Controversy around 'animal rights' has been familiar since the 1970s, although it existed long before. I have also come across arguments ascribing rights to the green environment. But it is not necessary to raise the interesting question of whether rights can be ascribed to animals, and we can all see that trees have standing. The central issues concern our place in the environment and our treatment of animals whether or not they have rights.
I'll not discuss the hunting of animals for pleasure. The case against it was memorably made by Oscar Wilde in a A Woman of No Importance
: 'The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable'.
There are three main areas for ethical discussion on the subject of our treatment of animals. The first concerns the use of animals in medical research. Many of the developments in healthcare have been researched initially on animals. Animals have also been used for non-medical purposes such as testing cosmetics but in the contemporary moral outlook the non-medical uses of animals are widely condemned so I shall not discuss them.
In medical research, animals have been used for four main purposes: the testing of new drugs; the study of basic mechanisms of body function in health or disease; the testing of hypotheses about physiological or pathological processes; the transplant of animal organs or other tissues into human beings ('xenotransplantation'). Is it morally justifiable to use animals for these human purposes?
It can be argued against the use of animals that they are living, sentient beings and, since they have no say in the matter, they should not be used for experimental purposes. In support of this, we can imagine a piece of science fiction. We can be invited to imagine that the human race is invaded by hostile aliens from outer space. They discover that a medical problem common in aliens can be cured by removing organs from human beings. The aliens decide to do so. They have the power to do so, and of course they are acting from the highest motives: to benefit the suffering of fellow aliens and to cause minimum suffering to the human race whose organs they are removing. Have the aliens a case? If they have a case, it is similar to the one used to justify research on animals to benefit human subjects.
For those readers who prefer something less fanciful, there is the direct moral appeal, if not argument: that it is wrong to inflict pain on any living creature even for good motives, such as the search for cures for human health problems.
In opposition to this position that it is morally wrong to use animals in medical research it can be argued that we must balance the suffering caused to animals with the benefits to humans, and sometimes to animals themselves. Moreover, it can be pointed out that those who do use animals in experimental work follow clear guidelines laid down by the Home Office (in the UK). These include the use of as few animals as possible; the use of animals for specific purposes only; avoidance of pain or discomfort; proper safeguards for their use. Of course, while there are safeguards in place, it is much less clear that there are sufficient inspectors to ensure that the rules are being followed.
Apart from the ethical considerations there are also scientific arguments against the use of animals for research purposes. For example, it can be argued that it is because animals are not human that results obtained from them are not reliable. What seems to be successful in a mouse population might have serious side effects in the human population. Moreover, there are fears that the processes involved in obtaining animal organs, such as those from pigs, for transplant into humans involve disturbing methods.
Xenotransplantation has not yet been successful but the techniques involved in the attempt to avoid human rejection of the pig organs – such as injecting the pig with human genes and creating a new species of transgenic pig – can stir up a deep-rooted human fear, like the ancient Greek fear of hubris. Or it can be a reminder of the original temptation in the Garden of Eden: Ye shall be as gods.
There are two very general cultural movements which are beginning a social resistance to using animals for experimental purposes, or otherwise interfering with their natural lives. One is the fear of plagues, of the creation of new viruses which may jump from animal to human. The mechanisms on this are not fully understood, but the fear exists and there is speculation about the causes of recent plagues, including COVID-19. For the ancient Greeks hubris, trespassing over natural boundaries, leads to nemesis or catastrophe.
The second cultural movement is a more positive celebration of the environment, and a growing recognition that we are one animal species among others with whom we must share the planet. The likelihood is that in the post-pandemic era the use of animals for human purposes will decline partly for the two reasons I have just suggested, but also because science will find more accurate, less controversial, and cheaper ways of serving the purposes for which animals have hitherto been used.
The second central ethical issue concerns the use of animals as food. A majority of the population seem happy with the killing and eating of some but not all animals for food. Readers may remember the excitement some years ago when the body of King Richard III was dug up in a car park. Despite Shakespeare, historians tell us that he wasn’t all that bad and so he could be re-buried in York Minster (or was it Leicester?). But about the same time scientists discovered his horse in tins of lasagne. Well, perhaps not his
horse, but horse meat it was, and it certainly created a 'winter of our discontent'.
But why were the tabloids outraged? The same people who were appalled by the horse in their lasagne would be perfectly happy if it were cow or lamb.
I once witnessed a down-and-out in Great Western Road throw his rug over a pigeon. He clearly had murderous intent. A passing lady was appalled and expressed her disapproval. But probably she was on her way to buy a chicken in the supermarket.
Are there sound arguments which suggest that we ought not to eat animals or at least not so many of them? I'll sketch three.
The first concerns world food shortages. It is simply the case that more of the world's population can be fed by using pulses than by using land to graze cattle. (And I'll say nothing about the carbon emissions from millions of cows farting into the atmosphere.) The second is the humanitarian argument. Just visit a slaughterhouse, or witness the factory farming of chickens, or the force-feeding of calves or turkeys. Not much of a Christmas spirit of goodwill towards turkeys. The third argument concerns human health. People eat much more meat than is good for them.
Now these are good arguments, although they all need expansion. But they do not establish vegetarianism as an absolute principle; no doubt there are counter arguments. But they do establish the need for a drastic cut-back on the use of animals for food.
One way to persuade people of this need to cut-back on meat eating is to re-brand vegetarianism. I notice that this is already happening. There are vegans, of course, but vegetarians are increasingly speaking of a 'plant-based diet'. A 'plant-based diet' sounds green, healthy and wholesome, and there are plenty good recipe books around. Increasingly, we humans are seeing ourselves as one species among the others with whom we must share the planet. As Burns put it all those years ago, when his plough uncovered a mouse's nest:
I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow