Animal Welfare

1. What is animal-welfare about?

The talk about animal welfare applies to humans as well because according to the “traditional” definition, humans are “rational animals” – which means that humans are animals too. Unless we were irrationally favoring the human species, presumably we would think that whatever is true about animals would be applicable to all beings that fall into that category – whether human or nonhuman. Since philosophers are supposed to be good at abstract thinking, it’s to be expected that philosophers will especially think about animals in this categorical way.

It may be a bit of a digression, but one thing that I think might be worth considering here is what we mean by “rational.” Some think that “rational” denotes an ability to do mathematical calculations. Others think that “rational” describes an ability to make goals and have reasons for ourselves. As for myself, I tend to think that aside from its denotative meaning(s), it also has a further connotative meaning that makes it synonymous with the word, “same.” Hence, for a philosopher like me, I will understand “rational animal” to mean something equivalent to the phrase, “animal having the same reasons as myself.” (Question: In what sorts of ways can two things be counted as being similar or different?)

Now, most people don’t use language in a highly technical way. In ordinary, everyday speech, we usually mean “nonhuman animals” like cows or pigs when we use the word “animal.” However in philosophy, the word “animal” just refers to anything that appears to have its own internal cause of motion. Technically, this description is supposed to include planets as well. Another strange possibility in meaning is for it to mean just our bodies, separated away from our minds (since “the tradition” presupposes that our minds are unmoved-movers and therefore are not technically “animals”).

If all of these ways of thinking about what “animals” are is too strange and unfamiliar for you, it is okay to just remember that what philosophers are thinking about when they talk about animal-welfare very likely applies to human-welfare in some significant way as well.

2. Why should we care about the topic of animal-welfare?

You should care about the topic of animal-welfare because whether you believe it or not, what you think about animals matters because it affects what you do – and your actions matter. For example, what you think about animals affects how you spend your money, whether you obey or support certain laws, how you engage with others in your community, what you expect from authority figures, and even how “happy” you perceive yourself to be. Basically, all of reality is made of what you and I think. If we intend to take serious interest in our well-being, then we should also care about the topic of animal-welfare.

The topic of animal-welfare allows philosophers to explore questions that involve humans in a slightly more objective and impersonal way. This allows philosophers to examine areas of the topic that most people might find uncomfortable, uninteresting, or sometimes just plain silly. But by being able to explore a topic very freely in this way can allow us to make important distinctions that we weren’t able to make before. For example, it can help us suddenly become aware of our own implicit biases. Descartes revealed to us that he sometimes wonders whether other humans might really be “automatons” that were only dressed up to look like humans on the outside. Thinking about this topic can also help us to question whether we sometimes treat each other like “animals.” And if it seems to be the case that we sometimes do, then why it is that we immediately think that being treated like an “animal” is so bad to us.

People care about animal welfare for different reasons. Some people like and care about animals because they’re interesting or useful (perhaps Aristotelians might think this way). Some people only care about them because the way we think and treat animals makes better or worse as a “human” (perhaps Kantians think this way). Some people care about nonhuman animals because we are the same insofar as their shared capability for sentience, possessing preferences, and for self-movement (I think this way).

3. What is my position on the issue of animal-welfare?

My own view of animals is rooted in my belief that animals are important messengers and indicators. Part of doing our task well is to be able to understand these messages. We can start by learning how to understand what they have to tell us. Instead of trying to control, manipulate, exploit, modify, or even to cater to them, I think that the correct attitude to have towards animals is one that aims for mindfulness. When we are perfectly mindful, we will be in the best position to deliberate about the future. Protecting animals and their rights helps us to preserve our ability to connect with the gods. All sentient beings have a natural right to autonomy. This right is grounded in the fact of their sentience (or, as I like to think of it, their sensitivity). [To note, my notion of sensitivity is not a utilitarian notion; rather, it is a Socratic virtue.]

I think that it is important to the project of “mindfulness” that animals as be as genuine and as free from interference as we can safely allow. It is a matter of respect and justice. This can mean no genetic-modification of living organisms, and no coerced and/or artificial breeding. It can also mean no factory-farming practices. And, it might ultimately mean that human populations should be severely reduced so that we can make room for animals and their rights without having to cater to them.

Finally, I do not think that the correct attitude that we should have in our dealings with animals should be a paternalistic stance. That would be to presume too much, I would think.

Question: Do you think that humans should have paternalistic stances towards nonhuman animals? What should our relationship with nonhuman animals be like?

• Last updated 2017, May 3 @ 10:43 am.

For Further Reading:
Aristotle, Politics, 1253a
Plato, Charmides, 167a-174d
Plato, Republic, 431e-432a
Aristotle, Politics, 1256b
♦ Cicero, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, XIX
♦ Aristotle, De Anima
Aristotle, Politics, 1255b4
♦ Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (1975)
Christine Korsgaard, Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals (2004)
MK Kim, The Benefit of Sensitivity (2014)