Over at the Public Discourse, the very good Loyola Marymount philosopher Chris Kaczor has responded to a review of his recent book on abortion by another well-known philosopher, Don Marquis. While calling it “the most complete, the most penetrating and the most up-to-date set of critiques of the arguments for abortion choice presently available” and “required reading for anyone seriously considering the abortion issue”, Marquis nevertheless rejects Kaczor’s central conclusion about the inherent dignity of all human organisms.
One reason, and it is the reason on which I shall focus in this post, is because of Kazor’s ‘speciesism.’ Though I largely agree with much that is in the book, I also think that Marquis, invoking Singer, is right to press Kaczor on this point. But first let us turn to Kaczor’s defense at the Public Discourse. He begins by attempting to define the charge:
Peter Singer defines speciesism as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” On this view, to hold that all human beings have moral status is an insidious “-ism” and so should be rejected.
This point is in need of some important clarification: for to jump from ‘arbitrarily preferring human interests in, say, not feeling pain, to similar non-human interests in not feeling pain’ to ‘holding that all human beings have moral status’ is too quick. One may give good reasons for the latter, but, at least in my view, it is difficult to justify the former. But let’s go back to Kaczor’s defense:
As Singer notes in Animal Liberation, everything else being equal, someone who rejects speciesism should be morally indifferent between a human and a dog who are at the same level of consciousness.” Let’s say I rush into a burning building, and I have time only to save one of two beings at the same level of consciousness. I find a one-year-old girl, Catherine, and nearby her dog, Fido, both passed out from smoke inhalation. I should just flip a coin to decide whether to save Catherine or Fido, since (on Singer’s view) her potential for rational functioning is irrelevant, and they are equally sentient. This is absurd, even if Catherine is an orphan.
I realize that his response was constrained by the limitations of a blog post, but this appeal to intuition really isn’t fair to the speciesism charge…which focuses on an arbitrary preference for the species homo sapiens, full stop. Agreeing with Singer, I do not think it is absurd to be morally indifferent about creatures of different (biological) species with similar morally-relevant interests. Species membership, qua species membership, is of virtually no moral value. In this sense speciesism is akin to racism and sexism.
But species-membership can be an indicator of something that is morally valuable: like being a substance of a rational nature. Or, as Kaczor puts it in his own book, ‘having an orientation toward freedom and reason.’ This orientation exists in all human organisms–even the most immature, the most dependent, and the most severely disabled. In fact, we recognize the tragedy of disability precisely because of the orientation that still exists in the disabled human organism.
But let’s recognize what has happened here: Kaczor has invoked ‘orientation toward freedom and reason’ as that which confers the moral status of a person. But this is an orientation which could, at least in principle, apply to many beings outside the species homo sapiens. Indeed, the Christian tradition (and explicitly in the case of Thomas Aquinas) has thought of human organisms as one of the least impressive substances of a rational nature–paling in comparison to angels, for instance. Might some non-human animals also have an orientation toward freedom and reason? I think there is a strong argument for answering in the affirmative, and an even stronger argument for concluding that many come so close (freedom and rationality seem to exist on a spectrum rather than being ‘all or nothing’ properties) that there is good reason to dramatically change the way we treat very sophisticated creatures like primates, dolphins, elephants, etc.
The above conclusion also clears the conceptual space for critiquing the radically immoral way we treat less sophisticated kinds of non-human animals in our factory farms. Indeed, here is where Singer’s push-back against speciesism, and the claims of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we ‘owe non-human animals kindness’ and that we should never cause them to ‘suffer or die needlessly’ (#2416 and #2418), have important common ground. Christians, if we reject speciesism, should refuse to participate in the sinful social structures of factory farms–which cause non-human animals to suffer and die so that those in the developed world can satisfy their desire for tasty animal flesh at the cheapest price possible (i.e. needlessly) by the tens-of-billions each year.
Nice post, Charlie, and great thoughts. Kaczor’s criticism of speciesism (choosing between Fido and Catherine) becomes even more unsound when we change Fido to another human being, say, my daughter. If I rush into a burning building and can save only my daughter or an unrelated stranger, I obviously choose my daughter. Morally, we might say there is an order of love (an ordo caritas) that would allow us to prefer the good of kin (or our own species) over non-kin (or other species) while still requiring that we treat non-kin/other species with a certain level of justice. On grounds of the order of love, Christians can still reject factory farming without rejecting specieism.
I am reading de Waal’s The Age of Empathy right now, and while he accepts that the differences between apes and humans is one of degree rather than substance, he still admits over and over again just how different humans and apes are in terms of motivation and ability. In the same way, if we consider non-material rational beings like angels, we have to also admit that the gap between the two is pretty wide. Can’t we still affirm a difference of species and yet still maintain a sort of out-group morality for our non-human kin? Are you possibly challenging more an overly strong anthropocentric ethic and not specieism per se?
Hey Beth….thanks for your thoughts. I agree that (biological) ‘species’ can be a morally important category in a derivative sense. It surely is often an important indicator of something else…like the creature being “a substance of a rational nature” or “a being that feels pain when you kick her”…or something. This means we should often discriminate on the basis of species…but only if species indicates something else (say, the combination of traits x, y, and z) that is valuable in a non-derivative way. But if multiple species (let’s say, me, Frodo Baggins, and Superman) have traits x, y, and z…I find no good reason for discriminating between them on the basis of species.
Charlie – I’m curious how one would then read Genesis 1 and 2 in light of non-speciesism? The statements in the Catechism are not coming from affinity with Peter Singer, I presume, but with the sense that humans have responsibilities with respect to creatures. I think there would be plenty of room for making an argument against factory farms on the basis of care and responsibility without making an argument from non-speciciesism. And, from a revelatory sense, speciesism is not arbitrary.
That said, I think there is something to be said for changing the ways in which humans have understood non-humans – Linnaeus identified different animal species on the basis of physical characteristics and not in relation to questions about rationality and the like. Linnaeus’ descriptions might indeed be more akin to racism and potential abuse of animals than other ways of thinking about non-human life.
Hi Jana…I don’t see speciesism in Genesis 1 and 2. Human beings are made in the image of God, not in light of their DNA patterns, but rather in light of some other trait that the DNA patters indicate, right? Again, you and Frodo Baggins are both the image God in exactly the same sense. The fact that he has a gene for furry feet doesn’t make any difference.
We are to have a care and concern for all creation, yes…but that care and concern means different things in different contexts. Farming of non-human animals is different than the farming of plants. And we ignore the interests that are harmed in non-human animals when we treat them in such ways largely because we are speciesist and decide that, for certain species (especially those that taste good), their interests don’t really count.
“I think there is a strong argument for answering in the affirmative, and an even stronger argument for concluding that many come so close (freedom and rationality seem to exist on a spectrum rather than being ‘all or nothing’ properties) that there is good reason to dramatically change the way we treat very sophisticated creatures like primates, dolphins, elephants, etc.”
I am curious – perhaps you could do a follow-up post in regards to why you think rationality seems to exist on a spectrum rather than ‘all or nothing?’
It seems to me that “the claims of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we ‘owe non-human animals kindness’ and that we should never cause them to ‘suffer or die needlessly’ (#2416 and #2418)” are grounded in the effect on our own souls of needless cruelty rather than on any common ground with Singer’s arguments.
It would be difficult to say, I think, that consumption of chicken which died cruelly 1,000 miles away truly has an effect on the soul of the consumer any more than using servers and computers for blogs, newscasts, etc. which all contain parts produced in veritable sweat shops (allowing for very inexpensive electronics) affect the soul of the computer user. Would you similarly argue for the responsibility of purchasing computers manufactured only locally, and for avoiding use of the internet, as information must travel across thousands of sweat-shop electronics?
Moreover, the CCC still allows for the ” use animals for food and clothing…. [and to] be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure” and that it is “morally acceptable” to practice “[m]edical and scientific experimentation on animals” when “within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives. ” (#2417). It seems like your reasoning would prohibit animal experimentation, even if (for example) a situation arose where experimentation on dolphins was necessary because of their superior rationality, and that such experimentation would save many lives.
Finally, the CCC notes that “animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.” What do you make of the common grouping of animals, plants, and inanimate beings?
Hi Jonathon…good questions! Well, I think the spectrum of rationality can be seen most clearly in watching human infants grow into rational adults. There is no point A at which they are not rational and point B at which they are like you or me. There is a development process that goes on…and at various points in that process they have a rationality similar to that of other non-human animals. Does that help?
Also, did I miss the part where the CCC says that all their serious claims about how we should treat non-human animals are ground in the effect on our own souls? I’d appreciate you pointing that section out to me. Your question about computer use gets into complex questions of cooperation with evil that are too nuanced to address here, but I do think that one’s cooperation with factory farming when one buys and eats or wears an animal is far more direct than when one uses a computer which is connected to another computer that was made in a sweat shop.
The key issue for experimentation is what counts as “reasonable limits” and for eating and using for clothing what counts as “necessary.” I think the former issue is a hard one, but for most of us it is not necessary to eat or wear non-human animals from factory farms.
Finally, I would ask your thoughts on the rest of #2415, “Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” The CCC spells out what some of things moral imperatives are (can’t cause to suffer and die needlessly, etc.)…and the ones laid out for non-human animals are different from the ones laid out for the rest of non-sentient creation.
Frodo Baggins might be in the image of God in exactly the same sense I am because he is the same species. That seems easy to accept imaginatively. Superman too we might call a member of the human species. But what about apes? Maybe I am not understanding your argument, but I am having trouble figuring out what a non-specieist is supposed to think about apes? I get that you want to be attentive to their interests (so we shouldn’t shamelessly research on them you might say, nor should we hold them in filthy zoo enclosures). But would a non-specieist attribute any positive rights to apes? Should apes, for example, get healthcare? Or should an ape be held to the same moral standards as a human? If a mama ape drowns her baby (which often happens), should she be put in jail? I agree that the imago Dei is not dependent on DNA structure, but the little genetic difference between apes and humans seems to make a big difference in terms of how we regard each from a moral perspective.
I don’t know if this will clarify anything, but although Frodo Baggins was human (Tolkien consider Hobbits a branch of the human race), Superman was a “strange visitor from another planet” and was not human.
I will be interested to hear what Charles has to say about apes, but to those who make the argument that humans are special because we have human DNA, I ask if that means we should (suspending disbelief for a moment) not consider ET special, or Mr. Spock, or Data (who was a robot), or The Doctor (who was a hologram). I believe there will be true machine intelligence some day (like HAL in 2001), and it seems to me if so, we will have moral obligations to treat intelligent machines as persons. And of course they will be without DNA entirely.
While I appreciate all the careful casuistry (even on fictional characters!) going on here, I can’t help but wonder if the real issue lies at a deeper level of cosmology, not biology (i.e. DNA). The language of rights and interests seems inherently competitive (probably b/c I’ve read too much MacIntyre in life) – and what the CCC and other documents are attempting to explain presupposes a participational metaphysics. The point about Genesis is not so much to establish rights claims as it is to demonstrate a participational order, wherein everything is related to everything else in particular ways. I fully support Charlie’s claims that factory farming is wrong, but I guess I don’t ultimately think the moral argument there is of a different sort from the one I’d advance against mountaintop removal mining. The problem here is a kind of refusal of participation in the created order.
“here is no point A at which they are not rational and point B at which they are like you or me. There is a development process that goes on…and at various points in that process they have a rationality similar to that of other non-human animals.”
That does help me to understand your position a bit. On that note, in your original post, you suggest that for some animals, we should “dramatically change the way we treat” them, particularly “very sophisticated creatures like primates, dolphins, elephants, etc.” Though I am not sure what you mean by “sophisticated”, I am going on the assumption that it refers to the more or most rational among the nonhuman animals. Does this mean, in your thinking, that a baby and a dolphin at an extremely mature development could potentially have the same sort of treatment, in whatever way you’re referring to in your ideas?
“Did I miss the part where the CCC says that all their serious claims about how we should treat non-human animals are ground in the effect on our own souls? I’d appreciate you pointing that section out to me.”
Surely, though it’s more looking at the CCC as a whole. The sections we’re discussing are located in the section of the CCC, discussing the Ten Commandments, on the prohibition against theft, and more particularly, in respect for persons and their goods. The Commandments, as noted by the CCC, are given for our beatitude. Finally, the CCC warns against cruelty to animals, as you note, but similarly warns that it s “unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.”
Finally, it is true that the commands for animals are different than for those laid out to the rest of creation. However, we also have more in common with animals than with the rest of creation, for “[a]nimals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.” Therefore, their destiny, as laid out by Genesis, is inseparable from our own, but is always subservient to our own. The CCC dictates the proper use of animals to serve our destiny in a holy manner, that their use might not impede our own growth in beatitude.
@ Beth…I guess I don’t think of hobbits (or Superman) as homo sapiens, but, again, apes need not be on the same level as humans…even if one isn’t a speciesist. The key is to think about the kind of moral value that is indicated by a particular kind of (biological) species…and then apply it consistently. So if I say that what makes homo sapiens valuable is their capacity for freedom and rationality, as Kaczor says, I need to apply that in a not speciesist way. So, apes might not count the same as humans, but not because they are apes, but because they don’t have freedom and/or rationality.
@ David…I’m not sure I understand what it means to refuse to participate in the created order…especially if it follows that there is no difference between torturing a dog and, say, not recycling a can of pop. In fact, enslaving human beings could be seen as a kind of not participating in the created order too, right? Don’t we need some distinctions here?
@ Johnathon…no, because I have a metaphysics that considers ‘kinds of things.’ So an infant has all the moral value of her kind (a substance of a rational nature)…as do apes…but, though apes are close, and have a lot of moral value, they don’t have the value of persons. Also, let’s be careful not to make the CCC into ‘the’ document about moral theology….and, even if we do use it as a source, it has important strands while go well-beyond the agent-centered approach you talk about (but still haven’t cited?). Indeed, in CMT our own ‘beatitude’ cannot be separated from that of our neighbor and of the universal common good.
And, right, I don’t think any non-human animal that I know of that actually exists is a person…though I think many come very close (and therefore have a very, very high moral status)…and I can’t think of anything in the abstract that would keep us from accepting a non-human animal as a person.
Although I haven’t read Christopher Kaczor’s book, his essay on animal rights is available at http://myweb.lmu.edu/ckaczor/Kaczor,%20animalrights.pdf In my view it is clearly speciesist. One reason, as you mentioned, is Kaczor’s assertion that only humans are oriented toward freedom and reason. In fact, domestication was forced upon some animal species by breeding the most docile in captivity, and making them dependent on us for food. This isn’t, in my view, something we should be proud of. And since 3 day old chicks can do basic arithmetic, neither are we the only species oriented toward reason.
Having read your article, “Singer’s New Song, The Evolution of a Philosopher” (Commonweal Magazine), I acknowledge that Peter Singer may have changed his views. Not knowing what they are or will be, I refer to what I know of Singer’s utilitarian philosophy in relation to human and animal rights.
Although most people associate animal rights theory with Peter Singer, his philosophy is not rights-based. Singer only grants personhood to the most intelligent animals, such as primates, but does not grant personhoood to developmentally disabled humans, and most nonhumans. I submit that “intelligence” is relative to what is valued in particular groups, including nonhuman groups, and that one need not have quasi human intelligence to be a person. In addition to primates, dolphins, and elephants, many nonhumans are capable of elementary self awareness, and can think, feel, and experience emotions. A personal interest in well being, and for members of one’s group is inherent because is essential for survival. So unless we are inclined to speciesism, we cannot say, for example, that a cow has less interest in staying alive than we do.
Singer’s utilitarian philosophy considers it moral to let a developmentally disabled human die, or even be actively euthanized, in order to maximize the happiness of others. One need not be Catholic to realize this is immoral. When it comes to other species, however, many would agree with Singer that it was moral to kill thousands of chickens who might have carried bird flu in order to protect humans from possible infection. Even if we think this was necessary, as some utilitarian decisions are, that doesn’t make it moral. That the chickens would have been killed for a food that we don’t need doesn’t change that — two wrongs don’t make a right.
No matter how animals are farmed, whether traditional, “free-range”, or factory modeled, they are subjected to debeaking, dehorning, tooth filing, tail docking, castration, forced pregancies — all without anesthesia– as well as the ongoing separation of mothers and young, which is traumatic for both. Almost all male chicks are killed because they are not profitable. “Free-range” chickens are still so overcrowded that they are debeaked to prevent them from harming each other.
Unfortunately, some animal welfare groups are collaborating with animal industries and are promoting farm reforms and labels such as “humane farms” or “compassionately raised and handled”. These are marketing tools for both the industry and the groups — they both profit by offering consumers a seemingly guilt-free way to use animal products — but at best, reforms will not effect most farm animals; even if they could be, it’s impossible to monitor how billions of farm animals are bred, raised, and killed; and spacious animal farms rob free-living animals of the habitat they depend on. See the “animal welfare industrial complex”: http://humanemyth.org/glossary/1025.htm. Singer himself has supported farm reforms, and condoned animal research as long as animals don’t suffer. Since this and the above are inconsistent with human and nonhuman rights, I would welcome Singer’s change of view.
The Old Testament says “God gave us dominon over animals”, but I think we need to ask ourselves if we can apply the conditions and culture of more than three thousand years ago to what we have now? I don’t think we can. When nutritious plant foods are available, a plant food diet can be just as healthy, if not healthier than one which includes animal products. We are obliged, I think, to cease causing gratuitious harm to nonhuman beings.