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Today we are taking all the things we have learned this year about doing philosophy and applying that to moral considerations regarding non-human animals. We’ll explore what philosophers like Peter Singer and Carl Cohen have to say about their use, including the concept of equal consideration of interests.

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Remember Cecil the lion? A lot of people were shocked – even outraged – when they heard about his death at the hands of an American hunter in 2015.

The response to the lion’s death was so strong that the guy who shot Cecil basically went into hiding until he issued an apology. But isn’t that a little bit strange?

We react with horror when we hear about a majestic lion being shot, or sacks of kittens being tossed into rivers, or owners training their dogs to fight each other for sport. But, what is the difference between killing Cecil and killing a deer, or a duck, or a cow, or a chicken?

How do we reconcile the strong feelings many of us have about certain animals – mainly the cute ones, like kittens and puppies – with the way we actually use animals in our own lives? Most of us think nothing of using non-human animals for their meat, milk, or skins. And not only do we use animals in these ways, but using them as we do almost always harms them.

A common method for testing cosmetics, for example, involves restraining rabbits and putting the product into their eyes, leaving it for a set amount of time, and then washing it out and checking for ill effects.

Rabbits are used for this because they don’t have tear ducts, so they aren’t able to flush the product out of their eyes the way our eyes would. It may not surprise you to hear that this can be extremely painful, and often blinds the rabbits, which are then euthanized. On factory farms, chickens are housed in tiny cages, with each bird occupying a space the size of a standard piece of printer paper. Their beaks are often cut down to keep them from pecking each other. And when they’re no longer laying enough eggs, they’re killed. These are just a couple examples of the conditions animals experience at our expense, and they’re not unusual.

We’d never dream of using another human being in these ways, but we think nothing of doing it to non-human animals. So, how do we let ourselves do that?

Contemporary Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, uses the word ‘speciesism’ to describe giving preference to our own species over another, in the absence of morally relevant differences. Singer reminds us that there was a time when most Americans thought it was totally normal and right for members of one group to literally own members of another group – based on a morally irrelevant difference – skin color.

And today, the members of the oppressing group look back on the reasoning of their ancestors with horror and shame. Well, Singer predicts that there will be a time when our descendants look back on us and our treatment of non-human animals with the same reaction.

In a nutshell, Singer says, if it’s not ok to do it to a human, it’s not ok to do it to an animal either. Now, you might think you agree with him, because who doesn’t love bunnies and kittens? But do you really agree with him?

If you agree that we should treat like cases alike, and that a difference in treatment requires a morally relevant difference, then you have to identify the differences that justify treating non-human animals in ways that we would never subject humans to.

One arbiter you might use to justify the difference is intelligence. There’s no question that as a species, our intelligence trumps that of every other species on the planet. But we don’t normally think that intelligence is a good way for deciding how you get treated. Dystopian novels like, “Brave New World,” bring out the visceral distaste we have for that kind of intelligence-based caste system. So, if it’s clearly wrong to treat members of our species differently based on intelligence, why would it be ok to treat members of other species differently on that same basis?

Well, one response might be to argue that the difference in intelligence between the smartest and the least-smart humans is much smaller than the intelligence gap between humans and other species. But empirically, that’s not true. Sure, most humans fall within the same general range of intelligence, but some humans are profoundly cognitively disabled. And some animals, particularly primates, are probably more intelligent than those severely impaired humans. So, that argument doesn’t hold up.

But, maybe you think we should treat other animals the way we do, just because we can. Contemporary American philosopher, Carl Cohen, for example, calls himself a “proud speciesist.” He argues that every species is struggling to claw its way to the top, and that’s how it should be.

Every species ought to be most concerned about protecting itself, he says, and since humans are currently at the top, well, that means that we’re the best, so we can pretty much do whatever we want to other beings.

The problem with this reasoning is, you’d almost certainly not be ok with it if you weren’t a member of the privileged species. Remember, this is the exact argument that was given by slave owners to justify their domination of Africans and indigenous peoples. So, if you don’t normally think might makes right, then wouldn’t it be hypocritical to use it as a justification in this case?

Yet another rationale is that this is this is the way it’s always been. And it’s true. Humans have been dominating non-human animals for a really long time. It’s part of our culture and entire ways of life are based on it: farmers, ranchers, fishers, and so on.

But arguments from tradition are always philosophically suspect. The mere fact that something has been a certain way for a long time says nothing about whether it’s good.

And once again, that was the same argument used in defense of slavery. And yes, the abolition of slavery was economically costly and a huge disruption of slave-owning culture. But I think that we all agree it was totally worth it. Still, one of the strongest arguments for our uses of
non-human animals is the argument of need.

Most people believe that we’re justified in doing what it takes in order to survive. In fact, most people even think it’s ok to kill another human in the name of self-defense. This argument doesn’t justify using animals for non-necessary things like cosmetics testing, but eating is a necessity, so there’s nothing wrong with eating animals. Right?

The problem is, we know humans can be perfectly healthy without eating animals. So yes, you need to eat, but you don’t need to eat animals. For his part, Singer says we should think about the treatment of non-human animals in terms of an equal consideration of Interests.

This means that identical interests should be given equal weight, regardless of what type of being they occur in.

Of course, humans have all sorts of interests that animals don’t have. Some of us have interests in going to college, and voting, and getting married. And non-human animals don’t have an interest in doing those things. So, we don’t have any obligation to help them do that stuff.
But there is an interest that we all share. We have an interest in avoiding pain. Singer’s utilitarian ancestor, Jeremy Bentham, said, “The question is not, ‘can they reason?’ nor ‘can they talk?’ but rather, ‘can they suffer?'”

Because we are all alike in our capacity to suffer and in our desire to avoid suffering. Utilitarians like Bentham and Singer say that we need to equally consider that interest, and that we’re unjustified in preferencing human interests over non-human ones.

Now to be clear, as utilitarians these thinkers would never issue an out-and-out prohibition on the use of non-human animals. What they’re against is the unthinking assumption that animals are at our disposal. Since they’re in the group of things that feel – like humans – they must be factored into the utilitarian calculus.

So if the issue is really about need – if you’re literally starving and the only thing around to eat is an animal, they’d argue that you’re morally justified in eating it, because the suffering involved in your death by starvation would outweigh the suffering of the animal.

The problem is that, for most people in the industrialized world today, it’s not about need. It’s simply about taste, and convenience, and how things have always been done. But let’s head over to the Thought Bubble to look at this from another angle in this week’s Flash Philosophy.

Here’s Fluffy. She’s been your close companion since she was a kitten. You love her very much, and you’ve given her the best life you could. But now Fluffy is nearing the end of her life. You’ll care for her until the end. But when she dies why not eat her? I mean, unless you’re a vegetarian, there seems to be no good reason that you’d be repelled by this idea. But you almost certainly are. Take some time here to think about why that is.

It can’t be about harm, because Fluffy is already dead – she can’t feel pain.

Maybe you’re appealing to some sort of principle of respect for the dead. But we know that some cultures think the best way to respect the dead is to consume their flesh.

So if you’re only not eating her because you have a thing against eating cats in particular, but you’re ok with eating other animals, that seems pretty speciesist. It’s just that the species you’re giving preference to are both humans and cats. But you’re still a speciesist. Thanks, Thought Bubble!

OK, so Singer has given us some pretty strong reasons to re-evaluate our treatment of non-human animals. But you still might be thinking, “Why should I care?” What if I don’t care that I’m a speciesist? I like eating meat, and feel no shame about it, because everyone I know eats meat too.

Well, the thing is Philosophers want you to be consistent with your beliefs. They want you to think about why you think it would be wrong to eat Fluffy, or why you wouldn’t eat dog meat if it was served to you, or why you were upset about Cecil the lion. And yet you have no problem eating, say, bacon, even though dogs and pigs have the same level of cognition and awareness.

Philosophers want you to be able to justify your actions, to give reasons for what you do. So if you’re saying that reasons don’t matter – that you can just do what you want even if your actions are internally inconsistent, then not only are you not doing philosophy, well, you’re sort of opting out of rational discourse altogether. Because if these reasons don’t matter, then why should any reasons matter?

If I want to be a racist or a homophobe or a sexist, and I’m comfortable with it because the people I hang out with have those attitudes too, well, the conversation’s sort of over.

It can be really hard to scrutinize your own actions; not just regarding non-human animals, but in most areas of your life.

Today we learned about moral considerations regarding non-human animals. We took a look at what philosophers like Peter Singer and Carl Cohen have to say about their use, including the concept of equal consideration of interests.

Next time, we’re going to look at moral obligations regarding our families.

Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like Coma Niddy, Deep Look, and Gross Science.

This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.