This is a letter aimed at Alex O’Connor, owner of the Cosmic Skeptic Youtube chanel, in response to the views expressed in his video Do animals Have a «Right to Life»?
My name is Daniel. I am 24, from Spain, and I’ve been following your content since 2016. I am also a self-proclaimed skeptic and, of course, a vegan (how do you know if someone is a vegan…right?). Finally, I think I might have some substantial disagreement with you, which is awesome, so allow me to be the 100th vegan philosophy enthusiast trying to debunk your recent statements on animal rights.
As a matter of courtesy, the relevant steel man: You do not think that neither humans nor animals have rights, since you view them as no more than metaphors with embedded practical utility. You argue, however, that if we were to grant a right to life to the human animal, in some conceptual form, such an attempt could not be extended to non-human animals. This is based upon the appreciation that we (sensible human beings) justify deliberately killing animals to produce plant-based food, but do not justify killing conspecifics for the same purpose. As you understand rights as existing only in some conceptual framework to serve as a proxy to increase overall wellbeing, a right to life would fail to achieve its purpose if it were to be granted to animals as well, since that would lead us to a moral paralysis that would ultimately starve us all. I hope not to have missed something.
I am kind of a consequentialist myself, and as such, I have the same trouble you seem to expressly experience with rights-based ethics. However, I think your argument 1) doesn’t take into consideration some relevant details, 2) rests on disanalogy, and 3) leads to speciesism.
Let me elaborate:
1) Although it has become a common platitude to reiterate that plant-based farming practices, such as harvesting, still results in accidental animal deaths, the actual numbers tend to be extremely exaggerated. For instance, rodents and lagomorphs are commonly considered the primary victims, as well as some birds and small reptiles. However, the majority of these animals, especially the mammalian ones, are highly sensorial and sensitive creatures, which presumably allows them to easily spot an approaching combine harvester. In fact, radio tracking technology has found that populations of rodents do not decline after harvesting, but re-locate. In the end we are mainly talking about insects and other small invertebrates, animals which we are quite literally, even constitutionally so, incapable of not killing. Additionally, many humans die accidentally in crop production. On the one hand, hundreds of people got killed annually in incidents related to crop preservation by the usual violent means (i.e. hunting). On the other hand, cyanide bombs and other tactical trapping methods exist in a grey area between accidental and purposeful killing, given their inability to discriminate between targets, which sometimes incurs in human casualties.
I understand that your argument addresses accidental deaths, no the active killing of animals for crop production, but animal agriculture, even excluding farmed animals, is still responsible for more animal deaths, accidental and otherwise, mainly because it takes up the majority of land, and it has to deal with additional problems such as wild pathogens and wild predators. I just want to put into perspective the dimensionality of the ‘evidence’ your argument rests upon, which constitutes a tiny fraction of a fraction of the problem of animal suffering in crop production. I find it implausible to suggest that those minor examples (in terms of the actual numbers) are significant enough to determine a difference in moral consideration (rights-based), and consequently in treatment, between humans and animals.
2) When thinking about purposefully killing animals in order to produce plant-based food, what comes to mind are instances of directed attempts at a single individual (or group of individual animals). We can think of the regular wild boar that is persistently trying to attack some farmer’s crop land. Killing that animal might be seen as an inconvenient but necessary action in order to avoid a prohibitevely high economic loss. However, we don’t think that killing humans for attacking someone’s property is acceptable, albeit we do consider it as deserving some kind of proportioned legal punishment. This rests upon the assumption that we can communicate to other humans that they ought not to enter our crops. Unsuccessful attempts at communication may lead to imprisonment. But the same does not apply to wild animals, since we cannot successfully communicate our intentions to them, nor can we put them in prison. This is a relevant asymmetry, which I think is making your argument disanalogous.
The asymmetry is buttressed by the fact that humans tend not to see any direct benefits from entering crop lands, whereas most animals are in desperate need for food thanks to human activity, and attacking crops is their last resource. What’s more, we have decided that we have the moral license to punish them for trying to cope with the problems we created for them in the first place. Indeed, they quite literally need to invade our property to survive, just as we perceive that we need to defend our crops from them in order to avoid starvation.
Moreover, in my estimation, intentionally killing wild animals for property attack is not morally justified in the first place, as alternative methods do exist in most cases (rest assured, none easier than violence). We should make use of our idiosincratic human ingenuity to come up with non-violent solutions whenever none seem to exist. Of course, in a properly designed vegan agricultural system, more land could be liberated and restored, making wild animals less likely to approach anthropized environments. For the most part, if not always, accidental deaths are either necessary or inevitable (that is, with our current technology), whereas non-accidental deaths are mostly unnecessary, in the sense that our food supply generally does not depend upon them. The existence of proper non-violent alternatives renders the later unjustified on moral grounds.
3) We do not intentionally kill all kinds of animals in crop production, only some. For instance, we do not kill bears, orcas, crocodiles, octopuses, rhinoceros, cats, dogs, etc. Do these animals deserve a right to life equal to ours? Following your logic, it seems they do. You might argue that the retort is flawed, since we would justify killing those animals if they were to either bother to or anatomically be able to attack our crops. However, does the fact that some «lesser» primates could potentially learn to drive cars make all animals deserving of the right to a driving license? Similarly, staying with a single animal species now, does the fact that it could be possible for some biologically male humans to be able to conceive in the future make all humans deserving of a right to abortion? Is it not an expression of the purest form of speciesism to suggest that non-human animals can be categorized in this binary fashion with respect to their ability or tendency to conflict with human interests?
To me, it makes no sense to grant dogs the right to drive, snails the right to a proper education and men the right to abortion. In a similar way, it makes no sense to grant humans and dolphins and penguins the right to life, but not mice and rabbits and hogs, according to a suspiciously anthropocentric criteria. In fact, it seems even more insidious to deny rights according to an unlikely potential to do X, than to grant them for the same reasons. A man giving birth is as improbable an event as an orca learning to walk on solid ground on its fines with the express purpose of ruinning some peasant’s cropland is. Rights should be determined not only by the contextual substrate of the individual (specificationist point of view), but also in relation to its specific inherited and immutable characteristics.
Furthermore, as someone that does not believe in rights in any ontological sense, I can only find them useful in communicating some ethical conclusion. By insisting that there exists a convenient logical argument proving that only those animals that happen to be a nuisance to our current food system happen to lack a right to life, you are quite explicitely condoning the continuation of the violence that is applied in such scenarios to animals by humans. If we can at least discuss perceived conflicts without expressing that the animals we describe as invaders do not deserve a right to life in the same sense we and other animals do, we could begin to create a social consciousness to envision better ways to peacefully co-exist with them. Our current system is based on a poor understanding of the relation between humans and animals, and I don’t think that trying to adjust moral frameworks to make an abhorrent system consistent with one particular ethical view is of any use to anyone, nor a trademark of rigorous thinking.
The killing of animals for the production of plant-based food, although currently necessary, is not morally justified. Both things can be true at the same time. You try to argue that it is necessary and, therefore, justified. And although that may seem to logically follow, I doubt that any moral improvement will follow from advocating such a view. I also think it is only contingently necessary, and by advocating change, we may begin to envision a future in which no animals will have to be harmed in the production of human food. I ‘ll argue it only makes sense to grant a right to life to those creatures that value theirs, which is probably every well-functioning sentient being.
I hope to have expressed myself clearly and that you find stimulating thinking material inside the letter.
Keep up the good work, you are an inspiration.