In a recent Phoenix editorial, Daniel Paz argued in favor of a general moral prohibition against the consumption of animals and animal products. His argument is worth reading, if only because it is paradigmatic. Like most arguments meant to establish that veganism is, as Paz writes, “an individual imperative,” the rhetoric is more impressive than the reasoning. Here I hope to sort through the confusion in his argument, pointing out exactly where and why it fails.
For those readers unfamiliar with Paz’s argument, I provide an outline of its logical structure and its major claims:
(1) To be a subject of consciousness capable of experiencing suffering is necessary and sufficient for being the subject of certain fundamental rights — for example, basic moral protections against unjust killing and exploitation.
(2) Animals are subjects of consciousness with the capacity to experience suffering.
(3) Therefore, animals are the subjects of basic rights, which preclude human beings from using them for, among other things, food, clothing and scientific research.
The argument is formally valid insofar as the joint truth of its premises would entail the truth of its conclusion. That either of the premises is entirely true, however, I consider both highly dubious and far from persuasively established by Paz’s article.
Because my reservation in accepting (2) is likely to surprise more readers than my denial of (1), let us begin with an examination of Paz’s minor premise. The first problem with Paz’s assertion of (2) is that he fails to provide it with adequate support. As his primary evidence for (2), Paz mentions a sophisticated Cambridge study claiming to have demonstrated, by scientific modes of inquiry, that animals “possess the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states, along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.” Notice, however, what this excerpt from the study has not claimed: that animals are the subjects of conscious states. Rather, it settles for the more modest claim that animals possess relevant biological substrates. The difference between these two claims is the difference between identifying sufficient and identifying necessary conditions for consciousness. Stated more concretely, it is the difference between claiming that an animal with substructure S must be conscious and claiming that an animal without substructure S could not be conscious. Both claims are compatible, but they are not identical in the case that, for example, another factor must also be present for consciousness to be obtained — a case that the study, as Paz presents it, does not even pretend to have ruled out and that Paz himself does not address. Therefore, even under the generous assumption that the study’s scientific and interpretive procedures were flawless, it does not show what Paz needs it to show, namely the truth of (2).
A somewhat more fundamental problem with (2), however, is its lack of clarity. What on earth could be meant by “consciousness” or “conscious states”? At times, Paz writes in such a way as to suggest that animals are conscious insofar as they possess some sensory awareness of their surroundings. At other times, he suggests that the scope of animal consciousness also contains a richly textured experience of reflective engagement with the world. If Paz is making the former, more modest claim, then we are more or less in agreement. In this case, all the “cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists” (phew!) of the Cambridge study are unnecessary. To be reasonably convinced that animals are aware of their immediate surroundings and are capable of engaging in goal-directed behavior, all one needs to do is to keep a house pet or visit a zoo. That animals respond to experiences of pleasure and pain is similarly apparent.
Nevertheless, if Paz is making the latter, more expansive claim, then his position on the issue is prima facie implausible. That the key features of human psychology, its characteristic capacity for abstract reasoning and self-reflexive contemplation, should extend also to any nonhuman animal is simply not a claim the currently available evidence would compel a dispassionate, reasonable person to accept. Has a sardine ever thought syllogistically? Has a chicken ever wondered what exactly it means to be a chicken? I would be happy to spare the first nonhuman animal I knew to have suffered through an existential crisis or to have aspired to live virtuously, but Paz provides no reason, in the face of overwhelming implausibility, to believe that such a creature has ever existed. In charity to Paz, he claims only that certain nonhuman animals possess these capacities. From the outset, though, his stated goal is to build a case for veganism, which calls for the protection of all animals, not just a select few.
Even assuming that the claim Paz needs for his argument is the more modest one, the major premise (1) of his argument has its own insuperable failings. Sticking with an understanding of consciousness as sensory awareness, Paz claims that the determinant of whether a being has rights is whether that being is both sentient and capable of experiencing pain. Why might this be the case? All Paz offers by way of explanation is an appeal to authority: Peter Singer believes (1). Through Singer, Paz merely states the claim; he does not substantiate it with supporting reasons. What he does do is straw-man the opposition, pointing out that intelligence cannot be used, as some might wish, to deny the rights of animals. Some animals, after all, are more intelligent than some humans. Passing over the problem that this reasoning only defends the rights of some animals rather than of all animals, the fact remains that most of Paz’s opposition simply does not hold that intelligence, as he presents it, is the salient, rights-granting feature. The traditional — and much more plausible — account of rights maintains that rights flow from a rational nature, which all humans possess, regardless of their capacity to manifest that nature. Rational nature is distinctly human in part because it is marked by cognitive capacities that differ from the cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals not just in degree, as Paz supposes, but also in kind.
I will not pretend to argue here for the superiority of the traditional account of rights; there is too little space. I would like, however, to pose a challenge to Paz and other supporters of (1) in the form of reductio ad absurdum:
If it is true that sentience and a capacity to suffer are preconditions for rights, then it follows that human patients in non-responsive, comatose states — perhaps even etherized patients as well — have no rights. A swine, one would be forced to admit, has more of a right to live than the human patient, insofar as the swine is a sentient being capable of experiencing pain whereas the human patient is not. Such an implausible, and frankly abhorrent, conclusion is a sign that (1) is unsound.
Or again, more broadly: If Paz’s entire argument is correct and animals do have rights, one of which is a right against unjust killing, then, as philosopher David Oderberg suggests, humans cannot be content to stop at veganism. Humans would also be morally required to form some sort of a task force to prevent nonhuman animals from eating and killing each other. Every day, for example, the lives of countless rodents are snuffed out by birds of prey. One might say the birds are not at fault, but nevertheless, humans ought to step in to protect the rodents’ right to live, a right that they hold solely in virtue of being sentient creatures capable of experiencing pain. After all, when has a human society’s systematic failure to protect the weak from the strong ever been anything other than a grave injustice? But enough. The absurdity of this line of thinking, which follows naturally from a robust commitment to animal rights, indicates that something in the concept of animal rights is ill-conceived.
I do not wish it supposed, however, that my denial of animal rights is tantamount to a denial that wanton cruelty toward animal life is morally impermissible. The whole universe of the ethical cannot be crammed into some unitary concept of rights, such that every moral evil is a rights violation. Even though my pets are not the bearers of basic rights, it would still be wrong for me to torture them. Why? There are a number of approaches one might take here: one might consider that humans have stewardship over nature and its creatures, thereby acknowledging the acceptability of the use thereof only within certain, carefully considered bounds of responsibility. Alternatively, one might look to the effects of animal abuse on the abuser, noting how cruelty towards animals tends to vitiate the moral sensibilities of its perpetrators. The point here is that ethically consequential reasons to treat animals decently and responsibly exist outside of the extreme — and ultimately unreasonable — animal-rights framework. Concern for animals is, in the end, a more nuanced affair than Paz seems willing to admit.