First Things still unable to grapple with animal rights arguments

I know I should stop expecting First Things to publish thoughtful pieces on animal issues, but this review of a review of Safran Foer’s Eating Animals by David Mills is particularly bad:

The reviewer seems to assume, but does not even try to argue, that food animals deserve a long and fulfilling life (whatever fulfilling means for them), and therefore to kill them for our use is wrong. But since they have no real consciousness or memory, how can they know, much less care, that their life is shorter than it might have been? (Might have been in human hands, not in the wild, but that’s another matter.) [Empahsis added]

Given that we know that animals possess both consciousness and memory, I can only assume, charitably, that what Mills means is that animals lack self-consciousness (itself a debatable proposition) and therefore can’t anticipate their own death. But does Mills really think that an animal is not harmed by having its life ended just because it (we presume) can’t anticipate it? If so, he is ironically treading close to the view of Peter Singer, who argues that beings without self-consciousness are harmed less by their deaths than those who have it (Singer, notoriously, includes human fetuses and infants in the former category). I doubt Mills wants to embrace Singer’s position, and, indeed, the paragraph above indicates an even stronger version of the view than Singer’s: that creatures without self-consciousness aren’t harmed at all by being killed. This is, by my lights, an extremely counterintuitive position, and I suspect the main reason people deploy it is because of a prior commitment to the permissibility of killing animals for food.

In my zeal, I didn’t even bother to click through to the review that Mills was critiquing, but it’s by philosopher Mark Rowlands and well worth reading in its own right. Thanks to Rick for making me aware of this.

UPDATE II: This post at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen makes a similar point, but adds some food for thought on objective goods and human dignity.

7 thoughts on “First Things still unable to grapple with animal rights arguments

  1. Dawn Wessel

    “A righteous man regards the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” (Proverbs 12:9-11)

    Though not possessing an eternal spirit (God’s image), animals nevertheless are capable of emotion (love, fear, anger). An intelligent person recognizes this.

    Those that have no regard for animals are the same ones who will view certain human beings as dispensible.

    Kindness is an inherited trait.

  2. Over the past half year or so, I’ve been quite discouraged by what I’ve perceived as a big change in the tenor of First Things posts. When I first discovered them, I found their writing to be thoughtful, well-presented arguments for the conservative side of things. While no one would ever mistake me as “conservative”, I make a point to regularly read presentations and arguments from those whose opinions differ from mine, in order to help me refine and clarify my own positions on matters.

    When I first started reading First Things, I felt they really used to provide this counterpoint for me. But over time, I’ve found their writings very disappointing, and often, a bit offensive to folks with positions such as mine. Finally a few months ago, I finally unsubscribed from their feed.

    Sorry to see the caliber of their posting has not changed much.

  3. I subscribed to the print version of FT for about ten years (roughly 1997-2007) and, while it’s always been a conservative mag, it seemed to me to become more knee-jerk in its views over time, or more narrowly partisan. I suspect that has something to do with the changeover in editorial duties, but that’s just a hunch.

    Of course, over that same period of time I’ve probably become a bit more liberal. 🙂

  4. “The reviewer seems to assume, but does not even try to argue, that food animals deserve a long and fulfilling life.”

    The reviewer was Mark Rowlands, who wrote a book Animals Like Us that does argue a case. The funny thing is, I suspect that both Rowlands and Mills are both Aristotelian. They come up to different answers to the questions “What is man?” and “What is an animal?” But the concept of a good life is an Aristotelian idea that seems to be a better one (and more conservative one) than the Utilitarian concepts involving whether the animal understands what it’s missing. It is funny if Mills is slipping into Consequentialism to be more conservative.

    1. I suspect that, if push came to shove, Mills would opt to say that human suffering and happiness,simply matter more because they’re human. Otherwise, I don’t see how he can avoid implications he probably wants to avoid.

      Ironically, as you point out, an Aristotelian view of things would preserve the distinction between humans and non-human animals that Mills presumably wants to draw. But it would also require recognizing the ways in which we violate the telos of animals.

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