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Blog: Humanist Voices

1387164 chicks in the farmyard 1(Photo taken by Patrizio Martorana)With the Twin Cities Veg Fest around the corner, it seems like an opportune moment to share my perspective on animal welfare/rights. As is the case with a growing minority of Humanists, I arrived at the personal position of veganism after being exposed to the strong ethical arguments against the exploitation of non-human animals. The following quote from the late humanist heartthrob Carl Sagan depicts the viciousness of anthropocentricism –

“Humans–who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals–have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and “animals” is essential if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat them–without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeeling toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious. They are just too much like us”.

As a group of critical thinkers committed to ethical integrity, it is high time to face the question - Why has Humanism struggled to rise above the dogma of speciesism?

We may still be influenced today by traditional philosophical ideas of the past, and they have been predominantly biased towards human dominion over all other creatures. Famous philosophers like Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant helped frame the perception of the masses that non-human animals exist solely to appease our needs, and our duties towards such animals range from negligible to non-existent. In modern society, however, we have been able to make a certain amount of scientific and ethical progress in breaking away from such speciest egocentricism. As atheists and humanists, we know that nothing has been ‘created’ for our sake, and that we have the freedom, ability and obligation to create our own moral landscape. Today, the common Western perception towards animals may be framed the following way:

“As much as possible, we should avoid being cruel to animals. Meaningless, unprovoked acts of violence towards animals are unjustified. But our food and clothing necessities are crucial, and in these realms animal interests are easily overridden by human demand and interests”

This way of thinking is ethically problematic - and let me explain why. The scientific understanding is widely accepted that factory farmed animals (mammals and birds, vertebrates, some invertebrates) are sentient and experience both physical and psychological pain and pleasure. This scientific knowledge concentrates on three main areas, 1) anatomical and physiological similarities 2) behavioral parallels 3) shared evolutionary history.

As long as we have nutritious and adequate alternative means of food and clothing, inflicting torturous conditions on beings that experience pain should be categorically wrong. The following is a strong ethical argument that humanist and philosopher Peter Singer proposes:

1. It is wrong to cause pain without a good enough reason.

2. Animals suffer in modern meat production.

3. We could nourish ourselves in other ways.

4. Our enjoyment of the way meat tastes is not a good enough reason to justify the amount of pain and suffering animals are made to endure.

5. Therefore we should stop eating the products of modern meat production.

Humanism, however, has been unseemingly quiet on issues of animal welfare. The Humanist Manifesto III (Humanism and it’s Aspirations) is flawed, in Singer’s opinion, and I concur with him. The following is an excerpt from the Manifesto:

"Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond."

As Singer remarks on this,

“ Despite the broader concerns at the end of the sentence and another remark at the end of the manifesto about "a planetary duty to protect nature's integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner," the manifesto obviously gives precedence to the interests of members of our own species.”

Indeed P. Tittle, famous humanist author and philosopher, agrees that Humanism may well benefit from self-criticism in this regard. Writing about the pamphlets issued by the Humanists Association of Canada, she offers corrections like the following:

How do I propose to incorporate these animal rights into humanism? Simple: I suggest the addition, after the first principle which states “Humanism aims at the full development of every human being,” of the phrase “except at the unnecessary expense of certain non-human life forms.

I would propose that the Humanists of MN petition the Ameican Humanist Association to reword the Manifesto in accordance with progressive ethical philosophy that takes into account the welfare of beings that are subject to sentient experiences. Only then can we truly claim to be committed to the well-being of all.  

Archived Comments

  • Eric

    commented at 7:34 pm, July 14, 2012

    Rohit, I agree that we need to rewrite the humanist manifesto to include this language or something similar. Much else (obviously) needs to be done as well.

    I'm often puzzled as to how many people do not seem to be able to see the suffering of other creatures. I know plenty of people who would be horrified to see their cat or dog clubbed or kicked around, but they can't seem to extend that fellow feeling to a pig kept locked in a torturously small cage for its entire life. Is it that the horrors of factory farming are still not widely known? Or, does awareness exist but is pushed out of mind, rationalized, and ignored? If the latter, how do we overcome that problem?

    • Rohit

      commented at 7:36 pm, July 16, 2012

      Hi Eric,

      That is an excellent point - the hypocrisy could not be any more obvious. It is further interesting how dog fighting is an illegal practice (as it should be), yet the legal protection for factory farmed animals are virtually non-existent/ineffective. For example, pigs are some of the most intelligent, inquisitive and social animals out there (studies show more than dogs in many aspects), yet most of society is complicit in inflicting horrific conditions on them before slaughtering them by the millions everyday.

      The horrors of factory farming are mainly publicized by animal rights/welfare organizations - and it is easy for society to deride and ignore them as extremists or hippies. In order to bring this topic to the forefront of societal consciousness, I believe that individuals and groups (like the Humanists of MN) who are not exclusively focused on animal rights/welfare issues need to start speaking up about the ethical ramifications of our diets. This will make the issue hard to ignore, and bring people to realize the inconsistency of their ethical positions in life.

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