Monday, August 08, 2005

PETA: such an easy target, people forget to think

Marlowe's Shade points us to this oddball column at NRO by one Wesley Smith.

A lot of strange things with the theory advanced in the NRO article. First:
Animal liberationists, [Joseph Bottum, editor of the Natural Law journal First Things] said, have taken this philosophical view a crucial step
further: “First they accept that all suffering is evil. Then they deny that
suffering can be ranked, which means that all suffering, whether in humans or
animals, is equally evil.”

Contra Bottum, utilitarianism doesn't require that all suffering is identical, regardless of the being that is undergoing the suffering. Singer, for example, hierarchalizes sufering by cognitive sophistication - the suffering of an advanced primate like a gorilla or a person is worse, ethically, than that undergone by a worm.

That's sloppy thought #1.

Then there's this:
“But animal liberationists recognize the truth that only humans are moral agents in the world. Thus, when we cause suffering, it is evil. But when animals cause suffering, it is not.” That clicked for me. I have long perceived the animal-liberation movement to be deeply misanthropic, , and Bottum’s theory explains why. If indeed “we are all animals,” then there is no hierarchy of moral worth. Since...all suffering is evil...then the belief that cattle ranching equals Auschwitz becomes a logical conclusion.
So sloppy thought #2 is the equation of recognition that humans are uniquely moral with misanthropy. With power comes responsibility, Spiderman sayeth, and similarly moral knowledge entails responsibility to do what is moral. The reductio ad absurdem is even more stark: is Smith seriously arguing that a lion is acting immorally by eating a zebra? Or is he suggesting that, because animals don't have moral duties, we shouldn't either? He probably agrees with the rest of us sane people that humans have moral duties that don't attach to animals. Per his own criterion, he's a misanthrope.

He could argue, of course, that there's something about another's moral knowledge that affects one's moral duty to the other. This would go something like this: because a lion has no moral knowledge, I assume no moral duty to it. Ergo, killing the lion is morally indifferent. What's problematic with that, and this is precisely what animal rights adherents point to, is that babies don't seem to have any moral knowledge (if they did, parenting would be a lot easier). Despite that, it's wrong to kill babies. So moral knowledge doesn't seem to help us at this juncture. (The argument could go on with all kinds of rejoinders and counters, but let's set those aside for the time being).

I guess he means this: if we say that torturing animals is as bad as torturing people, then we thereby demean human suffering. This is, to put it mildly, underdeveloped. Prima facie, it seems odd: if I say torturing a black man is as bad as torturing a white man, am I thereby demeaning the suffering of the black man? No, of course not. So to Mr. Smith, I say: rethink, rewrite.

The last "thought" (to be generous) is this: "...human contact with animals is seen, by definition, as causing animals to suffer...." This is just weird. It has nothing to do with anything else in the article. While cattle slaughter, chicken burning, and keeping chimps in 3'x3' cages were all mentioned, there was nothing about mere contact (and I'd be willing to bet that more than a few PETA members have cats or dogs, with whom they have more than mere contact). I think this bizarre-o non sequitur pretty much sums up the worth of this column.