Gary L. Francione: “An Introduction to Animal Rights”

A powerfully argued, technical and persuasive book: if you think it’s OK to eat animals and wear their skins then best not to read it.

Francione’s argument is in two stages. First he reiterates Bentham’s view that animals suffer, so have a moral interest in not being made to suffer. This seems to be the prevailing consensus from Bentham onwards through Peter Singer to today’s laws against, for example, some aspects of factory farming. Secondly he argues that there can be no substantial alleviation of their suffering so long as animals are seen as the legal property of humans: the rights of the human owner to derive economic benefit from her animals will always trump the (albeit acknowledged) rights of the animals not to suffer.

His detailed examples from the history of human slavery provide really powerful arguments – ones which you cannot refute without falling back on a privileging of the human species which is hard to justify. Slave-owners accused of cruelty to their slaves were usually let off on the grounds that no one in their right mind would damage their own property for no reason, so any suffering inflicted must, a fortiori, be for some justifiable reason. When cruelty is punished it’s not for the suffering caused, but because the practice in question is unusual, non-traditional, or somehow offensive to public sensibilities: teenagers torturing a cat shocks, but vivisectors causing the same suffering is OK; or, less tendentiously, fox hunters in pink are pursuing traditional rural practices, whereas lower-class dog-fights are barbaric.

Despite Bentham et al’s insights that animals shouldn’t be made to suffer, we are in effect in a pre-Benthamite Cartesian world where animals suffer on a colossal, industrial scale, (just) so that the products we make from them can provide jobs, and make our lives more pleasant and comfortable. Any utilitarian calculus of “the greater good for the greater number”, weighing animals’ suffering against our pleasure or economic benefit, produces ludicrously unbalanced results. And yet foxes are skinned alive in fur farms simply because it’s easier to get the skins off that way: the extra time taken killing them first would affect the bottom line.

Questions

In the later chapters his thoughts begin to extend to wider ethical areas, where things get interesting. Ought we to lock up all predators to protect wild animals from suffering? How about taking sick wild animals to vets? Regarding deer-overpopulation: he’s against culling, but how about contraception or relocation, or fences…? Regarding the law, he asserts that unintentional killing would not be classed as “manslaughter”, thereby preserving some species-distinction (though the “man” element would sit strangely with killing a mouse, and how far do you go with unintentional killing: treading on a slug?).

Abortion seems to pop up when animal rights are discussed, as fetuses are morally liminal beings – starting insentient yet becoming so before birth: how do their rights compare with those of sentient animals? Francione makes an interesting suggestion that it may be the case that women should be able to abort, but not kill, sentient fetuses – presumably passing them into state care, for example. Mmmmm…

Conclusion

Clinching is the argument Peter Tatchell gave to a young me at the Oxford Labour Club in the 1980s: that there has been a progressive movement towards extending full citizen and moral rights from white adult straight men to all races, genders, ages and sexualities; the next step is to all species. This makes so much sense. We used to enslave other humans, as well as exhibit physically and mentally deformed humans in circuses.

This whole area might become the next post.

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