At first glance, it appears that no one, except a sadist, would say that they are in favor of animal cruelty. But when we look more closely at how our society is structured, from industrial factory farming to the use of animals in testing on various products, from medicine to cosmetic, our society is one that is fundamentally cruel to animals. Thus, the subject of animal cruelty is of crucial importance, to the extent of much of what we do as a society is tied to using animals as means towards our human ends. In the following, I would like to argue against using animals in such cruel fashions towards advancing purely human goals, by defending the right of animals, as living beings, to exist in their own way, irrespective of human concerns.
Accordingly, the still present phenomenon of animal cruelty in our society is largely tied to what can be called an anthropocentric view of life, society, and ecology in general. The existence of phenomena such as industrial factory farming disregards, for example, cruel and brutal living conditions for animals, on the basis that such conditions are necessary for providing the necessary food supplies to modern, industrial societies. Furthermore, testing on animals in medicine, as one example, is justified on the grounds that such research ultimately is beneficial to the human being. This is a key point to the entire debate surrounding animal rights, to the extent that those who defend the use of animals in this way are essentially making the claim that these practices are justified on the basis that they help the human population.
But what is clearly the crux of such an argument is the notion of a hierarchy of living creatures, where the human being is at the top of the pyramid. As described by the ethical philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer (2013), this view of the world should be properly understood as what he calls speciesism: “the idea that it is justifiable to give preference to beings simply on the basis that they are members of the species Homo Sapiens.”(p. 10) In other words, our entire relationship to non-human animals is filtered through a system of preference, where from an ethical and existential perspective, one type of species is given priority over all others. In our treatment of animals in this way, we are simultaneously stating that we believe in a rigid hierarchy, and that all other species can be used as means to advance the ends or goals of the species on the top of this hierarchy, in this case the human being.
But for the very reason that we are at the top of the hierarchy in a very real sense – possessing higher intelligence as one example than other animals – this should also mean that we can demonstrate this by also being kind to animals. In other words, if the human being truly is the species at the top of the food chain, could we not reflect this status by seeking out ways to be kinder instead of more cruel to animals that are not human beings? Certainly, the argument is strong that we look after human interests and we care about our species. But we also kill each other in wars and in murders everyday. The speciesism that exists in the natural kingdom, whereby the human being is on the top of the food chain, does not necessarily mean that because of this hierarchy, we must necessarily practice speciesism. Rather, we could quite logically consider alternative ways of solving problems, rather than resorting to the quite primitive way of being cruel to animals. After all, if human beings are on top of the food chain because of our supposedly superior intelligence, can we not find ethical solutions based on this very intelligence so as to avoid being cruel to animals?
Thus, it seems entirely incoherent to justify animal cruelty without at the same time advocating some type of superiority of the human species to all other forms of life. Once, however, we understand how speciesism works and challenge its fundamental assumptions, it becomes possible to understand that different beings live in different ways. The onus is now on the human being to attempt to find ethical solutions that respect animal rights.
- Singer, P. (2013). In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave. New York: John Wiley & Sons.