A New Basis for Animal Ethics: Telos and Common Sense

A New Basis for Animal Ethics: Telos and Common Sense

by Bernard E. Rollin


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This book, the culmination of forty years of theorizing about the moral status of animals, explicates and justifies society’s moral obligation to animals in terms of the commonsense metaphysics and ethics of Aristotle’s concept of telos. Rollin uses this concept to assert that humans have a responsibility to treat animals ethically. Aristotle used the concept, from the Greek word for "end" or "purpose," as the core explanatory concept for the world we live in. We understand what an animal is by what it does. This is the nature of an animal, and helps us understand our obligations to animals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826221018
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 09/27/2016
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bernard E. Rollin, University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University, is the 2016 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the organization Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research. The founder of Animal Ethics, Rollin has served on the Pew National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and on the Institute for Laboratory Animal Resources Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Rollin is also the author of titles, including The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain, and Science.

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A New Basis for Animal Ethics

Telos and Common Sense

By Bernard E. Rollin

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2016 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-7366-6


The Need for a New Animal Ethic

ETHICS BECAME FAR more interesting to me in the mid-1970s by virtue of a unique congeries of circumstances. First of all, in the course of teaching the history of philosophy seven hours per week each year for eight years, I enjoyed a synoptic view of the issues philosophers were preoccupied with, including ethical issues. Second, by virtue of paying close attention to the news, it became clear to me that the social-ethical "searchlight" was beginning to focus on animal matters (as well as environmental concerns), yet there was no viable ethic to direct, sustain, and guide progress in this area (environmental ethics also began to develop then). Third, I had a long-standing interest in animals and some awareness that they were not receiving the best possible treatment in accordance with their societal uses. By virtue of this interest, I began to look at the history of philosophy from a different perspective, specifically searching for reasons philosophers gave to exclude animals from full moral attention and consideration, and I found their arguments grossly inadequate. Fourth, in the course of reexamining the history of philosophy, I found very little discussion of the moral status of animals, with two notable exceptions. Fifth, I had been approached by a key faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University, where I teach, about creating a course in veterinary medical ethics, focusing on the changing societal views of animals and what practical implications these had for veterinary medicine. All of this led me to try to write something helpful on the moral status of animals, which in turn made me begin to understand how little protection animals enjoyed in all areas of social use and how desperately additional mechanisms for animal protection were needed.

All of this also led me for the first time to engage in an authentic way the philosophical issue of how one develops a new ethic for anything and, equally importantly, how one persuades others to look sympathetically at the results of such thinking. I found myself greatly vexed and perplexed by these questions, and falling rapidly and headlong into genuine philosophical thinking about ethics that would shape my activities, both theoretical and practical, for the next four decades. In the course of my thinking, it became clear that there existed strong constraints on the development of a new ethics for animals:

1. Any putative ethic proposed to society must be both difficult for citizens to reject and easy for them to accept, at least on a theoretical level. As we will discuss in detail shortly, in Plato's terms one must aim at reminding rather than teaching. In other words, the suggested ethic must resonate with people's already deeply held beliefs. This strategy was successfully deployed by Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson regarding civil rights and segregation. If the ethic suggested for animals affirms or entails that animals should have the right to vote, to take an absurd example, that will have no traction with the general public.

2. Those promulgating the new ethic must not seek to establish it too quickly. The great radical activist Henry Spira often remarked that all social-ethical revolutions in the history of the United States have been gradual. To expect people to suddenly abandon established cherished practices is impracticable and unrealistic.

3. One should seek a middle ground between extremes. For example, in the case of invasive experimentation on animals, the research community aggressively argued against any change whatsoever in the use of animals in research, and thus for the continuation of an aggressively laissez-faire attitude toward animal use. On the other hand, radical activists argued for an immediate and abrupt cessation of animal use. The result, of course, was a stalemate, favoring the status quo.

4. In the same vein, both the new ethic being offered and the suggestions for reform entailed by it must accord with common sense and must be articulable in simple, ordinary language.

As mentioned earlier, it is not the case that historically philosophy did not at all engage the question of the moral status of animals. In a tradition most frequently associated with St. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, and incorporated into the legal systems of most civilized societies beginning in the late eighteenth century, cruelty to animals was vigorously proscribed, though animals in themselves were denied moral status. The condemnation of such cruelty resulted from the realization that if people were permitted to be cruel to animals, as a matter of psychological fact, those who were would "graduate" to being cruel and abusive to people. A far more profound and intellectually bold move was that of utilitarian thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who famously based candidacy for moral status on the ability to feel pleasure and pain. This approach was appropriated by Peter Singer in his revolutionary 1975 book Animal Liberation, the first contemporary attempt to ground full moral status for animals.

As articulated by Aquinas and Kant, animals in themselves do not enjoy direct moral status. But allowing cruelty to animals has a pernicious psychological effect upon humans. Cruelty, in the legal system, is defined as infliction of "deviant, unnecessary, extraordinary, purposeless, intentional, sadistic pain and suffering on an animal, serving no legitimate purpose" and failure to "minister to the necessities of man," as one judge put it. Aquinas and Kant argued that if pathological people are allowed to be cruel to animals, they will eventually be led to abusing people, which is socially undesirable. This insight has been buttressed by a good deal of twentieth-century psychological and sociological research. Most serial killers have early histories of animal abuse. The vast majority of violent offenders in Leavenworth federal prison have early histories of animal abuse, as do students who open fire on their classmates. Animal abuse, along with bedwetting and starting fires, is considered one of the key signs of nascent psychopathy.

Why can we not broaden the anti-cruelty ethic to cover other animal treatment? It is because only a tiny percentage of animal suffering is the result of deliberate, sadistic cruelty. Cruelty, as descriptive of psychological deviance, would not cover animal suffering that results from nonpathological pursuits such as industrial agriculture, safety testing of toxic substances on animals, and all forms of animal research. People who raise animals for food in an industrial setting, or who do biomedical research on animals, or who run zoos are not driven by sadistic desires to hurt these creatures. Rather, they generally believe they are doing social good, providing cheap and plentiful food, or medical advances, or educational opportunities, and they are in fact traditionally so perceived socially. Of all the suffering that animals endure at human hands, only a tiny fraction, less than 1 percent, is the result of deliberate cruelty.

An additional flaw in the anti-cruelty ethic/laws is that they cover only physical harm. Psychological harm and torture can be far more devastating to an animal than a beating or other form of physical abuse, but such abuse is invisible to the cruelty laws, again pointing up their conceptual inadequacy. (A friend of mine rescued a young female bullmastiff from abusive yahoos, who would shoot her with paintballs each morning before feeding her. Even though the shots in themselves were not severely painful, the dog grew up in a state of constant fear, shying away from strangers, and remained this way for life.) These weaknesses notwithstanding, more than forty states have now raised animal cruelty from a misdemeanor to a felony, evidencing growing social concern for animal treatment.

This leaves utilitarianism as the source of the only clearly articulated basis for a robust animal ethic in the history of philosophy before the twentieth century. As noted above, Singer drew on the classical utilitarian writings of Bentham and Mill when he pioneered in publishing the first comprehensive book on animal ethics, Animal Liberation, in 1975. Bentham famously affirmed that

other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things. ... The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated ... upon the same footing as ... animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been with holden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse? ... The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? ... The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes ... (1996, chap. 17)

Since animals are capable of feeling pain and pleasure, they thus according to Bentham belong within the scope of moral concern. But I was not satisfied with a utilitarian basis for animal ethics. First of all, anyone not accepting a utilitarian underpinning for ethics in general would not accept the resulting animal ethics. Second, basing ethics on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain across a society presupposes the commensurability of all forms of pleasure and suffering. I could never understand how such disparate forms of negative experience as isolation from mother, hot-iron branding, neglect, beating, lack of affection, being yelled at, being burned, being deprived of food or water, and being denied interaction with conspecifics or the full range of positive experiences could be neatly laid out on a homogeneous scale, measured, and compared. Further, it seemed to follow from utilitarian principles that if some act produces more pleasure than pain, however heinous the act, it was morally acceptable. If we could alleviate the pain of 2,000 burn victims by inflicting burn pain on 1,900 experimental subjects, human or animal, such experimentation becomes ipso facto morally acceptable, as does torturing a person who has placed a bomb that must be defused somewhere in an elementary school. The entire wrongness of minority oppression for the benefit of the majority, and the question of the rights accorded to these minorities, simply vanishes under the pressure of focusing on "the greatest good for the greatest number," which can in turn lead to totalitarian oppression.

There are many other philosophical objections to accepting utilitarianism as a basis for all ethics, including animal ethics. But that is not the chief obstacle facing grounding animal ethics on a utilitarian foundation. The chief problem lies in the fact that utilitarianism is simply not universally accepted even by everyone seeking a theoretical basis for ethics, let alone by most ordinary citizens, who need to accept animal ethics to make it practicable. Here is the critical point: If the given basis for animal ethics does not compel the allegiance of the vast majority of people it addresses, it becomes more like religion, open to indefinite diversity, rather than being adopted by an overwhelming consensus. And it appears that no theoretical basis for animal ethics to be found in the history of thought has anything like the persuasive power to compel such adherence.

Let me illustrate this point anecdotally. At one point in my career, I was engaged in conversation with a colleague of mine from Korea who taught Eastern thought and Asian religion. As he often did, he was complaining about our faculty salaries and reflecting on possible sources of additional income. Only half joking, I made the following suggestion based on the fact that he was quite charismatic and did a good job playing the "Asian sage" role. "Why don't you start a cult or religion? If you worked diligently, you should be able to attract a couple of thousand adherents. If people can buy into Raelianism, Scientology, and the Maharishi, you can surely sell your version of Eastern thought. Part of the dogma you teach could be the renunciation of personal wealth and property, to be turned over to you by potential acolytes. It would be easy to find a thousand people willing to believe in virtually anything. If you charge each one a measly $10,000 to undertake a spiritual journey under your guidance, you will quickly amass $10 million and no longer need to rely on your university salary."

I was, of course, being facetious. Yet it is precisely in this spirit that too many philosophers approach the extraordinarily difficult task of deriving an ethic for guiding and constraining the treatment of animals in society. Like pure mathematicians, they build perfectly consistent systems that are internally logically sound and even aesthetically appealing but have no contact with reality. It is eminently reasonable for the mathematician to proceed in this way; pure mathematics has a life of its own with no need to be interpretable in a way that fits the real world. In ethics, however, a moral system that does not mesh with reality is of little value in enhancing the treatment of those it purports to cover. An impracticable ethic, unlike an impossible mathematical universe, is not beautiful; it is more silly than anything else.

For example, Singer himself has argued, for utilitarian reasons, that the only way to ameliorate the suffering of farm animals raised in industrial animal factories is to stop eating meat and adopt a vegetarian if not vegan diet. A moment's reflection reveals the implausibility of that suggestion. People will not give up steaks, hot dogs, and hamburgers even when counseled to do so by their physicians to improve their own health or even to save their own lives, so the chances that they will do so in the face of a philosophical argument are vanishingly small. In other words, not only must a successful animal ethic be logically consistent and persuasive, it must also be seen as practicable and it must suggest real solutions that people can both advocate and adhere to. As we will see later in our discussion, the elimination of tiny cages for sows represents a major improvement in pig welfare, yet was not difficult to effect, despite requiring major changes in the swine industry.


Social, Personal, and Professional Ethics

PETER SINGER'S WORK was a major step forward, but the problems I just enumerated remained. It appeared that creating a new ethic for animals was at an impasse, when suddenly I had a revelation. In the course of thinking through the veterinary ethics course I was committed to teaching, I realized that there is an ethic as well as an ethical theory to which the vast majority of citizens subscribe. It is the ethic according to which we in society are held accountable. It is what I call the social-consensus ethic.

There are two very different senses of "ethics" that are often confused and conflated and that must be distinguished at the outset to allow for viable discussion of these matters. The first sense of ethics I shall call ethics. In this sense ethics is the set of principles or beliefs that govern views of right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair, just and unjust. Whenever one asserts that "killing is wrong," or that "discrimination is unfair," or that "one oughtn't belittle a colleague," or that "it is laudable to give to charity," or that "abortion is murder," one is explicitly or implicitly appealing to ethics — moral rules that one believes ought to bind society, oneself, and/or some subgroup of society, such as veterinarians.

Under ethics must fall a distinction between social ethics, personal ethics, and professional ethics. Of these, social ethics is the most basic and most objective, in a sense to be explained shortly. People, especially scientists, are tempted sometimes to assert that unlike scientific judgments, which are "objective," ethical judgments are "subjective" opinion and not "fact," and thus they are not subject to rational discussion and adjudication. Although it is true that one cannot conduct experiments or gather data to decide what is right and wrong, ethics, nevertheless, cannot be based upon personal whim and caprice. If anyone doubts this, let that person go out and rob a bank in front of witnesses, then argue before a court that, in his or her ethical opinion, bank robbery is morally acceptable if one needs money.

In other words, the fact that ethical judgments are not validated by gathering data or doing experiments does not mean that they are simply a matter of individual subjective opinion. If one stops to think about it, one will quickly realize that in real life very little socially important ethics is left to one's subjective opinion. Consensus rules about rightness and wrongness of actions that have an impact on others are in fact articulated in clear social principles, which are in turn encoded in laws and policies. All public regulations, from the zoning of pornographic bookstores outside of school zones to laws against insider trading and murder, are examples of consensus ethical principles "writ large," in Plato's felicitous phrase, in public policy. This is not to say that, in every case, law and ethics are congruent — we can all think of examples of things that are legal yet generally considered immoral (tax dodges for the ultra-wealthy, for instance) and of things we consider perfectly moral that are illegal (parking one's car for longer than two hours in a twohour zone).


Excerpted from A New Basis for Animal Ethics by Bernard E. Rollin. Copyright © 2016 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Philosophy and Ethics 1

Part 1 Creating an Animal Ethic

The Need for a New Animal Ethic 7

Social, Personal, and Professional Ethics 15

Reminding versus Teaching 31

The Denial of Animal Mind 39

Mattering and Telos 47

Part 2 Ideology and Common Sense

Ideology 59

Anecdote, Anthropomorphism, and Animal Mind 79

Animal Telos and Animal Welfare 97

The End of Husbandry 109

Animal Research and Telos 131

Genetic Engineering and Telos 163

Conclusion 173

References 175

Index 179

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