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Animal Rights

I see Huffington Post is highlighting the essay by Natalie Portman about Animal Rights again.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals Turned Me Vegan, by Natalie Portman

It’s not a very cogent piece but then it doesn’t need to be. Nobody takes Animal Rights seriously. At least not anybody even remotely "serious" does. Hell, we have a hard enough time getting people to take the rights of Iraqis seriously (most progressives do not). Twenty four thousand people a day die of hunger or hunger related diseases throughout the world. Nobody takes that seriously either although in that case at least people have a good excuse — because its just too horrible to think about.

The Animal Rights issue is an odd one and I think perhaps unique today because it pretty much hinges on whether you believe that animals (lets say "mammals" to keep it easy) are conscious. IE whether they actually have an experience of pain or if they are more like Decartes automatons or what we’d technically call a "zombie" today; a sleepwalker; something / someone that literally goes around doing stuff, interacting with things, even learning things, but without ever being awake or "conscious".

I don’t mean btw "react to pain", I mean "experience pain". You "react to pain" in your sleep. Your unconscious mind registers your bodies pain during sleep if you toss and turn into a stressful position and moves to reduce it. Naturally you never feel any of that pain, but if your unconscious didn’t do this you’d wake up pretty sore.

If mammals experience pain then it is vastly unethical to treat them as humanity does. That’s pretty simple. If they don’t feel pain (or anything at all) then it might still be somewhat unethical but not for the sake of the animal. You could make an argument along the lines of why cock fighting is outlawed or why there are laws about messing with human corpses, or messing with foetuses: doing harm to these empty shells that remind us of ourselves, does harm to our own consciences. Today’s animal torturer is tomorrow’s human torturer.

But basically we’re only talking about if mammals feel pain.

That’s why Portman doesn’t have to make a cogent case because incredibly most people tend to agree with her (she doesn’t even bother to make the case) that animals feel pain. I dissent. I don’t think, on the balance of the evidence, that mammals feel pain. I think it is even less likely that birds do. I might be wrong, the evidence is scant. Perhaps I should take the view that the risk is not worth it? To me that sounds too much like Pascal’s Wager. I’ll take that bet, Pascal. The logic is flawed.

But for most people they fully believe that animals feel pain but don’t worry about all the factory farming, which of course would then, I think uncontroversially (?) constitute more pain and torturing than the rest of the planet put together. That is perhaps debatable if you get sophisticated and argue mammals feel pain but only at very much lower levels. But who even thinks about this stuff?

Portman says,

I remember in college, a professor asked our class to consider what our grandchildren would look back on as being backward behavior or thinking in our generation, the way we are shocked by the kind of misogyny, racism, and sexism we know was commonplace in our grandparents’ world. He urged us to use this principle to examine the behaviors in our lives and our societies that we should be a part of changing. Factory farming of animals will be one of the things we look back on as a relic of a less-evolved age.

That is true and I have believed that for ten or twenty years or so. (In addition I would add that sexism against men and patriotism leading to foreign wars being acceptable are the two others, as I have discussed enough elsewhere). In fact even though I disagree that mammals feel pain, and hope that shortly, science will be able to establish that as a fact, I still think that the outcome she describes will come true.

So how do people cope that actually think animals do feel pain?

I hope this topic is something to think about, but I really doubt it will provoke anything thoughtful. I have noticed that whenever I make this challenge to people to either figure out animals don’t feel pain or get serious about animal rights, the invariable response is to stick in the self-contradictory middle saying they do feel pain, and that’s terrible but, no, I am not going to do a damn thing about it, not even to simply register this issue in my own mind, as an issue of top political importance. Yes, one which you understand nobody will ever do much about (you know like the 24,000 people dying of hunger a day, of which more in a latter diary I hope), but at least on the radar and not treated like something only kooks and Hollywood nuts care about (like Scientology or ghosts).

This is why almost all Animal Rights pieces are emotional pieces. They know they have already won the intellectual argument with most folks; that animals feel pain. They know they have already won the ethical debate that if animals do feel pain then its a moral duty to care for them (see for example Tom Regan’s "The case for Animal Rights")

All that’s left is to engage people’s sense of intellectual consistency.

For that they use emotion, but I’ve always favoured intellectual consistency on its own merits, and so, I write this diary in support of animal rights, which I myself reject, but you probably shouldn’t.

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