Another paper written for school. Thought it might be worth sharing. Let me know if you think I was right to share it. Originally written September 09, 2010.
Speciesism: An Evolutionary Perspective
Peter Singer makes the argument that there are no good reasons why we shouldn’t take the interests of animals seriously. Briefly, he makes the case that intelligence and the ability to speak are irrelevant to an organisms ability to experience happiness and suffering. This seems self-evident and it is difficult to see why, given that this is the case, we shouldn’t take the interests of animals seriously. At the very least, flippant dismissal of the possibility that animals might deserve a little more respect than is currently given them is shown to be clearly bigoted. I won’t spend more time here defending Singer’s argument. Instead, I want to examine the argument in the light of something else that we know about the world; that every living thing on this planet is related to everything else. But what does this have to do with our obligations to non-human species? I’m not going to try to restate Singer’s argument in terms of our evolutionary history, but rather unpack the idea that morality in terms of evolution might well support Singer’s conclusion that discrimination based on species is as arbitrary as discrimination based on height or eye color.
I can’t decide whether or not it is necessary to defend or explain the theory of evolution here. It is necessary to understand it in order to follow my train of thought. As far as my train of thought, I wish such the thought to defend science never needed to occur. However, most of the people in our culture seem ignorant of the central theme of biology, some of them to the point of hostility. Suffice it to say, evolution (not to be confused with anything other than decent with modification) is not only confirmed through several pillars of evidence, but is the logical and necessary consequence of the nature of reproduction. Given that traits are inherited with slight modifications, that there is a linear growth of resources and that populations grow exponentially, it follows that those individuals with slight survival advantages will tend to have more offspring and convey those survival advantages. This is all a bit of a digression, but if my readers don’t know about or deny evolution, the rest of my paper will be lost on them.
Moving on. What does all of this have to do with ethics? Well, the more I think about it, the more it seems that our tendency to think of ourselves as distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom is a mistake. If we look back down the tree of life, we’ll find that our ancestors get bigger, hairier and dumber. To me, it isn’t just the cousinship we share with all other animals, but something a little more subtle. At what point along the branch that will eventually lead to Homo sapiens do people who say only human interests matter draw the magic line? Because every child is the same species as it’s parent, it seems that anywhere we draw the line would be necessarily arbitrary. Not only that, but it’s only an accident of history that the evolutionary intermediates between our dumb fuzzy ancestors and us have all died out. If there were still groups of Neanderthals roaming the planet, the arbitrary nature of our speciesist tendencies would be obvious. By any criterion we chose, it would necessarily be either arbitrary (like any organism with DNA that produces a human) or it would include some members of other species and exclude some of ours (the smartest Neanderthals would be smarter than the dumbest humans.)
My purpose here isn’t to try and push any conclusions, but to explore the issue of animal rights from a new angle. As long as I’m just doing some armchair contemplation, I feel that there is at least one more thing that ought to be mentioned whenever this topic comes up. Any sane animal rights activist isn’t pushing the notion that all animals have equal rights. That is, not all animals have the same rights as all humans. This a straw-man that people throw up so that they can dismiss the notion of animal rights as ludicrous. Clearly, all animals do not and ought not to have the same rights because they have different capacities. Children don’t have the right to be elected for office (or even vote) because they don’t have the capacity to exercise that right in the way that it needs to be exercised. All that I think, and I am confident that most well-thought animal rights activists think, is that all animals do have the capacity to experience the world around them with senses that are likely as well attuned to pleasure and pain as ours are and that that capacity ought to be recognized and kept in mind. There are very likely many circumstances in which the interests of humans will trump the interests animals, but that doesn’t mean that that will necessarily be the case in every circumstance.
Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. New York: Ecco, 2002. Print.