Thursday, July 06, 2006

Animal rights #2

I have so far been the proud owner (note the importance of the word ‘owner’ in relation to animals) of two dogs. The first, Pluto, was while I was living in Shillong, Meghalaya. Now there’s no hard proof that Pluto got eaten. The person we gave him to before hopping on a plane to Australia was a Garo, who are known for their taste for dogs. But he had promised to look after him. Recently however, a friend of mine who has come here to study at La Trobe University told me that when he met our peon in a chance encounter, he told him Pluto had been eaten. He didn’t even last a month apparently.

The story of the dog that got eaten is significant because it relates to the difference in treatment of animals in developed and developing nations. In parts of India, dog-eating is an acceptable custom. In Australia, it is unthinkable. But we can’t compare without noting one obvious fact: the value with which people hold life – both human and animal – in India is significantly lower than the value with which we hold life in Australia. That is the result of bungled policies that have meant 250 million people in India live on less than $US 1, and is directly linked to India’s pursuance of socialist policies since independence in 1947.

Singer’s ‘speciesism’ identifies a power relation – comparable to racism and sexism – that involves the oppressor (humans) and the oppressed (lower forms of animal life). Apparently, similar arguments used against animal equality were used to deny blacks, or ‘brutes’, rights. The same applied to women. I say, so what? What people thought at that time was quite clearly wrong; there is no discernable difference in intellectual ability based on race or gender. It is primarily a matter of the environment you grew up in and any pre-existing disabilities you might have.

But even Singer finds it hard to argue for complete equality. He wants us to extend ‘consideration’ to animals, not necessarily ‘equality’. Yet such a view is now common sense, as Brian Scarlett notes in ‘The Moral Uniqueness of the Human Animal’ (Macmillan, 1997):
Among the views which Singer wants to attack there is the claim that humans have a right to inflict suffering on non-humans for trivial purposes. A reflection on Malebranche’s dog and Nikola’s mare shows that he is right to object. But there is nothing radical about this view. It enjoys such wide agreement that it would not be misleading to call it The Common View. I take that view to be approximately the following: non-human animals are inferior forms of life compared with us; it is permissible to kill animals for food and to use them for other human purposes; it is, however, wrong to treat them cruelly...That consensus provides at least a version of what Singer demands, equality of consideration without any inevitable equality of treatment. Since Singer’s thesis is meant to overthrow the consensus, something appears to have gone wrong.
Where do we stop? Should I be held liable for causing suffering to a plant if it could be proven that plants react in ways that suggest they experience displeasure? Oh the horror! That vegetable could have been a full-grown carrot some day...

Aside I: Part of the solution to excessive killing of animals lies in well managed property rights (to prevent the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and encourage sustainable development).

Aside II: Contributor Skepticlawyer points out the link between psychos acting out their deranged whims on animals before progressing to humans. I’ve read about this in the media somewhere before… can anyone point me to some good studies on the topic?

Aside III: The dog in the picture is a random dog I saw while travelling around NSW recently, not Pluto (who was a very hardy breed of mongrel).


At July 06, 2006 7:56 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

The maxim "do not inflict harm on non-human for trivial reasons" may be a commonly held one. But that does not mean its a commonly acted out one. It's like poverty; we commonly agree that we should do something about it (putting aside disagreements over strategy) but when it comes to the crunch...

And where do we draw the non-trivial line? Is it trivial to condone the killing of ducks so we can have a Christmas roast? Or is that non-trivial?

Also, I know it sounds silly, but your views on the carrot - not to mention probably the whole world - would be turned upside done if some proved that vegetables could feel pain. Caring about carrots seems wacky because the idea of carrots feeling pain seems wacky.

But what would it mean? I think we could probably write off meat as a trivial reason but everything that comes from plants?? Maybe our future will be filled with pills.

At July 07, 2006 10:20 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Some of the links in my original piece are pretty useful studies on human/animal cruelty progressing to human/human cruelty. You should be able to get the American Bar Association article off Lexis.


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