The following first appeared in UNSW’s Tharunka magazine as part of their regular “Hypothetically Speaking” column.
“Cruelty to animals is bad. So is environmental degradation. Is it better to eat food produced using humane but environmentally destructive methods, or food which involves cruelty to animals but has minimal environmental impact?”
By Rachel Hayter
Option 1: Endorse cruelty to animals in food production and ensure a sustainable environment, and thus the survival of life on earth.
Option 2: Endorse the humane treatment of animals in food production and condone the destruction of the environment, and thus the demise of life on earth.
Food and a sustainable environment are both necessary for survival. The humane treatment of animals is not. Protecting animals in the short term, while degrading the environment, is a self-defeating act—in the animals’ case, a different means to the same end. Eventually the environment, sustainer of all life, will be destroyed. Surely the ultimate end, or rather the avoidance of ours, is what matters most?
Although it seems the practical choice, the ethical implications of subscribing to Option 1 are dire. Yes, life on earth is ensured, but at what cost? When our ‘humane-ness’, our humanity, is compromised, what have we left but mere subsistence? Is an inhumane world even worth preserving?
Let’s imagine a world sustained by the logic of Option 1. The moral worth of an action is not determined by intention, or the character of the act itself (e.g. cruelty), but dependent purely on its outcome (e.g. survival). By this reasoning, any apparent moral action which is not necessary for the ultimate survival of the human race is worthless.
Anthropocentrism assumed, let us hope a perfect definition of what it is to be an animal has been established. It seems the only thing protecting individuals from this fundamentalist utilitarianism is our membership to the species Homo sapiens.
Is the distinction between Homo sapiens and animals, including great apes and whales, as pronounced as Option 1 would imply? Is it enough to warrant the institutionalised cruelty by the former to the latter?
Rejecting Speciesism entails an alternative understanding of what it is to be human—a quality of personhood, rather than the evolutionary providence of belonging to a species. The concept of personhood is vague. There can be drawn no precise line between classifications of ‘is’ and ‘is not’. DeGrazia outlines distinguishing properties of autonomy, rationality, self-awareness, linguistic competence, sociability, capacity for intentional action, and moral agency.
By this definition, great apes and whales are cases of paradigm persons and severely mentally handicapped and infant humans are not persons at all. Support of Option 1 has suddenly become more dangerous than anticipated— parallels with Nazism are clear.
Before subscribing to Option 1 based on your animalistic survival instincts, trace the consequences of your decision. Once cruelty has been institutionalised, our moral watershed has been sacrificed.
There exist cases of healthy whales, voluntarily, temporarily beaching themselves, as displays of solidarity to dying, beached group members. Is it morally justifiable to endorse cruelty to one of these animals in the interests of sustaining the life of a human mass-murderer, or rapist? Is an inhumane world even worth preserving?