14.1 Defending The Status Quo

There are three ways of responding to this dilemma. The simplest and most obvious in a sense is simply to ignore the one side of the dilemma, the side that suggests that animals may deserve moral consideration in view of their similarity to us. This is the approach we can call the “status quo approach” to non-human animals. We will examine it first and then move on to consider the other two possibilities, one recommending reform of our relations with other animals and one advocating a revolutionary overhaul of these relations.

The top of the heap

How can the status quo be defended? The usual answer is with reference to the old ideas of human dominion over nature – since we are on the top of the heap, what we say goes.

Humans are more powerful than any other creature on earth.
Because of this we have the ultimate say over how other animals are to be treated.

Thus whatever we decide to do is the correct thing to do as far as non-human animals are concerned.

However popular this view may be, it is deeply flawed, because it commits an obvious fallacy, the fallacy of appeal to force. The fact that we have the power to determine the rules does not imply that whatever rules we establish are good rules. As we have seen throughout the semester the fact that someone has power or authority does not at all establish that whatever they do is the morally correct thing to do. Power can be abused or it can be used to do good, so power itself does not imply a moral license to do whatever one can and get away with it.

Human needs

Until we provide some reasons why we should be permitted to use animals for food, research and entertainment without any moral consideration, we will not have a leg to stand on. Now the most obvious reason we might have for our current methods of treatment of animals appeals to human needs. According to this line of reasoning, since we need to use animals we should be permitted to do whatever provides us with the maximum benefit.

We need to use non-human animals for food, research and entertainment purposes.
The satisfaction of these needs overrides the interests of animals in not being used by us.

So we need not change the way we treat non-human animals.

There are a number of objections to this argument that we might consider, but I will focus on just two. First, assuming that it is true that we need to use animals for food, research and entertainment, it plainly does not follow that they thus deserve no moral consideration whatsoever. The fact that I may need something does not imply that there are no moral restrictions on how I might go about satisfying that need. After all, I certainly need money in order to survive in the modern world, but there are still plenty of moral restrictions on how I am allowed to go about getting money. I can only satisfy my needs in ways that do not interfere with my moral responsibility to respect other people’s rights and interests. Thus even if we need to eat animals, modern factory farms may turn out to be unacceptable ways of satisfying those needs. The fact that this issue has not yet been addressed does not imply that anything goes as far as non-human animals are concerned.

Second, we may object to this argument by challenging the idea that we need to use animals at all for the purposes mentioned. As the existence of millions of strict vegetarians worldwide demonstrates, humans do not need to eat meat. We are “naturally” omnivorous, but can easily survive, some argue more healthily, without the consumption of animal flesh. So our eating of meat is not a need but a preference. Likewise with our other uses of animals, we certainly do not need to use animals as companions, as curiosities in zoos, as targets of sport hunting, or even as research subjects. The last of these is sure to arose skepticism – don’t we really need to use animals as test subjects for urgent medical research that saves human lives? The answer is no – we may strongly prefer to use animals for testing drugs, because research protocols are established, and because it is cheap and easy to experiment on animals. But there are also many viable alternatives, some of which are gaining ground as more reliable and ultimately more cost-effective, such as computer modeling of the immune system as a way of testing drugs, or the use of tissue cultures, which require only small samples of animal cells raised in petri dishes. Thus this argument, which may have at first seemed to be a good way of defending currently popular practices does not succeed in establishing what it claims to establish.

The benefits of our use of animals

Granted that we do not, strictly speaking, need to use animals as we do, we may still argue that the benefits of our uses of animals are a sufficient justification for things to continue as they currently are done.

It is beneficial for us to use non-human animals for food, research and entertainment purposes.
Imposing ethical limits on the way we treat animals would increase our costs.

So, on simple utilitarian grounds, we should not change the way we treat non-human animals.

Well what about this argument? Once again it seems promising at first, but a little critical prodding will soon show that it makes a really big assumption. That is, it assumes that animals do not count in our utilitarian assessments of costs and benefits. Benefits here are benefits to us and costs are likewise costs to us according to this argument. But it seems clear that animals are being asked to bear the burden of being eaten by us, used as research subjects and so on, without the slightest consideration of their benefits and costs. Now we have not yet seen any reasons why we should take animals’ costs and benefits into account, but this argument cannot possibly establish that we need not do this, since it assumes from the start that animals’ costs and benefits do not count. So at best it remains neutral as far as a defense of the status quo – if animals do not count morally, we should be permitted to use them, and at worst it simply begs the question – it argues that animals do not count on the assumption that, well, they do not count.