To the Editor:
In his review of In Defense of Animals, edited by Peter Singer [Books in Review, October 1985], Ronald Bailey takes for granted that it is self-evident that human beings, being moral creatures, have inherent rights, while animals, not regarded as moral creatures, cannot be said to have inherent rights. The fact is there is no such thing, historically, as “inherent rights,” either for human beings or for animals. Rights are always granted, and have rarely been “self-evident.”
That slaves were not considered human—at best the category of “subhuman” was created to describe their condition—was the assumption for most of the history of the human race. Plato and Aristotle thought so, and Aristotle granted the right of “superior” human beings to hunt “inferior” human beings. It was not at all self-evident to them that slaves belonged to the same species they did, were human as they were human. Many of the conquistadors experienced a similar lack of species identification with the Indians in the Western hemisphere; and throughout the European Middle Ages, serfs were legally denied human status. Their offspring were defined as “brood,” a term associated with animal life, and they were not permitted to leave wills, because that was considered a human activity. A letter written in the late 14th century by the daughter of a feudal lord testifies eloquently to the fact that serfs were not regarded as belonging to the human race. The correspondent writes a friend of her intention to witness a serf giving birth to see “if they give birth as we do.”. . . Until recently, the African Bushman was not regarded as human by many other Africans as well as by Europeans. Within living memory, he was hunted along with the hunting of other animals. It is a mistake to take species identification for granted, and one should not have to cite so recent a phenomenon as Nazi Germany to make this point.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that what we call today the “rights of animals” is an old idea. Even the skeptic Voltaire believed that the Bible endorsed the “sacred alliance” between human and animal. Even in his century animals were regarded as “moral” creatures (an idea found both in Plato and the Bible) and were actually brought to trial when charged with misdemeanors. The Bible and Talmud give inexhaustible evidence of the concern for the “inherent rights” of animals, and lay careful boundaries as to what may or may not be done to them. The simple declaration, made many times, that God’s covenant is with the animal world as well as with humankind, should suffice as evidence for a state of mind which Rabbi Kook described as “a virtue of such priceless value, which had at one time been in fact a possession of mankind.”
It is only the modern world that has robbed animals of every right except, unfortunately, the right to suffer for human beings.
Editor and publisher, Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb
Founder, Jews for Animal Rights
To the Editor:
Ronald Bailey summarily dismisses the arguments in defense of animal rights as “empty.” In fact, they have been recognized as meaningful by countless human cultures, including the American (most states have laws protecting animals from cruel treatment) and the Jewish (e.g., Maimonides: “There is no difference between human suffering and the pain felt by other living beings,” Guide for the Perplexed 3:48).
As for Mr. Bailey’s own arguments, they indeed appear empty. He contends, for example, that human beings alone are capable of being disappointed by a broken promise. He should visit my dog, who will mope or cry if denied a walk outside after it has been mentioned, or denied a treat after his performance of a deed usually meriting one.
Mr. Bailey argues, moreover, that animals are not capable of moral choice and action. If these terms are narrowly defined, he may have a point. But is he unaware of the altruistic behavior of animals, especially dogs, who have braved serious danger to themselves in order to come to the aid of human friends in need? Is that not a moral act, worthy of moral treatment in return?
I am aware that some serious people find this whole matter trivial, even amusing—an attitude rationalized in view of the overshadowing experience of human cruelty to humans. I believe, however, that cruelty to animals is part of a continuum of immoral human behavior, with quite serious implications for the rest of our culture. In the words of the poet Stanley Kunitz, “a gospel confined to the human parish is a prescription for annihilation.”
Princeton, New Jersey
To the Editor:
. . . Ronald Bailey holds that the reason we may not legally kill human beings while at the same time condoning the slaughter of animals for meat is that human beings are capable of acting morally; we are disappointed by a broken promise. Animals, on the other hand, are not capable of making ethical choices.
He then uses this irrelevant claim as justification for breeding calves, penning them up so that they are immobile for weeks and thus unable to develop those muscles which are anathema to our regard for tender veal; for force-feeding geese until their stomachs are near explosion so that we can enjoy pâté de fois gras; for beating old horses in Central Park so that passengers can enjoy a romantic ride on New Year’s eve. All this simply because these horses, cows, and geese are incapable of moral thought and action?
I would suggest that the human predilection for the slaughter of food animals makes us immoral, while the incapacity of others in the animal kingdom to have ethical codes is simply amoral.
Peter Singer’s philosophy is simply this: put our taste for meat on one side of the scale of justice; put the desire of animals to live on the other side. See which need depresses the scale. Killing animals merely to appease our taste buds then becomes absurd. Slaughtering, cramming beings into tight enclosures on factory farms, even merely gawking at them in the zoo are truly examples of speciesism and as evil as any other “ism” that considers one group superior to others. . . .
Harvey S. Karten
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Animal-rights philosophers, as Ronald Bailey notes, argue that sentience rather than rationality should be the criterion for the ascription of rights. These philosophers, Mr. Bailey writes, point to the fact that even though mentally retarded people “do not meet our usual standards of rationality for moral consideration, we do not sanction killing or performing laboratory experiments on them.” Mr. Bailey’s counter is that the reasons we treat “mentally retarded adults with moral consideration are complex, but they include our deference to the feelings of their family members. . . .”
Thus Mr. Bailey acknowledges that the reason is not solely deference to the feelings of family members. What else could it be, then, but that they have inherent rights regardless of their value to others? Surely a mentally retarded person without family or friends has a right not to be vivisected or slaughtered for food. Mr. Bailey has not shown why animals who are as rational as mentally retarded people and who have an equal ability to feel pain are not entitled to the same consideration.
To the Editor:
. . . In discussing Tom Regan’s essay in In Defense of Animals, Ronald Bailey says that “the adoption of Regan’s position would abolish any moral distinction between animals and human beings,” and implies that Regan thinks we should not take mental abilities into account when making distinctions between animals and people. On the contrary, as Regan makes clear in his book, The Case for Animal Rights, if we had to choose between saving the lives of a million or more dogs and a single human, we should choose the human in every case. As Regan notes, however, “what the rights view implies should be done in exceptional cases cannot be fairly generalized to unexceptional cases.” It would be more accurate to say that Regan believes that there is no morally relevant difference between an animal and a severely retarded human of comparable intelligence. Severely retarded people cannot make moral choices; does Mr. Bailey think that we should be allowed to experiment on them? I hope not.
As for his observation that we treat mentally retarded humans with moral consideration out of deference to the feelings of their family members, Regan notes that, among other things, this objection makes the duty to protect these moral patients wholly contingent upon other beings having a “sentimental interest” in them. Suppose that Mr. Smith, instead of loving his retarded son, despises and wants to be rid of him. Does that mean that we should be allowed to experiment on Smith’s son? Of course not! . . .
To the Editor:
I suspect that I am not alone in my gratitude to Ronald Bailey for his clear and compelling explanation of just why the incapacity of infants and a few adults does not sanction extending the protection humans have to animals. With remarkable clarity he exposes pernicious nonsense for what it is.
But I wonder if perhaps Mr. Bailey errs in agreeing with Peter Singer and Tom Regan that, in Mr. Bailey’s words, “the ability to feel physical pain is a necessary . . . condition for granting moral consideration to a being.” What about cases where humans lack the ability to feel physical pain? Surely, regardless of their incapacity, they deserve moral consideration.
James C. Dick
Huntington Woods, Michigan
Ronald Bailey writes:
Roberta Kalechofsky makes the point that human beings are not only capable of acting immorally toward one another, but that they have often enthusiastically done so. However, she goes astray when she implies that my arguments for according moral rights to human beings and not to animals are based on “species identification.” That argument is one that I certainly did not make. Moral rights are to be accorded to beings who are rational—no matter what species they happen to belong to. She ends by relying upon divine revelation as the source of the rights of animals. If divine revelation is the basis of one’s belief in animal rights, nothing I might say to the contrary could be persuasive to the holder of such beliefs. However, I might mention in passing that divine revelation works both ways—what does Roberta Kalechofsky say to those who believe that animals, unlike human beings, have no souls, and therefore no moral rights?
Ira Silverman points to the laws against cruelty to animals as current examples of animal rights in our society. However, such laws have been enacted largely for the purpose of soothing the sensibilities of human beings like Mr. Silverman, and only incidentally for the “protection” of animals. Maimonides is, of course, correct in noting that human beings and animals both feel pain, but, as I have argued, the relevant difference in terms of rights is rationality, not sentience alone. Regarding Mr. Silverman’s dog and the “altruistic” actions of some animals, it is sufficient to point out that animals can be trained to perform both apparently altruistic and vicious actions. Does Mr. Silverman propose to blame a police guard dog, should it kill a child, in the same way that he would a human murderer?
Harvey S. Karten’s letter is reminiscent of many of the essays in In Defense of Animals. Mr. Karten merely asserts that slaughtering animals for food is wrong and proceeds to describe activities which he and other animal-rights activists find distasteful. His morality is based on aesthetic considerations. Not only do humans have a “predilection for the slaughter of food animals,” but so do many other species including lions, eagles, bears, tigers, sharks, killer whales, etc. Are they also “immoral” because they consume flesh as food? Are herbivores ethically superior to carnivores?
Henry Cohen and Alan Houston share the belief, held by many animal-rights activists, that our treatment of severely mentally-retarded human beings undercuts any assertion that rationality is the sole criterion upon which we should grant moral consideration to a being. They rightly point out that we do not sanction the use of the severely mentally retarded in vivisection experiments. In my review, I argued that we treat mentally retarded persons with some moral consideration in part because of “our deference to the feelings of their family members,” and those feelings are based on more than mere sentimentality. It is difficult to judge to what degree the severely retarded may share in what is uniquely human, but we should give the benefit of the doubt to viable beings who have the human form and who share so much of the human genotype. Lest Mr. Cohen and Mr. Houston think that all mentally retarded human beings are, in spite of their diminished rational faculties, treated with an inordinate amount of moral respect, I will mention that our legal system is already in the process of deciding when it is permissible to allow severely mentally retarded newborns to die. Of course, permitting a newborn who has no brain damage to die is murder.
Finally, James C. Dick makes a very insightful point; upon further reflection, I believe that I too hastily accepted the argument that the ability to feel physical pain is a necessary though not sufficient condition for granting moral consideration to a being.