Justice for Animals in a Nonideal World of Animal Rights Theories

Zoopolis, which was the topic of the last five posts, is the most familiar, and probably so far the most extensive and original attempt to suggest a theory of animal protection in the realm of political science. But it didn’t start the course, which some call ‘the political turn in animal ethics’. That is usually attributed to Robert Garner who wrote about the issue in mid-90’s.
In the following text we’ll address his book A Theory of Justice for Animals – Animal Rights in a Nonideal World from 2013, where he presents his theory for animal justice.

Garner starts formulating his theory of justice for animals by rejecting the two major objections to the claim that it is even relevant to apply principles of justice to animals:
The first – that justice is inappropriate for animals because it is a distributive concept involving, typically, material goods – is quickly dispensed with on the grounds that the distributional paradigm can be extended to include primary goods which clearly apply to animals. The second objection is that animals, not being moral agents, are incapable of agreeing and upholding principles of justice. For this reason, animals are excluded as recipients of justice in most contractarian theories of justice, and, most notably, the theory of justice provided by Rawls.”
This objection is dispensed by the argument from marginal cases: “One difficulty for Rawls here (and for contractarianism in general) is that insisting upon moral agency as an entry qualification for justice also has the effect of excluding some humans, such as the very young and the severely mentally disabled, so called “marginal” humans.”
In other words, if principles of justice don’t apply to beings who are not moral agents, then they shouldn’t apply to many humans as well, a conclusion humans find unacceptable. But to remain consistent, they must either accept the exclusion of some humans from principles of justice, or the inclusion of nonhuman animals. Obviously Garner is in the later camp.

The reason Garner insists on a theory of justice rather than sticking to the moral realm is that according to him, morality independent of justice is equivalent, in theory, to the voluntary character of charity. “The requirement to be just to animals means, in practice, that it is regarded as a pressing matter, one that should be considered compulsory and not left to individuals to decide if they want to abide by obligations. Moreover, it is incumbent on the state, above all, to ensure that animals are treated justly. Insofar as there are direct duties owed to animals within a moral realm independent of justice, they cannot be based on the principles of charity or compassion, since the decision to act so as to benefit animals according to these principles is entirely voluntary. No duties, in other words, are invoked.”

We agree that moral issues must be regarded as a pressing matter, one that should be considered compulsory and not left to individuals to decide if they want to abide by obligations, but taking this matter to the state level would practically mean that individual humans would feel that it is not their responsibility. On the face of it, had people been moral, compassionate and caring, then first of all, moral obligations to animals would indeed be regarded as a pressing matter (as opposed to the current indifference), and second, if the state they live in doesn’t see it that way, humans should replace their representatives to ones who do.
Obviously this claim is extremely naïve, but mostly because it replies to an even more naïve claim that “it is incumbent on the state, above all, to ensure that animals are treated justly” in a world where there has not even been one single state ever in history that ensured that humans, their own citizens, are treated justly.

Garner argues that we need to frame the obligations humans have to nonhuman animals in the language of justice, because justice entails legal compulsion. But humans have framed their obligations to other humans in the language of justice long ago, yet it didn’t entail legal compulsion in any state. We live in an extremely unjust world, a world where injustice to humans occurs every single minute, in every single state, so we fail to see why and how would the change of language of the obligations to animals succeed where it colossally failed when it comes to humans, despite that humans, generally speaking, do care about other humans.

Besides the issue of unprecedentedness (or failed precedent of justice, anywhere at any time along human history and for humans only), the very idea of reliance and emphasis on the state and on the legal system to bring justice is in itself unjust. That is because states, laws and rights are power based, discriminatory in their nature, and virtually are “the law of the strongest” in a civilized clothing, and as long as the political and legal system is human, it is bound to be unjust and speciesist.
Clearly, the very situation of humans representing animals’ interests, according to rules that humans and humans alone have shaped, is in itself utterly unjust. There can never be equality when one group decides everything for all the other groups. Inequality is inherent to an interspecies system where only one species makes all the rules.

Garner’s Sentience Position

After explaining why a theory of justice and not a moral one is what’s needed, Garner tries to strengthen his case by mentioning some disadvantages of specific moral theories commonly used to protect animals.
Regarding care ethics he claims that when separated from principles of justice, it is likely to lead to an illegitimate prioritization of humans’ particular relationships with other animals.
Regarding virtues ethics he claims that some prior ethical theory is needed to identify virtues and vices in the first place. In his words: “Without any prior moral standards, we could neither identify moral virtues nor determine their content.” He also mentions that virtue ethics, like care ethics, does not always provide a clear guide to action or moral judgment. And also that it is vulnerable to conflicts between virtues.
Regarding relational ethics he claims that it would have the implication that we owe no obligations – positive or negative – to those with whom we do not have a relationship. He quotes DeGrazia’s remarks on the matter: “giving extensive weight to social bonds might destabilize the moral status of many humans; unloved loners, people from very different cultures or highly isolated countries.” And of course, when it comes to nonhuman animals, it follows that animals with whom humans don’t have a relationship, have no moral worth at all.
Regarding utilitarianism he makes the famous claim that it neglects the individual. “Its aggregative character results in allowing “some people to be treated as less than equals, as a means to other people’s ends” (Rowlands, 2009: 42). In other words, the way that humans and animals are treated in utilitarianism is not a product of the characteristics they possess as individuals, “but of the effects of their treatment on others”.”
Regarding what he calls the species-egalitarian version of animal rights, he claims that it is “failing to take into account the importance of nonpersonhood interests, it fails to take into account the moral significance of those interests associated with persons. In other words, the species-egalitarian strand of animal rights is flawed because it is difficult to argue against the claim that the differences between “normal” adult humans and adult animals are substantial and are morally significant. In short, the level of complexity of an individual affects what can be a harm for it.
In particular, the fact that most animals lack the characteristics of personhood challenges the claim that they have equivalent levels of interest in life and liberty to “normal” humans. In other words, it is not possible to justify moral egalitarianism between humans and animals because it is not the case that humans and animals have equally important interests in life and liberty
Another reason Garner rejects the rights-based species egalitarianism as a possible candidate for a theory of justice for animals is that it does not qualify as a realistic utopia (as it is unrealistic).

Hence, Garner suggests his own theory – The Sentience Position.
As its name suggests, it is based on the assumption that at least some nonhuman animals have an interest in not suffering. As a result, they have a prima facie interest in avoiding suffering that might be inflicted on them by humans. If we are prepared to say that humans have a right not to suffer at the hands of others, then, given that animals have a similar, although by no means identical, capacity to suffer, consistency demands that we also accord a right not to suffer to animals. If this is granted, and we do not try to identify additional interests animals possess to which we might attach a right, then this is a position claiming that what is wrong with our treatment of animals is not their use per se but is a product of what we do to them whilst they are being used.”

Garner’s theory of justice for animals is rights-based but as aforementioned non-egalitarian. That means that according to him: “… the opportunities account of the wrongness of killing suggests that humans have more to lose by death. As a result, it would be justified morally to choose the life of a human over an animal on the grounds that this would cause less harm“.
However, obviously that is not true. Given that humans are causing much more harm than any other animal, it would be utterly unjustified morally to choose the life of a human over another animal on the grounds that this would cause less harm.

Garner, like most others, considers only one part of the equation, the tiniest, and in our view the least important, ethically speaking, which is the effect on the agent, while totally ignoring the effects of the agent. This consideration is particularly partial and superficial when the case is of humans vs. nonhumans. Every being has a price tag, but humans’ is nonproportional to any other being.

Garner’s perspective stems from the ethical line of thought that the question in the center of morality is how to live a good life and not how to live while being good to others. When the question in the center of morality is of how one must live and not how one must treat others, then the focus in cases of conflict of interests is who can potentially live a better life, and not who can potentially cause less harm to others. When affecting others is in the center of ethical questions then the conclusion is totally different. Human life is not at all more important under this approach.

Life has no point or meaning whatsoever in cosmic terms, and nothing has any external justification in terms of purpose. No one and nothing is more important than anything or anyone else in cosmic or purposefulness terms. Everything and everyone exist for no reason or purpose, so there is no reason to prioritize humans for allegedly having superior capabilities since these, even if for the sake of the argument we’ll accept that exist, have no meaning or purpose in cosmic terms. It is not important that they would exist. Only experiences are morally relevant.
If there is no purpose to existence and everyone exists for no reason, then what we must focus on is how to make everyone’s existence as tolerable as possible by minimizing negative experiences. Since humans are nonproportionally causing most of the negative experiences in the world, actually they are supposed to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of moral consideration, not indisputably placed at the top. When causing suffering to others, and not the ability to experience other mental capacities by the self, is in the center, human life is not more important but less.
Humans increase suffering in the world, they increase the number of suffering beings in the world, they increase the individual suffering of individual beings in the world. However you frame it, clearly, human life is the worst.
We think it is at least a very substantial justification against human protection, most certainly against an equal protection.

Garner’s Speciesist Position

According to Garner the species egalitarian version of animal rights fails as an ethical theory not only because humans and animals differ in ways that are morally relevant such as that normal adult humans possess a greater interest in life and liberty than most animals and that this ought to be reflected in the calculation of the respective moral importance of humans and animals, but also because it does not pass the realistic utopia test. “That is, the species-egalitarian version of animal rights, irrespective of whether it is a valid ethical position, requires too much of human beings, necessitating a transformation of what would seem to be our natural tendency to put our species, at least in some instances, first morally. That is, it fails to take into account the shared heritage of humanity that, from time immemorial, has used animals. In the language of communitarianism, it fails to take into account the history of narrative life stories.”
And he quotes Alasdair MacIntyre to strengthen his point: “I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point.” And adds himself: “Animals have certainly played a part in these narrative life stories, but they have never been the moral equal of humans.”
But we think it doesn’t strengthen his point. The fact that humans are biased to be speciesist doesn’t justify a speciesist theory. All along history, white straight men prioritized their own group first, but no one thinks white supremacy is therefore morally justified. We fail to understand how this argument is not, in the least bad case, a naturalistic fallacy and in the worst case utterly speciesist.

However, as rationally and morally indefensible as this claim may be, it is also practically inevitable. Humans indeed inherit from their past, their family, their tribe, their nation, a variety of inheritances that constitute the given of their life, and their moral starting point.
For that, among other reasons, it is hard to disagree that indeed the species-egalitarian version of animal rights requires too much of human beings. Not in the sense that there is something wrong with demanding humans species-egalitarianism, but in a sense of humans being way too inherently speciesist for such a demand to ever be implemented.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean that we should focus on a nonideal theory for animal justice, as Garner urges us to do, assisted by another political philosopher called Jonathan Wolff whom he quotes: “the task for the political philosopher is not to design the best possible world, but to design the best possible world starting from here.”
Designing the best possible world starting from here, is hardly likely to serve any justice for billions of animals for whom ‘here’ is the aggregated history of exploitation and suffering. It is hardly unlikely that the victims would suffice with such a task, which is more likely to serve the victimizers. It is more likely that victims would seek for an ideal theory and wouldn’t understand why must they compromise, at their own expense, on what the victimizers, and the victimizers alone, view as the best possible world, all the more so when the victimization is as old as the victimizers are, and is unproportionate to any other case of victimization ever in history.

From here, can only be different levels of nonideal lives for the victims. From here, can only be compromises at the expense of the victims, without hearing their say. From here, can only be discussions between humans over how many nonhumans humans are willing to sacrifice.

Garner’s conceptualization is speciesist, since he turns the whole issue to be about some humans advocating for an ideal theory of justice for animals, and others advocating for a nonideal one. In his terms it is about what humans are willing to do instead of about what nonhumans need and are likely to be willing to accept. And we find it hard to believe that they would be willing to compromise on his nonideal theory. In fact, we find it hard to believe that they would be willing to even consider it as nonideal, a term only humans can use, since for the victims, no theory is ideal, certainly not one that permits using them for humans’ purposes, or that doesn’t even pretend to provide an egalitarian state of affairs, and starts looking at things ‘from here’ – an extremely speciesist world in which they are systematically exploited by humans.

No theory is ideal, even the ones who advocate for a vegan world, and that is because it is always humans who are setting the standards, it is always humans who are determining which suffering is necessary despite that it is highly doubtful that anyone but humans would accept any of it as necessary, not to mention as just. Clearly this is always the case, under all theories. It is inherent to the world, but it is still fucked up and that’s why this world is so inherently fucked up.
This claim is not a theoretical stubborn insistency on an ideal theory, there are real victims, numerous of them, behind these cruel compromises. Behind each harm that humans determine as necessary, there are billions of victims, and to none of which was it necessary. Arguing that there is nothing to do about the suffering of billions of nonhuman animals in the plant based agriculture due to humans’ need to eat, is kind of might is right. Clearly, for the victims of human civilization, in the plant based food industry, in the clothing industry, due to human construction, transportation, leisure, entertainment and etc., nothing is necessary.
Was it up to them, the standard was much much higher than a vegan world with no experiments and no use of animals in the clothing and entertainment industries. Most probably, they would at least demand that humans would live just as any other species in terms of population size, living space, resources use, and effect on other species and their environment.
In other words, only if and when humans live like any other species, would it be relevant to discuss egalitarianism and necessary suffering.

There is nothing necessary about anything that humans are doing. It is necessary that a human would feed oneself as long as s/he lives, but humans can feed themselves with what other apes are feeding themselves, meaning whatever is growing in their restricted living area. It is not necessary that they would feed themselves by driving to a supermarket, and consume products consisted of double digits ingredients with each being transported from a different part of the world, each being grown in a different farm, each being sprayed with several chemicals, being processed several times, wrapped with several packages, some of which made out of nonbiodegradable materials that would affect sentient beings for hundreds of years ahead. None of this is necessary by a non-speciesist measure.

The inequality is inherent because it is impossible to live without hurting other sentient beings. That is the case even when living in small numbers, in a small territory, with a small footprint. And it is certainly the case when it comes to humans who each of them, including vegans, has a tremendous footprint, nonproportional to any other being from any other species.

Injustice to animals is everywhere and in everything. Every aspect of humans’ lives is bound with injustice to nonhumans. Not just factory farming but any type of farming is unjust. The levels of discrimination obviously largely differ, but excluding nonhumans from a particular area, tearing out the native vegetation and planting ones that suit humans’ desires and not necessarily the needs of the native residents of the region, fencing the area, constantly poisoning nonhumans in it, changing the composition of the soil, dividing the nearby lands with roads to the farms, plundering water from other habitats, making noises with heavy machinery, crushing nonhumans with heavy machinery, polluting the area with humans’ waste of many kinds and etc. are all unquestionably forms of an unjust discrimination.

Therefore even what Garner considers as an ideal theory of justice is super anthropocentric. And such an anthropocentric approach can be considered ideal, so ideal that according to Garner it is utopic, only because the world is so speciesist.

The idea that since humans are not gods on the face of the earth but just another species, they must live as such, and anything beyond that can’t be justified morally and actually is a violation of distributive justice, doesn’t even get any mentioning, not even among the utopian unrealistic ideal theories. And that is while in fact, such a theory should be considered as a nonideal one, which some activists may argue that we need to compromise on, because an ideal theory is one which suggests no suffering at all. So the disputation is supposed to be between the ideal theory which is of a world where no human ever causes any suffering to anyone, and a nonideal theory which is of a world where humans keep causing suffering to some animals but only as part of them being just another animal in an inherently violent world of limited resources, not because they are still controlling each and every inch of it.
Practically, both theories are not even mentioned. Not only in Garner’s book, or in others’ books, but almost never, by anyone.

The issue is supposed to be about the victims, not about some of the opinions of some of the victimizers. If we can’t provide a theory that suggests a state of affairs that suffice the victims then the theory is not morally justified. And indeed we can’t. That’s one of the main reasons we exist as a movement. There is no and there could be no ideal theory of justice since the inequity is inherent, and not only to the political and social sphere of the matter, but to the very essence of life. It is impossible to exist not at the expense of other sentient beings, and so it is impossible for a truly ideal theory of justice to ever come up, not to mention to ever be implemented.

There is no valid ethical theory in this world. Morally, humans mustn’t violate the rights of others, but practically they can’t avoid it. For humans to exist, others must suffer. But humans are not morally entitled to compromise on others’ lives. They just do.
A world in which humans are inherently bound to do what they morally mustn’t, is a world that they shouldn’t exist in.

Leave a Reply