Is it ever right for animals to suffer?

By Andrew Linzey and Adrian Morrison
Sunday, December 27, 2009; B03

Andrew Linzey:

Whenever the matter of animal suffering comes up, a colleague of mine invariably responds, "This is an emotional subject."

In one sense, of course, he's right. The way we treat animals arouses strong emotions. People feel passionately, for instance, about how we make animals suffer for food, science and sport. But that wasn't what my colleague meant. He was suggesting that the entire subject was a matter of emotion rather than reason -- that there can be no rational grounds for concerning ourselves with the current treatment of animals. I think the boot is on the other foot. Despite 30 years' thinking and writing about animal ethics, only recently have I grasped that the rational case for protecting animals is stronger than even I had supposed.

Consider the oft-cited differences between humans and animals, the very differences that many claim make human suffering more important than that of animals. By nature or divine providence, animals are naturally subject to humans. They are nonrational. They have no language. Animals are not moral agents, and they have no immortal soul.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that all these differences are true. Given that we know that mammals (at least) are all capable of suffering, the question is: Do any of these differences make animal suffering less deserving of our moral solicitude?

It is difficult to see how. That God or nature has made animals subject to our power cannot justify unjust treatment unless one believes that God is unjust, or that power is its own justification. The absence of a language or moral agency cannot justify indifference to animal suffering unless we take the same view of infants. Similarly, would not the absence of an immortal soul mean that we should express more care, not less, to those whose misfortunes will not be recompensed by heavenly bliss?

The only morally relevant difference might be rationality, insofar as it enables one to anticipate further suffering. Perhaps some animals are spared an anticipation of particular harms, or of death itself. But even then, it is not clear that the suffering of nonrational beings is less morally significant.

Consider the suffering of a nonhuman primate -- a chimpanzee or a gorilla -- in captivity. Unlike humans, who can understand the reasons for their captivity, this creature cannot rationalize his predicament. Rather, he experiences the terror of imprisonment without any softening of the experience that comes from intellectual comprehension. And, since an animal's very life depends upon the acuity of its senses, the denial of liberty to a free-ranging creature constitutes a severe deprivation.

Seen in a different light, then, these differences make concern for animal suffering rationally compelling: Animals can't represent or vocalize their case, cannot give or withhold consent, cannot comprehend, are morally innocent or blameless and, not least of all, are largely vulnerable and defenseless.

What compels our strong response to the suffering of children, specifically infants? The reasons are surely that they are innocent, unable to represent themselves and utterly in our power. This rational case for children should logically include animals as well.

In short, human suffering should not stand as a unique source of moral concern.

Response by Adrian Morrison

Animal suffering certainly matters to us, and of course it is worthy of "rational" discussion. That is why we respond to it with laws against cruelty and devise standards for their care when animals are used for biomedical research and modern agriculture. That we do so is one of the defining features separating us from animals, one more important than our possession of language. No other being can be held accountable for its actions in a court of law. No animal, even the very intelligent chimpanzee, will concern itself for my welfare should I become a helpless old man; yet we are enjoined to provide for those animals in our charge.

I originally trained as a veterinarian with the goal of becoming a general practitioner and curing animals of various ailments. While in veterinary school, though, I developed a great interest in the nervous system, a shift in my studies that would require me to harm and even kill animals -- under strict guidelines -- in the interests of medical and veterinary science.

I believe that there is a distinct division between animals and us, created by our evolutionary and (at least in the West) religious heritage. This heritage requires us to give first allegiance to our fellow humans if we are to maintain ourselves as a society, but it also allows us to recognize duties to our fellow beings: the animals that surround us who cannot reciprocate. From this unique capacity arises human dignity. Thinking that denies this quality -- evident in the writings of at least two philosophers of the animal rights movement, James Rachels and Peter Singer -- poses a real danger to humanity.

Discussing our obligations toward innocent, suffering infants in the same breath as those we have toward animals in our control, as Andrew Linzey does, raises an interesting question: How would we calculate the costs of treating our ill child compared to the costs we would undertake for our sick dog? To consider them equally would be morally reprehensible because of the special ties we have developed in our moral community of human beings, a community that creates laws and standards only we can understand and that only we can be punished for disobeying.

Humans are not intruders in the world; we have as much right to make our way in it as any other species. At one level we are animals living amongst animals. We are prolific, omnivorous and predatory. But we can also be responsible predators. We can subordinate our behavior toward other animals (as well as toward ourselves) to moral and legal rules. But it is individuals who must ultimately obey those rules. Only the researcher alone in his laboratory knows whether he is treating his animals in the manner ordained by the institution's animal care committee.

Yet, a pluralistic human society has members who value various things differently. One enjoys the thrill of a rodeo; another may not. One might hunt for meat; another, not. In "The Blank Slate," Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker quotes Harold Laski, a leading British intellectual of the last century, as saying, "Civilization means, above all, an unwillingness to inflict unnecessary pain." The operative word is "unnecessary." We humans will have to differ respectfully on what is necessary in the richness and necessities of human lives, remembering the advancements in human and veterinary medicine that can eliminate or minimize pain and also recognizing the implication from Laski's statement that nature -- think of a wolf disemboweling a moose alive or a cat playing a mouse to death -- abides by its own rules.

Response by Andrew Linzey

Nothing strengthens my resolve to work for animals more than the inadequate arguments of those defending the status quo. Adrian has entirely missed the thrust of my argument. The issue is not whether animals and humans are different, but whether the differences between humans and animals are morally relevant ones that justify differential treatment.

There is ample scientific evidence that mammals (at least) suffer not just pain, but also shock, fear, terror, anticipation, anxiety and trauma. Since animals suffer in these ways once considered uniquely human, it is peculiarly difficult -- philosophically -- to justify the deliberate infliction of suffering. It cannot be right to treat sentient animals as tools, machines, resources, here for us.

Adrian argues that "no other being can be held accountable for its actions." But it is because humans are moral agents, capable of knowing right from wrong, that we should acknowledge our duties to other sentient beings, duties that they cannot acknowledge to us. That is how adults regard infants, even though infants cannot reciprocate.

Like infants and young children, animals are blameless, unable to understand, unable to consent or represent themselves, and are wholly or largely vulnerable. These are the rational grounds for considering the suffering of young children and animals as especially objectionable. Adrian's appeal to existing law simply defends the status quo, which results in institutionalized suffering of animals in farming, trade and laboratories, as well as for entertainment.

It isn't good enough to invoke the notion of necessary pain. We don't speak of such a notion when contemplating the pains of rape, child abuse or torture. Like these other evils, the infliction of suffering on animals is intrinsically objectionable. Adrian's "necessity" permits any kind of cruelty -- from hunting to rodeos. Is this really the best behavior that the morally superior species can manage?

Adrian refers to our "religious heritage," so I should explain that on a theological understanding of creation, we are not God; the world does not exist for our wants and pleasure. The best interpretation of "dominion" in Genesis is not that we are the "master species" but the "servant species." We are to use our power to care for the Earth, especially its weaker inhabitants.

Response by Adrian Morrison

Andrew continues to equate animals and children. But morality and practicality depend on making choices between them, which he does not seem willing to do. Would he deny a child a lifesaving vaccination because it was developed using animal experimentation?

My colleagues in biomedical research laboratories have made choices, thereby doing much to alleviate the miseries of disease for their fellow humans and also for animals. For example, dogs no longer die miserably from distemper: They receive vaccines developed through animal research. Fifty years ago, a surgeon friend of mine was not content with the "status quo" of watching babies die of starvation because they were born with incomplete intestines. Using beagles, Stan Dudrick devised a way to keep these babies alive via complete nutrition administered intravenously. He saved countless human lives. More than 60 years ago, scientists used monkeys and other species to develop a vaccine that has eliminated polio. Had they been satisfied with the status quo, they could have instead constructed better iron lungs. If concerned enough, Andrew could make a moral choice by joining me as a test subject in medical experiments -- some mildly painful and potentially dangerous, such as spinal taps -- aimed at ameliorating the scourge of Alzheimer's. (I volunteer for such studies to honor the animals that I've used for experimentation for so many years.)

Our lives are intertwined with those of animals, but even animals in the wild rarely go gently into the night. In Pennsylvania, 60,000 deer are yearly slaughtered on the highways. Would a well-placed shot by a hunter who then eats the meat not be a better death, one accompanied by less suffering?

The "hands-off-animals" world conceived by some philosophers is impractical. What would it mean for humanity, domestic animals, those in the wild, and their environments, were that view to prevail?

The Authors Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and a member of the faculty of theology at the University of Oxford, is the author of "Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics." Adrian Morrison is professor emeritus of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine and author of "An Odyssey with Animals: A Veterinarian's Reflections on the Animal Rights & Welfare Debate."

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