CONCERN is growing in American society for the welfare, protection, and rights of animals. Protests have been mounted against killing animals for their fur, hunting animals for sport, and experimenting on animals in the laboratory. A powerful rational argument can be made for respecting animals much more than we currently do. Every year tens of millions of animals (including dogs, cats, rabbits, and monkeys) die in often painful laboratory experiments. In many cases, they die not so that we can achieve some major medical breakthrough, but so that we have one more type of lipstick or one more brand of aftershave. Contrary to the common belief that all or most animal testing is medical in nature, countless animals are tortured and killed daily so that we can place yet another inessential item on our already overstuffed shelves.
We also slaughter billions of feeling, sensitive creatures (which we clinically label ``livestock'' and ``poultry'') to satisfy our seemingly insatiable appetite for the flesh of dead animals. Often, these animals have short, miserable lives characterized principally by confinement, stress, and early death - all so that we can dine as we please.
If such things were done to human beings, words like ``atrocity'' and ``genocide'' would immediately be heard. If such practices would be morally abominable if perpetrated upon humans, they are morally unacceptable when done to animals unless there is a morally relevant difference in the value of human animals and the value of nonhuman animals.
Many attempts have been made to argue for such a great moral difference in the hope of getting us off the moral hook for what we do to and with animals. Some people contend that because we are human and animals aren't, we count morally while they don't. But in the absence of an explanation that specifies why belonging to our species gives us unique moral status, such a claim seems to be nothing more than arbitrary discrimination in favor of ``us'' and at the expense of ``them.'' Its parallel with sexism and racism has induced certain thinkers to label such an attitude ``speciesism.''
Some have pointed to our greater intelligence as the key factor justifying our lethal exploitation of animals to satisfy often trivial desires. However, if the possession of higher-order mentality is required in order to deserve moral respect, severely retarded people could conceivably be fair game for exploitation or experimentation by their more intelligent fellow humans.
Surely it is absurd to contend that animals have no rights merely because they lack rational intelligence since, as should be clear to everyone, it would be absurd to conclude that mentally retarded humans have no rights due to their similar lack of rational intelligence.
It has also been claimed that we are worth more than animals because we have immortal souls and they don't. This reason is both questionable and irrelevant. First of all, no one knows that such a claim is true. How do you ascertain the presence or the absence of such a soul? Second, even if it were true that we have immortal souls and that other animals don't, how could this make our mortal lives more valuable than those of animals? After all, our mortal lives would not have to persist in order for us to continue to exist, since we would have immortal souls; whereas for a being without an immortal soul, its mortal life is of paramount importance since this is its only period of existence. Not having an immortal soul makes one's mortal life more valuable, not less valuable.
Last, it has been contended that God gave us dominion over the entire natural creation, including the animals, and thus that we can treat them as we see fit. Of course, this divine permission is quite unverifiable. Moreover, does it make sense to assume that a supremely merciful God would give us the right to treat animals in a profoundly unmerciful way? Would such a God really go along with the torturing and killing of his sentient creatures just so that we can consume the latest luxury item, like a ``new and improved'' bleach? I think not.
Thus, the burgeoning animal rights movement confronts us with a stark and uncomfortable dilemma: either find a genuine justification of our current practices or abandon them as immoral. The fate of millions of feeling, defenseless, and innocent creatures is hanging in the balance.