Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Animal rights #3: a tentative conclusion

Animal Liberation Victoria states that its 'underlying goal...is to abolish the property status of animals.' This is a far stronger position than merely arguing for animal welfare policies (with which most decent people agree) because it argues that 'all sentient beings, regardless of species, have the right to be treated as independent entities...'

The ALV recognises they 'will not abolish animal exploitation and the property status of animals overnight, but will encourage at all times the adoption of a vegan lifestyle as the most appropriate course to achieve these aims.'

I think they are on far stronger ground in trying to change social norms through education, exposing unethical practices and caring for discarded animals than they are trying to 'abolish' the property status of animals.

This is the 21st century. When humans own animals, we give them their worth. If a dog has no owner it will be sent to the pound. From there if no one claims it the dog will be humanely killed. So policies that recognise the need for animal welfare - as opposed to animal rights - give due credit to humans as the superior species. Until animals evolve into talking beings that can take on intelligent responsibilities, they will be used for our purposes.

There is a limit to animal welfare, too. It must be set at a reasonable standard that does not impose great burdens. Ideally, laws should only be passed to prevent extreme cruelty. Everything else should be resolved through negotiation with the aim of instilling codes of practice. I suggest five courses of action to concerned individuals:

  • Exercise consumer pressure on businesses through exercise of choice, of the type used with 'fair trade' coffee. Businesses are not full of morally bankrupt individuals: just look at what Pepsi did when it was offered Coca-Cola's trade secrets.

  • Join a lobby group for animals that does not partake in breaching the law. If Western nations are to have even more enlightened views on animal welfare than they currently do it would be best if these were achieved through debate leading to voluntary cooperation from the people involved.

  • Domestication of animals from shelters is a great way to treat the 'unwanted' well.

  • Become a vegetarian or try to persuade others. But remember you are not promoting a morally superior view; the human capacity to express compassion might be a reason to extend consideration to animals, but it does not follow that we have any moral obligation to stop eating meat. There is also a related question of limits to this line of thinking, and the issue of a clear hierarchy in animal welfare. Who can say with certainty the levels of pleasure and pain that snails, for instance, experience?

  • Support a free society based around capitalism. A rich society with world-class institutional frameworks has resources to tackle such issues. Animals in first world nations like Australia are treated far better than animals in third world countries.

    Social norms do change without heavy-handed regulation. Remember it was not so long ago that experimenters at Stanford University conducted possibly the most unethical prison experiment on record. Yet today psychological testing has made much progress in understanding the need for ethical practices.

    A final thought: the world today is full of conflicts and problems - like poverty - that are responsible for the suppression of the potential of millions of Thomas Edisons, Mahatma Gandhis, Mother Teresas and others who could make this world a better place. This is the main reason I suggest expending energy on improving the lives of humans first. Along the way we just might see an improvement in the lives of animals too.

    Update: Steve Edwards puts it more bluntly.

    At July 11, 2006 3:32 pm, Blogger Jono said...

    I guess if you value animal rights, then I can't argue with most of your suggestions.

    Except for this one:
    Exercise consumer pressure on businesses through exercise of choice, of the type used with 'fair trade' coffee.

    "Fairtrade" is a pet hate of mine and I don't know why you mentioned it. What does it have to do with animal welfare ?

    Even if you are trying to help develop poorer countries, how does Fairtrade acheive this ?

    Let's see.. there are thousands of African coffee growers who are willing to sell coffee to a big multinational like Nestle at $x/kg, and then of course they transport, package, market and distribute the coffee to the end consumers for $5x/kg.

    But along comes Fairtrade who think we greedy westerners are exploiting the poor African coffee growers, so they offer them much more than the market rate, say $2x/kg. Well, the entire African coffee industry jump at the chance to earn twice the income as previously, but Fairtrade are not willing to buy the quantities that Nestle bought, so there is a quota in place. African farmers jump over each other to supply Fairtrade. And the lucky farmers who do secure the contract for $2x/kg still realise that they can still hire African labour for $x/kg, so they act as middle-men and hire someone else to grow coffee at the market rate.

    So in the end, Fairtrade acheives nothing, other than giving us westerners a feel-good vibe.

    At July 11, 2006 3:37 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I never said 'fair trade' coffee achieved anything. Just providing it as an example of the type of campaigns run against businesses on 'ethical' grounds. I see no problem with similar things being done with animal welfare in mind. One of the things about markets is that consumers are assumed to be able to exercise their sovereignty.

    At July 11, 2006 4:22 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

    geek question

    Just a quick query, Sukrit... do I only have admin privileges from home? I tried to log on to do some edits from work and couldn't.

    At July 11, 2006 5:56 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

    Sukrit...now at home. I'd like my admin privileges back... It'd be handy for a couple of things.

    At July 12, 2006 3:52 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

    I'm not sure that treating an animal as 'an independent entity' is quite the same as 'abolishing animals' property status'. I suspect ALV have engaged in something of a 'category mistake', to use a phrase from Hayek. It is quite possible, I think, to achieve the former without the latter.

    Much of their work seems to overlap with that of the RSPCA, except that the latter is obviously less strident and - as a corollary - far less inclined to engage in law-breaking. ALV freely admits that, in closing down a notorious Ballarat puppy mill, they engaged in multiple acts of trespass. To my unsophisticated legal mind, this is a clear conflict between two competing sets of rights: the landowner's right to security and privacy, and the animals' right to be treated without cruelty.

    There is a third right, too - the so-called 'public right to know' - although I am reluctant to accord it the same status in this dispute as the other two. Private agreements seldom confer benefits on third parties, and I think it is a useful exercise to balance the two directly involved sets of rights.

    At July 12, 2006 4:19 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I see no inconsistency. If you suspect animal cruelty but need to break laws to bring the matter to light, I say go ahead and do it. It can be justified as a civic duty. But be prepared to (humbly!) accept the consequences of your actions under current law. If your cause is so noble, that should be no problem (indeed, that's exactly what Martin Luther King said in his letter from Birmingham jail).

    At July 12, 2006 7:26 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

    Yeah, I think Sukrit's right. Maintaining punishment for the breach of rights would stop people suspecting cruelty every time they heard a yelp in the distance. I think it's pretty clear though, that the right to privacy has been made fairly void by the act of farming puppies. What do you mean by a right to security Ss? Security of person or of property?

    There are to my mind more controversial cases , such as PETA & the live animal trade or Greenpeace and whaling ships. I come down strongly against PETA actions and indecisive about Greenpeaces'. I have to decide on a case by case basis.

    Jono, I don't know much about fair trade (gonna do some research pronto) but i think you are simplifying the situation. aside from anything else, the exploitation of what currently passes for regular trade goes further than simply how much multi-nationals pay producers per kg. It goes to the level of production and the extent to which that promotes social cohesion and sustainable use of local environments and so on. It goes to the independence, mobility and freedom of the growers. And anyway, I'm sure that Fairtraders aims to capture sufficient market share so that any problems of scale disappear.

    At July 12, 2006 8:02 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

    I wasn't being clear (in the middle of drafting an advice at work - bad idea to be blogging at the same time). I think that animal rights (in this circumstance) win over property rights, but the issue is finely balanced. When the time comes, Sukrit, you'll have to read Lenah Game Meats v ABC, which involved exactly this scenario. Highly recommended. And if you've read much Peter Singer, you'll want to fillet the High Court.

    At July 13, 2006 3:48 pm, Anonymous FDB said...


    "Social norms do change without heavy-handed regulation. Remember it was not so long ago that experimenters at Stanford University conducted possibly the most unethical prison experiment on record. Yet today psychological testing has made much progress in understanding the need for ethical practices."

    Sure, academic research has learnt its lessons, but now the same sort of experiment is considered entertainment and broadcast as such.

    And Jono:

    "Fairtrade are not willing to buy the quantities that Nestle bought"

    Inaccurate. Fairtrade are not ABLE to SELL the quantities that Nestle did, because "us westerners" don't BUY enough of their product, preferring to trumpet their lack of "achievement" rather than get the hell on board.

    At July 20, 2006 8:09 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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