‘Justice for Animals’ Excerpt in Harvard Gazette

They can think, feel pain, love. Isn’t it time animals had rights?

Animals are in trouble all over the world. Our world is dominated by humans everywhere: on land, in the seas, and in the air. No non-human animal escapes human domination. Much of the time, that domination inflicts wrongful injury on animals: whether through the barbarous cruelties of the factory meat industry, through poaching and game hunting, through habitat destruction, through pollution of the air and the seas, or through neglect of the companion animals that people purport to love.

In a way, this problem is age-old. Both Western and non-Western philosophical traditions have deplored human cruelty to animals for around two millennia. The Hindu emperor Ashoka (c. 304–232 B.C.E.), a convert to Buddhism, wrote about his efforts to give up meat and to forgo all practices that harmed animals. In Greece the Platonist philosophers Plutarch (46–119 C.E.) and Porphyry (c. 234–305 C.E.) wrote detailed treatises deploring human cruelty to animals, describing their keen intelligence and their capacity for social life, and urging humans to change their diet and their way of life. But by and large these voices have fallen on deaf ears, even in the supposedly moral realm of the philosophers, and most humans have continued to treat most animals like objects, whose suffering does not matter — although they sometimes make an exception for companion animals. Meanwhile, countless animals have suffered cruelty, deprivation, and neglect.

Today, we have, then, a long-overdue ethical debt: to listen to arguments we have refused to hear, to care for what we have obtusely ignored, and to act on the knowledge of our bad practices that we can so easily attain. But today we have reasons humans never had before to do something about human wrongs to animals. First, human domination has increased exponentially in the past two centuries. In Porphyry’s world, animals suffered when they were killed for meat, but up to that point they lived pretty decent lives. There was no factory meat industry that, today, breeds these animals as if they were just meat already, confining them in horrible conditions, cramped and isolated, until they die before ever having decently lived. Animals were long hunted in the wild, but for the most part their habitats were not taken over for human dwellings or invaded by poachers seeking to make money from the murder of an intelligent being, an elephant or a rhinoceros. In the seas, humans have always fished for food, and whales have long been hunted for their commercial value. But the sea was not full of plastic trash that entices animals to dine on it, and then chokes them to death. Nor did companies drilling for undersea oil create noise pollution everywhere (drilling, air bombs used to chart the ocean’s floor), making life increasingly difficult for social creatures whose sense of hearing is their primary mode of communication. Birds were shot for food, but those who escaped did not choke on air pollution or crash fatally into urban skyscrapers, whose lights entice them. In short: the scope of human cruelty and neglect was relatively narrow. Today new forms of animal cruelty turn up all the time — without even being recognized as cruelty, since their impact on the lives of intelligent beings is barely considered. So we have not just the overdue debt of the past, but a new moral debt that has increased a thousandfold and is continually increasing.

Read more at The Harvard Gazette

Faculty books