We must not own animals

Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty

We will never truly advance our ethical relationship with other animals until we stop treating them as chattels for use

Gary L Francione is Board of Governors Professor of Law at Rutgers University School of Law in New Jersey, US; visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Lincoln, UK; and honorary professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia, UK. His most recent book is Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals (2021).

What’s wrong with eating meat and other animal products, such as dairy or eggs? The usual answer appears to be simple: these products involve a great deal of animal suffering, particularly as most of them are produced on ‘factory farms’, where animals are raised in terribly cramped conditions that exacerbate their suffering. Suffering is the problem. If animal suffering were eliminated or significantly minimised, killing animals would not be such a big deal.

That’s the conventional moral thinking on animal ethics, and it applies not only to the use of animals for food but to all animal use: we can use and kill animals for our purposes, as long as we treat them ‘humanely’ and do not inflict ‘unnecessary’ suffering on them. This position is so widely accepted and uncontroversial that it is contained in laws that allow us to use and kill animals but that prohibit cruelty to animals.

The problem is that conventional moral thinking about animal ethics is unsound.

Because animals are chattel property, the concepts of ‘humane’ treatment and ‘necessary’ suffering are largely meaningless as moral concepts. They are primarily economic concepts that, in reality, translate into very little protection for animals. Moreover, the idea that killing animals is not a serious issue as long as animals are not made to suffer rests explicitly on the widely accepted idea that animals do not have a morally significant interest in continuing to live. And that is nothing more than an anthropocentric stipulation.

Before the 19th century, at least in the West, animals were largely excluded from the moral and legal community. They were considered as things. This is contrasted with Eastern thinking, which generally accorded at least some moral value to animals that accounted for the vegetarianism that remains prevalent in the Jain, Hindu and most Buddhist traditions. The Western view was that we could have moral and legal obligations that concerned animals but were not owed to them. To the extent that the cruel treatment of animals was thought to present a moral problem, it was only because it made us more likely to be cruel to other humans. But any obligation to be kind to animals merely concerned animals; the obligation of kind treatment was owed only to other humans. This was the view of Immanuel Kant, Thomas Aquinas and others. We had a legal obligation not to harm our neighbour’s property – whether that property was a cow or a cart. But that was an obligation owed to our neighbour as a property owner, not to the cow or the cart.

Although, in many instances, the status of animals as things was linked to the theological notion that only humans were deemed to have been created in God’s image, its primary focus was on cognition. Animals supposedly were not rational, self-aware or able to use concepts, and this was thought to justify our treating them as having no moral value.

Animals have no sense of what they lose when we take their lives, Bentham argued

This changed as part of a paradigm shift that occurred in the early 19th century and that was brought about by a number of thinkers, one of the more important of whom was the utilitarian philosopher and law reformer Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued that the only characteristic that mattered for moral significance was the ability to suffer: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ As long as an animal was sentient, or subjectively aware and could suffer, that animal’s interests in not suffering mattered morally. Ignoring that suffering because of the species of the being at issue was no more defensible morally than ignoring human suffering based on race.

Although Bentham maintained that the cognitive differences between humans and nonhumans were irrelevant insofar as animal suffering was concerned, he regarded those cognitive differences as very relevant to the issue of killing animals…



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