by Peter Milne
Is all life equal? Is the value of each species of life identical? Do humans hold a special position in the world that differs significantly from any other animal? In this article I hope to give perspectives on these questions that will help people come to their own conclusions on these important ethical issues.
I write from the perspective of a world view that values all life and sees the planet that we inhabit as a miraculous wonder to be experienced with joy and respect. While many people hold a similar perspective on life, the questions raised above are still often contentious or unresolved. While I do not hope to resolve these questions for everyone, I do hope to encourage people to come to their own positions and to be able to give good reasons for their stance. The word "position" is a better word than "conclusion", as these questions rarely have black and white answers. It is good to hold a position but it is essential that one be open to new information or ideas that may require a modification of that position.
The first question, “Is all life of equal value?” Nearly all vegetarians and vegans have faced this dilemma at some time - "You eat plants don't you? So you are killing anyway." The obvious answer is that killing a cauliflower is not the same as killing a cow. If there were no difference, then why should there be any difference between killing a human being and killing a carrot? If we regard all life as equal then all life is fair game when it comes to food, including humans. Nearly all cultures forbid the killing of humans for food but rarely question the right to kill animals. Ethical vegans and vegetarians will kill vegetables for food but will draw the line at killing animals. An ethical vegan may, at times, swat a mosquito or possibly kill a cockroach. We have to accept that we do place differing values on different forms of life and this is borne out in so many of our activities and choices that we make every day.
What is of interest is how we make these judgements on what to kill and what not to kill. It seems that our judgements should be made from our scientific knowledge of the physiology and psychology of species and also from our emotional reactions to the actual killing that occurs. Emotional reactions will differ from person to person, depending on one's life experience and sensitivity, but our emotions are a very important source of information that we ignore at our own peril.
I grew up in a culture that told me to suppress my aversion to the killing of animals. I did this to some degree but it only made me less sensitive to the pain of others and caused me to miss out on meaningful relationships with all types of animals (including humans). In spite of my observation that the majority of people hate the experience of other animals or humans being killed, it is allowed to go on almost unquestioned because people become conditioned to accept killing animals (including humans in certain circumstances such as war). Our emotional response tells us this violence is wrong but we have been convinced by family and society that the killing is necessary.
The killing of animals for food is almost always hidden from our view, sparing most of us from having to deal with our emotional response to this violence. The human beings that kill and cage the animals become desensitised to the suffering of the creatures that they are paid to hurt. Does the killing of plants cause the same level of emotion in a human being? No, because human experience and scientific knowledge tell us that there is a vast difference between killing plants and killing animals. We know there is a massive difference between killing a carrot and killing a dog - most people will not flinch when seeing a carrot pulled out of the ground yet will be traumatised by witnessing the slaughter of a dog.
What is it that causes this strong aversion to the killing of animals? It is significantly about our relationships with animals and our natural aversion to violence. We have a natural aversion to violence because animals scream and shed blood like us and we know what a terrible thing it would be to experience this ourselves. Most people have had some sort of relationship with an animal and we know that animals are emotional beings. It is more than the scientific understanding that animals have a similar physiology to humans, such as two eyes, two ears, a digestive system, neurotransmitters, a central nervous system, etc. We have experienced the love of a dog, the ingenuity of a pig, we have seen the cunning of a crow, the love of a cow for her calf and the joy of dolphins at play. We have seen the relationships that animals have with each other - the mutual grooming, the bossing around, the mother-baby relationships, the fighting over food, the licking of a wound, etc.
We identify with animals because we are in relationship with the animal world. We have an understanding that animals have relationships among themselves and suffer from fear and pain. Of course not all human beings have this sense of relationship with other animals, either because of their own lack of experience with them or because their own experience of violence has hardened their compassionate feelings towards other sentient beings. My own observations suggest that most people do feel upset at the killing of an animal but accept it in the case of meat production because they do not experience the slaughter and have been led to believe that meat is necessary for survival and, by corollary, such killing is a necessary evil.
The basic point is that we rightly put a distinction between animal and plant life. Although we may look with awe and wonder at plants and know how important they are for our planet's health, they do not have a central nervous system, pain receptors or emotional relationships, and have very little if any physical or emotional suffering when killed. This does not discount the fact that many of us have a relationship with plants and we are distressed when that plant is killed. It is just that this distress is of a different order to that of the distress caused from witnessing animal slaughter.
However, the issue becomes a lot cloudier when we have to make a distinction between animated life such as the life of a mosquito and the life of a chicken, or the life of a dog and the life of a human. Should we even make distinctions on the relative worth of a life in the context of these questions? First, I go to my emotional reactions. Although I am upset by the killing of an ant, it does not affect me anywhere near as much as does the killing of a bird or mammal. To be true to my emotions I must make a distinction between the life of an insect and the life of a mammal.
Maybe we need to look at the much maligned notion of hierarchies. It is difficult to get away from hierarchy. Hierarchy reflects power, and humans do have the power to manipulate the rest of the planet in incredible ways. Unfortunately, humans have used this power to inflict unimaginable suffering on their fellow animals and to destroy so many ecosystems on the planet. Hierarchies simply say that, in regard to a particular attribute, some beings have more of it than others. I strongly believe that the most important attributes possessed on this planet are those of feeling and thinking. We must assume that all beings with a brain have the ability to think and feel. By feeling I mean the ability of an individual to feel, both physically and emotionally. The ability to think or reason is also a very important attribute and I would argue that it is closely linked to our ability to feel, in the sense that our thought usually processes and affects our feelings.
This is a hugely complicated area and it is not in the scope of this essay to cover the links between thought, emotions and physical stimuli. The way an animal thinks and feels is generally directly connected to the stimuli it receives from the environment and from other animals. Generally animals respond in kind to the emotional treatment that they receive from others. Reasoning ability allows some animals to modify their emotional responses to others and ideally we can use this ability to attain for ourselves and others the best possible experience from any encounter. The ability to reason and to feel are also linked to idea of relationships which was considered in the previous paragraph. The more an individual has the ability to feel and think, the closer and warmer relationships he/she will have.
Relationships are arguably our greatest source of pleasure and our greatest source of pain in this world. In this context then, the ability to think and feel could be interchanged with the ability to have emotional relationships. I would argue that human beings happen to lie at the top of a hierarchy in the ability to have emotional relationships. Other animals do have complex emotional relationships but not on the same level as humans.
Due to our more sophisticated language and thinking abilities we have the opportunities to have sophisticated and healing relationships that are usually not available to other species. Of course amazing qualities such as altruism, loyalty, cruelty, communal living, problem solving, etc. are seen in many species, but humans in general have the potential to develop these qualities to an extent that other animals do not. In this hierarchy of thinking and feeling it would be hard to differentiate between other mammals and I would not try to do that. I am not an animal behaviourist but I would lump all birds and mammals in a loose category near the top of ability to think and feel. Under them I would put reptiles, fishes and amphibians in a loose category, below this I would put insects and spiders, then moving down to creatures that do not have faces, such as molluscs and jellyfish. These categories are not something I would hold to with dogmatic determination as they are not proscriptive. They emerge from a blend of my intuition or emotional intelligence and scientific knowledge.
People are free to disagree and make their own distinctions. What this philosophy says is that all life is precious, so if I walk into a forest and see a kangaroo, a goanna, a bush turkey and a person - all these are amazing creations and each should be let live a free life. However, if there was a devastating fire threatening those creatures, my philosophy of hierarchy would lead me to save a kangaroo before I would save a funnel web spider as I believe the kangaroo leads a much richer emotional life than a spider. Using this idea I would usually save a person before saving a dog. I say “usually” because if I had a choice between a beloved dog and Charles Manson I would probably choose the dog. Using the above reasoning we can say that in the important attributes of feeling and thinking, not all life is equal. As well we can say that the human species, in general, is special in that members of this species have a choice in how to use their thinking and feeling to an extent that other species, in general, do not.
What practical influences on my life do these ideas have? It means I would differ from many campaigners for animal rights who are putting the blame for the cruelty and destruction wreaked by humans on other creatures and the planet on the notion of a hierarchy between species or what is termed speciesism. While I have learned much from the arguments about speciesism - such as realising more about the amazing array of emotions and behaviours of so many different species - I do not think it is plausible to equate speciesism to racism. The difference between a black human and a white human is tiny whereas the difference between a chimpanzee and a cockroach is massive.
As I hope I have argued, humans rightly treat different forms of life in different ways. The blame for the cruelty and destruction that human beings have wreaked on this planet lies fairly and squarely in the choices that human beings have made. The contribution of anthropocentric world views - in both religious and secular circles - to the atrocious and callous treatment of animals cannot be underestimated and should be condemned. However, in forging a new theory of our relationship with the world we live in, we need to be mindful of the differences between humans and other animals. Humans have the power on this planet. We have the choice to treat others with respect and love or to treat others with disdain and indifference. The term "other" has been used to refer only to human beings in Christian and European philosophies which have dominated western civilisation. It is time the “other” referred to all life forms.
Increasingly, the world is experiencing the results of the lack of love and compassion shown by humans to all life. It is becoming more and more urgent that individuals begin to embody the qualities of love of self, love of others and the love of a power greater than themselves, call that power what you will - God, the Universe, Krishna, Mother Nature, Allah, etc. Humans should be celebrating our wonderful gift of life. Let us concentrate on the amazing possibilities of compassion, love, humour, self-sacrifice, loyalty and joy that exist within human beings and on fostering these attributes within ourselves and others.
Science is telling us more about our similarities with other animals and more about the amazing qualities of the earth and the plants that sustain life on this planet. We are interdependent with other life forms for our physical and emotional health. It seems to me entirely appropriate that humans beings see themselves as benevolent caretakers of this beautiful planet. Hate and cynicism will only lead to more hurt, angry, confused or deluded human beings whose actions are already wreaking havoc on Earth. The sufferings of animals caused by humans today is massive and unacceptable to any kind person and we must oppose it in many ways. Unfortunately, even for those who are committed to opposing animal slaughter for food, sport or science, we may occasionally have to make choices between species as to which life is more important to us and our world. As long as we do this with love and respect for all life and genuine sadness for the death of a life form, we are on the path to healing ourselves and our world.
Peter Milne is a committee member of the Vegetarian/Vegan Society of Queensland.
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