WASM 6: Concluding thoughts

(See previous posts: 1|2|3|4|5)

So, what has Linzey accomplished here? What I think his argument does–at least–is shift the burden of proof. Most of us, if we’re being honest, believe that animals suffer and that their suffering matters morally, at least to some degree. Few non-sociopaths think that it’s a matter of sheer moral indifference to, say, run a puppy over with a lawnmower.

However, even while we admit that animal suffering exists and that it matters morally, we tend to greatly discount it. They’re “just animals” after all. Those much-vaunted differences between us and them justify, even if unconsciously, our disregard for their suffering. This allows us to inflict suffering on them under what are, after all, pretty flimsy pretenses and not to feel too bad about it. What Linzey does, though, is offer reasons not to discount animal suffering, in fact to weigh it more heavily because of the differences we think are so important.

I wonder, though, if the position Linzey has developed doesn’t still require balancing competing goods, even if the presumption is strongly against inflicting suffering on animals (or taking their lives). What sets this apart from utilitarianism at the end of the day?

One answer is that, unlike utilitarianism, Linzey’s view doesn’t allow for aggregating goods to justify suffering: I can inflict suffering on another sentient to protect myself from immediate danger, but not to secure some small, less vital good for a larger number of other beings. This is similar to some rights-based views where rights can only be overridden when they clash with other rights. Linzey has shown that animals share with children many of the qualities that call forth greater moral solicitude. But I’m not sure he’s successfully rebutted the “speciesist” presumption that many readers will have. After all, one reason that children call for special moral concern–in addition to their weakness and innocence–is that they are members of the human species. Merely pointing out some of the similarities between animals and children isn’t sufficient to show that there aren’t other morally relevant differences that justify disparate treatment.

It may be that making a conceptual shift toward respecting animals as ends-in-themselves really does require a thoroughly worked-out theory of rights like Tom Regan‘s (or like Linzey developed in his earlier work). This doesn’t imply that animals have all the same rights as human beings (the dread “moral equivalence”), but that they would have rights relevant to their own interests (not to be subjected to prolonged suffering, e.g.). Regan’s argument, for example, is that animals have rights because they are “subjects of a life,” beings with lives of their own and which, for that reason, shouldn’t be treated merely as means to our ends.

One of the more valuable lessons from this book, though, is that it pushes us to reconsider the role of the “rational,” autonomous adult human being in our moral thinking. Linzey isn’t the first to do this, but the connections he draws between children and animals highlight themes of interdependence and vulnerability that too often get short shrift in Western moral thought. (Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals does something similar from a very different perspective.) The reasons animal suffering matters apply to more than just children: we are all, at some time or another, vulnerable and helpless. A moral theory–or a society–that doesn’t recognize this can hardly be considered adequate or just.

One thought on “WASM 6: Concluding thoughts

  1. Pingback: Press and web reports up to February 2010 | Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

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