Animal Rights and Human Wrongs
Are there limits on how human beings can legitimately treat non-human animals? Or can we treat them just any way we please? If there are limits, what are they? Are they sufficiently strong, as som e peop le supp ose, to lead us to be veg etarians and to se riously curtail, if not eliminate, our use of non-human animals in `scientific' experiments designed to benefit us? To fully ap preciate this question let me contrast it with two different ones: Are there limits on how we can legitimately treat rocks? And: are there limits on how we can legitima tely treat other human beings? The an swer to th e first ques tion is pre suma bly `No.' Well, that's not q uite right. There are som e limits on what w e can le gitimate ly do with or to rocks. If Paula has a pet rock, then Susan can't justifiably take it away or smash it with a sledge hammer. After all it is Paula's rock. Or if there is a rock of unusual beauty or special human interest say the Old Man of Hoy or Mt. Rushmore it would be inappropriate , and pro bably im mora l, for me to te ar it down , to deface it, or to chisel o ut a sectio n to use in my ca tapult. These limits though, arise not from any direct concern for the rocks; rather, they are imposed because of the interests a nd rights of other h uman s. Susan can't take Paula's rock for the same reason she can't take Paula's eraser: it is Paula's and Paula has a right to those things which are hers. And no one ca n destro y or defa ce items of specia l natural b eauty because by doing so one is indirectly harming the interests of other humans in them. So there are limits on
© Gower Press, 1989. In N. Dower (ed.), Ethics and the Environment.
what we can legitimately do to inanim ate objects, but whatever limits there are arise from some human concern.1 Not so for our treatment of other humans. We suppose that it is inappropriate to treat a human being just any way we wish. I cannot steal another human; that would be kidnapping. Nor can I sm ash so meon e with a sledgehammer; that would be, depending on the outcome, assault, attempted m urder, or murder. And the reason I cannot do these things has nothing to do with what third parties d o or don 't want. It has to do with the interest and desires of that particular person. It is wrong for Susan to hit Paula , not beca use oth er peo ple like Paula or because other people would be offended, but because Paula is a person. Period. Thus, there is a fundamental contrast between those objects which we can treat as we please (excep t when limited by the interests of other humans) and those which we canno t. Ordinary rocks fall into the first camp; humans, into the later. Now, what about nonhuman animals? Do they fall into the first or the se cond c amp? Or som ewhe re in between? There are reasons to believe that many animals and certainly the higher-order anima ls are more like humans than they are like rocks. Thus, we have reason to believe there are constraints on how we can legitimately treat them, regardless of our particular wishes and desires. Or so I shall argue. For the moment I will simply note that these are beliefs which most of us already have. That is, most of us presume that it is illegitimate to treat animals just anyway we wish. For exam ple, mo st of us be lieve it is wrong to wanto nly kill or torture a higher o rder m amm al. Suppose we discover that some member of our commun ity, say Jones, has a habit of picking up stray dog s or cats a nd dec apitating them w ith his hom e-ma de guillo tine'; 2 or we learn he has invented a machine which draws and quarters them. He uses these machines because he revels in th e anim als' pain, b ecaus e he relis hes in the sight of blood; or maybe he is a scientist who w ants to stu dy their re action to stress. In this case we rightly surmise that Jones is immoral. We wouldn't want him to be our pre sident, our friend, our next door neighbor, or our...