Who bears the responsibility to act?

This week I have been wondering, who bears the responsibility to fix human beings’ mistakes? What does it mean to be responsible for something? What does it mean to take responsibility? Can you “be responsible” for something without taking responsibility? Can you “take responsibility” for doing something about a problem without being responsible for it? Why are most of the world’s injustices and crises being worked on by people who did not cause them? 

Over the past two summers, I have had the privilege of working with extraordinary teenage activists at Youth Empowered Action Camp. Young people come from all over the world to spend part of their summer working hard with other activists, attending workshops, and learning how to be the most effective change-makers they can be on the issues that matter most to them. Many campers are working on environmental protection, and one of my mentees is starting a school club to get high school students mobilized to stop climate change and make the connection between factory farming and the massive harm that animal exploitation wreaks on the environment (more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector combined!) One of my 12-year-old campers in Australia (yes, she came to the USA from Australia for activism camp!!) is working to end live export. Since camp ended just a couple of weeks ago, she already has been gathering petition signatures, met the director of Animals Australia (!), and made progress on planning her animal rights-focused YouTube channel. 

Another camper is working to change the name of her school so it no longer honours a confederate leader. It was named after this person in protest of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregation. (Both links above include more info about the problems and petitions to support the campaigns.) 

Another camper, a young woman originally from the USA but currently living in Beijing, is working to improve the air quality in China and get children access to masks. Did you know that the pollution is so bad now that children have to wear masks to go outside? And if, like many children, they don’t have access to masks, they have to just stay indoors because it is not safe? The latest exciting news on her project is that a company is donating 500 masks to her school. 

These young people are standing up and taking action not because anyone told them to but because they are compelled by their own sense of justice and urgency. Here is an account by a camper I worked with last year who named YEA Camp as the coolest thing she had ever done, and came back as a mentor this year: http://yeacamp.org/2016/02/read-this-teens-answer-to-the-question-what-is-the-coolest-thing-youve-ever-done/
These teenagers are so inspiring to me and show us the future that can be. Too often, potential activists fall prey to the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility: Sometimes the more atrocious and urgent the problem is, and the more onlookers there are to the problem, the less likely someone is to actually intervene, because we each assume that somebody else must be taking care of it. What does it take for someone to step up and do something? What makes us choose to act on certain issues over others? Please engage with these ideas in the comments, and I would love to hear: Do you consider yourself an activist? What inspires you to take action? What are some obstacles that have discouraged you from taking action on an issue or issues that matter to you? What resources and support would you need to make the difference you would like to?  

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Animal Ethics

[Note: In the interests of being concise, I have linked to a number of relevant discussions and definitions throughout the article and at the end. Please feel free to explore these links as you read through, and continue the discussion in the comments at the bottom of this page!]

Introduction

Ethics is the area of philosophy that deals with morality, with rights and wrongs, with “oughts:” How ought we behave? What are our obligations to others? What must we do, what is it okay to do, and what is it not okay to do?

child dog fieldAnimal ethics in particular deals with how we should behave toward nonhuman animals. Children often become interested in animal ethics at a very early age. Though Western societies, as professor of psychology William Crain notes, tend to “draw a sharp line between ourselves and other animals” (Crain xix), children are not born seeing this distinction. They are quickly taught by families, friends, and the media to put different species in categories: society tells us to see nonhuman animals as “others.” Still, before this sinks in, children likely spend a great deal of time interrogating how we relate to the nonhumans in their day-to-day lives – in their homes, in zoos, in parks, and perhaps all around them if they live far enough from a big city.

Significantly, this is often the time they realize that the meat on their plates used to be breathing, feeling animals just as sentient as their beloved dogs, cats, or other companion animals. For many children, the only contact they will have with cows, pigs, and birds is at mealtime, when it is often easy to become desensitized. They wonder if it makes sense to care for and love certain animals while hurting others. How do we make this distinction? Many children and adults who spend time thinking about this contradiction choose to adopt vegetarian or vegan lifestyles to avoid causing unnecessary suffering. Others believe that there are ways to protect or care for animals while still supporting animal slaughter in some or all cases.

A central issue in animal ethics, and one that helps to illuminate why people come to so many different conclusions about how we should treat nonhuman animals, is the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. Supporters of animal rights believe that nonhumans are entitled to certain independent legal rights. These rights may include the right not to be eaten, the right not to be forcibly impregnated, the right not to be experimented on, the right not to be forced to perform or ingest toxic doses of chemicals, and many other rights currently not granted to nonhuman animals in the majority of the world today. Animal welfare supporters are concerned mainly with how humans treat other animals. The focus is often on how to achieve better living conditions for animals who are kept in captivity and eventually killed by humans for food, entertainment, experimentation, and forced labour.

However, while rights activists hold that animals have inalienable rights independent of anyone else’s interests, welfarists may defend the view that even though animal welfare is important, human concerns are more important than the concerns of nonhuman animals. This view, held in some form by most humans today, is called speciesism. A speciesist philosopher may or may not be an animal welfare supporter in certain contexts, but will argue that if forced to choose, we should prioritize the interests of our species over others. These individuals maintain that this philosophy is justified because there are morally relevant grounds for putting all nonhumans on a lower level of moral concern than all humans, regardless of any factor besides species membership.

Finally, many philosophers insist that nonhuman animals do not merit inclusion in our moral circle at all. This is a more extreme form of speciesism that is held by fewer philosophers, hearkening back to the days of René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes believed that nonhuman animals were unconscious automata. If they actually had no direct experiences of their own, then they could not be said to have direct interests or a potential wellbeing to take into account, so any concern for animal welfare was predicated on an indirect notion of how human interests could be served by treating animals well. However, the automata theory has been largely disproved by contemporary biologists and neurologists, who have proven that nonhuman animals possess neurological systems much more like our own than they are different.

So why is there a difference between what many people consider acceptable to do to a member of one species versus another species? There are number of different proposed arguments against nonhuman animals’ rights. I discuss a few below, but I hope you’ll enjoy perusing the list of resources below for further exploration of animal ethics!

The Intelligence Argument

Some people believe that there is a notable difference in intelligence in nonhuman versus human animals. Humans have higher levels of intelligence, says this argument, and thus our interests are more important. However, other philosophers have pointed out that differences in intelligence is not a reason to discriminate among individual humans. What is it about nonhuman animals that makes their intellectual capabilities a relevant factor in how they are treated? Furthermore, the average nonhuman primate, pig, or dog is vastly more intelligent and independent than the average human infant. Projects on interspecies communication have revealed that nonhuman primates are capable of acquiring vocabularies of thousands of words, far more than human toddlers or even some adults with certain communication disabilities. Most of those who argue against nonhuman rights would not be prepared to deny rights to humans with similar language capabilities.

The Contractarian Argument

Some contractarian ethicists argue that nonhuman animals are not worthy of inclusion in our moral circle because they cannot enter into contracts with us. If they cannot promise not to hurt us, we are not required to refrain from hurting them. In response, other philosophers wonder whether not being able to enter into a moral contract is a reason to justify hurting someone. This is a particularly interesting dilemma to discuss with young children, because most will have had experience interacting with nonhuman animals as companion animals in their own homes or at friends’ houses. If your dog or cat cannot promise not to hurt you, does that give you the right to hurt him?

Some philosophers also worry that the contractarianism argument is inconsistent because many people who argue that nonhumans have “lower” intelligence than humans, and thus are entitled to fewer rights, also tend also to claim that humans possess greater moral reasoning capabilities than other animals. If this is the case, says the rebuttal, then we should be able to make the decision to show ethical restraint by not harming others unnecessarily.

The “Natural” Argument

Another common argument for animal exploitation is that animal consumption and subjugation is natural and has always been done. This raises many philosophical questions too. Young children are often particularly intrigued by the concept of the “natural,” since it is open to such wide interpretation. What does “natural” actually mean? If anything that an animal does is natural, is anything a human does natural? Does that make cars and computers natural (since we built them!)? If so, what isn’t natural? Does the word natural begin to lose its meaning? Is something that is natural always okay? What about other institutionalized practices that almost all human cultures have adopted for extended periods of our histories, but that we recognize today as abhorrent, like human slavery and genetic mutilation (which are currently legal to inflict on most nonhumans)?

In the Public Sphere

The ethical issue of non-human animal rights is rapidly gaining recognition around the world. The Nonhuman Rights Project is a non-profit devoted to gaining real legal rights for nonhumans around the world. India and Finland have declared dolphins to be official nonhuman persons, and many countries have recognized primates as persons with the autonomy and right to make decisions for themselves and not have their bodies and reproductive systems exploited and harmed for human interest.

However, in the United States today, nonhuman animals’ rights are generally not recognized. In the typical egg production facility, hens are held captive in battery cages, barren metal contraptions so tiny that each hen does not even have enough room to spread her wings, much less move around. For nearly their entire pregnancies, mother sows are confined to cramped gestation crates, painful metal cages that make it impossible to lie down comfortably or turn around. More standard factory farm practices are discussed in these pages at Farm Sanctuary. These “standard practices” are “routine” and legal, but often elicit horror and outrage from people learning about them for the first time. What is more, the things we do to animals who are raised for food, experimentation, and entertainment would be illegal were they done to a dog, cat, or human being.

In contrast to more abstract philosophical discussions in metaphysics and epistemology, animal ethics is particularly gripping for young people because it deals with issues that are directly affected by our day-to-day actions. Most of us interact directly with some nonhuman animals on a daily basis. Even if we live in cities and do not live with companion animals, we are likely to interact with pigeons and squirrels any time we leave the house. Every day, we make the choice whether to eat an animal or not to, and whether to support circuses that profit from animal humiliation instead of solely from human talent. We also must recognize that as beings who consume, we will inevitably cause some amount of destruction and suffering every day just by existing, particularly within the structure of today’s society that depends so much on industrialized agriculture and on technology that pollutes and destroys the environment. We each must take on the responsibility to evaluate our own circumstances to make rational choices that we feel good about. Hopefully the poems and questions on this site will give young philosophers the tools to delve a little more deeply into these ethical questions we face each day.

Peter Singer, a modern preference utilitarian philosopher, is considered one of the main fathers of the modern animal liberation and animal rights movement. In Animal Liberation, he outlines the principle of equal consideration of interests, which says that if we are going to treat someone differently based on a particular difference, then that difference must be morally relevant. Species, he argues, just like race, gender, or nationality, is not a morally relevant difference. It does not play a role in our ability to have interests and feel physical and emotional pain, so it should not play a role in one’s right to avoid suffering and to be treated with dignity.

References and Further reading

BBC Ethics guide. (2014) “The ethics of speciesism.”

Cohen, Carl. (1997) “Do Animals Have Rights?” 7(2), 91-102.

Cohen argues that animal rights are nonsensical, because the concept of “rights” is distinctly human.

Crain, William. The Emotional Lives of Animals & Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary.

Diamond, Cora. “Eating Meat and Eating People,” Philosophy 53 (1978): 465-79.

Dunayer, Joan. “On Speciesist Language.” On the Issues.

Some thoughts on how language influences our cultural communication and understanding, published in a progressive feminist magazine.

Farm Sanctuary: Factory Farming

Farm Sanctuary: Someone, Not Something Project

Great Apes Project

jones, pattrice. (2013) “Intersectionality and Animals.” Vine Sanctuary News.

Moral Standing and Personhood,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Singer, Peter. (2003) “Animal Liberation at 30.” New York Times.

Singer, Peter. (1979) “Equality for Animals?Practical Ethics, Chapter Three.

Spiegel, Marjorie. (1988) The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, London: Heretic Books.

Speciesism. Animal Ethics.

Professor James McWilliams on the naturalistic fallacy

Rohr, Janelle. Opposing Viewpoints: Animal Rights. Opposing Viewpoints Series.

Walker, Alice. (1986) “Am I Blue?Living By The Word. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Wilson, Scott D. “Animals and Ethics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Please feel free to share ideas and further resources in the comments on this page!

“Beso the Donkey”

Beso the Donkey,” Richard Jarrette, printed in the book of the same name (see Resource List)

Beso the Donkeybeso-the-donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.
He appears stoic in the rain
and stands still
beneath the merciless sun.
You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.
You would be more wrong
than the one who named him Beso
thinking that the kiss he gave
for a sliver of apple
was love.

Copyright 2010 Richard Jarrette. Reprinted with the permission of the poet. 

Background on Philosophical Issues

Animal Ethics (click to read more)

This brilliant collection of poems is written from the point of view of a speaker who observes a donkey named Beso living penned into a pasture over a long (unspecified) period of time, apparently ending with Beso’s passing away. The speaker gets to know Beso well as an individual and comes to care for and respect him deeply.

In this poem, the speaker notes that Beso, like any animal who is in captivity, is confined without any autonomy over his own life. Is this an acceptable way to treat another sentient being? Why or why not?

It seems Beso’s basic necessities of life (see “Rights“) are taken care of: He has “rock to eat, dust to drink,” and at some point is graced with “a sliver of apple.” However, he also endures “the merciless sun.” If you believe he is being wronged, is it only because of the questionable nature of his treatment? If we assume that he does have enough food, water, and shelter to be healthy, then is his human captors’ behaviour justified? Or is there something inherently wrong about keeping Beso locked up? As a nonhuman, self-aware being, is he entitled to a set of inalienable rights, a certain level of welfare, or neither? Why or why not?

Epistemology (click to read more)

This particular poem also deals with the issues of how we can know anything about “other minds,” trying to understand what others are thinking and feeling, and anthropomorphising – ascribing “human qualities” to nonhuman beings. There are some basic ways that we generally assume, by observation, that other humans have similar feelings, thoughts, and experiences to our own. When I hurt myself, I flinch or cry out. Therefore, when I observe the same behaviour in those around me, I assume they are experiencing similar pain. Can we make this same assumption when we see nonhuman beings exhibit the same behaviours that we do? Descartes thought that the screams a cat or dog makes when physically harmed were just automatic responses, and justified gruesome “experiments” like nailing cats to wooden boards. Throughout the history of the United States (and continuing today), animals raised for food and scientific experimentation have not been covered under standard animal protection laws; the law allows us to grind up chicks alive and toss living birds in boiling water without any repercussions. (This is considered “standard practice” in the egg and chicken meat industries.) The Cartesian idea of nonhuman animals as automata is often used to justify these practices.

Today, contemporary scientists have proven that all vertebrates have very similar nervous systems, which suggests that nonhumans feel physical pain in much the same way as humans do. Data and empirical evidence also shows us that most nonhuman animals likely dream and form memories and friendships in similar ways. But from a philosophical perspective, we always come back to the same question: How we can really tell what another being is experiencing if we cannot experience the same thing ourselves?

Sample Questions for Discussion on “Beso the Donkey”

Animal Ethics

“Beso the Donkey
lives out his days in a small pasture.”

  • [questions for preliminary discussion] Why is Beso in the pasture? How long do you think he’s been there? Do you think he can get out if he wants to?
  • Why would someone want to keep Beso in one place?
  • Is there anything wrong with keeping someone in one place?
    • Would it make a difference if the pasture was bigger?
    • Would it make a difference if there was another donkey living with Beso?
  • Have you ever had a timeout? Is this similar or different to what has happened to Beso? In what ways?

“You could almost believe that a rock
to eat, dust to drink,
are all that he needs.”

  • If Beso has enough food and water to be healthy, is there anything wrong with keeping him locked up?
  • [preliminary question] How many people here live with companion animals (a.k.a. “pets”)? OR Has anyone here been to a zoo?
  • Do companion animals live with us because they want to or because we want them to?
  • Is there anything wrong with keeping a companion animal in your house and not letting him or her leave? Why or why not?tiger in a zoo
  • Do you think that animals in zoos seem happy? Why or why not? How about the animals who live with us? Why or why not?
  • Do nonhuman animals need us? Do we need them? Why or why not and in what ways?

Epistemology

“He appears stoic in the rain …”

  • [preliminary question] What does “stoic” mean?
  • Do nonhuman animals have the same feelings people do? How can we tell?
  • Can we ever know for sure what someone else is thinking? Why or why not?
  • Can we ever know for sure what someone else is feeling? Why or why not?

Animal Ethics Extension Activities

Epistemology Extension Activities

Activity: What Makes Us People?

Elephant_painting_thailand
An elephant painting

This is an activity to introduce thinking about essential and accidental properties of human beings, and what may or may not be important differences among people and between people and other animals.

  1. Get a large sheet of paper to hang on the wall (the giant Post-It stickies work well), or use a white board. (I prefer the giant stickies so they can be posted around the classroom afterwards and stay there to stimulate further musing.)
  2. Have the group generate ideas. Let children call out, or if you have a shyer group, go around the circle so everyone gets a turn.
  3. You may get things like “two eyes,” “can speak,” “can think,” etc., or you may get wildly different responses. Be prepared for anything and do not judge! Write everything down that the children suggest.
  4. After everyone has had a chance to speak, go back to your word cloud and ask of each one: Is this true about all people? And/or are there other animals of which this is true?

In the beginning, it may seem easy to come up with a list of traits that describe a human being, but in the end, it may be more difficult than expected to categorize what is true of all humans and only humans! After this activity, the group may like to continue with a discussion on perspectives and/or animal ethics using one of the poems above.

Activity: Perspective Shift

Have everyone read a poem written about a nonhuman animal, Richard Jarrette’s “Beso the Donkey,” for example. Consider having each person in the circle read a couple of lines, or invite a student who hasn’t had the opportunity to speak in a while read the poem aloud. This is also a nice way to include students who are shyer about sharing their ideas, and help them get used to participating in the circle in a gentle way.

  1. Split into pairs or split off individually and rewrite the poem from the individual’s point of view (e.g. with “Beso the Donkey,” instead of writing from the perspective of Beso’s observer, write as Beso himself.)
  2. Come back to the circle to share your new poems and discuss why you made the choices you did. How did you choose what to include and what to leave out? What do we learn about the subject of your poem that we do not learn from reading the original poem? Is there anything that we can learn by reading about him or her in the third person that we don’t get from your first-person poem? Why is this?
  3. Read the original poem again (if just one person read the first time, have someone else read this time), and move into a Community of Inquiry around the poem with your new deeper appreciation for what the poem is doing.

*Alternative: It could be just as fruitful to begin with the Community of Inquiry and then split off to write poems. If you write and share first, the CoI will likely be more fruitful. If you discuss first, the poems may likely be more insightful/deeper. It’s up to you as a facilitator. Try out the activity with two different poems two different ways, and see which yields the most philosophically interesting results.

Activity: What is “Natural?”

Thanks are due to Professor Thomas Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College for the initial idea that prompted this activity.

  1. Cut up ten slips of paper and write the following:
  • a living tree
  • a dead tree
  • a piece of paper
  • a living dog
  • a leather jacket
  • an automobile
  • a bouquet of cut flowers
  • a rock
  • the Earth
  • you
  1. Have the group sort the papers into three piles: Natural, Not Natural, and Unsure. This may require extensive discussion, as participants will disagree! If you have a large group (more than six or seven), consider splitting the group in half and having each small group do the activity separately, and then come back together to discuss how you made the choices you did.
  2. Pay special attention to the Unsure pile. Why are those items not classifiable? Would you need more information about the object/entities to make a decision? What would you need to know?
  3. Is the word “natural” itself an objective word, or does it have multiple meanings?