In what follows I will expand upon each of these four statements and provide justification for them. While the words that follow are wholly mine, the ideas expressed are obviously not completely original to me, if any of them are original at all. Rather, this is my attempt to consider and state in my own terms the current thinking on the basics of animal rights theory, and, as such, readers will notice the influence of Profs. Tom Regan, Gary Francione, Mylan Engel, and perhaps others as well.
Nonhuman animals are like human ones in morally relevant ways and because of that, they should not be treated exclusively as the means to an end.
All living things are organisms, which have life functions. Some living livings, such as plants, fungi and algae, while complex compared to non-living things, might best be thought of as organic machines. In the same way that a photo-electric cell recognizes and responds to photons of light, living things such as plants respond to various stimuli in the environment. They do not experience these stimuli, any more than a computer experiences the typing on it. Neither plants nor computers feel.
Plants and other simple living things receive and process data as well as absorb nutrients and energy, but they generally do so without any form of sensation or perception. It’s not that plants, fungi and algae don’t care that these things are happening to and within them. It is that they do not even have the capacity to be aware, in any real sense of the word, of the world around them. They exist, but in no way have any sense, even of being.
Most living things, including simple fungi and molds, are vastly more complex than most non-living things, but not all living things are the same kind of things. Some living things do much more than just respond to mechanically to stimuli. These living things are different from the plants not by matters of degree. From the cellular level on up, these living things are of a different kindaltogether. These living things are beings, or animals, and these living beings are not simply organic machines.
What, then, are living beings?
Our word “animals” comes from the Latin root word “anima” which means, roughly, “soul”, and that concept illustrates the essential difference between the living beings and the living things. Living beings do more than just respond to stimuli, they experience and perceive the world around them, as it relates to them. This capacity to experience the world is called “sentience” and, while no-one knows exactly where to draw the line between those living things who are sentient and those who are not, we know, without any doubt, that most of the beings we normally call “animals” are sentient.
Animals, generally, are able to move on their own, and they must ingest other organisms to survive (as opposed to living things which are immobile and absorb nutrients from the environment). Animals experience pain and suffering, at least on some level, and they move away from those things which cause them pain in order to protect themselves and to keep or extend their lives. Animals seek comfort, food, warmth and shelter, the companionship of others, and many other simple pleasures. Unlike the merely living things, they do all this because they experience and perceive the world they live in. They feel it.
We do not need to hypothesize about the inner workings of the minds of others to know that this is true. As an objective matter, looking from the outside in, we can see that animals are alive in ways that go beyond the ways in which plants, fungi and algae are alive. As an objective matter we can see that they act in ways that have the effect of improving their lives, and extending their lives, beyond the kinds of comparatively simple mechanical reacting we observe in mere living things.
Do we know, in every case and without a doubt, whether the life form we see before us is a sentient living being and not merely a living thing? No, we do not know that. There are difficult cases where we may never now whether certain living things are actually sentient and therefore capable of experiencing the world they live in. But, in nearly all cases involving who we normally mean when we say “animal”, we do know.
Cats, dogs, fishes, snakes, squirrels, mice, aardvarks, alligators, elephants, ferrets, pigs, cows, chickens and nearly every other being we call “animal” are all sentient living beings. They seek pleasure and avoid pain because they feel those things and they experience them in myriad ways that go beyond what a photo-electric cell, computer or algae responds to. It is not reasonable to deny this.
What are the implications of this?
The implications of this are that we, as human beings, are part of the subset of living things who are living beings. We are not different in kind from other sentient living beings, we are only different by em>degrees. We are like all the living beings in some essential ways, as they are like us.
However, we are unlike many of them in some essential ways as well. Perhaps most importantly, we have the ability to do moral reasoning. That is, we can think about thinking, and can consider whether the actions we take as we go through the world are right or wrong, good or bad. We can, and should, consider whether what we are doing makes the world a better place, or whether we are doing harm. This capacity for moral reasoning confers upon us a responsibility to take our actions seriously, and to consider the lives of others as we think about and act in our own lives. This is especially true when we consider the lives of those who are incapable of moral reasoning themselves.
Just as it would be unconscionable to harm a new born infant, or a severely mentally compromised adult, we should also not cause any suffering in others who are also incapable of their own moral reasoning. Just because another cannot know whether they themselves are doing right or wrong is no reason to permit those who do know right from wrong to harm them. If it were the case that harming others were permissible in such cases, then, for example, we would not be able to call infanticide wrong. But it would be nonsensical to call infanticide right. Infanticide is wrong. So we know that it is wrong to cause suffering in others, even when, especially when, those others do not know right from wrong themselves.
Since we cannot justify infanticide, and we know it is wrong, then by what consistent moral reasoning can we justify killing other animals and call it right? There is no such consistent moral reasoning .
As a general matter, most people would agree with a few basic principles. It is better for there to be less suffering in the world, rather than more. We, as moral agents, ought not to cause suffering when it can be avoided, and we ought to avoid causing suffering at almost any cost, certainly at any minimal cost, to ourselves. Other sentient living beings can and do experience suffering. We ought not to add to that suffering. To live a truly morally good life, we ought to relieve the suffering of others when we can do so at minimal costs to ourselves, when doing so does not cause some greater harm towards others.
Other animals are alive in essentially the same ways we humans are, and we are like them in those respects. We, as humans, are capable of knowing right from wrong, and we have the responsibility to do right and refrain from doing wrong, even when, especially when, those we might wrong would not understand the wrongs committed against them. Because we can know as an objective matter that every sentient living animal being experiences life, has interests in life and seeks to protect, defend and extend her own life, we, as morally responsible actors, ought to respect that life.
Respecting the lives of others requires of us that we must consider them and their interests from their perspectives, and not only from our own. We must ask, “What is in their best interests? What are they trying to do with their lives? What are their ends?” If we do not ask these questions, and honestly seek the answers, then we cannot respect the interests of others, and we would, instead, use them as the means to our own ends. To do that would be wrong. Just as it would be wrong to use the lives of other human beings to increase our own well-being while ignoring or denying them theirs, so too we cannot use the lives of other sentient living beings to better ourselves at their expense. They are not merely the means to our ends, and it would be immoral to treat them as though they were.
The lives of other animals are like our own in morally relevant ways, and therefore it is our responsibility to respect those lives as ends in and of themselves. Those lives are not ours to use, as if they had no value to the ones who possess them, as if they were the mere means to our own ends.
Sentient living beings should not be considered as the property of others, but should be respected as the owners of their own lives.
Other sentient living beings are like human beings in morally relevant ways and should not be treated exclusively as the means to an end. Since sentient living beings have an interest in their own lives, lives which they alone possess, we cannot truly respect that interest when we treat those beings as though they belong to us. To think we could would require us to live with a contradiction, which is something we ought not to do.
For example, suppose you are the sole owner of a car. Suppose, as well, that I claim sole ownership of the same car. It can’t be the case that you and you alone own the car while it is also the case that I also own the same car. Now, if we were to agree to joint ownership of the same car, then we could resolve our dispute. But without such a mutual consent, either it is true that you own the car, or I own the car, but we cannot both be the sole owner of the same car at the same time. To think that we could be would require us to live with a contradiction, one which could not be borne out in reality.
Either sentient living beings are the sole owners of their own lives, or they are not. They can’t own their own lives, while we also own them and nonhuman animals do not give is consent to own them. We cannot respect a right we don’t recognize, so it is meaningless to say that we are respecting the rights of nonhuman animals when, at the same time, we act as though their lives belong to us. Their lives do not belong to us, their lives belong to them, just as your life belongs to you, and my life belongs to me.
This is not to say that nonhumans do not actually have any rights as long as they remain the property of others. To the contrary, basic moral rights are inherent and inalienable within the living individual. No-one grants moral rights to another, and no-one can take them away. Rights can be ignored, rights can be disrespected and rights can be violated, but the basic moral rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity cannot be voided. They exist, in the living individual, whether anyone chooses to acknowledge them or not. But we are bound, morally, to acknowledge and respect those rights.
To treat others as property, as things which can be owned and used, in any way one pleases, would be morally wrong. It is in this moral sense that we must first consider property status. To recognize and accept the self-ownership, or autonomy, of others requires no legal authority. While it is true that as long as humans can legally own nonhumans, their exploitation will continue, it is also true that we cannot change the legal status of nonhumans as property unless and until we first accept their moral status as autonomous individuals. We must change hearts and minds before we can change any laws. All sentient living beings have lives which are meaningful to them, on their terms, and those lives deserve to be respected.
Abolishing the exploitation of other rights-holders is a moral imperative – regulating or reforming current systems and methods of exploitation is unacceptable.
Since it is true that all sentient living beings are essentially alike in morally relevant ways, are ends in themselves and are properly considered as the owners of their own lives, then it is a moral imperative that we respect their basic rights to life and liberty.
To say that something is a moral imperative is to say that it is something that we ought to do, even if doing it would cost us something dear. So, we know, for instance that it is a moral imperative that we not murder another person, even if by so doing we would gain tremendous wealth. Even though it might cost us a fortune, we ought not to murder someone. In the same way, even though it might cost us something dear, we ought not to deprive sentient living beings of their life and liberty. It is a moral imperative that we respect their basic rights.
Considering this, that we must respect the basic rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity of all sentient living beings, then we must withdraw ourselves from those practices which disrespect those rights. We cannot partake in exploitation of others. At the same time, we must also work to stop those practices of exploitation as they are employed by some. At the very least we cannot support those practices performed by some which are exploitative of others, or which condone, endorse, support, excuse, justify, enable, foster, enhance, regulate, increase or have the effect of increasing the exploitation of others.
When a practice is disrespectful of the basic rights of others, we must work to abolish it. When an exploitative practice is reformed rather than abolished, it is still an exploitative practice, and even though it may have been reformed, it still must be abolished. Depriving a sentient living being of her liberty is wrong, and any measure of such deprivation of liberty is wrong. A being is either free or not free, anything short of freedom is exploitation and all exploitation is wrong.
Consider this human example: Suppose that a person is unjustly imprisoned in solitary confinement. In making the case for his freedom, his lawyers win the concession that he will be allowed to live in the general prison population, no longer in solitary. Given that he would still be unjustly imprisoned, would anyone say that his right to liberty was being respected? No, no-one would say that. All that could be said would be that the terms of his unjust imprisonment had been modified, and his exploitation had been made somehow different. But his basic right to freedom would still be denied. Now imagine that this unjustly imprisoned man is awaiting execution, and is eventually executed. Would it be true in any sense that either his right to liberty or life had ever been respected, at all? No, it would not be true in any sense at all.
In the case of other sentient living beings, many, if not most, of the practices of exploitation employed against them are not employed against lone unjustly accused individuals, although it would be bad enough if they were. In the case of other sentient living beings, the injustice visited upon them is done on a vast and almost always industrial scale. The denial of their basic rights to life and liberty is complete, utter and final. They are not respected in any ways which have any meaning to them, at all, ever. To reform these systems of exploitation rather than abolishing them continues exploitation, and ensures that exploitations will continue long into the future. That is the point of reform. One doesn’t reform those practices one wishes to abolish, one reforms those practices which one wishes to continue, albeit in a different fashion.
Admittedly, there is an intuitive “pull” from the case for reform, which tugs at our heart strings, calling us to do something “now” to “help the animals”. However, when we consider that all reforms of current practices necessarily will, at their very best, still ultimately allow the killing of others, we must ask how these reforms measure up given the moral imperative that we abolish exploitation. In order to this, let us look at how reforms measures address the problem of the suffering of nonhumans, which is supposed to be the primary concern of reform.
Most people accept that fear, boredom, alienation, despair, anguish and some other mental states are each properly understood as forms of suffering. For example, most animal welfare laws recognize and protect “species specific behaviors” and animals’ “well-being” beyond mere physical health and safety.
Is it possible to acknowledge these various mental states in others, and protect their interests relative to them, while at the same time we allow practices which kill them? It seems that we cannot, accept insofar as to say that if we kill another without inflicting physical pain and if we kill another in such a way as they don’t see it coming, and if they would not otherwise strive to stay alive,only then can we say that we cause no suffering by killing them. That is to say, there can only be no suffering in death when the physical pain of the killing is absent, when the psychological dread of death is unknown, and when an interest in a continued life is nonexistent. Otherwise, death necessarily involves suffering.
But, as we have seen, as an objective matter we know that sentient beings, by definition, have an interest in a continued life. They act and move in ways meant to maintain and extend their lives. Sentient beings strive to stay alive, because they have an interest in remaining alive. Even if it were possible to kill another in the absence of physical pain, and where the morbid anticipation of death was unknown, it cannot be possible to kill another sentient being in the absence of their interest in remaining alive. Therefore we cannot kill other sentient beings without causing them to suffer. Since all reforms of current exploitative practices ultimately allow for the killing of sentient beings, and since the killing of sentient beings necessitates their suffering, even if all one is concerned with is the suffering of others, and not their basic rights, even then one cannot accept reforms of current exploitative practices, as they all entail suffering, if only in death.
So even on the criteria of the advocates for reform themselves, who say that reducing suffering is the goal, reform measures fail. Similarly, on the criteria of the advocates for abolishing all exploitation, these reform measures fail as well. Exploitation is the act of using someone in an unjust or cruel manner. Causing someone to suffer in death is unjust and cruel.
Since nothing less than abolishing exploitation satisfies our moral obligations, we cannot support those efforts which do not seek to abolish exploitation. However appealing the intuitive “pull” of doing something “now” for others may be, when that something is only a modification and extension of exploitation, then it violates our moral principle against exploitation. We cannot support it and stay consistent to our principles. Therefore, regulating or reforming current systems and methods of exploitation is unacceptable.
Becoming vegan is the single most important action which any of us can undertake to respect the rights of others and to abolish exploitation.
If we accept that all sentient living beings are essentially the same as we are in morally relevant ways, as ends in themselves, and are properly considered as the owners of their own lives – if we accept that it is a moral imperative that we respect their basic rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity and therefore that we must end all practices which are exploitative of them – then we must become vegan.
Becoming vegan means that we remove ourselves as much as is possible from all those practices which are exploitative and disrespectful of the basic rights of all sentient living beings. This does not mean that we merely stop eating the flesh of other animals who have been bred into confinement, abused for life, and slaughtered for our dinner plates, although it does mean that. Becoming vegan also means not accepting that the supposed benefits of experimenting on mice, dogs, sheep, rats, cats, monkeys or any other sentient living being are worth the cost of stealing their lives away from them. It means not confining sentient living beings in cages, tanks, corrals, farms, paddocks and barns. It means that we can no longer purpose-breed, raise and use other animals for their “fur”, their skins, or for the entertainment they provide us. Becoming vegan means all this and more.
Becoming vegan also means that we must remove ourselves from those practices which exploit human animals as they struggle in poverty producing the cheap products no-one needs, but everyone wants. Human animals are sentient living beings after all and they are properly the concern of veganism. So becoming vegan means not participating in the disrespecting of other human animals as they are objectified, vilified, scapegoated and looked down upon. It means rejecting the commodification and subjugation of other humans. Becoming vegan is as much about human rights and human dignity as it about animal rights and the dignity of nonhuman animals.
There is an interconnectedness to all life on this earth, and there are many who share the planet with us who are more like us than we care to admit. Whether they are like us in their use of tools, or language, or abstract thought is irrelevant. It does not matter whether they are like us in the color of their skin, or in their ability to walk on two legs, or in their sex, sexuality or gender, or in whether they live on the land, in the sea or fly through the air. These are all irrelevant. All that is relevant is that they have lives which matter to them, on their own terms, in their own ways.
All sentient living beings have as much a right to live their own lives, as free from interference, as far as is possible, as any of one of us does. It is our duty to them that we respect, in the fullest sense of the word, their lives and liberty. We are obligated to eliminate the practices of exploitation employed against them.
We should, first, do no harm, by becoming vegan ourselves, Next, we should not support any measures which stop short of seeking their complete liberation. Beyond that, we should talk to others, in any ways we can, about what is true, and how we know it is true, in order to end the unjust and cruel use of other living, sensing, feeling beings as simple things at our disposal.
We can live our obligations every day, in every way we interact with others in this imperfect world, and we should.