The animals are of my breed

Twice a month, The duty challenges enthusiasts of philosophy and the history of ideas to decipher a topical question based on the theses of an outstanding thinker.

In recent years, pressure from animalist militant groups has been increasingly felt in society. The example that has had the most echo in Quebec is undoubtedly that of the occupation of the Porgreg farm in Saint-Hyacinthe. On December 7, 2019, 12 activists from the Direct Action Everywhere group break into a pigsty to film the conditions in which the animals are raised. The activists, accused of breaking and entering, are currently awaiting trial following a trial held last October.

The group sought to make the public aware of the wrongs suffered by animals in these places: pigs in bad shape and with abscesses, food soiled by excrement, death of pigs, etc. Since the change in the legal status of animals introduced under the Couillard government in 2015 thanks to the Animal Welfare and Safety Act, one would have thought there were major changes that would prevent this kind of thing from happening. However, it is not the case. What should be done then? This is precisely what animal ethics has been interested in for decades.

Animal rights

What worries philosophers in animal ethics is what are our moral obligations to animals. Do animals have rights? If so, which ones, and if not, why? To answer that, we have to go back to animal rights theory. In 1983, the American philosopher Tom Regan (1938-2017) wrote The Case for Animal Rights (translated into French by Animal rights) in response to the utilitarian theory of Peter Singer, who according to him is incapable of ensuring strong protections for animals. If Singer already defended an ethics based on the interests of animals, such as the interest not to suffer and the interest in living for some, it is however Regan who will follow this logic to the end. In his book, he writes an original theory by taking up the deontological approach in ethics while opposing the Kantian idea that we have no direct duty to animals, but only to humans, because only human beings rationales would be worthy of moral consideration.

For Regan, on the contrary, we have direct duties towards them. We have to see them as full individuals, because they are the “subjects-of-a-life”. He writes about this: “Being the subject-of-a-life involves more than just being alive: individuals are subjects-of-life if they have beliefs and desires; a perception, memory and sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life as well as feelings of pleasure and pain; preferential interests and welfare; the ability to [entreprendre] action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and individual well-being, in the sense that the life they experience works for them well or badly, logically independent of their usefulness to others. “

Regan recalls that animals have a life in the biographical sense and not only a biological life. They are not only in life, but they have a life.

Likewise, they are not only in the world, but aware of the world, since they experience it mentally as a subjective one. What happens matters to them, because it happens to them. Each individual is not Something, most someone. Behind every unique being, there is a story. The philosopher will also say that the subjects-of-a-life have an inherent value, that is to say that each individual exists for his own good and not in an instrumental way for human ends. All individuals whom we can designate as life-subjects of conscience should be treated with respect. Not treating them as mere resources for our benefit then becomes a necessity. It is this principle of respect that will lead him to defend the idea that animals have certain rights, in particular not to be exploited and not to be unnecessarily killed.

Harms and benefits

In her book, Regan also explains the harms and benefits that animals can experience. The harm we can cause them takes two forms. We can inflict physical pain on them (cutting off their beaks or tails and cramming them by the thousands on the farms) and psychological pain (separating the young from their mothers and leaving them alone). We can also inflict deprivations on them, such as of their freedom (by locking them in cages and then tying them up) or even of their lives (by killing them for food, for science or for fun).

Suffering isn’t the only issue that interests Regan. For him, the killing of animals is not a secondary issue, since killing them certainly involves ending their life, but also depriving them of the benefits they could derive from them and which are lost forever.

These benefits are these opportunities to enjoy their existence: whether through eating and drinking well, socializing, playing, bathing, flying, taking sand baths, mating, take care of the little ones, etc. These opportunities, of course, differ among species and even among individuals, but they can happen if we don’t deprive animals of them. The killing is therefore seen as a wrong, an irreparable loss.

However, there may be exceptions, such as self-defense against a human or animal that threatens our life. Another example that Regan gives is that of an elderly and very sick animal that we cannot deliver from suffering other than by euthanasia, that is, by giving it a “good death”. In this specific case, the killing is not a problem, because we respect the animal’s preference to no longer suffer. Otherwise, as with human rights, the do not kill rule should apply universally.

Objections and responses

Several philosophers retorted that animals cannot have rights since they cannot respect ours. Regan reminded that many humans, such as young children and people with severe mental disabilities, can hardly do it anymore, and we don’t treat them as mere means. According to him, we must distinguish between “moral agents” and “moral patients”. Moral agents are individuals capable of ethically thinking about and reviewing their actions. Moral patients, on the contrary, do not have this aptitude since they do not understand the terms of morality. This does not mean that they do not have rights. Moral agents have direct duties towards the latter, being able to know of wrongs implying the respect of their rights, that they are children, handicapped people or animals.

Another recurring objection is that animals are not conscious; therefore, they cannot suffer moral injury. This rather counter-intuitive belief is discredited by recent scientific research which allows us to clarify the scope of this theory. The Cambridge Declaration on consciousness of 2012 recognizes that all vertebrate animals are endowed with consciousness. So we know that not only mammals and birds are aware, but also amphibians, reptiles, fish and even some invertebrates, like octopuses. We can say that they are subjects-of-a-life, which is enough to grant them rights according to Regan’s theory. While we don’t know exactly where to draw the line in the animal kingdom, that does little to stop us from granting rights to animals we already identify as subjects-of-a-life.

A new abolitionism

According to Regan’s theory, defending animal rights is a moral obligation. For the philosopher, it is not a question of reforming animal exploitation by resorting to better techniques of breeding and slaughter, but of abolishing institutionalized animal exploitation. As animals are no longer seen as resources, their trade should be banned. As Regan writes, “You cannot change unjust institutions just by improving them.” It’s not the details that are the problem, it’s the system that sees animals as inferior beings that we can dispose of as we please. To draw a parallel, from the point of view of the long history of mankind, consider the fact that the questioning of slavery and sexism only appeared recently. Manners are not fixed, they evolve. Perhaps the next generations will find ours intolerable.

Our societies obscure the deep problems posed by slaughterhouses, hunting, fishing, animal testing and zoos. Protesting against this indifference, Regan has the merit of having laid the philosophical foundations of a theory of rights advocating an ethic of universal non-violence.

Above all symbolic, the 2015 law remains insufficient to ensure respect for animal rights. We must go further and build an abolitionist movement as the activists who illegally enter farms and slaughterhouses are trying to do in order to face the fate we inflict on animals. Although the history of our relationships with animals hardly invites us to be optimistic, one can hope that one day morals will transcend the barriers of the human species. The future is open: it is up to us to define what it will be.

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