14.2 Humane Reform

So far the status quo seems kind of tough to defend, so what about the alternatives? We now turn to attempts to defend a kind of moderate reform that would enable us, in theory at least, to avoid the worst excesses of the status quo while stopping short of granting to non-human animals any kind of real moral consideration. This is the approach that is roughly equivalent to that followed by such organizations as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society, so I call it the “Humane Reform” approach. The first argument to consider here was developed by Kant.

Kant’s argument

Recall that in Kant’s view morality is a relation of strict equality based on the rational recognition that another counts just as much as I do. Even if we are not really strictly equal with each other, our ability to grasp and apply the ideal of moral equality requires us to act as if we really were equal with other moral agents. This implies a set of rights as well as a set of responsibilities – each of us moral adults deserves absolute respect from other moral agents as well as owing them absolute respect. Well what about non-human animals?

We can have no direct duties to non-human animals since that would require them to be capable of acting out of duty towards us as well.
But, some animals are like us, so our mistreatment of them will lead us to be insensitive to human suffering and thus will encourage immorality.

Thus we have indirect duties to treat animals well.

This argument makes two important claims – one that we can have no direct duties to animals since they lack the ability to treat us with genuine moral respect; and two, that our mistreatment of animals leads us to mistreat humans. Let us examine the second of these first. Is it true that abusing animals leads humans to abuse people? This treads dangerously close to the false cause fallacy – even if someone who abuses animals may also lack concern for humans this correlation does not imply causation. Perhaps people who abuse animals are also indifferent to human suffering out of a general lack of compassion. As far as the first claim goes, on the other hand, this criterion for genuine moral consideration will soon get us into hot water, so we will hold off on a definite answer to the question of the solidity of this argument.

Identifying with animals

Kant does, however, make a pretty obvious point – that some people are more compassionate towards animals and humans than others. We are clearly capable of forming bonds of sympathy with some non-human animals. This is the basis for the next argument.

Some animals are similar enough to us that we can form genuine bonds of sympathy with them.
Respecting these emotional attachments that humans form with animals is important.

So, it is in our own interests to treat animals with compassion and kindness.

This reformist argument is a good example of we might call “anthropocentric” (literally “human-centered”) ethics. It is because of the value we humans get from identifying with certain animals that these animals are considered to count at all. No this may seem like a safe middle ground to occupy – humans get to remain the sole objects of direct moral concern (and thus we can continue to eat and experiment on those animals with which we do not sympathize) and yet we also admit that some animals seem to count for more than this. Well, it is exactly this attempt to have it all, to have our pets and eat them too, to paraphrase the famous proverb, that causes problems for this line of reasoning. After all it seems kind of arbitrary that we would judge animals depending upon whether or not we think that they are cute, or cuddly or otherwise worthy of our attention and affection. Are piglets or veal calves any less cute than puppies? That seems to be too much a subjective judgment of culturally biased prejudice to say so, and yet based on such judgments many people would be horrified if they were to discover that the veal cutlet they are dining on was in fact a dog cutlet. In other words, reducing ethical considerability to something as fickle as our ability to judge some other animals as cute seems to make nonsense out of moral judgment. Isn’t there a more rational basis for ethical judgment?

The revolutionaries think that there is and that this rational basis for ethical judgment forces us to conclude that some non-human clearly animals qualify as objects of genuine, direct moral concern. It is to their arguments that we know turn.