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Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics

The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics

edited by Tom L. Beauchamp, R. G. Frey

Oxford University Press, 2011

In just a little while, Magna Carta will turn 800 years old, but it works as a landmark at any time – it was first loud salvo in the West’s ongoing war to redefine personhood, the epic re-opening of that essential question which had remained closed since the contraction and fall of Rome. And that compact at Runnymede knew two things instinctively: personhood will always naturally expand rather than limit, and it will only ever do so as an aspect of law, not morality. Not all the philosophical debates by the learned doctors at Louvain about the nature of citizenship weigh an ounce against the King of England agreeing in writing that his subjects were not his playthings.

Of course, King John hated agreeing to such a thing and fought a very bloody little war in an attempt to renege, but the seed had been planted: rights could be coerced from power. And if some rights could be coerced from power for some people, why not more rights, for more people? Eventually, such question will rest on the definition of ‘people’ – and, as noted, personhood naturally expands.

The modern West (i.e. post-Regency: in this as in so much else, we are the children of the Victorians – and one very singular pre-Victorian) has been returning to Runnymede with the painful regularity of birth contractions. The slave trade, the subjugation of women, the denigration of the mentally ill or the crippled … all were battles to broaden the majority’s definition of personhood, and the battles go on. In 2011, the U.S. Secretary of State stood before the United Nations’ human rights group in Geneva and urged them to be “on the right side of history” when it came to equal rights under law for homosexuals – and the bitter, angry looks on some delegates’ faces are familiar sights in Madame Secretary’s own country, where the question of gay personhood is so contested it may help decide the next presidential election.

These ongoing battles make it even more bitterly ironic that the vast majority of living things on Earth have no personhood whatsoever under any law. Animals surround humans and are intertwined into every aspect of human society, everywhere in the world, and yet the concept of extending personhood to animals – even to the great apes with whom humans share almost the totality of their genetic makeup – has been utterly unthinkable to most humans until, comparatively, about yesterday afternoon.

Then came the twin titans of what later became the animal rights movement: English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and Australian philosopher Peter Singer. Separated by two hundred years, these two thinkers helped to write the first halting lines in what may some day become a magna carta of animal ethics, an expansion of personhood to include nonhuman creatures who nevertheless love, suffer, play, and plan – and with that expansion, the abolition of the enslaving, torturing and harvesting of nonhuman creatures for human fun and profit.

Philosophers continue to debate these questions, and Oxford University Press has devoted a satisfyingly big volume in its ongoing Handbook series to showcasing some of the latest examples of that thinking. The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics is a great magnificent compilation of deep thought, articulate passion, and spirited debate – like all the Oxford Handbooks, it’s an incredibly rich gold mine of scholarship, enthusiasm, and craft. This volume has thirty-five articles by some of the leading thinkers in the field of animal rights, writers exploring dozens of aspects of animal-human interaction, from zoos to laboratory experimentation to pet ownership to hunting to circuses to massive animal-meat factories (all presided over by Man and Bull, one of the most stark and subversive paintings Lincoln Seligman has yet produced). No matter what aspect of the whole subject most interests you, you’ll likely find an essay on it here, with volume co-editor R. G. Frey setting something of the tone in his essay “Utilitarianism and Animals”:

There is no reason to deny that mice and chimps feel pain, and I can see no moral difference between burning a man and burning a mouse or a chimp. Pain is pain, and species is irrelevant. What matters is that a creature is an experiential one and pain is evil when experienced. But if pain and suffering count morally, then so do animal lives. Just as what concerns us so much about pain and suffering in our lives’ case is how these things can impair and significantly diminish the quality of life, so they can impair all creatures who can experience them.

Sarah Chan and John Harris, in their essay “Human Animals and Nonhuman Pesons,” propose a fantastic inversion of the old aliens-visiting-from-space hypothetical:

Suppose that instead of us discovering them, they discovered us. Having demonstrated their vastly superior technology by arriving on Earth after traversing unimaginable interstellar distances, the extraterrestrials are hungry and tired after their long journey. What could we point to about ourselves that ought to convince the extraterrestrials that they had discovered persons, morally significant beings of special importance on another planet? What could we say of ourselves that should convince them of the appropriateness of “having us for dinner” in one sense rather than another; what should convince them to treat us as dinner guests rather than as dinner itself? What makes for a moral distinction between ourselves and other edible life forms, lettuces or turnips, cats, canaries, or chickens?

One of the most strongly-suggested answers to those hypothetical questions is one humanity rightfully won’t find too comforting: if those visiting aliens are anything like human beings, they may decide to permanently put off dealing with the whole question of moral distinctions more or less indefinitely, because they’re hungry (and come to fancy the taste of human flesh, human kidneys, perhaps pickled human tongues). There are many problems with leaving important ethical and intellectual questions in the hands of philosophers, and that’s one of them: they forget even more quickly than most people how little philosophy matters (they also can’t write intelligible English to save their lives; readers looking for actual good prose will find maybe three or four sentences of it in all 1000 pages of this Handbook). They can also be entirely too cautious, as Peter Carruthers inadvertently shows in his essay “Animal Mentality: Its Character, Extent, and Moral Significance”:

Although basic bee motivations are, no doubt, innately fixed, the goals that are activated on particular occasions (such as whether or not to move from one foraging patch to another, whether to finish foraging and return to the hive, and whether or not to dance on reaching it) would appear to be influenced by a number of factors. (Note that similar claims can be made about humans.) Bees are less likely to dance for dilute sources of food and they are less likely to dance for the more distant of two sites of fixed value. They are less likely to dance in the evening or when there is an approaching storm, when there is a significant chance that other bees might not be capable of completing a return trip. Moreover, careful experimentation has shown that bees scouting for a new nest site will weigh up a number of factors, including cavity volume, shape, size, and direction of entrance, height above ground, dampness, draftiness, and distance away from the existing nest.

If you read that excerpt ‘backwards,’ as it were – if you look at all those incredible variations in the language of bees’ semaphore-style ‘dancing’ to communicate with each other, Carruthers’ opening line about how bee motivation is still ‘no doubt’ innately fixed, that comforting tone meant to assure us not to worry, the these are still wind-up toys we’re talking about, only more complex ones than originally thought, well, that line seems a bit staid. Human responses to hunger are also ‘innately fixed,’ after all, but that would never be raised in this pseudo-apologetic manner in an essay talking about human linguistic capabilities. The impression is almost one of pained concession – that of course nobody could be suggesting that there isn’t really any difference between the ways bees make and use language and the ways humans do.

That firebrand tone is largely absent from the otherwise superb essays collected here, although it burns brightly in one of the best of those essays, Stuart Rachels’ powerhouse piece called “Vegetarianism,” in which he calls for a fundamental re-imagining of the meat industry, and the attitudes that attend it:

If you get bird flu, swine flu, or E. coli, the meat industry should pay your medical bills. If you die, the meat industry should compensate your family. The government shouldn’t pay billions of dollars to stockpile vaccines for diseases that evolved in factory farms; the meat industry should do that. Nor should taxpayers foot the bill for crop subsidies. Nor should farmers be allowed to pollute the land, air, and sea without paying for the environmental clean-up and health costs. If the food industry did all this – in other words, if it paid its own bills – then industrial meat would be expensive, not cheap.

Sometimes people say things like, “Industrial farming, whatever its drawbacks, at least succeeds in producing cheap meat. And we need cheap meat in order to feed all the hungry people in the world.” This claim is wrong for three independent reasons: (i) Industrial meat isn’t actually cheap; it appears cheap only because its real cost isn’t reflected in its price. (ii) The poorest people in the world don’t eat factory-farmed meat – it is too expensive for them, even at artificially low prices. (iii) Industrial farming wastes calories. It’s cheaper and more efficient to feed the world grain than to feed the world animals that eat grain.

The goals of this Handbook lie mostly elsewhere from such bracing stuff – mostly in a more examination of the limits and nature of personhood, the ways humanity both justifies its behavior toward nonhuman animals and might change that behavior. I’ve been thinking about these subjects for a long time (and I’ve been granting personhood to nonhuman animals my entire life), and I still found huge amounts of utterly compelling writing in these pages. This is an enormous dispatch from the ongoing struggle, a ‘how things stand’ on the question of extending personhood to nonhuman animals. It may just be the most important Handbook Oxford has yet produced.

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