January 27, 2009

The myth of our exalted human place - A SentDev Classic

I'm still stewing about Spiked Online and their misguided mission to malign the animal rights movement. In particular, I'm upset at Chris Pile's assertion that animal rights activists are acting misanthropically by putting the welfare of animals on par with those of humans.

It's similar to Wesley Smith's argument that transhumanists, like animal rights advocates, are demeaning humans by ascribing personhood characteristics to non-humans.

In the case of transhumanists, they're anticipating existence outside of the evolved human form and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine minds, whereas animal rights folks are acknowledging the personhood of gorillas, elephants, whales and dolphins. Ultimately, however, transhumanists and animal rights advocates are on the same wavelength in that they support the idea of non-anthropocentric personhood.

In his article, “The Transhumanists: The Next Great Threat to Human Dignity,” Smith declares that humans “are not just another animal in the forest,” and that “human life has ultimate value simply and merely because it is human.”

Of course, the argument that humans have value because they're human is not really an argument at all. Rather, it's a rhetorical tautology devoid of any substance – except for what it reveals about the person making the argument.

Like Pile, Smith believes that humans occupy a special metaphysical or exalted space somewhere between the beasts and gods. Even when framed in secular language, the allusion to religious sensibilities is inescapable and one that informs an indelible part of this ideology. Along similar lines, the whole idea of 'dignity' itself arose during the time of aristocracy, a period when the nobility accredited their 'blue blood' as the essence which separated them from the lesser members of humanity.

Consequently, those arguments that bemoan the demise of human dignity are conspicuously promoted by those who steadfastly cling to these notions as they have been reconstituted and manifested by 21st century concerns. I'm speaking, of course, of inhibitions against ascribing personhood to non-humans. This speciesism, or what James Hughes refers to as human-racism, is one of the worst prejudices of our time.

Today, our gods and kings have been replaced by reason and liberal democracies. As a society, we have grown increasingly tolerant and accommodating of minority groups and those without power. We no longer enslave the 'other' and relegate our women to second class citizenry for fear of undermining human dignity. Similarly, as we are coming to recognize the psychological and emotional workings of non-human animals, we stand to take our morality and ethical commitments to the next level.

At the very core, though, what the speciests cannot bear is when an animal's life is 'put ahead' of a human's. More accurately, what they find repugnant is the thought of a human death when a cure could have been developed through animal experimentation -- the underlying assumption being that an animal's life does not have the same value as a human's. To the speciest, the animal's suffering is either not really happening (i.e. the misconception that animals don't really feel things the way people do), or that its suffering is a justifiable sacrifice in the name of science or in helping more 'worthy' human lives.

These rationalizations are the result of human arrogance and a mass hallucination among those who condone and perform the work; they operate in total denial, deliberately choosing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that animals get frightened and can experience pain the same way we do. There's also the 'blame the victim' mentality. In 2004, for example, PETA recorded the conversations of Covance technicians as they were restraining monkeys: "Goddamn...I'm gonna knock you out...you little bitch...you little hateful ass, you."

There is no doubt that much scientific and medical advancement has occurred as a result of animal experimentation. But this is tainted knowledge, much like the tainted knowledge acquired by the Nazi doctors who tested on human subjects. Nazi doctors weren't so much sadistic as they felt their work was justified. Much like we have devalued the life and well-being of non-human animals, the Nazis de-valued an entire race of people.

Without a doubt many lives could be saved today if we allowed the inhumane testing of human subjects. But what a repulsive and abhorrent idea! It for this exact same sense of repulsion and abhorrence that we cannot continue to allow cruel experimentation on animals deserving of personhood status and moral consideration. Denying the psychological experience of each and every animal that is experimented upon is a gross breach of our reason and moral sensibilities.

And contrary to what Spiked Online, Chris Pile and Wesley Smith believe, animal rights activists are not misanthropic. In fact, they're quite the opposite. It's not just animals whose well-being they consider, it's a concern for all creatures capable of conscious experience and complex emotion.

Consequently, it is when we consider the well-being of both human and non-human animals that we become truly humane.

This article was originally published on April 25, 2006.


Anonymous said...

So where do you draw the line? Do you give the same accord to carrots? Malaria? Parasitic nematodes? Delicious lobsters? Fish? Chicken?

You're correct that drawing an arbitrary line under humans is silly, but so is drawing an arbitrary line anywhere else.

George said...

Is there a particular reason why you're ignoring my admonition to protect those animals who qualify as persons?

Anonymous said...

I misunderstood your point, but mine is still valid. You seem to be drawing an arbitrary line under elephants et al. How is that any more or less rational than an arbitrary line under just humans?

Is any experimentation on, say, housecats then ok?

As for your protected species, are they to be exactly equal to humans? Would a procedure that cost the life of one chimpanzee and saved 1,000 humans be acceptable? How about a million?

Further, do we then have an obligation to rescue your protected species from non-human predation?

George said...

I wouldn't say that the personhood threshold is an arbitrary line. Persons deserve more moral consideration than non-persons because they are more experiential, have more complex emotions, are self-reflective and have greater potential (both in terms of the quality of their life and in the richness of their relationships).

Animals who don't pass the personhood threshold are still morally significant, just less so. In those case we need to be concerned about preserving their experiential awareness and ensuring that they do not suffer.

Defining 'personhood' is beyond the scope of this point, but it's a topic I hope to return to at some point. I don't think this issue has been adequately answered.

But in a perfect world, person or not, any animal that is capable of suffering should not be put through experimentation and testing.

Anonymous said...

What is the justification for a threshold at a certain point? Rather, I'd argue for a continuum of personhood based on sapience.

I'd agree that we should try to avoid causing (or allowing) suffering, but zealousness may cause us to overcompensate.

Are you really certain that all cases of animal experimentation have a net negative effect on suffering?