THE RIGHT to LIFE-Acritical Ethics Mira Fong

THE RIGHT to LIFE-Acritical Ethics Mira Fong


THE RIGHT TO LIFE-ACritical Ethics Mira Fong

"The humanist non-violent utopia will always remain a hypocritical lie until so-called "enlightenment" and "progressive" human beings extend equality and rights to the animals with whom we share this planet."

Dr. Steven Best

A Copernican Revolution

Every social movement is a response to a moral crisis. Two hundred years ago, slavery was acommon practice. People would be outraged if it still exists today. Animal liberationstrives to abolish theenslavement of fellow animals. Far different from any other social movement which is generated by self interest; animal rights seek justiceand legal protection of the natural rights of non-human kind.

The earliest publication on animal rights was the book titled "Animals' Rights: Consider in Relation to Social progress". It waswritten by the English reformer Henry Salt (1851-1939), a vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist, who introduced Mahatma Gandhi to Henry David Thoreau. Salt argued that each animal is a distinctive individual, entitled to live out its natural life and not to be subjected to human interests based on the assumption that non-humans have less value than humans. His words:"We must get rid of the antiquated notion of a "great gulf" fixed between them (non-human kinds) and mankind, and must recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood." pretty much summed up the mission of the movement half century later.

Today, there isa strong sense of solidarity among grass root activistsregardless of geographical differences. Since 1980s, animal rights hassteadily grown from a fringe movement to an influentialforce affecting social changes. Its rippling effects can be felt across continents from Europe, North America to Asia, Africa, and further into Russia,Eastern Europe, Egypt, Turkey and many other countries. People are demanding justice for fellow animals.Therevolutionary forces to liberate the non humansactually coincide withHegel's prediction that the purpose of history is the realization of freedom. Human history has been propelled by the struggle for justice and equality for all. Such as the French, the Bolshevik and the Communist' revolutionsas well as the abolition of slavery. In the 1960s, the struggles for justice and equality manifested in various "rights movements", theypaved way for the animal rights' of the 80s.Although it is not certainthat human history has a purpose but no one would deny that freedom is the will of all Earth inhabitants.

The significance of animal revolution can be compared to the Copernican revolution as it alters thefundamental world view from a human centric to a bio-centric paradigm. Such paradigm shift requires a sea change in man's consciousness and behavior towards other earth beings as it is the only solution for the survival of the planet. All animals are born free; they were never meant to be caged, chained, farmed, experimented, dissected or slaughtered by the human primate.Although many people find the notion of animal rights threatening due to a conflict of interest as its ethical stance challenges their accustomed thinking, habits and food preferences. Forthose who have become educated of the subject matter, their lives are forever changed.

This paper is an overview of the philosophicalframework of the movement.The subject of animal rights has generated a number of publications. Many were written by distinguished professors in the fields of ethology, law and philosophy. Specifically, theconcepts of moral rights, painism, speciesism, sentientism and veganismare discussed here as these are the basic tenets of animal rights.The progress in legal reformconcerningvarious animal issues and the atrocities of factory farm animals that aredirectlytiedtoagri-business and capitalism will also be addressed. As a critical theory of ethics, thefinal sectionof this paper concludes with aninternal critique of humanism according tothe continental philosopherGiorgio Agamben.

2. Sentientism

Back in the 70s, there were only a handful of books available on the subject of animal rights, even fewer on animal cognition.Animal Mind by Donald R. Griffin, a professor of zoology at Harvard, was the first to recognize animals as thinking beings. Griffin's finding, regarding the similar neural function of the brain in both humans and non-humans,hadsignificantethical implications because the recognition of animal sentienceis needed to establisha moral criterionas to how humans treating other animals.

A clear and simple definition on sentience is best provided by Dr. Webster of the University of Bristol: "A sentient animal is one for whom feeling matter".The basic characteristics of a sentient beinginclude both the mental and emotional capacitiessuch as awareness, intentionalityas well as feelings of satisfaction or frustration. All sentient beings have desires and wants according to their subjective interests.Sentientismhas profound moral significance as it asserts that each individual being that has mental/neuro/biological states should be treated with ethical consideration. Thereby, it is the basic premise to grant moral rights to the nonhumans.

In regarding to the sentiency of farm animals, Jane Goodall makes it very clear that they also have mental and emotional lives. Like humans, theycanexperience pleasure, joy, fear, anxiety, pain and depression. They alsopossess self awareness and can comprehend what is happening to them. The book "Minds of Their Own", by the ethologist Lesley J. Rogers, explores animal mind and awareness. In it Rogers describes chicks develop visual recognition of the hen as well as their siblings and form attachmentto the family soon after hatching. The recognition (through differentiation)of other individuals is a sure sign of mental awareness. As for the ability to communicate, Rogers observes that a young domestic chick "has at least fifteen different recognizable calls....the chick possesses one of the characteristics essential for being an individual."Other studies have confirmedthatfarm animals canrecognize facial expressionswhen communicating with one another or with humans(see the documentary film "Peaceable Kingdom" on you-tube). What makes us with these animals on equal footing is that we are all sentient beings.

For centuries, animals had been regardedas merely machines orautomata that can be disposed of.It was only inthe 18th century, a few scientists were willing to acknowledge that animals have feelingsand mental events thus initiating theresearch of animal sentience. Since then, the study of animal cognition and sentience has become animportant discipline in the field of ethology. As a result, we haveobtaineda wealth of knowledge regarding the different kinds of intelligence and emotional capacities of other animals.The Cambridge declaration on consciousness in non-humans in July 2012 confirmed animal sentience based on solid evidence. It proclaims: "The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates."

Many animalshave amazing memories ,linguistic competence and the ability to solve problems.For instance, pigs are like dogs, enjoy mental challenges and creative activities as theyare naturally curious. Their abilitiesof understanding signs (our language) and expressions and forming close relationshipwith humans are no less than our canine companion (see "pig intelligence" on you tube). And yet, pigs are only associated with ham or bacon. Such irony was commented on bythe biologist Richard Dawkins: "pigs and dogs, a double standard". The deep seated discrimination of so-called "farm animals"has to do with the propaganda machine through which people become addicted to meat and dairy products.The agribusiness represents the epitome of capitalism which is essentially a reductive materialism. Such ideologyreduces human beingsto a one dimensional being, anagent of consumption. The meat industries equate sentient beingsas merchandize with economic values thereby encourage maximal exploitation of anything that is profitable.

3. Speciesism and Painism

Both of these terms were coined by professor Richard Ryder. The critique of speciesism is intended to deconstruct anthropocentrism. It was first introducedbyRyderwhen he was a member of the Oxford group in the 1970s. The group was then protesting against the use of animals in laboratories. Speciesism(or species hierarchism) refers to the discrimination on the ground of species distinction in that man, as a preeminent species that possess higher value, is superior to other species. Ryder gives his counter argument: "Speciesism was like racism or sexism-a prejudice based upon morally irrelevant physical differences. Since Darwin we had known we are human animals related to all other animals through evolution; how then, can we justify ouralmost totaloppression of all other species?" (see the film "The Superior Human?" on you tube).

It is crucial to understand the ramification of speciesism as it justifies "might is right" in animal slavery whichhas been manifested in numerous forms of animal oppression despite the fact that humans are mammals and belong to the primate species. Counter-speciesismrejects the human centric behavior thatmarginalizes other beings.A statement thatsums up the whole argument against speciesism is provided by Bernd Heinrich, a biologist: "We can't credibly claim that one species is more intelligent than another unless we quantify intelligence with respect to what, since each animal lives in a difference world of its own sensory inputs and decoding mechanism of these inputs." The point is that the species difference is irrelevant. What's morally relevant is that all sentient beingsshare the basicphysio/psychological/mental structures.

Historically, humanism (ahuman centric world view)has dominated the metaphysical system since the early Greeks. Martin Heidegger, one of the leading continental thinkers,turned against humanism in hispostwarwritings"The technological enframing of beings". In it he laments that living beings are regarded as mere resources or stock like "standing reserve". They are subjected to a mechanized agricultural production. In response to man's dominance over nature and other beings, Heidegger contends: "Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of being". The German word "gelassenheit" for Heidegger signifies"man mustlet beings be".

Richard Ryder later introduced "painism", another importantconcept.Painism opposes the notion that animals merely operate by reflex (devoid of feelings and counsciousness), therefore they do not feel pain, a view has been refuted by science. The latest scientific reports have confirmed that fish, crabs and lobsters can feel pain and are regarded as sentient beings. Ryder defines pain as: "any form of suffering or negative experience, including fear, distress and boredom, as well as corporeal pain. Things such as injustice, inequality and loss of liberty naturally cause pain." He further clarifies: "One of the important tenets of painism is that we should concentrate upon the individual because it is the individual-not the race, the nation or the species-who does the actual suffering."

Painism is the bedrock of a moral theory for all sentient beings. Any individual being, be it a human or non-human, that can experience pain should have moral standing. Each animal experiences its own pain; the pain of a rabbit, bird, mouse or a monkey should not be compared with species' difference, because pain is pain. This is the main point of Ryder'stheory, because:"All animal species can suffer pain and distress. Animal scream and writhe like us; their nervous systems are similar and contain the same biochemical that we know are associate with the experience of pain in ourselves." When a lobster is being boiled alive and its body struggles in violent convulsions, we know the animal is in great pain. We simply know because we are animals as well.

Princeton Professor, Peter Singer, who is perhaps the most influential philosopher for social change after Karl Marx, provides similar view on painism. He thought that all animals including humans are sentient and share the same interest, the desire to live a fulfilled life and fear of pain and suffering; it is unjustto assume that fellow animals' pain is "less important than the same amount of pain (or pleasure) felt by humans". Recent surveys show that most people are in favor of using alternatives to replace animal models in research. It is estimated that 59% of Americans between age 18-29 oppose medical testing on animals.

Another relevantperspective can beadded to Ryder's painism is the carnal philosophy of the "body" introduced by the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In contrast to the Cartesian viewthat the animal body is an automaton where as human mind is theseat of cogito, Merleau-Pontyproclaims that the body is the cogito; it is through the body, thesensory/conscious center, one engages the world. Hisnaturalistic notion of the body, though mainly referred to a human construct, alsosignifiesits sentient character which isthe common denominator of all beings. To put it in context, it implies thateach individual body matters. To quote a phrase from Jeremy Bentham: "Everybody to count for one. No body for more than one."The autonomy of eachliving beingisa necessary condition for species evolution.Each individual animal must be able to freelydevelop its own intelligence to ensure its survival.Animals are not to be reduced to properties or objects as itclearly violates the law of Nature.Animal rights aims to restore animal freedom and independence.

4.Moral Rights

The concept of moral rights is the grounding argument for animal rights.Professor Tom Regan, who is regarded as the philosopher of the animal rights movement, argues that the interest of nonhuman animals need to be respected, such as the desire to roam and explore to find food and shelter, able to connect and communicate with its own social group, receiving affections and recognition, and most of all, a life free from pain. Therefore, they are entitled to have moral rights.Similar to Kant's moral theory that each person should be treated as ends and not as means, Regan holds that what constitutes the basis for equal moral right is that each individual animal experiences itself as a subject and has its inherent value which supersedes its usefulness, because: "each being is the subject-of-a-life and has its own complex subjective world .".He reasons: "Human ethics is based on the independent value of the individual: The moral worth of any one human being is not to be measured by how useful that person is in advancing the interests of other human beings...The philosophy of animal rights demands only that logic be respected."Basically, Regan is asking for the acknowledgementthat each individual animal counts.

The word "animal" is merelya collective category and often hasderogatory signification as if humans are not part of the animal category. Jacques Derrida, a French deconstructionist, thought thatsuch collective term is empty and meaningless since there are vast differences between various animals and species and each has aunique personality. His remark resonates with Regan's view that each sentient beings is a subject.

From a different perspective, Richard Ryder reasonsfor the moral rights of animals based on the concept of moral continuum: "since Darwin, scientists had agreed that there is no magical essential difference between humans and other animals, biologically speaking, why then do we make an almost total distinction morally? If all organism are on one physical continuum, then we should also be on the same moral continuum." Granting the moral rights of fellow animals is the manifesto of the animal rights movement, that is, the right not to be harmed and to live freely in their own natural environment.The concept of moral right is necessary in establishing legal status for animals through political process since law and ethics are inseparable.

Although there are differences between humans and animals, for example, humans have a distinct sense of history, cultural/national identity and the awareness of one'sown mortality which Heidegger describes as "being-towards-death". Nonetheless, Peter Singer argues nonhuman animals should not be treated as means since they also have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain. Singer's moral theory is explained through the concept of "equal consideration of interests".Based on thetheory of calculative utilitarianism, Singer proposes that the criterion of ethics bedetermined on the provision of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of morally significant beings.Contrary to the Kant's theory on moral duty, the utilitarian position stresses the consequence of an action rather than the intention behind it. Singer explains: "to take into account the interest of all those affected by my decision. This requires me to weigh up all these interests and adopt the course of action."For example, the ban of factory farming would produce the greatest interest for the environment, human health and the well being of the animals.Singer further contends: "If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration, the principle of equality requires that the suffering be counted equally with the like suffering-in so far as rough comparisons can be made-of any other being."