Sunday, May 15, 2011

Animals Like Us

I read "Animals Like Us" by Mark Rowlands and it was fun to read but by now I have met many of the topics discussed in this book, so it did not introduce me to any revolutionary ideas. But perhaps Rowlands originated many of the ideas I have read and heard elsewhere.  The book's central thesis is that non-human animals are, like humans, conscious, sentient beings, so that exploiting them, and certainly eating them, is wrong.  The book talks about vegatarianism, hunting, zoos, and experimentation.  The oft repeated argument is that those things we cannot imagine doing to humans, should also be those that we would not perform on other animals.  If we believe that performing these actions on animals is allowed, then why not on humans as well.  At this point, the argument seems to be that all sentient beings are equal.  As we will see, that is not the thrust of the argument here; it is a misleading appetizer.

One of the more interesting questions is that if one were to have to choose between saving a human or an animal from a burning building, one chooses the human first.  Does that not prove that animals are not equivalent to humans and thus can be eaten by humans?  Rowlands battles this intuition and argument by developing the idea that death is worse for creatures with a "strong sense of future."  The star athlete's death on the eve of the Olympics is somehow worse than the couch potato's death.  It is more likely, he insists, that humans have "futures in a strong sense" than do dogs.  You can see where this is going.  It is true that I would probably save a baby from a burning building before I pulled out an eighty year old, and perhaps that reflects the moral intuition that we prefer to save the creature with the stronger future.  But I might save a fifty year old Nobel prize winner rather than the baby, and perhaps that is because we expect yet more of the proven Nobel prize winner or because the rescue is a kind of reward for a life well lived.  Either way, I am not sure how to measure whether a dog's life was or will be well lived.  So perhaps this whole way of thinking is too friendly to humans because we can perceive the futures of our own kind better than we can understand what lies ahead for other animals.

In any event, Rowlands seems ready to agree that humans can be preferred over other animals, and once one takes this step it is not clear how far to go.  Some people will say that animals should be killed  only if absolutely necessary to save humans, but others will say bring on the butchers. Alternatively, one might agree that animals should be respected - but that humans can be preferred to them - and conclude that animals should not be tortured before being killed! Rowlands argument seems designed to end up where he (and many others) think it ought to go, more than where it logically takes us. In the extreme case,  some humans have a stronger future than others but this does not justify killing those with weaker futures, even to guarantee the survival of the stronger ones.


  1. Hi again, Rowlands is a really good philosopher, and I'm glad you read his book. (Confession: he wrote a very friendly review of my book Frontiers of Justice, where I talk about animal rights, so I am well disposed!) One thing that is very good about Rowlands, where he and I agree, is that he sees an animal as having an overall form of life that involves more than just pleasure and pain. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and Peter Singer in the 20th-21st have done great things for the cause of animal rights, and pain is surely one of the things that is very important to emphasize. But really respecting animals means more than just giving them a pain-free existence: it means thinking about their need for social networks, for free movement in a suitable habitat, and so on. And animals, like people, can have "adaptive preferences," meaning contentment with an unjust status quo, not longing for what you don't know or what is out of reach. So mere absence of pain does not show that all is well, something that has led many to oppose all confinement of animals in zoos, even humane ones.

    I share your skepticism about Rowlands's point about the future and killing. For one thing, many animals do have projects that extend over time, and can plan for the future. The more we know about primates and elephants in particular, the more we see that they do have all this. But can we conclude that it's all right to kill a mouse because it does not see the future before it? I find this a hard question. I think the right standard might be to make sure every creature has the opportunity to have a decently long life characteristic of its kind (my "capabilities approach"!), and then perhaps at that point it would be more permissible to kill a mouse than an elephant. But it is still a difficult issue. One thing that I think right in his approach is that the characteristic form of life of a creature affects what can be a harm for that creature. For example, it does not seem to be a harm to deprive rabbits of the freedom of religion, since religion plays no role in their form of life, whereas to deprive a human being of this is a very great harm.

    Incidentally, Rowlands would love to know about your blog I bet, so I suggest that you email him. at, tell him a little about your project, and tell him that I suggested that he might like to read your blog, and make a comment if he were so inclined.

  2. Comment received from Mark Rowlands

    Ah – a slippery slope argument (the “bring on the butchers part”). Not worried about that: assuming there is a difference between vital and non-vital interests, there is no slide down any slope. Vital interests always trump non-vital interests. An animal’s interest in staying alive is a vital one. My interest in eating a tasty lump of meat of animal carcass is not similarly vital (although I do miss it). The animal’s interest wins.

    The death stuff then pertained to what we do when both interests are vital – a human interest in staying alive versus an animal interest in staying alive. Is there any rational reason for privileging the human interest? I argued that there was, and based it on the argument that because a human (typically, not necessarily) is more strongly tied to their future, they have more to lose when they die. Actually, I don’t endorse this account any more. First, I convinced myself that there was a crippling objection that involved the idea of the time of that a harm takes place. Generally, (in part due to the work of Nagel, see his article ”Death”) people seem quite comfortable with the idea that a harm can take place at no particular time. I think this idea is, in fact, much more problematic than people tend to think. Since, I decided, my account could give no plausible answer to the question of when the harm of death occurs, I abandoned it. Since then, I have also rejected it on the grounds that it embodies a disgustingly “simian” way of thinking about the value of life (that was in my autobiography The Philosopher and the Wolf).

    Finally, did I design my arguments to end where I wanted them to go? You bet! But that’s the great thing about arguments: they can be logically assessed quite independently of the motives of their makers. So, where I hoped they would go is irrelevant – the question is whether they can get there under their own steam. Think of an argument as an orphaned child. You do the best you can for them while you’re still around, but eventually they have to go out into the world on their own.