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Jun 9, 2006
Focus: Death Penalty
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A bra made of seal eyelids?  

A joke at the Juno awards reveals the shallowness of celebrity ethics when it comes to man’s treatment of animals

http://www.republic-news.org/archive/140-repub/140_michale_nenonen.htm

By by Michael Nenonen  

 

Pamela Anderson, host of the 2006 Juno Awards, was loudly booed when she dared condemn the cruelty of the annual seal hunt. In contrast, Jann Arden was applauded for saying “My bra is made entirely of seal eyelids.” Appearances deceive. The media often portray Anderson as a half-witted bombshell, while Arden is portrayed as an intelligent and sensitive songwriter. When it comes to grasping the ethical significance of animal suffering, however, Anderson is light years ahead of both Arden and her applauders.

The study of ethics has always taken suffering very seriously, but its concern was traditionally focused almost exclusively on human suffering. This began to change in the last quarter of the twentieth century as philosophers began realizing that privileging human suffering above the suffering of animals is as unjustified as privileging the suffering of one group of humans over that of another.

The philosopher who has taken the lead in this movement is Peter Singer, a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Melbourne University. Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, originally published in 1975 with updated editions produced in 1990 and 2002, is required reading for anyone interested in the ethical issues surrounding animal exploitation.

Singer follows a school of ethics known as utilitarianism. The cornerstone of utilitarian ethics is the proposition that “The good of any one individual is of no more importance from the point of view . . . of the universe, than the good of any other.” In line with this proposition, utilitarians argue that the study of ethics deals with interests, rather than with rights, because while the existence of rights is debatable, the existence of interests is beyond question.

On the most basic level, it’s in every individual’s interest to avoid suffering and to experience happiness. In fact, the capacity to suffer and to feel happiness is a prerequisite for having any interests at all. Things that can’t suffer or feel happiness, such as plants and bacteria, don’t have any interests, whereas things that can, like birds and mammals, do. According to the principle of moral equality, if an individual has interests, then those interests have equal footing with the interests of any other individual. To dismiss an individual’s interests solely because of his or her membership in a non-human species is both arbitrary and self-serving. Singer uses the awkward term “speciesism” to refer to this kind of prejudice and discrimination.

The existence of interests has nothing to do with intelligence, because intelligence has nothing to do with our need for happiness or our capacity for suffering. Fools weep as bitterly as the wise, and laugh as loudly. This point is extremely important. By human standards, a pig may have a very low intelligence, but so does a newborn human infant, a severely developmentally-delayed human adult, or a profoundly demented human elder. Indeed, the pig’s intelligence may well be greater than theirs. If we’re to dismiss the pig’s interests because of the pig’s stupidity, then we must also dismiss the infant’s, the delayed adult’s, and the demented elder’s. If we’re unwilling to condemn intellectually-challenged humans to slaughterhouses and laboratories, then pigs shouldn’t be condemned to these miserable fates either.

Having said this, not all individuals have the same interests. Our interests are defined largely by our capabilities. For instance, it’s in my interests to be politically active, but it’s not in my cat’s interests to do the same. Similarly, it’s in an orca’s interests to spend its life swimming freely across the open ocean, but not in mine. Despite this, some interests are shared by all individuals. To use the most obvious example, it’s not in anyone’s interests to be tortured.

Interests can be important or trivial. Our need for food is important; our desire for tasty food is trivial. When weighing competing interests, we must ask whether we’re comparing important or trivial interests. If my desire for tasty food competes with your need to avoid torture, your need must take precedence. Unfortunately, in our dealings with animals, we often sacrifice their most important interests in order to satisfy our most trivial interests. For example, human beings can thrive on vegetarian diets, but because of our preference for flesh we condemn billions of animals to the myriad tortures of factory farming.

People are reluctant to acknowledge animals’ interests for the same reason that slave-owners are reluctant to seriously consider their slaves’ interests. Just as the slave-owner profits from ignoring the interests of his slaves, so too do we profit from ignoring the interests of animals. We’re rewarded for eating their flesh and wearing their hides, for experimenting upon their bodies and erecting homes upon their habitats. Because animals can’t mobilize to resist us, and because we’ve been conditioned to think of them solely in terms of their usefulness to us, it’s easy to pretend that their abuse is ethically irrelevant.

It’s hard to think of a single speciesist argument that Singer doesn’t successfully dismantle in Animal Liberation. The most common argument is one flesh-eaters use to defend their habit. It says that since animals eat one another, it must be “natural” for humans to do the same. Singer points out that animals rarely have a choice about what they have for dinner, whereas many humans do, and that humans are capable of ethical reasoning, whereas animals aren’t. Humans therefore have ethical obligations towards animals that animals don’t have towards each other or towards us.

Unfortunately, speciesists rarely examine the logical foundations of their prejudices. More often, when confronted with the significance of animal suffering, they simply make jokes at animals’ expense. Speciesist humour, such as Arden’s comment, serves the same social function as racist humour, and is just as deplorable. Someone deserved to be booed at the Junos, but it wasn’t Pamela Anderson.

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Posted: Jun 9, 2006 12:06pm

 

 
 
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