Throwing the baby out with the veal calf
Over the last year or so, bloggers at First Things have taken the position that the animal rights movement represents a unique threat to the dignity of human life and especially the unborn. While I think this position alienates many of their potential allies and conflates a number of widely divergent views within the community of people who care about animal welfare, their confusion is not entirely inexplicable. The philosopher Peter Singer is perhaps the most cited spokesman of the movement, and he suggests, abominably, that it is less morally significant to kill a human infant than an adult dog.
On Thursday, the already somewhat hysterical attacks reached a new low with a blog post that condemns on Singerian grounds a particular defense of animal rights contained in a recent book review. The reviewer wrote:
Even if painlessly euthanized at that age, the brevity of its life precludes that life from having been a good one
The reviewer seems to assume, but does not even try to argue, that food animals deserve a long and fulfilling life (whatever fulfilling means for them), and therefore to kill them for our use is wrong. But since they have no real consciousness or memory, how can they know, much less care, that their life is shorter than it might have been? … Would a beef cow fall into despair if told he was being slaughtered on Monday? Would he start lamenting the books he had not read, the symphonies he had not written, the fact that he won’t be grazing in the field with his great-grandchildren?
Never mind the evident falsity that animals “have no real consciousness or memory,” what’s truly pernicious about this post is that it responds to an argument about what is objectively good for animals with an argument that only subjective goods matter.
The argument suggests that the only goods that matter for a cow are goods that the cow itself cares about. This entails that, since babies can’t know their lives are being cut short, it is permissible to cut them short. In other words, the only difference between the position articulated in America’s most intellectually pre-eminent pro-life journal and Peter Singer’s infanticidal philosophy is a question of fact—are higher animals conscious?—on which Singer certainly holds the correct view.
What’s especially painful about this post is that there are perfectly good reasons not to be a vegetarian even if you think that the objective goods of animals do matter. In fact, I suspect that an argument about objective goods is the only kind of argument that makes room for the concept of human dignity. Dignity is a concept useful in answering questions about what is owed to a thing, an animal or a person in virtue of the kind of thing that it is. You find out what is owed in part by examining whether there are good proper to the flourishing of things of that kind and the relationship of these goods to one another—whether some are architectonic, for instance. The blogger instead attempts to defend human dignity with reference to a single faculty—the ability to foresee its fate—that some humans and animals have, while other humans and animals do not. It might turn out that living a long life is not actually a good, or a fundamental good, for cows, or that respecting the human good of being nourished trumps the good of long life for the cows, but this is the kind of argument that needs to be made against the reviewer, rather than a short-sighted dismissal of the entire vein of argument.