Philosopher for Animal Rights
Take animal philosophy to the people by critically reasoning for and against the arguments for animal rights. Some people shout emotional inanities to bully you into agreeing with them. Philosophers do it by reasoning, a more effective strategy in the long term.
"Thus, if we are to grant them an inferior moral status or, indeed, no moral status whatsoever, a justification is required and such a justification must spell out why it is that we are entitled to treat them differently from ourselves and what it is that their moral status entitles us to do to them." Robert Garner (1)
The first Western philosophers lived around 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece and surroundings. They were among the first important thinkers of Western society. Unlike other people they did not think dogmatically but reasoned rationally and methodically. Significantly, they expected listeners to disagree with what they said and make opposing assertions to support reasonable counter arguments. This was a tremendous event in the history of thought. Until then people explained the world in terms like the supernatural, blind faith or authority, building ideas on immediate impression and flawed belief.
Philosophers in ancient times lived and worked among ordinary people. But by the 19th century they had confined themselves within universities and limited their questions to elucidate narrow and obscure matters. However, philosophy underwent a rebirth in the 1970's as new ideas and directions for exploration broadened its scope. In our time a new philosophical avenue is practical ethics
, by which people from all walks of life try to resolve everyday moral issues that affect them.
You do not, therefore, have to be a university professor to philosophise; thinking fundamental and deep thoughts is open to everyone and animal ethics is a flourishing field. You just need to ask questions rationally and methodically about the nature of animals and life and come up with rational answers. Philosophising could be for you if you are interested in seeking answers to big questions and enjoy marshalling arguments for and against ideas and issues.
Landmarks in Animal Philosophy
Many key philosophers of past centuries have demeaned animals. For example:
- Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) said that the most important faculty is the power of reasoning, only humans can reason, therefore humans are the most important beings. He concluded that we can use animals without the consideration we would give to people.
- Descartes (1596 - 1650) considered whether animals can feel pain, even though they act like they do. He speculated whether animals are automata, mere machines.
- Kant (1724 - 1804) believed that animals are not conscious and may therefore be used as a means to an end, as a way of getting something you want.
- These and other philosophers spelt tragedy for myriad animals by not challenging the deeply rooted assumption held by people, that the claims of humans always have priority over the needs of animals.
Animals do not have it easy even in our own times, as one practising physiologist makes clear, believing that:
"In contrast to ourselves, animal behaviour is mechanical, driven by the dictates of nature and immune to the processes of reflective cognition that we take for granted. It is a black, silent existence that is not conscious of its own processes or, at the very most, a dark murky experience that does not compare with our own." (2)
However, the 18th century may have witnessed the awakening of a more compassionate attitude to animals. In an often quoted phrase Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) wrote about animals (albeit only in a footnote):
"The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?" (3)
Bentham thought animals can feel pain and the essential attribute qualifying an animal to moral consideration is the capacity for suffering and no other reference is necessary, not consciousness or the power of reasoning. In the 20th century, Peter Singer opened the floodgates of moral concern for animals by publishing his book Animal Liberation (1975). Translated into over 17 languages the book started a chain reaction of thought and publications, still expanding, about animals and why they matter morally.
Areas of practical ethics are diverse and could include almost any area of human activity in which moral dilemmas rear up. Some areas of practical ethics are:
And of course:
- Environmental ethics: how should we relate to and deal with nature?
- Medical ethics: how should we deal with sick people?
- Feminist ethics: how should we treat women?
- Education ethics: how and to whom should education be taught?
- Legal ethics: how should lawyers deal with each other and their clients?
- Business ethics: how should businesses engage with individuals and society?
- Internet ethics: how should we use the internet responsibly?
Animal ethics examines beliefs that are held about the moral status of animals. Animal ethics does not presume any particular point of view is good and right; it accommodates a number of approaches for trying to resolve animal-human moral issues. Animal rights, on the other hand, is a doctrine about how humans should treat animals and states that animals should have rights, somewhat like but not exactly the same as humans rights. Animal rights concentrates on sentient animals and its basic doctrine is that using animals for human gain is morally wrong and should stop.
- Animal ethics: how should we treat animals?
An essential objective in philosophy is to evaluate ideas and construct reasoned arguments by yourself. Read as much about philosophy, ethics and animal rights as you can. Clarify the arguments and counter-arguments that writers and other people present. Select and explain which are the more convincing arguments and come up with new arguments of your own.
1. Write down your ideas about animal rights or some aspect of the subject, like the ethics of factory farming.
2. Compare and contrast your ideas with the various points and arguments that one or more philosophers have written on the subject.
3. Think up objections to what these philosophers say and find out objections that other writers have put forward.
4. Rewrite step one in light of steps two and three.
5. Get people to criticise what you have written in step four and engage them in friendly critical discussion about what they say.
6. Rewrite step one again.
7. Compare what you first wrote in step one with your final draft and in a few sentences write down what you have leaned.
Why write anything at all? Expressing your ideas on paper is better than only thinking about them. Writing forces us to think deeper about our subject and enables us to progress without wastefully going over the same ground.
When philosophising, check the assumptions you make and ask yourself if they are valid. Abandon anything that does not stand up to your critical examination. Come up with new ideas as necessary. Never stop thinking rationally and critically. Do not be afraid to put forward radical ideas. This may be difficult at first but like any accomplishment the more you do it the easier it gets. Be able to accept and learn from criticism and remember that good philosophers attack arguments, not their proponents. Take your ideas to the public and to anyone who will listen to you.
Feeling the itch to study animal ethics more formally? You are unlikely to find a comprehensive, full-time course on animal ethics and certainly not one devoted entirely to animal rights. However, the situation can change so keep a look out. In view of the dearth of animal rights courses, do not be afraid of being self-taught. You can be a good philosopher without taking a formal course in philosophy; after all, many famous philosophers never followed an authorised course themselves and obviously the very first philosophers could not.
(1) Garner, Robert. Animals, Politics and Morality. Manchester University Press: Manchester. 1993:4.
(2) Derbyshire, Stuart. In Gilland T et al. Animal Experimentation: good or bad? Hodder & Stoughton. 2002:47.
(3) Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Vol xvii, 1789:311.
›› To Entries & Home