Dances With Reason

Responses to Common Objections to Animal Rights.

If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.


Standard disclaimer: This writing is intended to be plausible, not "academically rigorous." Those interested in a fully developed case for animal liberation are referred to my own and other academic writings on the subject.

Each of these common objections is linked to its response.

Objection: Animals are just mindless, biological machines, as René Descartes suggested. They are like robots or androids made of flesh and bone. As such, they can feel neither pain nor joy.

Rejoinder: Animals possess all of the neurological capacities that we do that are necessary for the feeling of pain, and what is more, the higher mammals especially have brains that are highly analogous to humans', which is most remarkably true in the case of our closest evolutionary cousins: the apes, and the cetaceans (whales and dolphins). As John Robbins reports:

A striking similarity between the human and non-human brain is seen in the electrical activity patterns of electroencephalograph (EEG) readings. A dog, for example, has the same states of activity as man, its EEG patterns being almost identical in wakefulness, quiet sleep, dreaming, and daydreaming. As for the chemistry of the central nervous and endocrine systems, we know that there is no difference in kind between human and other animals. The biochemistry of physiological and emotional states (of stress and anxiety, for example) differ little between mice and men.

Animals also display much of the behaviour that we ourselves show when we feel pain: screams of protest and anger, writhing and twisting, wincing, trembling, attempts to avoid the source of pain, etc. Even fish have highly developed neurological systems. Richard Sergeant, in The Spectrum of Pain, wrote of higher mammalian vertebrates: "their nervous systems are almost identical to ours and their reactions to pain remarkably similar." According to noted zoologist, Lord Medway, in the British Enquiry into Shooting and Angling, fish are very much animals with well-developed brains and nervous systems, and they are as likely to feel pain as any other vertebrate. Animals also show signs of joy and fulfilment, depression and deprivation, stress, etc. It might be counter-objected that we do not know whether or not animals feel pain because we never experience their pain. But that would be a weak rationalization, for we do not know any other person's pain from direct experience, either, but rather infer those others' pain much the same way we infer that of nonhuman animals: through behavioural similarities and physiological similarities to ourselves. Thus, it would be irresponsible to assume on this or any other basis that animals cannot suffer.

Top of Page

Objection: Animals are 'programmed by instinct,' and so are mindless.

Rejoinder: There are good reasons to believe that the thesis that animals are 'programmed by instinct' (notice the computer science term, which is a mere metaphor) is false.

'Programmed' by whom? Since apes have been taught American Sign Language (e.g., Washoe the chimpanzee, Koko the gorilla, and others), it seems that animals are capable of some degree of abstract thought. Moreover, since even nonhuman animals learn things from their environment (e.g., a cat can learn to trust a particular person and not flee from that person immediately), they cannot be totally 'programmed' by instinct. They receive 'input' through learning. After all, no genetic programming could exist which says every time 'flee all humans,' or 'flee humans at random' (as they flee or not in a pattern, based on their learning to (dis)trust particular humans). If instincts are the results of learning accumulated from ancestors, do we imagine that the ancestors were any more intelligent that their present-day descendants? Not everything humans do is by instinct, as we respond thoughtfully to new situations in the environment, and think things through. Imagine if we attributed many of the things that humans do to instinct -- interpreting the weather, building homes, playing, searching for specific objects -- many animals do all of these things and much more. Absolute instinct theory seems little more than a conspiracy to make animals appear as robots, mere machines for our use, thus upholding human interests in exploiting them. The best explanation seems to be that at least many of the higher animals operate by using their own minds, although they also appear to possess some rudimentary instincts for eating, mating, breast-feeding, etc. However, even if this apparently false, reductionistic 'instinctual programming' theory is true, it remains that these animals can feel pain and suffer all sorts of stresses, and this fact must be taken into account in our moral philosophy.

Top of Page

Objection: Beasts are horribly savage and brutal. Why should I care for them any more than for terrorists?

Rejoinder: It seems that human beings project their own potentially violent natures onto nonhuman animals, and have done so since ancient times. For example, consider the myth of the savage and violent gorilla, invading an English hunting expedition's encampment, trashing the site, killing and maiming, and making off with a fair maiden. Actually, studies since the 1960s have shown that gorillas are largely gentle, although powerful beasts, who are shy and slow to trust humans, and seldom mate, having an extremely low sperm count. They like to make nests out of bamboo and curl up in them to sleep! Moreover, they are complete vegetarians, and eat no meat whatsoever, unlike the chimpanzee, which occasionally indulges in hunting for meat. Now consider the wolf, the bane of the old fairy tales, and the ultimate, time-worn symbol of wickedness, evil, cunning, deceit, savagery, sadism, etc. Farley Mowat wrote an excellent book, Never Cry Wolf, which helped explode the myth. This passage from Mary Midgely's The Concept of Beastliness is revealing in this context:

We have thought of a wolf always as he appears to the shepherd at the moment of seizing the lamb from the fold. But this is like judging the shepherd by the impression he makes on the lamb, at the moment when he finally decides to turn it into mutton. Lately, ethologists have taken the trouble to watch wolves systematically, between meal-times, and have found them to be, by human standards, paragons of regularity and virtue. They pair for life, they are faithful and affectionate spouses and parents, they show great loyalty to their pack, great courage and persistence in the face of difficulties, they carefully respect each other's territories, keep their dens clean, and extremely seldom kill anything that they do not need for dinner. If they fight with another wolf, the fight ends with his submission; there is normally a complete inhibition on killing the suppliant and on attacking females and cubs. They have also, like all social animals, a fairly elaborate etiquette, including subtle varied ceremonies of greeting and reassurance, by which friendship is strengthened, co-operation achieved and the wheels of social life generally oiled.

Dolphins save drowning humans. Even a pig once spontaneously saved a drowning child. Even carnivores simply take their fill and do not kill and torture wantonly. Humans seem to have a unique capacity for such atrocities. Certainly animals would not wage war against their own kind. What is more, gibbons, beavers, geese, robins, eagles, wolves, foxes, penguins, lynxes, and mountain lions (among other species) mate for life.

Top of Page

Objection: Animals are not rational, intelligent, self-aware language users. So why should they count morally?

Rejoinder: The following is a principle of respect that most of us in a democratic society would agree with: we do not give more rational, intelligent, and articulate humans the right to exploit or be cruel to other humans who are less so. And we should extend this same principle of respect to nonhuman animals, who may well be less intelligent, rational, etc. Even if animals lack a concept of self, not abstractly distinguishing themselves from their general surroundings (although they show enough awareness to lick themselves, feed themselves, and even hide themselves), they can still suffer, or be pleasantly fulfilled. As Jeremy Bentham famously wrote: "The question is not, can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?" Rationality, intelligence, etc. are not morally relevant criteria which could justify us in discriminating against nonhuman animals.

Top of Page

Objection: But they aren't even human!

Rejoinder: Just the fact that an animal is not human is not a good reason for discriminating against him or her. For we are all animals of different species, as any competent and unbiased biologist will tell you. To discriminate against a sentient being just because it is not a member of one's own species is speciesism, which is irrational and unjust in the same way that racism and sexism are without rational basis. Our 'humanism' is all too often a whitewash for human interests in exploiting other animals. However, an interest is an interest, be it human or otherwise, and cruelty is cruelty, no matter the species of the being against whom the cruelty is done.

Top of Page

Objection: Why do you sometimes refer to animals using 'who' and 'whom' instead of 'what,' 'it,' or 'which'?

Rejoinder: I choose to refer to animals as 'who' and 'whom,' for 'what' and 'which' are psychological tricks that people employ to desensitize themselves, and think of animals as simply objects. But they are not just objects, at least some evidently have minds, and we know that mammals, birds, and even reptiles have personalities (this is a reality we observe, not just something we project on an animals in an anthropomorphic way). Now what could have a personality unless it is personal in nature, that is, some sort of (nonhuman) person?

Top of Page

Objection: A lot of animals are so disgusting! It's true that many of them are cute, like dogs and cats, but why should I care about the rest?

Rejoinder: In a democratic society, we know we ought not to discriminate against people who are less 'cute,' selfishly exploiting and abusing them. We must rid ourselves of any similar prejudice towards nonhuman animals. Nonhuman animals should not be regarded as mere instruments for our pleasure in regarding them as 'cute.'

Top of Page

Objection: Nonhumans are not as 'advanced' as humans, and so are not as deserving of respect.

Rejoinder: In general, we should not judge the lives of nonhuman animals by human standards, which are clearly irrelevant to evaluating nonhuman ways of life. When evaluating the general quality of an animal life, we should ask how good it is to just such an animal, just as when evaluating the general quality of a human life, we ask how good that life is in human terms. It is just as absurd to evaluate humans in terms of 'bearness.' For all we know, nonhuman animals can enjoy as richly satisfying and fulfilling a life in their own ways, as we do in our ways. We only judge a goodness of life for nonhuman animals by irrelevant human standards to rationalize our selfish use and subordination of them.

Top of Page

Objection: But animals are not moral agents.

Rejoinder: Although some animals may lack a concept of morality as such, the altruistic behaviour of creatures like dolphins, who save humans, belies the claim that no nonhuman animal is a moral agent (what genetic programming or evolutionary advantage could there be in such sea rescues? Further, even for a dolphin, rescuing a drowning human in landlost, stormy seas is extremely difficult, and could not constitute mere 'play'). But in any case, one does not have to be a moral agent to be a moral patient, that is, one who is capable of being benefitted or harmed by a moral agent. We do not value creatures just because they are useful in promoting the values of morality, for that would be to regard persons as mere instruments. The severely mentally retarded, the senile, the comatose, the badly brain-damaged, and even young children are not moral agents in any full sense, but we do not exploit and abuse these creatures by experimenting on them, etc. To say, 'Animals are not moral agents towards me so I don't have to be a moral agent towards them' is the immature and essentially selfish 'I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine' mentality at work.

Top of Page

Objection: Nonhuman animals are not participants in democratic society. Therefore they are not entitled to benefit from its democratic, unbiased principles.

Rejoinder: Do we then callously ignore alien refugees who are not part of our society? It's one thing if a refugee is potentially a productive member of our society, but should we refuse to aid a person starving in Ethiopia who never wishes to leave his/her home and is too poor anyway, and so will never be a participant in our society? If you then speak of a 'human community,' as though our common genetic structure unites us socially and politically (which it does not, as wars so violently attest), then you are finally saying that we should ignore animals just because they are not human, not of a certain species of animal--this is the same arbitrary speciesism which we have already discounted as unjustifiable.

Top of Page

Objection: Noted Oxford philosopher Bernard Williams makes a weak attempt (although the best I have found yet) to argue for the last bastion of human prejudice, 'speciesism:'

The word "speciesism" has been used for an attitude some regard as our ultimate prejudice, that is in favour of humanity. It is more revealingly called "humanism," and it is not a prejudice. To see the world from a human point of view is not an absurd thing for human beings to do.

Rejoinder: Seeing the world from a human point of view is not what is being denied, so Williams' would-be defence is simply irrelevant. Rather, it is seeing the world arbitrarily in favour of human interests that is being denied. There are many morally enlightened people who (naturally, because they are human!) see the world from a human point of view, yet they do not play 'moral favourites' simply because of species membership.

Top of Page

Objection: Humans should have first priority, and as long as this is true, we should not waste our time with animals' concerns. Humans have troubles enough.

Rejoinder: I have already argued that we have simultaneous duties to all sentient beings whom we affect -- mindlessly subordinating some such beings just because they are not human is not the answer. Still, a person can easily eat vegetarian foods, wear synthetic clothes, and use medicines, cosmetics and other products developed, as much as can be, without cruelty to animals, yet still help people primarily. In any case, if humans were to take priority, we would still be obliged to mitigate our exploitation of animals in both laboratory testing and factory farming. Lab testing on animals has virtually no predictive value for the effects of products on humans. Cancer researchers admit that a substance giving cancer or not to an animal implies nothing about whether a human will get cancer or not from the substance. Factory farming involves people eating sick, anemic veal, animals pumped full of drugs and antibiotics (to which we become immune; hence the now- reduced effectiveness of, e.g., penicillin and tetracycline). Modern fowl, raised in closely packed, disease-ridden conditions, frequently carry salmonella bacteria, and the excess protein and fat found in animal flesh leads to much higher risks of heart disease, cancer, kidney failure, osteoporosis, and much more.

Top of Page

Objection: We should only be good and not bad to animals because our cruelty to them would overflow into our relationships with human beings.

Rejoinder: This is massive human egoism, using animals merely as instruments for cultivating our own kindliness towards humans. Why not consider animals for their own sakes, not as a mere means, just as we do for human animals?

Top of Page

Objection: Farm and laboratory animals are not harmed, but benefitted. Just think, these animals would not exist but for the farms and labs.

Rejoinder: Some thinkers, like Henry Salt, have argued that it is absurd to speak of benefitting a 'thing' which does not exist by giving it the gift of life simply because a 'thing,' by definition, is an existing entity. But even admitting the possibility that there are discarnate spirits waiting to be (re)born, the chief issue is not existence by itself. Otherwise, it would be good for a piece of ash to exist simply because it is, and by burning a leaf we did the ash a favour by bringing that ash into existence (although perhaps we did the leaf a disservice on this hypothesis). We are concerned not with mere existence, but with the quality of life or existence for sentient beings, and it does not look as though farm and lab animals are allowed to spend their time on this mortal plane in a worthwhile way, to say the least.

Top of Page

Objection: We own animals in farms and labs, they are our own, private property, so we can do with them whatever we wish.

Rejoinder: You cannot do whatever you wish with your private property, like assaulting people with your umbrella. Moreover, it can be argued that sentient beings should not be anyone's property. For example, black slaves, sentient beings of our own species, were once owned by Americans as private property little more than a century ago, and discrimination against fellow sentient beings on the basis of skin colour is just as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of species. Nonhuman animals have their own lives as much as we. They are not artifacts we have created, but we have simply manipulated them, usually for selfish reasons. We control natural structures beyond our (theoretical, not practical) knowledge to breed animals. 'Ownership' is merely a social construct that enables us to control the destinies of nonhumans, and other things, as we will and no social construct should be above moral (re)evaluation.

Top of Page

Objection: Animals are in our power. That is why we can do whatever we want with them.

Rejoinder: It is true that power enables us to manipulate animals, but it does not justify us in this manipulation. We need only observe that the Nazis had power over millions of Jews, and treated them in many ways that we treat animals: Jews' skins were used for lampshades, they were imprisoned in vile, overcrowded, and disease-ridden conditions, they fell victim to cruel 'medical' experiments without anesthesia (let alone informed consent), and they were forced to perform slave labour. The question here is not what we can do, but rather what we should do.

Top of Page

Objection: A farmer has to treat his or her animals well, or good food cannot be produced.

Rejoinder: Battery hens are kept in horribly crowded, infested, stinking conditions (and so it is with most mammalian livestock in general), and these birds suffer enormous death rates, commonly 10-20%. But the massive crowding still produces a great volume of 'produce' that yet makes it more profitable to raise them this way rather than humanely, with a correspondingly lower mortality rate. Many modern farmers only treat their animals well when it results in profit, and the cruel methods of intensive farmers shown that such 'humaneness' is far, far from always the case.

Top of Page

Objection: So you want animal liberation? You want to release all the livestock into the wild, where they'll starve, die of exposure, and cows will die for want of being milked?

Rejoinder: Cows are 'milked' by their calves, who suckle. Our 'milking' is merely depriving the calf of his or her milk so that we can drink it (no other animal drinks milk past infancy, let alone the milk of another species). As for letting farm animals loose, that would hardly cohere with an ethic of caring for animals. We should take responsibility for these creatures whom we have bred, domesticated, and rendered generally helpless in a wild environment.

Top of Page

Objection: Aha! Hypocrite! Your shoes are leather.

Rejoinder: Actually, my shoes are entirely synthetic, as I'm a vegan (a total abstainer from the use of animal products). But even if they were leather, that would not affect the rightness or wrongness of the animal rights position (although it would legitimately bring into question how consistent I am, personally, with the animal rights philosophy). Perfect goodness, of course, is a great thing (although perhaps impossible to attain, too). Who could ask for more? Still, some good is better than less good, or no good at all, and more bad is worse than less bad. Chances are that the leather-toting animal rightist has done more good and less bad (for nonhuman and, not unlikely, human animals) than the caviller who pettily points out leather footwear. Moreover, it is important to ask whether the animal rightist in question bought the leather before becoming enlightened about animal rights; perhaps he/she simply does not want to waste material from an animal that has already been killed. However, it should be added that some animal rightists disdain even this leather, finding it aesthetically revolting, symbolic of animal exploitation, and free public promotion for leather industries (which contribute greatly to the profitability of factory farming).

Top of Page

Objection: You have a pet? You hypocrite!

Rejoinder: Certain nonhuman animals, who cannot survive in the wild anyway, may very well live as friends or wards of humans.

Besides, a person is surely doing a noble deed who volunteers to care for an animal who otherwise might die a needless death (10 million unwanted pet animals per year are killed in the U.S. alone), or worse, be forced to undergo cruel laboratory research (in many jurisdictions, animal shelters are legally required to surrender the animals in their charge for laboratory research).

Top of Page

Objection: But you are arbitrary. What about the plants you eat? Why don't you give them equal consideration as well? A plant is just as much alive as you are.

Rejoinder: Animal rights philosophy is not usually (nor defensibly) based on ethical vitalism, the moral theory which prizes life above all. Vitalists would have to practice reverence for life with respect to the AIDS virus, as well, which may have no sentience at all. Sentience in living things (since only living things, not even computers, are capable of sentience -- perceiving and feeling -- a computer can only imitate these functions through its programming), rather than life itself, is our criterion of moral consideration. Now it is not clear that plants have any sentience at all, as they do not seem to have any brain or nervous system. What is more, some popular experiments publicly released in the book and film entitled The Secret Life of Plants are in poor repute. None of the most striking experiments cited were carried out at serious research institutions, and more recent attempts by researchers in universities to repeat the experiments have failed to obtain any positive results. The response of the original researchers has been that these other experimenters were not psychically 'in tune' with the plants, so the vegetables would not perform, which is a dubious defence indeed. What is more, if the objector is truly a plants rights activist, then he or she should become a vegetarian. Vegetarians consume at least ten times less plant matter than meat eaters, who indirectly consume more plants since the meat they eat was once part of an animal who ate enormous quantities of feed. Also, meat-eating causes the clearing of forests to create pasture land for grazing cattle -- an acre of trees per year for every meat-eater. Notably, much rain forest is being cleared away so that fast food operations can raise cattle for their ground beef. What have you done for plants lately?

Top of Page

Objection: You must draw an unacceptably arbitrary line between all the different kinds of animals. Do you give a monkey or an oyster the same rights?

Rejoinder: Surely it is perfectly consistent to afford some kind of moral consideration to all sentient beings and their interests. Contrariwise, it is the greatest of arbitrariness to only consider human sentient beings and their human interests, excluding all direct concern for other sentient beings. We need not accord the same moral status to beings, but possibly degrees of status corresponding to degrees of sentience. This does not entail that we should merrily go on exploiting those beings of less sentience than ourselves, though. Even the least sentient of creatures, it seems, resists being killed and would want nothing more than to live his or her own life in peace (the case for mollusks is less certain, but fish are quite capable of suffering and probably enjoyment; fish also strive to live, as any fisherman can attest who is amused in defeating the fish's powerful will to survive through 'battling' his or her hooked prey). As long as sentient beings are at stake, we always ought to give such beings the benefit of the doubt, whenever possible, as to whether or not they are in fact sentient We should not take chances with what could be surprisingly sentient beings who are yet very different from ourselves. This hierarchy of sentience would have no practical significance for our everyday lives; as long as a being is sentient, we should give it at least a minimal regard by 'living and letting live.' It is only in a dilemma situation where one is forced to choose between one livlihood and another that these degrees of sentience come into play. Going according to degrees of sentience is far from arbitrary: it is based on whatever evidence we have, and it measures importance by how much something could be important to a particular being. It is true that our limited understanding results in much vagueness on this issue, but vagueness is not the same as arbitrariness, and it is not arbitrary to give a creature the benefit of the doubt when it could well be sentient (where there is doubt as in the case of an oyster). We are forced to have a vagueness of understanding because of human cognitive limitations, but it would be truly arbitrary to ignore even our vague understanding of things and so brush aside all evidence of sentience in beings other than humans.

Top of Page

Objection: It is 'natural' that we should eat meat. Human beings simply eat meat. That is how we have evolved.

Rejoinder: As vegans (again, those who abstain from the use of animal products) demonstrate daily, nothing in nature makes it necessary for humans to eat meat or otherwise exploit nonhuman animals. Nature gives us the privilege of a choice. Obviously, our nature mentally and physically permits us to eat meat, but it also mentally and physically permits us to rape, kill, steal, lie, etc. The question here is not what possibilities are permitted by reality, but what possibilities are permitted by morality. Similarly, the fact that humans have eaten meat for a long time in no way justifies the practice, just as an Aztec tradition of periodically sacrificing hundreds of thousands of people is not necessarily just or moral.

Top of Page

Objection: If killing animals for meat is bad, shouldn't we kill all carnivores?

Rejoinder: There is nothing wrong with carnivores eating meat. They have to eat meat to survive, unlike us. There is something wrong with an agent's action only when that agent has a choice between a right action and a wrong action, and the wrong action is chosen. Unlike humans, carnivores only take their mealtime needs, and never wantonly or sadistically murder, much less wage intraspecial war against other creatures. What is more, carnivores are an integral part of the ecosystem. Their preying on herbivores prevents the plant-eaters from eating all of the plants by keeping down the primary consumers (i.e., eaters of plants only). There are never any more lions or wolves than there need to be for this purpose, since if there were too many, there would not be enough herbivores to eat for the secondary consumers (i.e., eaters of herbivores). It is ironic that many people think that we should take the carnivore as our moral ideal, since these same people often hypocritically 'caringly' ask animal rightists, 'Shouldn't we care just as much for plants?' In this present objection, it is ludicrously implied that we have a responsibility to be 'The Vegan Police' for all of nature. We should live according to the best of our natures, and let others, including carnivores, live according to the best of their natures. This does not mean that we should callously neglect other sentient beings in distress, or their needs; that would no more be consistent with caring for sentient beings, including humans, than killing all carnivores out of some adherence to a fanatically misguided ideal. If herbivorous sentient beings have rights, then so do carnivorous sentients beings. And the first order of respecting rights is respecting basic survival needs.

Top of Page

Objection: Humans are required to control animal populations, often by killing them.

Rejoinder: Nature has its own population controls in the ecosystem. Where rampant overpopulation is found, such as the multiplication of rabbits in Australia, and rats in cities, this is due to human intervention in natural systems. We must rectify these ecological disruptions on our part with the minimal possible violence towards sentient beings, who are often considered to overpopulate only when they interfere with our own perceived needs. For example, we do not need to eat fish, yet we blame carnivorous seals for depleting the fish 'supplies' -- we all know that humans are responsible for this travesty, through voracious overfishing. Certainly, hunting and fishing are not effective population controls, as hunters kill the most healthy animals and disrupt ecosystems by (in)directly killing off non- game creatures. Trapping, for its part, is random in terms of what types of animals it destroys.

Top of Page

Objection: But we inevitably have to compete with animals. How do you think cities were built? By clearing forests and killing wild animals.

Rejoinder: It is true that we must compete with other species, but the destructiveness of this competition should surely be minimized. As Barry MacKay points out, we must compete with other humans, too, but that does not mean we therefore deny them their rights.

Top of Page

Objection: So you philosophize and tell me one thing. Other philosophers tell me other things. Take Germain Grisez, for example:

The justification for killing animals is that their life is not a good which human action must respect. Thus, if it is useless to humans that an animal live and in accord with human feelings that it die, there is nothing wrong with satisfying the human impulse to kill it.

So whom to believe?

Rejoinder: Let us begin by taking the example given. This philosopher, despite his claim, does not bother to justify his case at all. He simply declares that nonhuman life is not worth anything, while arbitrarily assuming that human life is. In philosophy, one cannot appeal to any authority except one's own reasoned judgment. Never accept anything that anyone says just because he/she says so. The philosopher who should be heeded is he or she who is most justified in his or her particular assertions. One cannot make an intelligent, informed assessment without being both analytical and critical. Also, just because a person is correct in some cases, does not make him/her right all the time. Every statement needs to be judged on an individual basis. Chances are, if a philosopher cannot convince you that his/her judgment is correct, he/she cannot really rationally convince himself/herself either, nor anyone else, for that matter, and is merely prejudiced in his/her views while appealing to similar prejudices in others. Grisez, in the above quote, gives no reason for his 'natural law' theory views, but only succeeds in displaying his speciesist prejudices.

Top of Page

Objection: You say that speciesism is arbitrary, but so what? All of morality is essentially arbitrary. It is arbitrarily idiosyncratic in that it is both individually subjective, and relative to a given social context.

Rejoinder: It is all very well to be a philosophical skeptic, and to say that as a question of knowledge, as opposed to mere rational belief or opinion, it cannot be proven that there is an absolute morality. But it is also easy to be a philosophical skeptic about whether what we perceive is real, or a perceptual dream, hallucination, or a stream of ideas planted in our minds by some all- powerful demon, as Descartes once suggested. These philosophical doubts do not plague us when we are standing in a path of an oncoming car--so we must draw practical boundaries around such philosophical doubts. In any case, we try to hold reasonable, consistent beliefs about a reality we perceive, and we also try to hold a reasonable, consistent belief system about a morality we conceive of. Is it arbitrary that someone should favour what is best in general? To choose arbitrarily implies that one's choices do not matter, and that one might as well choose one thing as any other. However, it is not 'just as well' to choose less than the best if there is less good and/or more bad involved. Neither is it 'just as well' to choose more than best if that is a sheer impossibility. Is it 'arbitrary' then to say that good and bad are real? If we confront the world with pure intellect or concepts, without any emotion or desire, it is possible to label anything 'good' or 'bad.' However, can we be aware of good and bad that is not arbitrarily selected by the makers of a given culture, or by a subjective agent who is forming an opinion? One can have awareness through feeling, for example, that one has a headache. However, we can also be aware through feeling that pleasure feels good and pain feels bad. It is not 'arbitrary' to say this. It is not 'just as well' from a point of view of reasonably seeking truth to say that we could equally say that pleasure feels bad or indifferent (the other options for how pleasure feels) or that pain feels good or indifferent (the other options for how pain feels). And it is not 'just as well' to say that pleasure and pain do not feel like anything at all. If we seek the best, we also seek what is all-good ideally, and that leads to a rigorous exclusion of harm. That is not an 'arbitrary' assertion either, since it is not 'just as well' to say that having bad mixed in would be just as good. If animals have a share in emotional goods, then they also appear to have a stake in what is really best: the most good and least bad. There are other apparent truths, relevant to morality, that do not at all appear 'arbitrary' to affirm any more than it seems 'arbitrary' to deny their opposites. These ideas among many others are explored in more detail in other writings by Dr. Sztybel, but our reflections so far seem to suggest that things can be really better or worse in terms of very real goods and bads, and that we should carefully avoid harming animals, including humans, as much as possible. These reflections imply that we should not kill or otherwise harm animals for food, fur, leather, animal products, experiments, nor enslave animals for entertainment in circuses and aquaria (where punishment techniques are the norm, e.g., dolphins are forced to eat dead fish which they never would in the wild, and have a much shorter lifespan).

Top of Page

Objection: What about choosing between a human and a nonhuman animal, such as in a lifeboat where a human or an animal has to be thrown over for anyone to survive?

Rejoinder: It is true that such a dilemma would be challenging, to say the least. But a dilemma involves a specific decision for a rare and unlikely instance; it does not affect our decisions of how to treat animals in general. The chief importance of using such 'thought experiment' examples is not practical, to instruct us what to do in an actual such case, but rather theoretical -- they force us to look at the 'bottom line' of what are our principles. They may be true dilemmas, in which each option is equally bad, or they may be decidable by usefulness to other sentient beings or other criteria. Much would have to depend on the specific instance.

Top of Page

Objection: What you say seems to imply that we should all be vegetarians, or at least cut down our meat consumption, and only buy 'free range' meat. But is vegetarianism not unhealthy, or less healthy?

Rejoinder: One can be perfectly healthy as a vegetarian. There are hundreds of millions of healthy, functioning vegetarians in the world. There are many famous vegetarians, like Leo Tolstoy, Michelangelo, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Schweitzer, and many more. Also, there are many famous vegetarian athletes who were Olympic stars, such as Andreas Cahling, winner of Mr. International body-building championships, Paavo Nurmi, with 20 world records in distance running and nine Olympic medals, Pierro Verot, with world's record for downhill skiing endurance, and so the list goes on and on. As for the worry that one cannot get the vitamin B-12 from vegetable matter alone, that is false. Dr. Neal Barnard, head of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in Washington, D.C., states that he was standardly taught in medical school that there are no vegetable sources of B-12, but now it is known that the vitamin is synthesized by microorganisms found in algae, kelp, even the skin of a baked potato, and can be grown in fermented plant foods such as soy sauce and tempeh. We require only extremely small amounts which are stored in our bodies for years. Even babies can be healthy vegans from birth, perhaps healthier than those who are fed meat. Far from being less healthy, vegetarianism is a more healthy diet (please see Neal Barnard's Food for Life, Robbins, Diet for a New America, or "Realities," the pamphlet based on the book). It is wise that you create a balanced vegetarian meal plan, and that you make a transition that works for you: some do it gradually, over a period of years, whereas only a few very determined types can quit flesh-eating overnight.

Top of Page

Objection: Vegetarianism is too expensive and difficult.

Rejoinder: It is not that difficult once you actually do it. As for expense, vegetarian protein is cheaper per unit weight than meat protein. Vegetables, legumes, and fruits are cheaper than chicken, beef, pork, etc.

Top of Page

Objection: I love meat too much to become a vegetarian. As they say, "Each to his own."

Rejoinder: Does "Each to his own" apply to the animals killed to please your palate, or do you discriminate against them just because they are not human? Do you count their great suffering less than your comparatively slight pleasure from eating them, because of speciesist prejudice? This is not justifiable, arbitrary, and inconsistent, unlike the animal rights position. We can imagine, with some horror, that human flesh can no doubt be quite tasty, too, if cooked with certain spices, etc. But it is not right to cannibalize people, and the only real difference between people and nonhuman animals in this context is species membership, which, in itself, is irrelevant.

Top of Page

Objection: What about native people who hunt and trap?

Rejoinder: I do not think that to question native consumption of nonhuman animals is to question their right to live in the wilderness, nor indeed to advocate forcible relocation, and I do not support any attacks on natives, nor aggression against any others. That would be inconsistent with my philosophy, which is fundamentally peaeable.

Moreover, it is one thing to feel the need to hunt if one cannot otherwise put food on the table, rather than to choose to kill while living a life that quite supports the luxury of choosing vegetarian foods. The choice must at least as much be left up to natives as it is left up to urban dwellers, or else we are guilty of racist discrimination. Only time will tell whether nonnatives and natives will one day make a truly massive shift to vegetarian eating. It would be merely academic speculation to indicate what will take place, or even to judge others who live in the context of very different resources and shared understandings, and so I hesitate to pass any judgment at all in this matter. That said, I affirm the reasonableness of animal rights philosophy, and you do not necessarily have to live in a particular location or to speak a particular language to agree that it is reasonable. I will also add that it is not even healthy to consume a lot of meat. In China, where most cannot afford to eat meat, heart, stroke, and cancer statistics are very low, except among the rich, who emulate Western eating habits. Native trapping is chiefly made into such a big issue by the fur industry, which, in its greed for profits, blows this matter all out of proportion. The Fur-Bearers, a respected organization, cites the statistic that perhaps 1% of all animals trapped are caught by native people, and trapping is only an income supplement for 80-90% of trappers, with an average value of $700 (less taxes). Moreover, fur trapping is no longer a way of live in which natives treat the animals with reverence, and use all of the parts. What kind of reverence for life supports needless killing of an animal, after leaving it to suffer for days or longer in the steel jaws of a trap, more than two-thirds of the time, it not even being a 'target' fur-bearing animal species?

Contrary to popular belief, the traditional Inuit diet is not purely carnivorous, but makes use of what vegetation is available, both directly and in the stomachs of the animals who are eaten. It is, however, still very high in animal flesh and very low in fruit and vegetables, which leads to an increased incidence of esophageal cancer (2 to 3 times more common in Inuit men and 5 to 7 times more common in Inuit women), stomach cancer (the rates of this cancer have declined throughout the world except among the Inuit), colon cancer, and gall bladder and biliary cancer. [See Acta Oncologia, Volume 35, No. 5, 1996, which deals entirely with cancers among the circumpolar Inuit.]

Because of changes in their traditional lifestyle, the life expectancy of the Inuit has increased greatly from only 29-35 in the 1940s, to 65-66 in the 1980s. However, the Inuit lifespan is still about 10 years shorter than that for other Canadians, in part due to their high flesh/low plant diet. This is a case where further changes in traditions would benefit the Inuit people as well as animals.

In any case, the Inuit diet is often brought up by meateaters who live under very different conditions, where a vegan diet is readily practicable. It is never an excuse merely to change the subject.

Top of Page

Objection: As a matter of religious freedom, I should be free to exploit animals for I have faith that God made them to serve human purposes.

Rejoinder: Like all freedoms, religious freedom must be restricted by a standard of what is reasonable in a democratic society. For example, religious people are not allowed to perform human sacrifices, or to cut off the right hands of thieves. All of these are too arbitrary and too violent -- so is our exploitation of nonhuman animals, which means that our civilization as a whole must take an important next step with respect to animals, regardless of religious dogmas, at least much of which are arguably humanly made. Our faith must be able to withstand these test of reason and facts, or else our faith is a beguiler and deceiver, not a beckon towards truth. If someone has faith that men should 'lord' it over women, as many do, should we not reject any faith in so arbitrary a principle? Why not then reject faith in so arbitrary a principle as 'lording it' over other animals just because they are not human? Why have faith in what appears exactly like systematic discrimination and is really a cover-up for serving oneself, or one's narrowly defined, favoured group? If a claim is made like 'Animals have no souls,' why should this be believed or relied upon in practical decisions? Animals seem to have a mental life even as humans do: perceiving, feeling, communicating, and in some cases, even conceiving. It cannot even be shown that humans have a soul, much less that animals do not. Such claims usually rely on the feeble defence, 'So-and-so said so.' What evidence do you know of that justifies So-and-so as correct in this particular judgment regarding souls? If you say So-and-so is omniscient, having knowledge beyond all experience, how can that be justified? But even if we grant that only humans have immortal souls, let us listen to Hans Ruesch's reply to the speciesist who would exploit this assumption:

The argument that animals allegedly don't have an immortal soul doesn't justify our abuse of them, but aggravates it. The knowledge that they won't be indemnified in another world for their sufferings in this one should prompt us to treat them more kindly, not less. It is hard to understand how the alleged ownership of spiritual immortality could excuse the torture of creatures whose terrestrial existence is the only gift they have received from their creator.

And if only humans are made in the image of God, then, as Ruesch laments, with an eye to human abuses of animals, "Some image!"

Top of Page

Objection: I'm just one person. It doesn't matter if just one individual changes. It can't make any real difference.

Rejoinder: Nonsense. Mass movements for coping with massive problems are made of individuals -- such movements have no existence 'in themselves.' If all vegetarians changed to a meat- eating diet tomorrow, the market (and also the Earth) could not handle it. All the problems of how people treat animals may seem overwhelming, but they are not insuperable, if only human beings choose what is right. Your dollars withheld from firms that test on animals will mean fewer resources to perform needless and cruel products tests on animals, as well as less consumer demand that would prompt these companies to either change or decline. That's how the market system works, supply-and-demand, and most animal suffering arises from greed for some kind of profit. Join one or more local animal rights groups, and get involved educating friends and relatives, strangers, and let your protest of animal exploitation and abuse be shown in a nonviolent way. Consistent animal rightists advocate nonviolence towards all sentient beings and their concerns, including humans--by and large animal rightists are the most peaceful people around, because they make their peace with nonhuman as well as human animals. Write letters to your political representatives -- phone the government and get their addresses and phone numbers. You would be surprised at how influential these letters can be, as each one is interpreted as representing many times more people who remain silent. Finally, becoming a vegetarian is perhaps the most important step in making a real, direct difference. Think of all the animals you'll save by not having their throats slit for you. The average meat-eater destroys over 1,500 nonhuman 'livestock' sentient beings in his or her lifetime. Compassion acted upon is worth infinitely more than compassion felt but either stifled or ignored.

Top of Page


John Robbins reports... John Robbins, Diet for a New America (Walpole, New Hampshire: Stillpoint Publishing, 1987), p. 41.

Richard Sargeant, in The Spectrum of Pain... According to noted zoologist, Lord Medway... Patty Mark, "Fish Out of Water," PETA News I:8: 19.

Mary Midgely's The Concept of Beastliness...Mary Midgely, "The Concept of Beastliness," in Animal Rights and Human Obligations, eds. Tom Regan and Peter Singer (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), pp. 95-96. Cited here is an excerpt from her book of the same title as the excerpt itself.

A pig once spontaneously saved a drowning child... John Robbins, "The Joy and Tragedy of Pigs," The Animals' Agenda (December 1989): 16.

Jeremy Bentham famously wrote... Jeremy Bentham in Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1975), pp. 7-8.

Bernard Williams makes a weak attempt... Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1985), p. 118.

Henry Salt... Henry S. Salt, Animals' Rights (Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania: Society for Animal Rights, Inc., 1980; originally published 1892), pp. 62-63.

The response of the original researchers... Singer, Animal Liberation, p. 248.

Vegetarians consume at least ten times less plant matter than meat eaters... Ibid., p. 249.

Barry MacKay points out... Barry Kent MacKay, "Let's Be Reasonable," in Skinned, ed. Anne Doncaster (North Falmouth, Massachusetts: International Wildlife Coalition, 1988), p. 223.

Germain Grisez, for example... Germain Grisez, "Suicide and Euthanasia," in Death, Dying, and Euthanasia, eds. Horans and Mall (Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, Inc., 1977), p. 782.

The list goes on and on... John Robbins, Diet for a New America, p. 160.

Dr Neal Barnard states... Neal Barnard, M.D., "Eating for Life," PETA News I:8: 12.

In China... Ibid.

Hans Ruesch's reply... Hans Ruesch, Slaughter of the Innocent (Swain, N.Y.: CIVITAS Publications, 1983), p. 320.

Ruesch laments... Ibid., p. 321.

Top of Page