Animal Abolitionism and Rationality

I was listening to a Philosophy Bites interview with Gary Francione about animal abolitionism. Animal abolitionists argue that animal welfare reform is nonsense and animals should not be regarded as things to be owned and used. He’s very compelling and his apparently clear reasoning is quite convincing.

During the podcast Francione explained the philosophy of Peter Singer, considered the founder of the animal rights movement. Singer essentially argues animals don’t understand death therefore they don’t suffer knowing it’s coming so killing them is not causing suffering.

Francione doesn’t agree and counters by arguing that the animal would obviously prefer to live rather than be killed.

At a first look, this seems to be clear reasoning but in actual fact it’s a bit of a switcheroo. Singer says it is ok to kill animals because they cannot reason about their own death. Francione says that if they could reason about their own death, they’d prefer to live, so killing them is morally wrong. But Singer’s argument would not apply to an animal that could reason about its own death!

By instilling the animal with the power of reason, Francione transforms it into an animal that Singer would not support the killing of anyway. Singer’s argument only applies to animals that cannot reason in that way!

So we should eat meat?

It’s important for me to make clear that I think Francione’s argument for veganism is probably stronger than Singer’s argument for eating meat (or at least stronger than my own understanding of Singer’s argument at this stage). Beyond the theory,  it’s not really possible to avoid unnecessary suffering to an animal during the meat production process. And any suffering at all is arguably unnecessary, since most people do not need to eat meat to survive. It’s not quite this simple, but I think Francione is broadly right.

I still eat meat though. I’m generally quite careful about the source of my meat, and often eat vegetarian wherever I can’t be sure of the source but I’m still not really convinced I should be eating meat.

Yet I still do eat meat. It’s easy to say humans are rational beings and how that separates us from other animals, but how many of us actually live rationally? Clearly I don’t!


David Traynier says:

Hi John,

thank you for tweeting me the link to this and apologies that it has taken me a few days to reply.

It’s been many years since I’ve read Singer so I can only really comment on the statements as you present them. With that caveat in mind, I’d like to make a few quick points.

Firstly, one can argue that an event of which one has no conception cannot cause suffering before it happens. A prospect that does not present itself to the mind cannot be troubling. That said, many young children, or those with impaired mental function, cannot be said to conceive of death either and so the same would apply -yet this is not accepted as a defence to killing them.

[Side point: if animals did live in an ‘eternal now’ (they don’t) wouldn’t that make their suffering even worse? Even Jews in Auschwitz had the comfort of remembering a time before the Nazis and of knowing that their pain and suffering would one day end, even if only with death. For the battery hen suffering as I type and you read these words, life is an ‘eternal’ uncomprehending torment. Only religion has attempted to inflict that on the human psyche; ie the Calvanist conception of predetermined damnation.]

Secondly, death is a greater loss than merely the foreknowledge of its coming or the unpleasant manner of its occurrence. Death is the most profound loss we can suffer. Depending upon one’s theological leanings, death is the loss of everything we are or have been to ourselves and the prevention of everything that we might be. Our life is everything we have and this is true of all conscious animals. Whenever we kill an animal, we rob it of the opportunity to explore its existence with whatever consciousness it has and for however long it has been given.

The common objection to this is that animal lives aren’t as important as human lives and so the loss is not as great or is, indeed, unimportant. Against this, I would argue that the worth of an animal’s life is the same to it as our life is to us: everything. It does not matter than an animal’s life is, by our measure, less important, fulfilling or rich than our own because that is entirely the wrong scale upon which to measure it.

To illustrate the point, consider this, if I could demonstrate to you that there are beings in the universe who, by any measure you care to name, lead far richer and fulfilling lives than you do, would your death be any less a loss to you?

john says:

Hi David,

thanks for taking the time to read and reply in such detail.

Looking at things in one way, I agree with you. Singer (or more precisely, my very basic summary of his ideas) doesn’t really make the case that killing animals for food is ok. My post is really just about one specific point Francione raised.

But you raise some good points and I have some thoughts about them. To address your second point first: I have difficulty reasoning that animals lives are “important”. I’m not sure where to start from to come to the conclusion I should care about them continuing to live. I can’t get much further than agreeing that suffering is something all animals want to avoid, so it’s wrong to cause it. (whatever “wrong” means, but that’s another discussion)

So that raises the question of why I think human lives *are* important. I think there are quite a few avenues here, but I certainly don’t think they’re important in the same way that, say, a Christian might think (i.e: special in some cosmological sense).

Rationally, I think humans are “important” because our society is better off if we trade the ability to behave in some ways (such as murder, rape, theft etc.) for greater communal protection of some other rights. We’re better off as individuals if we all agree to protect and honour each others rights.

(I’m basically describing social contract theory here btw).

But that’s obviously a cold way to view the world and it’s not how I feel emotionally about humans. I have empathy for other humans and care quite deeply about them. But I recognise (or at least suspect :) that this capacity for empathy is an evolutionary adaptation of some kind. Quite possibly to the fact that we’re better off working together (a rather a coarse generalisation of my views on this, but good enough).

Side note: My empathy does seem to extend to animals to a certain extent – especially to my dog and cats, less to my chickens.

So back to your first point with my views in mind, young children and those with impaired mental function do differ from normal adult humans – enough that we restrict some of their rights – so we do recognise they are different. They’re just not different enough to convince anyone we should, as a society, be able to kill and eat them (one very basic reason is that nobody actually wants to :)

The largest problem I have with my own meat eating (I used to be vegetarian btw) is that I can quite obviously get by just fine without eating meat. I might think it’s morally ok to eat meat, but it rather seems I should take the path of obviously less suffering, given the option.


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