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,

This “Dialogue” has been both a pleasure and an enlightening experience. In drawing it to a close, I shall begin by clearing up two misrepresentations of my views in your last message, and then I shall try to pull together some conclusions about the differences between us.

You suggest that I attribute normative significance to “what the majority consider desirable,” and that this is inconsistent with my arguments against eating meat. But what I said was: “It is within the proper scope of democratic government to exclude from the market those who do not meet standards that the majority consider desirable.” So the normative significance that I give to the views of the majority is only within the context of what a democratic government can properly do. There is no implication that the majority is right. There would be something odd about a democratic government prohibiting the eating of meat if the majority of its citizens were strongly and consistently in favor of meat-eating, but this says nothing about the rights and wrongs of meat-eating itself. Democratic governments often make bad decisions, even though the decisions have been properly made in accordance with the principles of democracy.

You also attribute to me the peculiar position that “provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save 101 chimpanzees.” There is nothing in my position that requires me to draw that conclusion. Even if the words “1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being” can be given a clear sense, I have never said that mental ability can be aggregated in this way so as to decide which lives should be saved. On the contrary, in books like Practical Ethics and Rethinking Life and Death I have suggested that the ability to see oneself as existing over time, with a past and a future, is an important part of what makes killing some beings more seriously wrong than killing others. So if having only 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being means that an animal lacks that capacity, then there are grounds to reject the mathematical approach that you describe.

Now to the main thread of our discussion. My opening argument was that we do wrong when we give animals less consideration, simply because they are not human, than we give to members of my own species. In response you indicated that this is contrary to a deep moral intuition, and then asserted that ethical argument “is and should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts.” That sentence made both a factual and a normative claim. I asked you why you made the normative claim, and how you would defend it, but in response you focused on the factual claim. Let me emphasize, therefore, that these are two quite different claims.

On the factual claim, much depends how this is formulated. That ethical argument often struggles in vain against tenacious moral instincts is clearly true—indeed it contains an element of tautology, since if the instincts yielded easily, they would not be tenacious. Yet my own experience, amounting now to more than 30 years of developing ethical arguments on controversial issues, convinces me that ethical argument is sometimes effective even against deep-seated moral views. I do not, by the way, limit the idea of “ethical argument” to “arguments made by academic ethicists.” So pointing out that Martin Luther King Jr. and Betty Friedan were not academic ethicists does not show that they did not use ethical arguments or that their arguments were not effective.

If it were evident that no ethical arguments ever moved anyone to change their deep-seated moral intuitions, then there would be little point in discussing the normative claim, that is, whether we should be moved by ethical arguments to reject these intuitions. But since this is not evident, or at least not to me, the normative claim becomes important, and I still want to know why you think that ethical argument should be powerless against tenacious moral instincts. What ethical view can lie behind that claim? Are you prepared to give reasons for it? If so, you are engaging in ethical argument yourself.

Perhaps, however, you will refuse to defend the claim that it would be wrong for ethical argument to be effective against tenacious moral instincts. That would be consistent with some of the things you say, in which you sound like a tough-minded moral skeptic, a kind of modern-day Thrasymachus, who dismisses all of ethics as simply a fraud, covering up more selfish interests. Complete moral skepticism is, certainly, one way of meeting the ethical arguments I have made on behalf of animals, but it achieves that objective at a very high cost, because it means that you cannot make any other ethical arguments either, for example, against racism or homophobia in a society with deep-seated racist or homophobic moral intuitions that do not rest on any factual errors. Note that if you are really a skeptic about ethics, you must conclude not just that these arguments will be ineffective but also that there are no grounds for saying that the racists and homophobes are wrong. If you have to go to these lengths to resist my arguments for a new ethical status for animals, then at least as far as this exchange is concerned, I’m prepared to rest my case and hope that few readers will go along with your far-reaching skepticism about ethics.

Peter Singer