Ask the Experts: Gary Steiner on animal rights

Originally posted: April 19, 2012

Gary Steiner, John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy, discusses animal rights and the vegan imperative.

Question: You have said that animals and humans are morally equivalent; can you explain what you mean?

Answer: There is a traditional prejudice in the Western philosophical tradition according to which cognitive differences between different types of living beings translate into differences in moral status. In comparisons between human beings and animals, the criterion that has traditionally been used, going back to the ancient Greeks, is this notion of logos, which means reason or language; rational ability or linguistic ability have traditionally been seized upon as the dividing line between human beings and animals.

The assumption has been that beings that possess logos — beings who are able to think about themselves, have self-consciousness, have their own life as a project, be able to contemplate the distant past and the distant future — are morally superior to beings that lack it.

The assumption has been that, because only human beings possess the capacity for logos, human beings are superior to all other living beings in the world. Animals are excluded categorically from the moral or political community because they lack logos. Essentially this means animals are tools or instrumentalities that we can use for the satisfaction of human needs.

I argue that there is no logical connection between the kind of cognitive abilities a being has and its moral status. Within comparisons among human beings, there are relatively few people who would say that infants don’t deserve moral status and yet they, up to a certain point in life, lack the ability to speak. At an intuitive level, most people would also say that if one adult human is a lot smarter than another one, the smarter one doesn’t have the moral right to use the one who is less intelligent.

The fact that animals cannot use human speech and the fact that most animals don’t seem to order their thoughts linguistically doesn’t change the fact that there are many, many non-human animals on earth who have rich subjective lives that mean a lot to them.

With elephants the death of a companion is more than a passing significance. Birds such as corvids, which includes magpies, crows, and ravens, have extremely sophisticated abilities to communicate with each other, warn each other about threats, and fashion tools. Betty the crow, a big hit on YouTube, makes tools to make other tools.

There have been lots of attempts in the history of Western philosophy to try to isolate some quality or property in human beings that elevates us above the rest of nature: tool use, cognition, planning for the future, or flexibility or adaptability in responding to contingencies in our environment. The more we learn about the behavior of animals, the more we realize that these proclamations of uniqueness on the part of humans — what some people call human exceptionalism — are unsupportable by the evidence.

I don’t see any morally relevant distinctions between different types of sentient beings, beings that can experience pleasure and pain, can have conscious awareness, beings for whom life matters. It’s only on the basis of what some people call speciesism or anthropocentrism that we make such distinctions and privilege human beings. These speciesistic prejudices are comparable to the sorts of arbitrary hierarchies proclaimed by racists and sexists.

I don’t think there’s any absolute cosmic standpoint or measure on the basis of which we could say that human beings ought to count more in the moral universe than animals do. It’s just that we are human and we have the self-serving tendency to want to say that we count more because we think that entitles us to do things like eat animals, wear them, experiment on them, use them as captive entertainment.

Q: Tell me about your newest book.

A: In my newest book, Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism, I argue for the notion of veganism as a candidate for a moral imperative that follows from liberal humanist principles regarding our recognition of the moral status of animals. I examine the question whether a principle such as veganism can be defended not merely as a lifestyle choice but as a strict moral imperative.

You don’t find people saying that slave ownership is a lifestyle choice. Many people in the animal-rights debate will try to deny or challenge the analogy between slavery and what we do to animals; I argue in my book that it’s a completely apt analogy. I argue that veganism is not merely a lifestyle choice, not merely a personal preference. If we really understand what it means for a being to have moral status, it’s something that animals have a right to; they have a right not to be killed and eaten for food and used in a variety of other ways to satisfy human desires.

I’m very extreme about this. Animals have just as much right not to be killed and eaten for food, or to be enslaved, as you or I have. That’s what I mean when I say that humans and animals are morally equivalent. Veganism is a moral imperative; in my book I call it the vegan imperative.

Q: What are the economics of treating animals as commodities and the economic implications of limiting or abolishing the status of animals as property?

A: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 53 billion land animals — about nine times the human population of the entire world — are killed for human consumption worldwide every year; that doesn’t include fish or seafood.

This massive economic enterprise — I would venture to say in the trillions of dollars per year -involves the consumption of massive amounts of water, grain, chemical fertilizers, the extensive emission of greenhouse gases, extensive deforestation to provide grazing lands, an extraordinary amount of soil erosion, and a great reduction of species diversity due to cattle grazing. One estimate is that the production of 1 pound of beef requires 2500 gallons of water and 21 pounds of protein fed to the cow.

Some people have suggested that a worldwide shift to veganism would be economically or environmentally infeasible. But when you think about how much less grain would be produced, how much less land would be devoted toward grazing, how much less soil erosion there would be, how much less water consumption there would be — it’s rather extraordinary.

Some people want to argue that a lot of people’s livelihoods depend upon the economics of animal husbandry for human consumption. My response is yes, that’s true. The same argument was made when people discussed the prospect of ceasing tobacco growing in the United States. The same thing could be said about the extensive slavery that goes on in the world today, prostitution, other forms of organized crime, diamond mining in Africa, and the extraordinary amount of child labor that goes on worldwide.

If one is concerned about the economic impact that cessation of the meat industry would have on human beings, one should think the same thing about all these other practices that don’t necessarily involve animals. One has to think about is what’s morally right, not what’s economically advantageous. Are we going to let economics trump what’s right?

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