Moral Status of Animals - 6

Alternative Perspectives on Human Relations to Other Animals

Given the long- standing view that non-humans are mere things, there are still many who reject the arguments presented here for the moral considerability of non-humans and the significance of their interests. Nonetheless, most now realize that the task of arguing that humans have a unique and exclusive moral status is rather difficult. However, even amongst those who do view animals as within the sphere of moral concern, there is disagreement about the nature and usefulness of the arguments presented on behalf of the moral status of animals.

Some, in the neo-Aristotelian or "virtue ethics" tradition, have argued that while our behavior towards animals is indeed subject to moral scrutiny, the kinds of arguments that have been presented frame the issues in the wrong way. According to many in this tradition, rational argumentation fails to capture those features of moral experience that allow us to really see why treating animals badly is wrong.

The point, according to commentators such as Stephen R.L. Clark and Cora Diamond, for example, is that members of our communities, however we conceive of them, pull on us and it is in virtue of this indescribable pull that we recognize what is wrong with cruelty. Animals are individuals with whom we share a common life and this recognition allows us to see them as they are. A person striving for virtue comes to see that eating animals is wrong not because it is a violation of the animal's rights or because on balance such an act creates more suffering than other acts, but rather because in eating animals or using them in other harmful ways, we do not display the traits of character that kind, sensitive, compassionate, mature, and thoughtful members of a moral community should display. And carefully worked out arguments in which the moral considerability and moral significance of animals are laid out will have little if any grip on our thoughts and actions. Rather, by perceiving the attitudes that underlie the use and abuse of non-human animals as shallow or cruel, one interested in living a virtuous life will change their attitudes and come to reject treating animals as food or tools for research. As Rosalind Hursthouse recognized after having been exposed to alternative ways of seeing animals:[3]

I began to see [my attitudes] that related to my conception of flesh-foods as unnecessary, greedy, self-indulgent, childish, my attitude to shopping and cooking in order to produce lavish dinner parties as parochial, gross, even dissolute. I saw my interest and delight in nature programmes about the lives of animals on television and my enjoyment of meat as side by side at odds with one another…Without thinking animals had rights, I began to see both the wild ones and the ones we usually eat as having lives of their own, which they should be left to enjoy. And so I changed. My perception of the moral landscape and where I and the other animals were situated in it shifted. (Hursthouse, 2000, 165-166)

Feminists too have taken issue with the methods of argumentation used to establish the moral status of animals. For many feminists the traditional methods of rational argumentation fail to take into account the feelings of sympathy or empathy that humans have towards non-humans, feelings they believe are central to a full account of what we owe non-humans and why. While many feminists believe, following Hume, that our moral emotions are what ultimately move us to act compassionately towards animals, they do not reject the conclusions that the rights-based theorists or the utilitarian theorists draw. Rather, their criticisms are directed at the idea that these conclusions, drawn through reason alone, can change our behaviors. (See Adams and Donovan 1995.)

Some ecological feminists have also argued that the standard approaches to determining the moral status of animals are flawed. For these critics, the focus on individuals in isolation from their context fails to capture the political structures, particularly the structures of power, that underlie current practices in which animals are used. According to some eco-feminists there is a conceptual link between the "logic of domination" that operates to reinforce sexism and the logic that supports the oppression of non-human animals, a link that translates into individual and institutional practices that are harmful to both women and animals. Gender hierarchies, in which men are thought to be separate from and superior to women share the same structure, according to this analysis, as hierarchies that separate humans from other animals and justify human dominance over the allegedly inferior others. According to an ecological feminist perspective, differences between groups and individuals can be acknowledged without attributing greater or lesser moral worth to those groups or individuals within them and just social relations require that such valuations be avoided. Like many social justice perspectives, the eco-feminist perspective maintains that no one will be free unless everyone is free, and that includes non-human animals. (See, for example, Gaard 1993.)


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