beginning to wonder about this....

 

"Let's assume for a moment, for argument's sake, that we are not really making any choices at all - as Gray suggests may be the case -  and that the illusion of 'choice' per se is just a kind of 'artifact' of our subconscious, automated, evolutionary-derived self-interested behaviour. Even apparent altruism is nothing more than evolutionary self-intrerest that just happens to have an entirely coincidental, beneficial spin-off for someone else along the way,

If (and yes, it's a massive if!) we accept that, then addressing the arbitrariness of our "decisions" becomes irrelevant because in that scenario there are no actual decisions being made, abitrary or otherwise."

 

Why am I asking these question from an AR perspective?

I am trying to understand why it is, that in those cases where people are presented with logical, rational explanations of why something is wrong, and they themselves achnowledge that it is wrong, they still "can't help" doing it. Abusing non-humans is obviously the particular context we are both concerned with here.

How is it that throughout human history, people, even while knowing that something is wrong, even at the very moment they are doing it, still do it?

 

I have just finished reading a book called "Eternal Treblinka" by Charles Patterson, in which extremely persuasive parallels are drawn between our cruelty to animals and our cruelty to each other, using the almost identical mentalities of the holocaust and the slaughterhouse to illustrate a fundamental characteristic of our very nature since the human species began. On the one hand we are abhored at what we have done, but on the other we still keep doing it in forever repeating variations on the same abhorrent theme. The book states that even those Jewish families who were most affected by the terrible things that happened to their loved ones, even those individuals, many have gone on to become, butchers, farmers, animal traders, restaurant owners, even just plain meat-eaters, and others, who exploit those weaker than themselves in the same way that they were exploited by the Nazis.

 

The inerchangeability of "master race" and "master species".

 

They just don't make the conection.  I am beginning to think that the only explanation for it is that they have no choice. They , like all of us, are driven by their subconscious evolutionary, "dominate and survive" biology that is beyond their control to change.

For many of course, they don't think about it at all. But for those who do, their conscious minds can see it and be sickened by it and wish they weren't doing it, but doing it or not is not "their" decision (abitrarily or otherwise).

 

I guess if we really knew the answers to these questions it might help us, as ARAs, to know whether trying to change human behaviour in the face of 4 million years of human history throughout all of which one group has always been trying to overpower and exploit another, could ever really be possible.

 

Empirically it doesn't look likely. I admire optimists, and I think they are right that we must keep trying, but sometimes it's hard to keep it going. In 4 million years nothing has changed, why would it change in the next 4 million?

 

Having said that, by my own theories, I am must be equally "pre-programmed" to rail against such injustice, so I guess I have no choice...pointless or otherwise.

 

Dear oh dear...one

Comment by Tim Gier on July 31, 2011 at 0:54
HI Neal,

You are examining a very basic question, one which, as conscious thinking beings, I am becoming more convinced that we cannot solve. What are the causes of our intentional mental states? Why do we desire certain things and act in certain ways? Some people think that it's not accurate to say that we have any beliefs or desires in the first place, and that our common sense "folk psychology" view of human behavior is simply a false, though convenient, way of assessing who we are. I don't know, and as I said, I don't even know that we, as a species, are capable of knowing. The philosopher Colin McGinn suggests that our minds are as incapable of understanding the true nature of consciousness and "free will" (among other things) as the minds of cats are incapable of understanding calculus. The difference of course is that cats don't even know that calculus exists as an object of their not understanding. We do know know some of the things which we don't know, and perhaps it is only in the knowing of our ignorance that we can hope to make any thing better at all. Still, one has to wonder, what things are there in existence of which we know nothing, including even that we don't know what they are -- there must be things to us like calculus is to cats-- the unknown unknowns.

What does any of this have to with arbitrary choices and the exploitation of others? I'm not really sure anymore, as this conversation has moved into some ethereal territory, but I do know that things are often not as they seem, and that simple answers usually are neither uncomplicated or satisfactory.
Comment by AR Makes Sense on July 22, 2011 at 22:41

Yes, I am pleased to say I can't find anything to disagree with in what you're saying there, on the face of it....

 

1 - altruism has an evolutionary basis and exists in many species

 

I agree with that, but surely what really defines altruism in in this context is what drives it? As you point out that is ultimately for the benefit of the "selfish gene" - reproductive advantage. This raises the question "is there really such a thing as pure altruism" or is that an illusion of sorts. I guess it comes down to semantics about the definition of altruism and the origin of seemingly altruistic acts - that would be a whole different topic I know.

 

2 - (most) humans (appear to be) capable of rational and moral thought and have the ability to overide any natural urges which may have negative outcomes.

 

Individually the evidence suggests that, but as a society?....I wonder if we need to distinguish here between...

 

- knowing about something

- being able to do it

 

In John Gray's book "Straw Dogs" he cites resaerch which suggests that the subconscious part of the human brain is actually making decisions moments before the conscious part thinks about doing it (decisions, not just reactions). To my mind that raises the question of how in control of our actions we really are, as opposed to how we think we are. Who is running "us" our conscious or our subconscious?

 

If it is our conscious level, then we would surely expect to see evidence of our moral capability being applied, as a norm, with the beneficial effects you and I would like to see. After all, we know it's "right" and we're in control so why not? But we're not seeing that. On balance we're seeing more of the opposite...."wrong" behaviour.

 

On the other hand if it is our subconscious level in control than we would surely expect to see "selfish gene" principles dominate, which would include apparent altruism, but ultimately only altruism motivated by advantageous outcomes for pre-prgrammed crieria dictated by our ruling subconscious (e.g. evolutionary advantage, as you say), and because it is subconscous we don't even realise it's the case.

 

I, like yourself, think there is a better way, in which all species are respected using moral principles as our guide. However...

 

1 - if Grays reasearch is true and the subconscious is dictating our behaviour without us even knowing it

 

2 - then we must be subject to Dawkins' selfish gene theories and are possibly not the "higher" species we have misunderstood ourselves to be.

 

In that subconscious-dominant scenario our assumed conscious morality is replaced by the reality of subconscous, selfish evolutionary advancement, which would go a long way to explaining why, despite the appearance of altruism and morallity, we have immorality and selfishness as the dominent behaviours in the world "on mass" as it were.

 

If we look at the state of the world today, and the balance of "good" behaviour vs "bad" behaviour, the empiracle evidence supports the "bleak" view (I wish it didn't).

 

Sorry to digress slightly in some of that Tim (and another long post, I know).

Not expecting you to keep answering every post I make, but I do thank you for some interesting and challenging conversation. Sometimes it's only be "arguing" out a point, that it helps me to clarify what I'm really trying to say.

 

Anyway, hope my post makes some sense to you, and is of some thought provoking interest as yours have certainly been for me.

 

Regards

 

Neal

 

 

 

Comment by Tim Gier on July 22, 2011 at 11:02
Hi again, and thanks for the chance for an interesting dialogue. The bleak view of the world you suggest is one I reject, for two reasons. First, we have very good reason to think that altruism has an evolutionary foundation (even in insects, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/). In a nut shell, groups containing individuals willing to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others have a reproductive advantage compared to groups which contain no such individuals. Second, human beings are capable of rational and moral thought. Because we can act in ways which are respectful of the lives of others, then we ought to, regardless of whatever might be "natural".
Comment by AR Makes Sense on July 21, 2011 at 22:15

Hi Tim

Thanks for your reply.

Yes, I have to be honest I also wonder how "prominent" canibalism really was (is?) vs how it it was portrayed by white exploiters - especially given that the more that these "savages" needed "help" the more funding and power the church was likely to provide for there "soul saving" missionaries !

However, back to the central point. I think I understand the point you're really making here and I agree with it. The choices we make with respect to who we exploit and who we don't do seem entirely arbitrary at a cross-species level.

 

Having said that, your last comment did get me thinking though whether perhaps there is a non-abitrary (and even this is only a subjective opinion really) aspect of people's choices which you highlighted when you said...

"but I suppose that we can agree that the powerful, the wealthy, the priests and the conquerors would be the likely ones to be killing and eating the less powerful and the vanquished."

 

I certainly do agree with that. So my thought was whether or not some folks might argue that that fact itself is the the non-abitrary factor governing all individuals on the planet - i.e. that the strong exploit the weak because it is in everyone's evolutionary nature to do so, be they humans eating non-humans, humans eating humans, non-humans eating non-humans, or even non-humans eating humans, humans keeping captive non-humans (pets, zoos, circuses etc) and so on and so on. Even kindnes it has been said, can ultimately be traced back to selfish motives - we take in a stray dog, but it's not only for the dog's benefit, we like the company, someone to share our time with etc. We "take" the dog.

With the exception of a (sadly) all too small a minority of individuals - mostly humans like you and I, and individuals (though not all members) or some other "higher" species as well, there is perhaps one (almost, as above) entirely consistent, non-abitrary, non-random, systematic, universalisable behaviour....

 

"The strong "exploit" the weak in whatever way it suits them, if it suits them, regardles of species, geography, history and so on. It may be that in some cases that exploitation is well intentioned (again adopting a stray dog) but it is still the stronger party who decides, based on the single criteria of "selfish preference". It pleases me to rehome a stray dog. It may be that the reason it pleases me is becasue I know the dog will have a safe and hopefully happy life with me, but it pleases me at the end of the day -selfish preference.

 

It's a rather bleak picture of the world I admit, but then all the more vindication of the theory given that it's also a rather bleak world, in practice.

 

I'd appreciate your thoughts.

 

 

 

Comment by Tim Gier on July 21, 2011 at 13:32

AR, Thanks for your comments. I could have been more clear in writing my post, so I appreciate the chance to clarify. Whatever the practices of some humans, I think most non-vegan people living today accept without much question that human beings are not the sort of beings who ought to be killed for food or other trivial reasons.

While the evidence on how widespread cannibalism may have been throughout human history is controversial, I believe, contrary to your suggestion, it is more likely that "white, christian" explorers exaggerated accounts of cannibalism to justify their exploitation of the indigenous people they encountered. In any case, if cannibalism was or is being practiced in some human cultures, I agree with you that it's "also arbitrary" - even when (if) it has been a cultural norm. This actually supports my argument.

Presumably, in societies practicing cannibalism, some people would be viewed as likely candidates to be eaten, while others would be viewed as likely to do the eating. I've not made an exhaustive study of the literature, but I suppose that we can agree that the powerful, the wealthy, the priests and the conquerors would be the likely ones to be killing and eating the less powerful and the vanquished. That some people, based on the morally irrelevant characteristics of political or religious power would exploit others would be, as you said, arbitrary.  So, without any independent and real reason to justify cannibalism, cannibalism is as wrong as eating other animals.

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