On the right of animals to live
(April 1998)

Prof. Dr. Jean-Claude Wolf
The moral condemnation of cruelty towards animals is part and parcel of our everyday morality, our so-called common-sense morality. This is considered morally self-evident, cruelty towards animals is considered dishonorable, cruel and as the expression of an evil or primitive moral character. This general condemnation of the infliction of unnecessary suffering can easily be extended to all beings capable of suffering. Why should the suffering of creatures which are of a different species than we are, be of a lesser value simply because these creatures are not of our species?
Do animals, however, also have an inherent right to live? Unfortunately, our common sense fails us with regard to the killing of animals. As long as animals are killed in a quick and painless manner, many humans do not consider this to be a morally questionable action. For, it is argued, most animals cannot consciously want their own survival, since they are not aware of themselves as opposed to other beings and as beings with a past and a future. Even though they do have the instinct of survival, this cannot be viewed as the conscious wish to survive as a distinct individual.
Also, animals have the impulse to flee and generally prefer life outside of captivity, however, this is also an instinct which it is not morally imperative to respect - for two reasons. The striving towards liberty of movement can ideally be met in captivity, in a stable and field suitable for pigs (1) , for instance. This desire, however, is not to be confused with the human desire for self-determination, i.e. of a form of life which is consistent with one's own set of values and without systematic humiliation or determination by others. Non-human animals are not capable of this higher-level desire for freedom.
In addition, there is a second reason to morally discount the desire of animals for freedom: The satisfaction of this desire is not so very much in the objective interests of an animal which might freeze or starve to death or be hunted and mutilated at liberty whereas in captivity, it is provided with food, warmth and - until the time it is slaughtered - is spared from harm. (If it were possible to kill an animal while sparing it suffering, this would also be the case during the actual killing.)

Most humans develop new, higher-level sensitivities, particularly with regard to a lack of freedom or liberty, manipulation and determination by others. This, however, should not make us blind to the fact that most animals do have simpler sensitivities which can certainly be compared to those of an infant or a small child.
There is a second objection to the extension of a strict prohibition of killing to animals. Let us assume a situation in which factory farming was - for the most part - abolished and humans no longer even thought of killing animals for the purpose of food. Could, in this case, not some painful or deadly animal testing be morally justified for the progress of medicine?
Why is animal testing - of all things - so violently attacked, even in cases where it serves the purposes of medicine? Could one not imagine that in certain cases animal testing with the subsequent death of the animal, for instance, could be viewed as a legitimate act of self-defense - either we continue to allow humans to die from AIDS or we sacrifice laboratory animals in order to develop an effective treatment for this disease?
A positive answer to this question is, of course, of particular relevance when occurring against the background of a culture in which the mass killing of animals for the purpose of food is practiced. In this culture, the killing of a few laboratory animals is hardly even significant, it actually seems to be something which is supported by honorable intentions compared to the simple satisfaction of the desire for meat.
This appeal to a case of legitimate self-defense appears to be a particularly transparent attempt at reasoning. However, upon closer examination, the reasoning behind the concept of self-defense with ensuing death is already unexpectedly complex among humans, for it is not always evident what actually constitutes a true emergency. When speaking of emergencies, one encounters a problem similar to the one regarding the topic of necessary and unnecessary infliction of pain or other depravations (infringements on the quality of life). When is injury or killing actually necessary?
The term of necessity is often so diluted that almost any human interest, however irrelevant it may seem, constitutes a case of emergency. The tendency towards strong speciesism (2) , which considers human interests of any kind to always be superior to the interests of animals, undermines the terms 'necessity' and 'self-defense'. Even though very few humans expressly and publicly acknowledge adhering to the principle of strong speciesism, however, many practices actually require the silent acceptance of this principle.
A weaker version, so-called weak speciesim, which only gives the most important and vital needs of mankind absolute priority over animal interests, is something more people would support. From this perspective, vital human interests (of life or health, for instance) would never be subject to consideration for the interests of animals.
This type of weak humanism according to which humans are only given preferential treatment in cases in which their life or their health is at stake, however, is also an undermining of moral terms such as 'self-defense' deserving of criticism. Consider,for instance, animal testing carried out in order to discover a remedy for AIDS or cancer. These diseases are partially due to human behavior, to the conscious neglect of actions or so-called bad habits. Now, for instance, the known consequences of the risks incurred by heavy smoking are to be cured at the expense of the life and the quality of life of innocent animals. This is so obviously unjust that it can really only be overlooked by deep-rooted humanists. Humanism stops where other species start!
Vegetarianism sets a clear signal in a society which tends to consider morality to be simply the result of agreements and regulations among humans. There are, however, simple reasons of prudence speaking in favor of vegetarianism limited to what supposedly promotes human health or spiritual purity. In the end, this may be to the benefit of animals, but does not so much promote direct consideration for animals. The one-sidedness of these prudential reasons is based on the underlying human-centered reasoning in favor of vegetarianism, direct consideration is exclusively given to human well-being or salvation. However, it is a piece of luck that the recommendations of nutritionists also point in the direction of vegetarianism. Thus, moral reasons are supplemented by self-regarding considerations of human health and happiness.
One of the most significant moral reasons is the general respect of the well-being of all creatures capable of feeling. Killing by a shortening of the life span is also an infringement of well-being. Furthermore, eating all those creatures to whom we are intellectually superior is an atavistic idea of morality. The exploitation if weaker and particularly vulnerable beings is also contrary to the healthy desire for self-respect, i.e. the desire not to live at the expense of other sentient beings without great hardship.
· Wolf, Jean-Claude (1992): Tierethik. Neue Perspektiven für Menschen und Tiere, Paulusverlag Freiburg Schweiz [ISBN 3-72228-0290-3].
· Wolf, Jean-Claude (1997): Zur moralischen Bedeutung von Selbstachtung, in: Freiburger Zeitschrift für Theologie und Philosophie 44, 3, 368-395.
· Wolf, Jean-Claude (1998) (gemeinsam mit Peter Schaber): Analytische Moralphilosophie, Alber, München und Freiburg i. Br.
Prof. Dr. Jean-Claude Wolf, Chair of Ethics and political Philosophy, University Miséricorde, CH-1700 Freiburg/ Switzerland,
Tel. +41 (0)26 - 300 75 21/ 20/ 19; Fax 026 - 300 97 86; E-mail: Jean-Claude.Wolf@unifr.ch
1 Probably more than 90% of pigs are not kept in a natural environment, mainly for economic reasons.
2 'Speciesism' is the preferral of the members of one's own species without an independent, valid reason. The expression describes a reasoning deficit or an arbitrary preferential treatment of members of one's own species. In the following text, I will be using the expressions 'speciesism' and 'humanism' interchangeably although generally, the term 'humanism' is used appraisingly.