A debate on animal rights
Just catching up on some of my post-Christmas reading: in Sunday’s Washington Post there was a mini-debate between Andrew Linzey and neuroscientist Adrian Morrison over the rights of animals.
Linzey is certainly right that Morrison misses the thrust of his central argument. The question isn’t whether humans are different from non-human animals, but whether that difference justifies disregarding animal suffering. On the other hand, I’m not sure Linzey adequately grapples with the genuine dilemma of foregoing potentially life-saving medical research by ending experiments on animals.
In some ways, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to focus the debate on medical research (though given the participants, I suppose that was inevitable). The fact is that, by any reckoning, the vast majority of human-inflicted animal suffering comes from animal agriculture. And it’s pretty clear that the benefits of the factory farming system (i.e., the pleasures of the palate that come from eating meat instead of vegetarian alternatives) are far outweighed by the vast quantity of animal suffering they demand. Morrison’s argument that we can’t make judgments about the relative weight of pleasures that people get from, say, going to the rodeo or eating meat is frankly ludicrous.
Compared to our present world, a vegetarian one would be immeasurably better in terms of animal suffering. I’m not saying that animal rights activists shouldn’t criticize the practices of animal experimentation, particularly since a lot of that experimentation serves no vital human interests. But the case for changing our treatment of animals in fairly substantial ways doesn’t hinge on resolving all the hard cases like choosing whether to forego the benefits of a life-saving drug for your child.