March 31, 2006

Changing notions of death-4: Implications for animals

(See part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.)

If asked, any one of us would say that we value life, that we consider it precious and not to be taken lightly. While the specific phrase "valuing the culture of life" seems to have been co-opted by those who are specifically opposed to abortion, the general idea that it encapsulates, that life should not be taken casually or at all, is one that all of us would subscribe to.

But of course there are contradictions. People who say they value life often see no problem with supporting the death penalty. Another hypocrisy is with those who support killing in wars, even of civilians, and even in large numbers. We try to rationalize this by saying that civilians are killed inadvertently, but that is a false argument. Civilians are inevitably killed in wars, often deliberately, and we often do nothing to condemn it when it is done by 'our side.' To support wars is to support killing and absolve killers, however much we try to sugar coat this unpleasant fact. As Voltaire said, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."

In his lecture, Peter Singer pointed out that killing and eating animals, while opposing the withdrawal of life support of those in a persistent vegetative state, poses an ethical problem for people who say that they value a "culture of life."

He gave as an example the fact that while the 3,000 or so victims of September 11, 2001 were deeply mourned, no one mourned the fact that millions of chickens were killed on that same day and every day before and since. But we do not mourn them the same way. Why not?

If we define death as heart dead or brain dead, then the chickens are as alive as any of us. Even when we lower the bar to thinking of someone in a persistent vegetative state as being 'effectively dead', that still does not get us off the hook since, as Singer argued, chickens and other animals have higher levels of consciousness than people in a persistent vegetative state. Free range chickens seem to show signs of happiness, curiosity, anxiety, fear, and the sense of self-awareness that, if present in humans, would definitely bar us from killing them. If that is the case, then if we oppose the withdrawal of life support systems even from those in a persistent vegetative state, then how can we justify killing chickens, or any other animal for that matter?

He posed the question of why the killing of human beings is deplored but that of chickens is not. He said that appealing to species chauvinism ("We are human, and so are justified in valuing human life over non-human animal life.") was not really an ethically justifiable defense, though many people used it.

After all, if we allowed that particular chauvinist line of defense, where do we draw the line? What if I say that because I am male, I am justified in thinking that the lives of women are worth less than that of men? We would reject that line of argument as rank sexism. What if I say that because I am brown skinned, I am justified in treating non-brown people as inferior? We would reject that argument as rank racism. So why should we think that the argument "I am human so I am justified in valuing human life over animal life?" is acceptable?

Singer's point was that as soon as we shift our definition of death from that defined by the complete lack of heart or brain function, and to judgments about the nature or level of the consciousness involved, we have gone into ethically tricky territory for those non-vegetarians who argue that because of belief in a "culture of life," human beings must be kept alive at all costs. Because you cannot argue that people in a persistent vegetative state should be kept on life support while arguing that perfectly healthy animals can be killed.

People of certain religious traditions (like Christians, Jews, and Muslims) perhaps can find justification for this discrepant behavior by appealing to their religious beliefs that include species chauvinism as part of their doctrines. In the view of these religions, humans are specially favored by god and thus fundamentally different from, and superior to, other animals so valuing human life and disregarding non-human animal life is allowable. It is noteworthy that Buddhism and Hinduism do not assert such a species chauvinistic attitude. They seem to treat human and non-human animals on an equal footing and vegetarianism is advocated by both religions.

But if we leave out religious sanction and argue on strictly ethical grounds, it becomes hard to justify opposing the withdrawal of life support systems to people who are in a persistent vegetative state on the grounds that such people are still 'alive', and square it with the killing of healthy animals for food, as we routinely do.

Singer made a cogent argument that none of us can really ethically justify the killing of animals for food, when it is not necessary for survival. Singer himself is a vegetarian.

I am not sure if Singer was able to resolve some of the ethical issues of what constitutes death by the end of his talk, after I had left. But his ideas were very thought provoking.


Good jugglers are amazing. For a fine example of this art, go here and then click on "Watch Chris Bliss."


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A similar ethical dilemma comes up when trying to justify research on animals. If we do research on other primates, and we're not just being species-chauvanist, we have to also consider the possibility of also doing research on, say, mentally handicapped people with very low IQ's ... they are even less likely to understand what is going on than monkeys and will provide better results. And yet we pretty much reject the notion out of hand. We might not be entirely comfortable with doing research on monkeys, but we're sort of ok with it. The same is not true when talking about humans, for whatever reason.

Posted by Shruti on March 31, 2006 08:48 AM

That's a really good point.

And pushing your point even further, why is it that we are tend to be comfortable with experimenting on rats but experimenting on dogs or primates makes us uneasy?

There is clearly a question of psychology involved here.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 31, 2006 10:10 AM


You might want to check out this link on the juggling video. The rise of Chris Bliss's fame has irked a lot of professional jugglers. Most think the perormance is nothing more than elementary juggling skills performed to cool music. In this link you will hear the same music, but skills and moves that have a degrees of difficulty that are ten times harder.

Posted by Josh on March 31, 2006 10:45 AM

Robert C. Jones a philosophy lecturer and grad student at Stanford gave an interesting lecture, "Rethinking the Ethical Implications of Animal Cognition" on Dec. 12, 2005. After giving a brief overview of some of the ways we address making ethical distinctions between different groups or classes, he explained how he had come up with a matrix that one could use to evaluate specific animals under various philosophical theories.

The matrix would show, for a given animal, whether it could feel pain, emotions, make decisions, etc. This could then be used as a tool in combination with one's ethical theory of choice to determine whether or not it was morally allowable to perform specific experiments on the animal in question.

There were a few wobbly bits during the lecture, but overall it provided some interesting ways of pondering these issues. He also mentioned the issue that Shruti raised regarding mentally handicapped humans. To include them or exclude them in experimentation would depend not only on which ethical theory one follows, but also on how consistently one sticks to the theory.

The lecture can be found at Stanford on iTunes under Faculty Lectures (33).

Posted by cool on March 31, 2006 10:55 AM

Mano, you reminded me of a time years ago when it was pointed out to me the hypocrisy of being a pro-abortion vegetarian.  It is only recently, as I walk the middle ideological road, can I appreciate what this person was saying.

Life is filled will paradoxes and contradictions.  The universe itself is built upon it, for it's impossible to gain balance or equilibrium without polar ends.  Yet we humans have this hysteric need of absolutes, and that need seems to intensify when considering issues of life and death.  Our collective terror of death (especially in the west) has caused us to do very unnatural, almost grotesque, acts to preserve life - which has created a myriad of man-made contradictions which you have so eloquently pointed out this week. 

It seems to me the less we obstruct the natural forces of life (and death) in all aspects, the better we are for it.

Posted by Mary on March 31, 2006 02:52 PM


I checked out the site. Interesting! That guy s really good. But it seems like Bliss has more marketing savvy than the other professional jugglers.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 31, 2006 02:53 PM


The Jones lecture sounds very interesting. I wonder if the material is written up somewhere.

Posted by Mano Singham on March 31, 2006 02:56 PM

If you're still in the mood for more good juggling... I think this is even more impressive than Chris Bliss [], but you'll have to be the judge.

Posted by Adam Derewecki on March 31, 2006 03:55 PM

If I recall correctly the lecture was based on the research he did for his dissertation. I don't know if that has been published yet or not, but if it has it might be online somewhere.

Posted by cool on March 31, 2006 05:23 PM

Sorry I'm late to the party on this one, work has been busy as of late.

Many animals practice a similar species-specific chauvinistic behavior. A bear will kill to protect it's young and separately kill for food. As will a cat, a dog, and so forth. Do we condemn the animals for following their instincts? Someone go convince a grizzly that he/she can get by just fine if they ravaged a corn frield instead of a campground.

Female cats are known for eating the kittens whom they feel will not survive. Male cats will eat the young to prevent competition on the dominance ladder. This isn't killing for immediate survival - a decision is made that death is necessary given the circumstances.

I guess I just feel that death is a natural part of life.

Posted by Barry on April 5, 2006 03:11 PM


I am not sure if you are making the point that since some animals kill other species but not their own, that this is a form of species chauvinism, and that since some animals do it, then it is a 'natural' instinct and hence ok?

I am not sure that I agree with that. I think species chauvinism is a conscious, thinking, attitude and I don't know that we can ascribe it to animals. I don't think that animals think that "my species is superior to that other one so I can kill them." I suspect that animals kill based on more primal instincts and to satisfy more basic needs.

Singer did not condemn the killing of animals for food. I think he was objecting to doing it when it was not necessary, when food was plentifully available in other forms.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 6, 2006 10:17 AM