I’ll write about Christmas and such sometime, but right now this is what I’m thinking about.
I sometimes think about animal rights. Not really often, but I occasionally do. The other day, I think I had a pretty sensible thought about them.
I’ll start off by noting where I’m coming from as regards animal rights. I eat meat; this isn’t a secret. For a little while, as I first started thinking of vegetarianism as a valid idea that people could have, and not as a kind of crazy thing that only other people do, I didn’t know exactly how to justify the eating of meat to myself. Later on, I figured out an idea that’s worked for me, which is that the entire ecosystem is predicated on animals eating other animals—as surely as it’s predicated on other animals eating plants and on plants eating sunlight. Now, something I’m not in favor of is factory farming. That there is some messed-up stuff, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, you can go to pretty much any website about veganism and they’ll be more than eager to tell you the details. Suffice it to say, there are some animal rights being seriously violated in those places. So, my preference would be eating meat that has been raised humanely and killed humanely, or, even better, that I (or someone I know) have hunted, killed, and butchered myself. I still eat factory-farmed meat for a few reasons. One is the pretty lame reason that meat is so tasty and the majority of it that I’m likely to ever come across is factory-farmed. (However, for an exception see Chipotle.) Another is that it’s harder to follow a vegetarian diet while getting all the right nutrients and that, as far as I can see, it takes a fair amount of effort to avoid meat. And another is that factory-farmed plants aren’t without their own special set of problems, with which I also take issue, but which I definitely can’t avoid. I still make an effort to eat reputable meat. While I’m at college I eat the dining hall’s meat, which is of unknown and probably unsavory origins, but when I cook for myself I’ve only used meat from Dayton Meats in Malcom, Iowa. Actually, I’ve mostly avoided meat in cooking for myself, since I don’t use cook for myself often enough to keep meat from rotting and getting wasted. If I didn’t eat meat at the dining hall, it would get thrown out at the end of the meal, so I might as well.
So that’s the lengthy preface to this main idea that I’m getting to. My main idea has to do with which animals get rights, and which ones don’t. You’ve noticed that, above, I implied that I’m willing to kill animals, which is true. It’s true for some animals more than others, though. The number of mosquitoes I’ve killed is definitely in the thousands, but I’ve only personally and knowingly killed one mammal, a squirrel that had just been hit by a car in front of me and wasn’t going to live long. So, what dictates why I’m willing to kill one animal but not another? And is the criterion something I’ve just made up, or does it have some sort of valid, or at least mostly universal, usefulness?
There are different ideas on this. The way I would have thought of it until the other day was that animals that are the most like humans are the ones we humans are least willing to kill, and they get progressively more killable as they get weirder. I believe there’s definitely something to this, but it’s not the only thing. Even so, it’s fairly entrenched, and variants on it have been latched onto by important people. A speaker named David Cantor (class of ’77) came to my college in November as part of a symposium on rights and the environment. He founded Responsible Policies for Animals, an animal rights organization, and in the symposium he gave a talk about why all animals deserve rights. His argument boiled down to the idea that this is true because animals “experience” life, rather than “merely living” it. So, organisms that are sentient are all deserving of equal rights, because of their sentience. In the Q&A at the end, no one really succeeded in getting Cantor to tell what might give some animals lesser or greater rights. Someone asked him where there’s a cut-off point between the killable and the non-killable, and he put it at the threshold between experiencing and living, without ever defining what he meant by those. Do mosquitoes experience a life? Earthworms, sponges?
What I realized the other day is that another thing we all take unconsciously into consideration when we think about this is how replaceable the animal in question is. Replaceability is made up of a few different pieces, main ones being lifespan, current age, and energy needed to make the animal (or organism in general). Replaceability explains why I would be willing to kill a deer for food, but it would be next to impossible to convince me to cut down an ancient bristlecone pine for shelter or firewood. The deer is obviously way more human-like, but it’s also probably not more than a decade old, and there are (and will be) plenty more like it. Its current age is maybe 2 or 3, which means there hasn’t been a whole lot of energy invested in bringing it to where it is, compared to the bristlecone pine I mentioned, which has been sucking in sunlight every day for the past four thousand years. But, compare the deer to a rabbit, and I’m more willing to snare the rabbit, because even though it’s probably around the same age, a lot less of the ecosystem’s energy has gone into making this lightweight rabbit than the rather big deer. (If it were a question of my survival, though, I’d kill the deer instead, obviously, since it’d keep me alive longer—just to point that out.) For most cases that I can think of, replaceability works better than similarity to humans. Given a theoretical sort of monkey—I don’t know if such a monkey actually exists—that lives only about seven years, and so breeds pretty prolifically, and a Galápagos tortoise in its 150th year, I’d kill the monkey, even if it is much more human. And I’m willing to bet lots of money that even David Cantor, who would afford all animals the same exact set of rights, would concede that it makes sense, because I’m sure that he has less compunction about killing mosquitoes than, say, horses, any rights agenda aside.
However, I’m not going to claim that replaceability is the only thing going on. I’ve definitely got a humanoid bias, as illustrated best by the fact that, in the undesirable position of having to kill either an old blue whale or a person, I would probably go with the whale—although it certainly depends on the particular person. Or, go with a two-year-old rabbit and a two-year-old sponge, and I’ll pull up the sponge, even if I’m told they’ve both consumed the same amount of energy to get to this point in life. The idea of suffering has to do with this. I would feel responsible for considerably more anguish in the rabbit’s case, because the sponge has no central nervous system, and, as far as I know, can’t feel the pain of dying. Intelligence runs alongside this. I know cuttlefish are pretty smart, and accordingly I feel some sort of kinship with them and would feel more guilty killing one than if they were a less bright fish. This, I suppose, is the human side of the mental equation, with replaceability serving as the more calculated side. There’s not, I suppose, a strictly scientific reason to favor less suffering. This is why we have morality, or, rather, I suppose, morality is why we have this. And the morality in question, I’d suggest, comes from the evolutionary advantages of empathy in keeping tribes together and, maybe, the advantage of the extension of empathy to animals in limiting overkill that could lead to starvation. Or maybe just the human mind’s tendency to extend things.
Anyhow, hopefully this was interesting. I thought it was. In my very minimal research on this subject—what I’ve written is pretty much a thought experiment, and doesn’t cite any material facts or other works, as you can see—I haven’t really found anything like this. I just discovered that there is, in fact, an animal-rights idea called the replaceability argument, but oddly enough it’s something else entirely. So maybe, just maybe, I’m contributing something original here, and animal-rights people will find this and run with the idea and I’ll have made a little impact on the academic community. Although this blog is probably not a very likely place for people to stumble upon ideas.