Animal Rights

Richard A. Posneris a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is the author of, among other books, Animal Liberation. This week they discuss what, if any, ethical obligations humans have to animals.   

Dear Judge Posner,

Your second response leads our discussion into a fundamental question about the nature of ethics. But before I go into that, let me comment on the issue you raise in your first paragraph. Assuming that there are alternative methods of producing meat that would substantially reduce animal suffering at trivial cost, you say that you would like to see these methods spread, but you do not see a justification for coercion. In other words, you do not want to see existing American farming methods prohibited, as many of them already are in Europe. You are prepared to leave this change to consumer choice. That approach would, if carried through consistently, also lead us to reject many other laws, for example those prohibiting the use of child labor or requiring factories to meet basic standards of occupational health and safety.

On this point—in contrast to our initial exchange on the moral status of animals—it seems that my position is more in keeping with common moral views than yours. Of course, I would not argue that this shows that I am right and you are wrong! Rather, I think that there are many cases in which the costs of coercion can be outweighed by the benefits it brings to the weak and the vulnerable. Because many people, regrettably, think only of their own interests, there will always be a market for goods made by unscrupulous producers that are cheaper than those manufactured with greater concern for the welfare of workers, animals, or the environment. It is within the proper scope of democratic government to exclude from the market those who do not meet standards that the majority considers desirable. Or so I would argue.

Let me now bring into this discussion your skepticism about the power of ethical argument, which you say “is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts.” Even on this view, ethical argument could play a role in settling issues on which there are no tenacious moral instincts. Perhaps the proper scope of democratic government is one such issue. In that case, don’t we need ethical argument to resolve the disagreement between us on whether the state should prohibit methods of animal production that cause great suffering for trivial benefits?

But in any case, I don’t accept the claim that ethical argument “is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts.” I wonder why you wrote “and should be” in that sentence. Do you mean that you can offer some reasons against the claim that ethical argument should be allowed to overrule tenacious moral instincts? If so, doesn’t that indicate that reasoning, or argument, is the ultimate source of authority in ethics? But if that isn’t what those three words mean, what could they mean? That we have a tenacious moral instinct against allowing ethical argument to overrule tenacious moral instincts? I doubt that that is true, and if it were, it would be question-begging to appeal to it.

Perhaps this seems like a mere debating trick that rests on three words that you slipped in without too much thought. But the fact that you did use those words just shows how difficult it is, even for you, to be a thorough-going moral skeptic. Our moral instincts are facts about ourselves and cannot be ignored, but, as I said before, we cannot just take them for granted. (You did not answer my question about how, in a deeply racist society, you think we are able to argue for equal concern for all people, irrespective of race.) We are reasoning beings, capable of seeking broader justifications. There may be some who are ruthless enough to say that they care only for their own interests or for the interests of those of their own group, and if anyone else gets in the way, too bad for them; but many of us seek to justify our conduct in broader, more widely acceptable terms. That is how ethical argument gets going, and why it can examine, criticize, and in the long run, overturn, tenacious moral instincts. Think how far we have come, in a relatively short time, in regard to matters like racial integration, contraception, sex outside marriage, homosexuality, suicide, and many other areas in which moral instincts seemed very strong and very tenacious. It seems very dubious that all these changes have come about simply because we have discovered new facts, and if that is your claim, you owe it to us to tell us what the new facts were, and why they led to changes in moral attitudes.

To return now to the topic with which we began, you have made it clear that you are not seeking to justify the greater consideration we give to human beings over other animals, but merely to say that this preference is “a fact deeply rooted in our current thinking and feeling, a fact based on beliefs that can change but not a fact that can be shaken by philosophy.” Since this is itself a factual claim, it is open to empirical disproof. Almost every time I go to a conference discussing issues about animals, someone tells me that Animal Liberation changed their life and led them to become a vegetarian, or an animal activist, or both. You may say that this is because the book gave them some new factual information about how we treat animals. I don’t deny that this information contributes importantly to the book’s impact, but my impression is that for many people the ethical argument was also crucial. Many of the people who changed their lives as a result of reading the book were not animal lovers, or even particularly interested in animals, or sympathetic to their needs, before reading the book. Almost all of them enjoyed eating meat, and at least one that I recall owned a shop selling leather goods! So their interests were not leading them to become vegetarians, and while I cannot prove that it was the ethical argument that moved them, that is what many of them say, and it does seem the most obvious explanation for the book’s success.

Peter Singer