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Gary L. Francione: Why morality requires veganism; the case against owning animals

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Animals are chattel property. Their status as property guarantees that they will remain as things with only external or extrinsic value. Because they are property, our conventional thinking rejects the idea that killing animals is wrong per se.

GARY L. FRANCIONE: Before the 19th century, at least in the West, animals were largely excluded from the moral and legal community. They were considered as things. This is contrasted with Eastern thinking, which generally accorded at least some moral value to animals that accounted for the vegetarianism that remains prevalent in the Jain, Hindu and most Buddhist traditions. The Western view was that we could have moral and legal obligations that concerned animals but were not owed to them. To the extent that the cruel treatment of animals was thought to present a moral problem, it was only because it made us more likely to be cruel to other humans.

But any obligation to be kind to animals merely concerned animals; the obligation of kind treatment was owed only to other humans. This was the view of Immanuel Kant, Thomas Aquinas and others. We had a legal obligation not to harm our neighbour’s property – whether that property was a cow or a cart. But that was an obligation owed to our neighbour as a property owner, not to the cow or the cart.

Although, in many instances, the status of animals as things was linked to the theological notion that only humans were deemed to have been created in God’s image, its primary focus was on cognition. Animals supposedly were not rational, self-aware or able to use concepts, and this was thought to justify our treating them as having no moral value…

This changed as part of a paradigm shift that occurred in the early 19th century and that was brought about by a number of thinkers, one of the more important of whom was the utilitarian philosopher and law reformer Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued that the only characteristic that mattered for moral significance was the ability to suffer: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ As long as an animal was sentient, or subjectively aware and could suffer, that animal’s interests in not suffering mattered morally. Ignoring that suffering because of the species of the being at issue was no more defensible morally than ignoring human suffering based on race.

Although Bentham maintained that the cognitive differences between humans and nonhumans were irrelevant insofar as animal suffering was concerned, he regarded those cognitive differences as very relevant to the issue of killing animals. The fact that animals are not self-aware meant that they live in the present and have no connection with a future self; they have no sense of what they lose when we take their lives, he argued…

Bentham’s view – that animals have a morally significant interest in not suffering, but do not have an interest in continuing to live – is the conventional position that most people embrace, and it is reflected in the law. This position rejects the idea that nonhuman animals are persons – that is, beings who can be said to have a morally significant interest in continuing to live. But it also rejects the idea that animals are things that have no moral value. Animals are not persons; they are what I have referred to as quasi-persons. So how well does quasi-personhood work? How much protection against suffering does it provide? The short answer: quasi-personhood status does not work; it provides very little protection. There are two reasons for this.

First, animals are chattel property. They are economic commodities. Although we may think of animals as quasi-persons, their status as property guarantees that they will remain as things with only external or extrinsic value. Because they are property, and because our conventional thinking rejects the idea that killing animals is wrong per se, we do not ask whether particular institutionalised uses are necessary – we assume that they are necessary as exercises of property rights – but only whether the treatment of animals pursuant to those uses is ‘humane’. But if the use itself is not necessary, then all of the suffering inflicted pursuant to it is, by definition, unnecessary.

Consider our use of animals for food, which represents our numerically most significant animal use. We kill more than 70 billion land animals and at least 1 trillion sea animals every year for food. To put this in perspective, we kill and eat more animals in one year than the estimated number of human beings who have ever lived. Is any of this animal use necessary?..

Second, because animals are property, and because we do not focus on animal use but only on animal treatment, the level of protection accorded to animal interests in not suffering will be limited, for the most part, to that which is economically efficient. That is, we pay for a level of protection that will provide a greater economic benefit than what we pay to secure it. That is what ‘unnecessary’ suffering means in this context; it is suffering that results in a greater economic cost than the cost of preventing that suffering.

So, for example, legislation requiring ‘humane’ slaughter is common. Why? Because handling at the slaughterhouse is relevant as an economic matter; not protecting at least some animal interests during the killing process can result in incurring significant losses… The view that animals do not have an interest in continuing to live because they lack humanlike self-awareness, which, as discussed above, reinforces the property status of animals, is so much a part of our thinking that it is accepted even by prominent modern animal ethicists…

I am sceptical of the claim that nonhumans, or at least many of those we exploit, live in an eternal present, but I do not know. I do know, however, that there are many humans who live in an eternal present relative to normally functioning humans. For example, there are many humans who have late-stage dementia. They are not just forgetful or very forgetful; they often have no memory of the past, have no idea about who they once were, do not recognise people with whom they have been very close, and have no ability to plan for the future…

If our conventional moral thinking about animals is to be meaningful at all, it needs to maintain that we can use and kill animals for human purposes only when there is a real conflict between human and nonhuman interests – a compulsion – that necessitates it, and, in such cases, we must take care to make sure that we impose the least amount of suffering on animals. This would mean that we would no longer routinely treat animals as chattel property and use them for all sorts of purposes that cannot plausibly be characterised as necessary. That is, even in the absence of recognising that animals are nonhuman persons with a morally significant right in continuing to live, which, as a proponent of animal rights I would urge, it would mean that we could not justify, among other things, eating animals or animal products in all but relatively a few situations…

And it’s not just meat that is a problem; there is no morally significant difference between meat on the one hand, and dairy and eggs on the other. All of these products involve suffering and death. Veganism is not an extreme position; what is extreme is claiming to believe that animals matter morally and then inflicting suffering on them for no reason other than culinary pleasure or convenience. It is also extreme to continue to ignore that, if we adopted a vegan diet, we could substantially reduce, if not end, world hunger, and take the single most significant step we can take as individuals to address the climate crisis. SOURCE…

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