Morality seems to be all that separates us from the unfeeling universe, which is filled with morally horific natural laws such as ‘survival of the fittest.’ Or, at least, such ‘callous’ impartiality seems unjust to our modern societies. Behind the screens of prosperity and enlightentment we have the luxory of moral scrutiny — a luxory that should be fully explored and developed as our only wall against the apparent moral abyss of the rest of the universe. With enough investigation, we will realize that animals must be considered as we decide who deserves rights — and what they are.
There is a fundamental system for establishing rights in others of recognizable consciousness that is (nearly) universal to human beings. Yet, there is significant evidence of varying interpretations of those fundamentals that give rise to many different morals in different cultures. Some believe, perhaps in a cruelly impartial stance, that morality is merely a set of learned rules that varies between cultures. Babies certainly do (eventually) develop morally — kindergarten is as much a time for learning not to take toys from others as the alphabet.
Still, this claim should not be taken too far — even across huge cultural gaps there are similarities in philosophy and morality. The golden rule shows up in various forms, composed independently by many cultures.
It may be safe to assume that simply being a society encourages such togetherness and morality, but as we are social creatures such a concession only furthers the point for animal rights as we are not the only social creatures.
In fact, there are many examples of basic social functions in animal groups that remind us of human families: ‘Tamarin mothers in the Amazon Basin rely on aunts and grandmothers to tend the young while the mothers forage for food […] [m]oms and dads among Brazil’s titi monkeys take turns minding the kids and bringing home the bacon, just as in any well-adjusted two-income human family […] [i]n all manner of animals, including bees, elephants, lions, lemurs, bats and birds, creatures with no parental investment in offspring routinely expend enormous amounts of energy caring for their relatives’ young’ (Kluger et al). They face the same challenges like poverty and proper upbringing that we face, and ‘work out surprisingly similar solutions’ (Kluger et al). We must recognize that many creatures have some kind of social structure.
The other extreme includes the concept of innate morality: we are born with knowledge of right and wrong. This idea goes completely against the belief in innocent birth — and in fact anyone watching the moral development of a child knows that there is a significant amount of simply learning the rules in a child’s changing behavior.
If morality is learned or even just fine-tuned as we age, then what rights can claim for ourselves or others? To determine the rights we should allocate to various creatures, we often turn to empathy. There are many simple guiding rules based on empathy; the golden rule is heavily cited as a strong foundation upon which to build morality. If we can envision ourselves in another’s situation, we should be able to come to a moral conclusion about the predicament. Our empathy provides a welcome tool for morally scrutinizing situations and provides a strong basis for morality: if we feel bad, the situation is (personally) immoral. Usually this happens when we guess that a being is suffering.
Suffering, and in fact the whole range of emotions that we like to claim as a unique part of the human experience, is actually common among animals. Marc Bekoff is ‘a biologist who specialized in animal behavior’ and while he, like most scientists, admits that animal emotions can be different from the emotions we experience, there certainly is plenty of evidence for their existence: ‘[l]ove makes mothers care for their babies; anger makes individuals fight off enemies; respect helps animals get along when they live in groups’ (Newman).
In the book When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, authors Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy cite many first hand accounts of examples of animal emotions by the displays and actions that we usually associate with humanity (Perry). Still, some are quick to throw out such crucial evidence. Many claim that we experience emotions while animals merely exhibit them. In this respect, we often hold a kind of emotional ‘double standard’: ‘[h]umans experience emotions, while animals display behaviors […] [h]umans love, animals bond […] [t]he gap is so wide that animals aren’t even credited with the ability to experience the most basic emotion: fear’ (Perry).
There are many anecdotes that easily sway our moral sensitivity, and yet won’t really touch those with such strong stances. Their arguments may follow my idea of relativistic morality in which, since morality varies among cultures anyway, there is no universal morality and therefore we are allowed to create our own, possibly without considering animals. It certainly makes many jobs much easier if we need not care about the suffering we are causing other creatures.
This is, by definition, an immoral stance: to believe in no morality is to claim none. Furthermore, it is often tantamount to denying one’s own emotions: Bekoff, describing coyotes playing hide-and-seek, says,'[t]hey show such enthusiasm […] no one watching them could ever deny that they’re enjoying it’ (Newman). As a society we are often guilty of at least moral ignorance due to negligence. We have become comfortable with eating (some) food despite our knowledge of the suffering endured in its creation because of our detachment from the agricultural process. More than my stomach would be quesy after actually witnessing a slaughter for the betterment of mankind, and others with a developed sense of empathy would feel the same force. Even the most ardent utilitarians must acknowledge the importance of emotions in a moral decision.
Tom Regan explains utilitarianism in ‘The Case for Animal Rights’ as adhering to two moral principles: ‘[…] that of equality’ and ‘[…] that of unity’; essentially, a utilitarian must calculate the net benefit or suffering by summing the effects — including emotional — on every valid creature and follow the conclusion rather formulaically, making no adjustments for inherent value as all creatures are treated equally. Contractarianism, on one level, seems to provide a nice method of identifying those valid creatures. Regan explains contractarianism as a morality which ‘consists of a set of rules that individuals voluntarily agree to abide by’ and that ‘those who understand and accept the terms of the contract are covered directly; they have rights’ while others may only be indirectly protected if the signatories are concerned with their well-being. The problem is that every creature has a distinct behavior, making it impossible to exclude anyone (all behaviors are moral if no morality has yet been set) or include anyone (nobody agrees on a truly comprehensive morality). In sequence, utilitarianism fails to differentiate between creatures based on inherent value; despite our differing morality, we can usually grant some creatures more value and ‘right to life’ than others.
There are many who disagree with the link between behavior and morality, and Carl Cohen summarizes the point in ‘The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research’: Patterns of conduct are not the issue. Animals do indeed exhibit remarkable behavior at times. Condition, fear, instinct, and intelligence all contribute to species survival. Membership in a community of moral agents nevertheless remains impossible for them. Actors subject to moral judgments must be capable of grasping the generality of an ethical premise in a practical syllogism. Humans act immorally often enough, but only they — never wolves or monkeys — can discern, by applying some moral rule to the facts of the case, that a given act ought or ought not be performed. (Cohen 709-710).
To the contrary, patterns of conduct are the only applicable issue. All examples of morality that we use to teach future generations are understandably expressed as actions and those actions aren’t self-motivated. There have been eyewitness accounts of similar behavior in other species: An Adult elephant was once seen trying to rescue a baby rhinoceros that was stuck in the mud in Kenya. Over and over, the elephant used its tusks to try to push or lift the rhino despite charges by the rhino baby’s mother, who did not appreciate the elephant’s efforts. (Newman).
The elephant had nothing to gain by helping out the baby. The creature’s ‘pattern of conduct’ was not self-motivated and in fact arguably very moral: we help lesser animals despite their ignorant fear. The fact that elephants are not able to express their exact pattern of conduct for our moral scrutiny does not make it invalid.
Regardless of any attempts to prove or disprove animal morality — the former can be difficult considering our own moral diversity — we can still include some fundamental acknowledgment of the morality of avoiding their suffering. There is ample evidence of the pain creatures feel, even emotionally for each other as a chimpanzee’s experience exemplifies: When his mother died, Flint withdrew from other chimps. He hardly ate. He climbed a tree to the nest he and his mother had shared. For a long time he stood there, staring into space. (Newman).
Grief is another very humane response that scientists have noticed in animals. The measure of grief should be its intensity rather than its host; just as we try to avoid making each other grieve we should try to avoid making animals grieve. Nevertheless, Carl Cohen makes the excellent point that while animals do count (even if they cannot be given literal rights), every creature has different value and we usually possess the most. Writing in ‘The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research’, Cohen explains that ‘[b]etween species of animate life […] the morally relevant differences are enormous, and almost universally appreciated.’
To be morally comprehensive in this respect seems impossible: it is difficult to both believe that the only value of suffering is intensity and that those creatures who are suffering have different values. Perhaps we should modify the formulaic utilitarianism equation to be the sum of the product of each animal’s value and effect in a given situation. A cat losing a limb is certainly sad, but should not matter as much as a human losing a limb. R.G. Frey even proposes a method for analyzing a creature’s worth in ‘All Animals Are Not Equal’, stating that ‘Normal (adult) human life is of a much higher quality than animal life, not because of species, but because of richness; the value of a life is a function of its quality.’
The final problems which even this structured morality cannot explain is the idea of some absolute levels of suffering that other suffering cannot add up to. As an example, it seems that death should outweigh any number of broken limbs. Furthermore, some argue that the creature’s inherent value is far more important than the suffering it endures — possibly even making the suffering a secondary concern to the creature. This, too, may have validity at least in regard to the first concern: enough broken human limbs may add up to a dead cat, but broken cat limbs should (almost) never add up to a dead human. The rare case would include where there is not as much suffering as most would assume; perhaps, as an example, when a human wishes to die or even the human’s will to live or enjoyment in life is less than a cat’s.
Despite our inability to precisely define a universal morality, we have made some fundamental inclusions. We should minimize the suffering to others — who must be sentient to experience the suffering. Animals do suffer, and exhibit emotions and display some sociable behavior and morality similar to our own. As globalization slowly streamlines world beliefs, morality will undoubtedly be hammered into ever more precise wording as new laws for animal rights are drafted and passed or rejected. The fundamental truth about morality that we must remember is that animals do count; however, how we count them is still up to us.