Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Human Use of Animals

Vivisectors, hunters, ranchers, and the majority of the rest of the humans on the planet who take the time to try to explain why they think its OK or even fitting that humans should mercilessly exploit every other species on Earth usually appeal to a claim that humans are special in a way that excuses or justifies all we do to every other animal. I think this image fairly characterizes that view:

So, I got to thinking about the things that set us humans apart from every other species. Every species is unique, by definition, but things like the number of toes, or even the presence of toes, don't seem to be the kind of things people mean when they defend the things we do to other animals with an appeal to our special-ness.

Here's a list of things that might be similar to the things people are thinking of when they say humans are special, that we have certain capacities, or behave in ways, or accomplish special deeds, or invent new things, that set us apart from every other animal on Earth:

Napalm; Crucifixion; The rack; The Inquisition; Cluster bombs; Landmines; Nagasaki; Hiroshima; Rape of Nanking; Factory farms; The Indian Wars; American bison slaughter; Dodos; Passenger pigeons; Cambodian killing fields; Sharia; Purdah; Foot-binding; Female circumcision; Nazis; Dresden fire-bombing; Circus Maximus; US fire bombings of Japan; Dog fighting; Bull fighting; Hot iron branding; Sport hunting; Sport killing; Genocide; Child labor; Stalin’s purges; Forced labor; Jim Crow; Vivisection; Sweatshops; Prisons; Social/economic castes; Nationalism; Sexism; Racism; Greed; Thumb screws; Burning at the stake; Bear bile farms; Foie gras; Zoos; Rodeo; Horse racing; Dog racing; Fur trapping; Slaughter houses; Child prostitution; Stoning; Capital punishment; Death squads; Fear mongering; Keel hauling; Cat-o-nine-tails; Cages; Aquariums; Glue traps; Gill nets; Whaling; Leather; Butchers; Pet stores; Puppy mills; Satan; gods; God; Captivity; Clubbing baby seals; Deforestation; Global warming; Desertification; Pollution; Toxic waste; PCBs; DDT; Plutonium; Military drones; Domestic turkeys; Dairy cows; Sadism; Ridicule; Bearing false witness; Electric prods; The electric chair; The Guillotine; Veal; Fish hooks; Bullets; Isinglass; Tail docking; Ear trimming; De-barking; De-clawing; Selective animal breeding; Saddles; Bridles; Soring; Hog nose-rings; Ankuses; Auks; Bataan Death March; Trail of Tears; Political borders; Religion; Demons; Nuclear weapons; Chemical weapons; Biological weapons; Phosgene gas; Flame throwers; Punji sticks; Horse tripping; Tar and feathering; Black ops; Child pornography; Poisoned bait; Bait; Rationalization; Water-boarding; Cover-ups; Animal agriculture; Ear notching; Forced castration; De-horning; Lariats; Shackles.

I suspect that some of the exploiters, priests, ethicists, philosophers, etc., who defend our various uses of animals will take exception to my list. They might argue that I've left out the good things that set us apart from the rest of creation.

Well, I actually tried to come up with that list as well, and just couldn't get very far. Here's the list of the not-necessarily bad things that I think are unique to humans.

Music, highfalutin ideas, the visual arts, advanced technology, civilization, human language, clothing, fashion, patriotism, the sciences.

Unfortunately, none of the items on the unique-to-humans-good list are as clearly good in the same way that most of the the things on the list above are clearly bad.

Music has led people into stupid and vicious battles. Highfalutin ideas have been used to justify many evil deeds. Pro-war antisemitic artists produced very successful advertisements. Advanced technologies are a well-recognized double-edged sword. Human language is regularly put to evil use. We've even used clothing to brand people and to sequester women. Fashion regularly promotes the use of fur and is responsible for the near-extinction of a number of species. Patriotism probably doesn't even belong on a list of good attributes. And the sciences have uncountable evils strewn at their feet.

Many of those who claim to see our special holy nature point to things like love, compassion, concern for others, self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, and altruism. I thoroughly agree and also celebrate these things in humans; but these things aren't unique to us. They are behaviors and characteristics seen in many animals. So even though these are good things about us, they do not justify the other many uniquely horrible things we do.

We have bad things in common with other animals as well. Things like hate, anger, covetousness, jealousy, fear, pain, arrogance, self-absorption, and loneliness.

And many animals do nasty things to each other. Some animals are eaten alive. Parasitic organisms frequently have really icky life histories and can cause great suffering.

But all told, the planet and all its inhabitants are at grave unremitting risk from us. The evils we have created and caused and continue to heap upon each other far exceed those caused by other animal species.

And so, arguments and explanations for why we ought to feel good or at least justified in keeping calves in small boxes, shooting whales with explosive harpoons, drilling holes into monkeys' heads, force-feeding geese, injecting poisons into mice, or any of the other almost endless number of nasty things we do to animals, those arguments and explanations ought to be very strong and easily understood.

Moreover, the arguments ought to explain why the things animals do as well as or better than we do, or the characteristics and abilities they have in greater measure than we do, or the things they do that we can't, don't matter in an ethical weighing.

The only two arguments I can formulate that take everything above into account are that Might Makes Right, or that God's assertion in Genesis 9:2 isn't mere myth.

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