I’ve made this point before, but have revisited it after my recent post on animal suffering and how we shouldn’t ignore it. When thinking about how to judge human versus animal suffering, I realized that there’s no objective way to do this, and that when trying to figure out how to treat animals, we must ultimately rely on subjective judgment. While science can help us make such judgments, it cannot give us objective answers, even in principle.
For example, is it right to do animal experimentation on primates? In so doing, primates and other mammals are injured or suffer, and yet there may be some ultimate benefit for humanity (this, of course, isn’t guaranteed). How many mouse lives or monkey lives are worth one human life, especially when animal testing doesn’t always provide cures? We think it’s okay to swat mosquitoes or kill a nonvenomous snake that’s simply annoying or scaring us, but we don’t think it’s right to kill a dog who’s barking at us. Where do you draw the line?
Or if, like Sam Harris, you think that “well being” is the objective criterion for morality, so that the most moral act is the one that maximizes overall well being, then your difficulty becomes this: how do you determine the relative weights of animal well being versus human well being? Science can’t answer such a question because we have no idea how to quantify well being among species, which depends on knowing how an animal subjectively perceives and values its existence. (I also question how science can judge the relative weights of different kinds of human well being, but I’ll leave that aside.) Is it immoral to swat a fly only because it’s annoying you with its buzzing? Is it immoral to kill a harmless spider simply because you don’t like spiders?
I am still traumatized at having seen a golf-course employee, several decades ago, flooding mole tunnels with water, and then killing the moles who came out by whacking them with a wrench. I’ll never forget that sight, which made me weep. Is the increased well-being of golfers worth more than the reduced well being of the whacked moles?
But it gets more serious when you come to food animals. Is it immoral to eat animals? How do you measure their reduced well being at losing their lives versus our increased well being when we eat a nice chicken or steak? Is it immoral to eat eggs from battery chickens? If so— because you weigh their suffering as heavier than our increased well being—then what about humanely raised animals? They may have a nicer life and be killed more humanely, too, but don’t they value their own lives? They’ve evolved, after all, to avoid death, and yet we kill them. To me that means that they don’t want to die, but we don’t know what “want” really means in an animal whose brains we can’t fathom.
I see no way to arrive at objective answers to these questions, for even in principle I can’t see how one can give relative values to the well being of different species. Of course one could punt and say that morality applies only to humans, but we know that’s untrue. We prosecute people who torture cats and dogs, and we have, by and large, stopped using animal testing for cosmetics. The latter is an explicit judgment that animal suffering outweighs the increased well being produced by applying blush or mascara.
Now I admit that I’m not a trained philosopher (though I do have one paper in a real journal to my credit), and perhaps others have considered this question in light of the notion that we can have objective moral truths. I’ve read Peter Singer, who’s told me personally that he thinks there are such truths, but I’ve never asked him to tell me how one can objectively arrive at his notion (which I share) that “animal liberation” is a very important cause.
In the end, like all morality, animal “rights” comes down to issues of preference and subjective judgment. Science and empirical observation can feed into those issues, but at bottom it’s still subjective. I agree with Sam that in general our moral judgments, at least in our own species, correspond to utilitarian notions of overall well being, but I don’t agree that one can make such judgments objectively.
My title may reflect a bit of hubris, but I invite readers to tell me where I’m wrong.