The natural continuation of this series about meat eating is covering books such as Meathooked or Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, and we will get to the later after this post. But while working on Elias’s thesis, we have encountered a book called Animals & Society by Keith Tester which we felt we also had to address as part of this series.
The book’s main theme is that ‘animal rights’ is not a natural truth that have waited for someone to discover, but a social construct which was invented under specific historical circumstances, and for human purposes.
Subtitling his book The Humanity of Animal Rights, Tester is not only pointing at the fact that humans’ relation to animals is bound to be humane for the obvious circumstantial reason that animals can’t represent themselves, but also and especially because humans’ only interest in animals is as objects who serve to define humans’ humanity.
Covering several theorists from the fields of ethology, sociobiology, anthropology, social history, philosophy, sociology, and most importantly animal rights, tester’s arguments are much more challenging than they may sound on the face of it.
He is far from being the conventional critique of animals rights and therefore worth your attention. Ours was caught by some of the points he made during his historical and sociological examination of the concept of animal rights, as well as ones which he didn’t make but his analysis emphasizes. In this post we wish to discuss mainly one of them, but to do so, first, some background is needed.
Difference and Similitude
Tester’s main argument is that conceptually, animal rights is only marginally concerned with animals and is actually mostly part of humans’ ongoing project of classifying and defining humanity. Animals are useful for humans to be able to think human.
Evidently, kindness to animals, as mentioned in the post about Norbert Elias, didn’t begin by humans seeking to bond with animals, or as a deep understanding of the similarity they share with other animals, but rather the opposite. Ironically, the grounds for the evolvement of kindness to animals was a social repudiation of “beastliness”, a gradual and consistent attempt of humans to distance themselves further and further away from their own animality. Kindness to animals began as just another phase in the civilizing process in which humans were seeking to define themselves by differentiation from “beastliness”.
Tester calls this social phenomenon ‘the demand for difference’ and he argues that it doesn’t only reflect humans’ demand to differentiate themselves from the rest of the animals but also from each other. Humans, especially bourgeois, used cruelty to animals as a differentiating factor between them and the ignorant peasants. The demand for difference was an exclusively urban concern which served as a social and cultural distinguisher between the bourgeois, who saw themselves as refined, knowledgeable, cultured and virtuous people, and those whom they saw as the “beastly” peasants.
So according to Tester, the first calls for kinder treatment of animals, served merely as indicators of humans’ social refinement, and to differentiate humans from animals as well as from humans who “acted like ones”. The first ethical demands to change the way humans view animals were a result of their sense of superiority.
Even Jeremy Bentham which is considered by the animal rights thinkers and community (ourselves included), as the philosopher who pointed at the unifying trait of humans and animals – suffering (which also must be the only ethical criterion), is according to Tester, part of ‘the demand for difference’, as “between the shouts he is whispering something very different”:
“The utilitarian approach is only secondarily concerned with any general categories that lump humans and animals together. It is more fundamentally an announcement of human privilege… His [Bentham] argument fully subordinates animals to the benevolence of those humans who ‘know best’.
His argument is not if we suffer, so do they. On the contrary, it is; if we know they can suffer we should not hurt them, a problem that can only be resolved to the extent that we have a privileged knowledge only we can act upon. Imagine that I am kicking a dog. Bentham does not believe that it has an inalienable right not to be kicked; instead he is saying that if I know the dog suffers I should not kick it because I am knowingly causing it to be unhappy. He is appealing to my ability to know what is best for the dog and change myself accordingly. The whole point of Bentham’s case is my special ability to become a different kind of being.
Bentham saw the development of morality as a guide to how far humans’ potential privileged and radical difference had been advanced. He speculated only that the day might come when it is realized that animals should be pulled into the orbit of morality. There is nothing inevitable about this, no necessity. All he identifies is a process which depends entirely on the enhancement of the unique knowledge possessed by some people.
The notion has a social impact. If moral behavior relies on the possession of the knowledge which uses general categories to classify humans and animals as similar (in suffering, pain), then those who demonstrate the greatest regard for animals are, by definition, the most knowledgeable…
…Kindness to animals reflects the existence of a properly social individual.”
So actually Bentham argues, according to Tester of course, that animals have rights, as without them it would be impossible for humans to be fully social and properly humane.
Whereas ‘the demand for difference’ presupposed the uniqueness of ‘man’ and only looked at animals as objects of human knowledge and definition, Tester argues that a new demand has emerged in the ninetieth century – ‘the demand for similitude’ which subsumed all organic beings within the more fundamental category of life, and identified similitude in terms of abstract concepts such as the ability to suffer.
‘The demand for similitude’ sounds like the cornerstone for an equalitarian perspective, however, Tester argues that the demand for similitude is also focused on humans. He describes its developers as people who were so unwilling to live the urban, social life expected of them by their society, that they declared they would rather be like animals. They despised the social decadence of the urban life and set themselves up as natural and pure individuals. They were more anti-social than pro-animals.
Other representatives of the demand for similitude were urban humans who started to let animals into their houses as objects of affection. That was made possible exactly because animals were already firmly separated from their lives. They could easily determine that animals are the same as humans and that all life is identical, since all their knowledge, everything which creates their reality, confirms that real humans are not animals at all. They could allow themselves the demand for similitude since their humanity was so obvious and self-evident that it wasn’t for a moment threatened.
Tester argues that ‘Animal Rights’ confronts society with a biological reality, that humans are a part of nature, inextricably involved in the same world as animals, but also that humans are different because they can be moral. “Animal Rights can be reduced to a ritual avoidance of touching animals; it helps society firmly delimit itself. More than a confrontation with the beast, animal rights is a classification of humanity.
Animal rights may be understood as a social construct which helps to maintain the differential ordering of living objects. It established precisely how and why humans are different from the animals they know best and most resemble; it makes humanity different by making humanity moral.
In behaving morally in relation to animals, individuals and society are simply proving how much better than animals they have become; just showing how privileged ‘man’ really can be. Real ‘man’ can do all this for animals; after all, they cannot do it for themselves.”
Tester argues that without animal rights, the demand for similitude would break the separation line between humans and animals. Since humans see themselves as the only moral animal in the world, ‘animal rights’ actually redefines the separation line between humans and animals, thickener it and even make it impassable. Due to that granting nonhumans with rights can only be done by humans, animal rights doesn’t act as an equalizer but as a separator.
Supporters of the demand for difference and the demand for similitude both agreed that cruelty was wrong because it did something to humanity. The cruel person either threatened society by making it less humane, or ignored the natural law which instructs humans with observing themselves as another organic beings who are linked through the abstract concept of life. Animals were only relevant, because certain things should not be done to them.
Elias argued that only after animals were physically distanced from humans with urbanization, and conceptually distanced by humans who gradually felt repugnant by their own animality, could humans have started thinking about animals’ moral status. Tester adds that only since humans are constantly trying to define themselves and classify the world, could they, at some point and as result of changes in their social reality, have started looking at other animals in other ways. The human animals had to stop being animals to start thinking of animals as equal to them.
Tester argues that the two images of ‘man’, the ones that come from the demand for difference and from the demand for similitude, are reconciled in the animal rights thought:
“Animal rights deliberately tries to reconcile elements of the case for difference to others from the argument for similitude. In doing so, it tries to fuse the strengths of both and present itself as the whole truth. Animal rights presents itself as the ultimate way of knowing humanity in relation to animals. It resembles the demand for difference to the extent that this certainty of moral correctness is a measure of who is or is not properly human. It allows campaigns to discipline and police those who behave in ways which real humans should not.
It says that ‘man’ can indeed be made a stable figure, and therefore also says that there is only one right attitude towards animals.
… Animal rights was invented by people who wanted to know who ‘man’ was, not primarily because they were worried about animals.”
In that, Tester, includes Peter Singer, Tom Regan and Stephan Clark, the three philosophers he chooses to focus on representing the ideas of animal rights. We agree that there is something humane in their observation of animal rights, but not the one that Tester is trying to point at, and that’s the issue we want to focus on in this post.
Animal Rights – Not How Animals Should be Treated But How Humans Should Be Humans
“Animal rights is not concerned with animals at all; that’s on the contrary, the idea says rather more about society and humans. Animal rights might really be about social actions and only indecently focus on animals. This is clearest in Singer, who wants to make us think about the utilitarian consequences of our acts.”
“Animal Liberation asserts that the truth of animals is their ability to suffer on a morally equal basis to ourselves, and they have a preference in the avoidance of suffering as we likewise. To argue the contrary is to give voice to speciesism. Singer intended his book to be read and adopted as persuasive repudiation of the acts of speciesism; the point is not so much that animals have a right to be treated well, rather it is that if we are to be good utilitarians, we should not act in any way that violates their preference not to suffer.”
According to Tester, Singer does not believe that animals have rights but is more concerned with the morality of the acts of society and individuals. His vegetarianism advocacy is on the grounds that, firstly, meat-eating is speciesist and, secondly, disutilitarian. And ultimately not about the animals.
But Singer truly doesn’t believe in animal rights. Tester knows that, and justifies talking about Singer in terms of animal rights, since ‘animal rights’ concept is a suitable umbrella and since practically the perspective over the moral treatment of animals is more or less the same.
However, even if that argument was acceptable, it is not sufficient to justify focusing on Singer who doesn’t believe in animal rights and not on Tom Regan author of ‘The Case for Animal Rights’ which offer a rights view on the moral status of animals. This is not accidental. Singer’s utilitarianism fits Tester’s main argument much better than Regan’s rights view – which identifies an equally possessed inherent value among some species, and so argues that individual subjects of these species have a right to expect the respect of that value. His vegetarianism advocacy is on the grounds that it is a moral duty founded on a requirement to respect the intrinsic value of all subjects of a life, to treat them as an end in themselves.
Tester mentions and explains both so he won’t be accused in lack of awareness, but when he makes his critical claims he focuses on Singer and writes about Regan only that: “Although Regan talks of the intrinsic value of individuals independently of any use they might be put to by others, the lens through which moral issues are focused is precisely the possibility that animals are reduced to means by humans. Again it is the acting human who creates difficulties.”
Tester argues that ‘animal rights’ is actually not really about how humans should treat animals but about how humans should be humans. Animals are merely descriptive objects, not much more than a social Litmus Paper. We disagree. We certainly think that animal rights are a deliberate and direct result of valid ethical questions that genuinely deal with how humans should act towards animals and not merely a byproduct of their journey of self-definition. We don’t think that Singer’s and Regan’s books are just another part of the human self-investigation, but rather an extremely important part of the human investigation of ethics.
We believe that Singer’s, Regan’s and Clark’s ideas are about animals at least to a large extent. Obviously they are ideas developed by humans for humans to apply, and so are humane ideas, but they are about animals in the sense of looking at them and seeing something in them which requires moral consideration.
If Animal Liberation was only about inconsistency in human morality which must be fixed, Peter Singer wouldn’t dedicate much of it (as well as much of his other books) to informing the public about animal suffering. Although the information in Animal Liberation is of how humans are treating animals, if it was merely humans on his mind he would have settled for logical arguments pointing on their inconsistency. Animal Liberation has a logical case but it is not a philosophy book, it is a political one. Singer wants the state of animals to be changed, Tester would argue that Singer wants humans’ treatment of animals to be changed. But either way, we believe that animals were on Peter Singer’s as well as Tom Regan’s and Stephan Clarks’ mind when writing their books for the simple reason that they care about what happens to other sentient beings. Singer didn’t write Animal Liberation thinking of liberating utilitarianism from speciesism but of reducing animals’ suffering.
‘Animal rights’ is not humane in the sense of actually caring about humanity’s image and definition and to what happens to it when humans are cruel to animals, it is about caring about animals and what happens to them. It is something about the animals that made them think differently on how humans treat them. They think that animals possess some features which entitle them with moral consideration.
However, animal rights are humane in the sense of focusing only on animals which humans directly exploit.
The realization that animals are morally important should have produced a much wider spectrum of ethical demands, especially under the current human occupation of the planet.
Animals are suffering from humans’ activity on a much larger scope then the direct exploitation of them. Yet these harms are hardly mentioned in the animal rights community. The right for a safe, not polluted and not constantly diminished living space, the right for clean water and the right to breathe clean air are not on the agenda and not only because there are more burning issues but since the animal rights ideal is to end the human-animal relations. After the last factory farm is closed the aspiration is for a total separation between the human world and the animal world. Only that it is not enough and not possible. Conflicts of interests are inevitable, definitely as long as there are almost 8 billion humans, as long as they live everywhere, and as long as the vast majority of them maintain such a harmful lifestyle.
A call for an extreme reduction in the human population, an extreme reduction in the human global spread, and an extreme reduction in the human use of the planet’s “resources” must be included under animal rights, but it isn’t since ‘animal rights’, though not in the sense Tester means, is indeed humane.
Humans, and humans alone, have the power to gain others with rights. It is not merely a theoretical built-in injustice, but a built-in power structure that practically allows humans to determine which rights animals should be granted with. Inequality is inherent to an interspecies system where only one species makes all the rules.
In this world the mere concept of rights for all nonhuman animals is an oxymoron. Everything is on someone else’s expense. Humans’ global occupation is so vast and absolute that civilization became self-evident. But it mustn’t be.
The lack of serious criticism over the consumerism lifestyle and humans’ vast occupation of the planet, strengthen the humanity of animal rights. The demand is not for reorganization of the life humans have arranged for themselves on this planet based on the understanding that animals have rights, but to separate humans from the rest of the animals.
Animals according to Regan have only negative liberty and not a positive one, meaning humans must not restrict animals’ freedom and not exploit them, but owe them nothing else. Practically it means that animal systematic exploitation must be outlawed under human social rules but that is where it stops. In other words it is not a liberation movement such as women and children, blacks and gay people, but a separationist one. Singer’s book should have been titled Animal Separation and Regan’s The Case for Animals’ Right Not to be Exploited by Humans.
Animal rights focus is on what humans are not allowed to do to animals instead of on what kinds of lives animals have. The omission of animals which are not directly hurt by humans indicates how humane the concept of animal rights is. The focus is on what mustn’t be done to animals by humans, and besides that, humans shouldn’t interfere in animals’ lives. Animal rights are mainly the right not to be exploited by humans and not about positive rights like humans have as the right for good health, education and etc. The rhetoric is basically we are here and they are there. Animal rights are actually a separation aspiration.
Furthermore, animal rights are humane since only humans can gain animals with rights and therefore according to the animal rights thought animals have rights only when they are hurt by humans. When they are hurt by other causes such as diseases, natural disasters or each other, they are on their own. That is as opposed to human rights which still hold when they are hurt by diseases no one deliberately caused, natural disasters, or when they are hurt by an infant or a mentally ill human who like nonhuman animals are not moral agents. Human rights are independent of circumstances, animals’ rights are dependent on human circumstances.
‘Animal rights’ is humane since animals are losing the moral grounds for the plea to gain them with rights outside human society. That is despite that what makes animals worthy of moral consideration is their subjective ability to experience, not the objective conditions of their lives (such as to what species they belong, where they live and their relations with other species) or their relations with humans. Animal rights deals with the right of animals not to be hurt by humans, not the right of animals not to be hurt.
When it comes to animals’ suffering in nature, animal rights is humane since it is more about qualities humans have than about qualities animals have. And probably the best example for that is Tom Regan’s argument that the harm animals cause each other is not morally significant since they are not moral agents. According to him, when there are no moral agents involved, there are no moral issues to deal with. When there are no moral agents involved, consequences are neutral.
However, moral agency is relevant only to determine whether someone must be held accountable for hurtful actions, not to determine whether hurtful actions are of moral significance. Moral agency is meaningful only for the hurting side. For the side being hurt it is meaningless. The harm’s cause doesn’t affect the individuals’ interest not to be harmed. Their interests are independent of other considerations.
And for our matter, given that only humans are moral agents, arguing that when there are no moral agents involved, consequences are neutral, is extremely humane.
Furthermore, Regan’s claims regarding inherent value contradict his conclusions about animals’ suffering in nature. If inherent value is indeed equal among the ones holding it, and if it cannot be reduced by the actions of others, how can it nevertheless be totally ignored depending on the context? Animals in nature are also subjects of a life and they are also capable of suffering. Moral status is non-dependent. Sentient beings don’t lose their moral status when their suffering happens in nature.
The avoidance of seriously addressing suffering in nature by the animal rights community is a serious reinforcement of the argument that animal rights are humane. To avoid animals’ suffering in nature, animal rights must beforehand be about what humans are doing to animals and not what generally happens to animals.
Moral status mustn’t be based on the relations of animals from specific species with humans, but focus on the morally relevant capacities of the animals. We are morally obligated to help sentients in need because of their inherent ability to suffer, not our contingent involvement.
Moral consideration is supposed to be a product of internal abilities, not external relations.
The well-being of sentient individuals, and not how humans relate to them, is what establishes the obligation to help them.
Our moral obligation not to cause animals suffering is not depended upon our relations with them, but solely on their ability to suffer. By the same token, our moral obligation to prevent animals suffering is not depended upon our relations with them, but on their ability to suffer.
Suffering is suffering, and it needs to be stopped no matter where it occurs, to whom and by whom.
Not the lack of moral agency is the reason it is meaningless to talk about rights in nature, but the fact that it is impossible to respect these rights which everyone violates, all of the time.
That is not a reason to define nature as an ethically exterritorial, but a reason to cease its existence.