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Why We May Use Animals
Before returning to the arguments for animal rights, I would like to present a classical-individualist case for the use of animals for human purposes. Without this case reasonably well established, it will not be possible to critically assess the case for animal rights. After all, this is a comparative matter -- which viewpoint makes better sense and therefore is more likely to be true? Moreover, it was from a roughly classical-individualist stance that the idea of basic rights was developed, by John Locke and others.
One reason for the propriety of our use of animals is that we are more important or valuable than other animals and some of our projects may require the use, even killing, of animals so as to succeed. Notice that this is different from saying that human beings are “uniquely important,” a position avidly ridiculed by Stephen R. L. Clark, who claims that “there seems no decent ground in reason or revelation to suppose that man is uniquely important or significant.” If man were uniquely important, that would mean that one could not assign any value to plants or nonhuman animals apart from their relationship to human beings. The position I am defending is that there is a scale of importance in nature and among all the various kinds of being, with human beings prima facie the most important -- even while some members of the human species may indeed prove themselves to be the most vile and worthless as well.
How do we establish that we are the most important or valuable? By considering whether the idea of lesser or greater importance or value in the nature of things makes clear sense and applying it to an understanding of whether human beings or other animals are more important. If it turns out that ranking things in nature as more or less important makes sense, and if humans qualify as more important than other animals, there is at least the beginning of a reason why we may make use of other animals for our purposes -- for instance, when a trade-off is unavoidable.
That there are things of different degree of value in nature is admitted by animal rights advocates, so there is no need to argue about that here. When they insist that we treat animals differently from the way we treat, say, rocks -- so that we may use rocks in ways that we may not use animals -- animal rights or liberation champions testify, at least by implication, that animals are more important than rocks. They happen, also, to deny that human beings rank higher than other animals, or at least they do not admit that ranking human beings higher warrants our using animals for our purposes. But that is a distinct issue. What matters for now is that variable importance in nature is at least implicitly admitted by defenders of the high moral status of animals.
Quite independently of this acknowledgment, there simply is evidence through the natural world of the existence of beings of greater complexity and of higher value. For example, while it makes no sense to evaluate as good or bad such things as planets or rocks or pebbles -- except as they may relate to human purposes -- when it comes to plants and animals, the process of evaluation commences very naturally indeed. We can speak of better or worse oaks, redwoods, zebras, foxes, or chimps. While at this point we confine our evaluation to the condition or behavior of such beings without any intimation of their responsibility for being better or worse, when we start discussing human beings, our evaluation takes on a moral component. Indeed, none are more ready to testify to this than animal rights advocates, who, after all, do not demand any change of behavior on the part of nonhuman animals and yet insist that human beings conform to certain moral edicts as a matter of their own choice. This means that even animal rights advocates admit outright that to the best of our knowledge, it is with human beings that the idea of moral responsibility enters the universe.
Clearly, this shows a hierarchical structure in nature: Some things – rocks, comets, minerals -- do not invite evaluations at all -- it is of no significance, except in relationship to the well being of some living entities, whether they exist or what condition they are in or how they behave. Some things – zebras, frogs, redwood rees -- invite evaluation as to whether they do well or badly but without any moral or ethical implications. And some things -- namely, human beings -- invite moral evaluation in light of the fact that they exercise choice regarding good and bad things they can do.
The level of importance or value may be noted to move from the inanimate to the animate world, culminating, as far as we now know, with human life. Normal human life involves moral tasks, and that is why we are more important than other beings in nature -- we are subject to moral appraisal; it is a matter of our doing whether we succeed or fail in our lives.
Now, when it comes to our moral task, namely, to succeed as human beings, we are dependent upon reaching sensible conclusions about what we should do. We can fail to do this and too often do so. But we can also succeed. The process that leads to our success involves learning, among other things, what it is that nature avails us with to achieve our highly varied tasks in life. Clearly, among these highly varied tasks could be some that make judicious use of animals -- for example, to find out whether some medicine is safe for human use, we might wish to employ animals. To do this is the rational thing for us to do, so as to make the best use of nature for our success in living our lives. That does not mean that we can do without guidelines for how we might make use of animals -- any more than we can do without guidelines for how we use anything else. In a discussion of ethics, such guidelines would become essential but they are not the topic of politics or law in a free society (except when animals or plants become the subject of contractual agreements and their enforcement).
The above line of reasoning also counters a frequently raised objection to our use of other animals: Could not the same argument be used within the human species, giving better people the right to make use of worse people? The answer is that making choices is a precondition for determining who is better or worse among human beings, and using people against their will squelches their choice -- at least with respect to what they ought to do next -- so those who are better have the obligation to leave those who are worse to continue to make choices that may well reverse the situation. It isn’t over, as the saying goes, until the fat lady sings, so, as we have learned from Aristotle, the comparative assessment of human beings must await the completion of their lives, at least in principle.
Of course, we do in fact “make use” of some very bad people -- those who have been duly convicted of having exempted themselves from human community life. We banish -- usually by imprisonment -- those who violate others’ basic rights. We punish them at times by forcing them to work -- for example, to produce license plates in the United States. Personally, too, there are limits to tolerance: if someone threatens us with serious harm, with taking our lives or property, we act to remove the threat, to subdue the aggressor. This is not outright “using” of someone, but it does show that for self-defensive purposes, human beings are not immune from being killed or maimed, akin to how we might treat animals if they stand in the way of our flourishing.