Updated: Apr 15, 2022
Empathy for animals
Perhaps the best way to start taking animal rights seriously as well as motivating us to act on the problem of animal exploitation is not to discuss it on an abstract and theoretical level, but to see how animals are being treated today. This will allow us to see the conditions they live in and how much they suffer.
We can then question our actions and traditions towards animals that are used for human consumption. Therefore, we want to start by drawing attention to the conditions in which animals live today, as well as the magnitude of their suffering.
Organizations such as Mercy for Animals have conducted research on how animals are currently treated for the production of meat, eggs, and milk. The following is a short video produced by PETA about the conditions on animal farms:
As we can see from this and many similar videos which show even worse situations, the conditions in which animals are treated are degrading and cruel. [i]
In global terms, the quantitative magnitude of animal suffering is much greater than any other amount of suffering on the face of the Earth. In the United States alone, around seven billion land animals are slaughtered for human consumption each year. [ii] More than forty-five billion marine animals are also killed each year. [iii]
In other words, just in the United States alone, more than fifty billion animals are killed annually for human consumption, which is equivalent to seven times the number of current human beings on the planet. This means that about six million animals are killed for our consumption every single hour.
In factory farms and fish farms, in addition, animals are kept locked up in small spaces throughout their entire lives, they are separated from their families, and suffer great amounts of stress and suffering.
Ignoring this ethical and social debate would involve ignoring the exploitation, suffering, and lives of billions of living sentient beings, so it should not be taken as a trivial issue.
We must also consider that, unlike human social movements, non-human animals are not capable of rebelling and attempting to end the discrimination by themselves. They cannot communicate with us and they cannot take to the streets to claim their rights. Because of this, animals are in a much worse situation than slavery, racism, and sexism were in the past.
Therefore, discrimination against non-human animals will not stop until humans protest and claim their rights for them. This means that we human beings have to act in favor and representation of the interests of the oppressed group. This is an important point to consider: if left to themselves, no matter how long, animals will never rebel in an organized way against those who oppress them. Until now, no social vindication of humanity has been initiated in this way. The defense of animal rights constitutes a new precedent in the history of ethics.
However, our capacity to empathize with others is limited. We cannot empathize with billions of animals at once. In addition, it is likely that we feel greater empathy for a dog or a cat, since we live with them on a daily basis as pets, than with a cow or a pig that we do not usually see in our daily lives. Not to mention a chicken or some kind of fish. We have strong biases that are linked to biological or cultural traditions of the systematic treatment of animals.
Because of these biases and our own persistent and ancestral tribalism, it is easy to dismiss the suffering of those who are different from us, as we have done in the past and still do with foreign immigrants or with the suffering of people of other races. This unequal treatment is what defines a type of discrimination: disregarding or minimizing the suffering of others who are different from us. But ignoring an issue doesn't make it go away.
However, these traditions cannot be justified through rational scrutiny, just like other past traditions, like racism or sexism, were not justified either. When we bring these issues under rational scrutiny, we will conclude that these traditions must be questioned.
Up to this point, we have focused on motivating the importance of animal rights. Next, we will give our rational arguments for why animals deserve moral consideration.
Expanding our circle of moral concern
Throughout human history, our circle of moral consideration has been widening. In the era of tribal warfare, we did not give moral consideration to our enemies. We thought that they had to be eliminated. Humanity has enslaved other races, and marginalized foreigners, women, non-heterosexual groups, etc. In addition, those of us who defend moral cosmopolitanism consider that there are still a large number of injustices derived from each person's completely arbitrary place of birth, and that this situation must be remedied.
Although we have not achieved equality in many aspects, we, fortunately, live in a time where many of us believe that people from other countries deserve to have their human, civil, and universal rights respected. We now believe that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. We think that we must end the discrimination that nullifies the consideration of the interests, desires, and well-being of others. As human history has progressed, our idea of who is deserving of moral consideration has grown.
All these considerations should lead us to realize that our thinking about the moral consideration of others has been and continues to be profoundly arbitrary throughout history. In the past, only certain groups of men in the socially dominant groups had true moral standing, while their families, which included their children, wives, and slaves, had only derivative moral standing. Their interests, thoughts, wants or needs were not considered important. Many of these people were treated as objects for the use of the socially dominant group.
Today, in an era where we accept universal human rights, the general feeling is that all human beings deserve moral consideration, but that the vast majority of non-human beings do not.
But to have a morality that can be rationally justified we have to try to transcend our traditions, see beyond them, and reflect towards criteria that are really objective, impartial, and truly relevant to accept the true moral criteria of the beings in question.
What beings deserve moral consideration?
The issue of who deserves moral consideration ("moral standing", "moral status", "moral patienthood") always tends to raise many questions. Obviously, there are important empirical observations that need to be known in order to be able to form an informed opinion on these questions. For example, about the ability of certain species of animals to have positive or negative experiences. However, in the last century science has convincingly shown that animals are sentient beings.
But also, in addition to this, we must also determine what is criteria really morally important in order to solve this debate. That can only be done through a process of social moral reflection, where arguments and counter-arguments are presented to delineate the considerations that are decisive, non-arbitrary, and important.
What is it that gives intrinsic (and not merely instrumental) moral value to a living being? What is it that confers moral value on living beings, both human and animal?
In Part 2, we argue that animals have intrinsic moral value by developing what has become known as the argument from marginal cases.
Our thanks to Iris Herrera of Vegetarianos Hoy for her valuable comments on the draft of this article.
[i] Some images on these topics may offend the sensibilities of some people, so viewer discretion is advised when watching these types of videos. There are much more shocking videos, such as the video of many undercover investigations carried out by Mercy for Animals.
[ii] United States Department of Agriculture. (2014) Poultry Slaughter 2013 Summary. A breakdown of the data can also be found on AnimalClock from recent reports from the US Department of Agriculture.
[iii] National Marine Fisheries Service. (2014) Fisheries of the United States: 2013, conversion from tons to units by Counting Animals. (2015) The fish we kill to feed the fish we eat.