MORALS, REASON AND ANIMALS Steve Sapontzis interviewed by Claudette Vaughan
Steve Sapontzis is an academic who has made significant philosophical contributions in placing animals in an ethical framework. Sapontzis is the author of Morals, Reason, and Animals (1987) and editor of Food for Thought: the Debate Over Eating Meat (2004). Since 1984, he has been a co-editor of Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics. He was a member of the board of editorial advisors of the American Philosophical Quarterly, 1991-1994, and a member of the animal welfare research committee at Lawrence Berkeley (California) Laboratory, 1986-1990. He was also a grantee of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1976 and of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1988. His memberships include the American Philosophical Association, the Society for the Study of Ethics and Animals (board of directors, 1984- ), the American Society for Value Inquiry, and the International Society for Environmental Ethics.
What are your views on personhood rights for animals?
"Personhood rights" is a phrase that may be, and has been, interpreted in importantly different ways. If we think of persons as those whose interests we must not routinely sacrifice for the benefit of others (to use Kantian-type categories), then I think we could fulfil the basic moral obligation to make the world a better place by extending the rights of personhood to all animals, since we would thereby reduce the suffering (both pain and loss) we bring into the world. This is obviously to think of "personhood rights" as protections of interests.
Sometimes, though, philosophers think of "personhood rights" as referring to powers that facilitate our accomplishing what we want and choose. For example, a property owner has the right to choose to sell that property. Given the great variety of abilities to choose among animals, there is likely a similarly great variety of ways and areas in which such facilitating rights would and would not be relevant to animals. That is also true of children and so-called "marginal" adult humans.
Finally, "personhood rights" may refer to so-called "basic human rights" or "civil rights" which we humans must possess to feel, as Joel Feinberg has said, the equal of other people. This is not so much a different category of rights as an important psychological function that being recognised and protected as more than a mere means and as a being that gets to make her/his own choices performs for us. It is not clear if or to what extent different animals feel a need to be viewed as and, most importantly perhaps, to regard themselves, as the equal of-meaning "just as good as" or "worth as much as"--humans or any other animals. This may be a function of "personhood rights" that is needed just by humans to satisfy our egos, given our long history of discrimination, subjugation, slavery, castes, aristocracies of birth or wealth, etc., among ourselves.
You have identified two types of 'personhood' - moral and metaphysical,both not necessarily in the legal sense. Outline the differences for us.
Metaphysically, "person" refers to all those who are Homo sapiens and only to them. "Person" is here just another name for human being, and whether something is a "person" in this sense is a matter of fact that can be settled genetically. This is why most people who oppose abortion fixate on the moment of conception as the beginning of human life, hence (so they think) of the existence of a person.
Morally, "person" is a term that has been employed to designate beings with souls, and the moral significance of having a soul is that it entitles one to something akin to the respect owed to God, since the soul is a "spark" of divinity. This use of the word obviously occurs in religious moralities, and this group need not include all human beings. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, the official theologian of the Catholic Church, did not believe the soul enters the developing fetus until a month or two after conception. In rationalistic ethics, "person" refers to all rational beings, and the moral significance of being rational is that it is a necessary condition for being a moral agent. There have been several criteria for determining who is and isn't rational. Sometimes, the standard seems to be that one is capable of recognising and choosing among different possible courses of action to accomplish some purpose-as opposed to being dominated by instinct to act "blindly" in just one way. This is usually the idea of personhood in enlightened self-interest and utilitarian moral philosophies. Alternatively, in the classical Greek and Kantian families of moral philosophies, "persons" are those who are capable of recognizing and being guided by moral laws or impartial values, such as fairness and justice. Using "person" in any of these rationalistic senses designates a group that need not include all or only human beings.
Whatever the criterion for moral personhood, the moral significance of meeting those criteria is that one's interests are protected against routine sacrifice for the benefit of others and the fulfilment of those interests may also be facilitated by giving one powers to exercise in pursuing one's needs, wants, or choices. Thus, morally "personhood" does not so much designate a group as confer a status: in any morality, the "persons" are those who have the highest status; they are those whose interests the moral values, principles, rules, judgments, guidelines, etc., are to protect and further. The widest anthropocentric criterion for having this status is metaphysical personhood, in which case all and only human beings are morally persons. However, when phrased that baldly, that criterion seems arbitrary; so, it is often at least augmented by a rationalistic criterion, which has some obvious, substantive relevance to moral values. The problem then becomes dissatisfaction with some humans not qualifying as moral persons. The broadest, obviously morally relevant criterion for moral personhood is that any being with interests that can be protected or furthered by morality have this status. This criterion would make the category of moral personhood more inclusive than metaphysical personhood, since many animals have interests that could benefit by moral protection and facilitation, yet also narrower, since some human beings lack interests, i.e., the brain dead and embryos.
Finally, perhaps because of the traditional identification of moral with metaphysical personhood in traditional Western moralities, philosophers have tended to treat moral personhood as an all or nothing situation. However, that is not how common moral practice allocates that status in triage, desperate survival situations, and even in ordinary situations involving the interests and choices of children, the elderly, and the infirm. For example, children are morally persons, but their autonomy is circumscribed in ways that adult persons morally should not be.
What degree do you see vegan activism as the most promising solution toinstitutionalised animal cruelty?
If "vegan activism" refers to such activities as stealing farm animals and sabotaging factory farms, I think such activism will have little positive effect. In the area of using animals in laboratories, such activities have had little positive impact, and I know of no reason to believe the impact would be better in the animal agriculture area. Such liberation activities are particularly gratifying, both for those who engage in them and for animal advocates who hear about them. They thus boost morale and, of course, relieve the suffering of the liberated animals, but they also lead to counter-balancing negatives, such as public backlash, fines, and jail time.
If "vegan activism" includes aggressively educating the public about institutionalized animal suffering and the virtues, both humane and health, of a vegan diet, that can be very positive. In the small, coastal town where I live, a big event is the annual salmon barbecue. This year, the local Living Light culinary school was invited to offer a vegan alternative to the salmon. It was delicious, and they had a very positive response to the food and the literature they also had available. Many public schools in the USA are getting diet conscious, because of the obesity epidemic among our children, and that, along with requirements for humane education, can offer opportunities for vegan activism in education. Such activism is not as quick, clear, or gratifying as liberating animals, but it does not generate those negatives and can have wider positive impact.
What are your views on "humane slaughter?"
When healthy animals, whose prospects include the possibility of lives that are worth living, are killed, then they suffer the loss of those prospects, even if they do not suffer pain or anxiety in the killing process. So, the mass killing or "slaughter" of animals for food always involves mass suffering. If the phrase "humane slaughter" is supposed to indicate a killing process without suffering, it is a false label.
Also, from what I've read, I believe that the slaughter of large numbers of animals always involves significant suffering of anxiety and pain. Consequently, if "humane" slaughter means mass killing of animals without causing them to experience suffering, there is no such thing.
Even if "humane" slaughter meant slaughter with a minimum of anxiety or pain being suffered, there is still no such thing, since the mass killing of animals is conducted as a commercial enterprise, so the suffering is never simply minimized; rather, it will be minimised at most to the degree that does not interfere too much with maximizing profits.
Finally, even if "slaughter" refers to killing an individual animal-as in "slaughtering a lamb for Easter"-the anxiety or pain suffered by the animal killed and/or other animals aware of the killing is not simply minimized in "humane slaughter;" rather it is minimised within the limits of how much trouble the farmer/rancher is willing to go to. I suspect that there has never been a farmer/rancher who has gone to the limits of imagination to minimise such suffering-e.g., drugging the animal's food so that he could sneak up on it while it slept soundly and killed it with a bullet to the back of the head from a pistol with a silencer.
So, my view of "humane slaughter" is that it is a label those who want to eat meat cling to in order to minimise their discomfort over the suffering they cause to be inflicted on animals in order to satisfy that want.
Are having interests and having rights the same thing?
Having interests and having rights are definitely not the same thing, though the former is a necessary condition for the latter.
Having an interest in x refers to the fact that x will influence one's positive or negative feelings. For example, people have an interest in water, since we feel better or worse depending on how much of it we have to drink; however, even though trees need water to survive, they do not have an interest in it, since they have no feelings.
Having a right to x refers to a moral or legal protection or facilitation of one's interest in x. For example, I can have an interest in cutting down a large pine tree since it blocks my view of the ocean from my home and that annoys me. If I own that tree, then I have a legal property right to cut it down, but if it belongs to my neighbour, I do not have such a right facilitating the satisfaction of my interest-I must ask my neighbour if he will permit me to cut the tree. Conversely, my neighbour’s interest in keeping the tree because its shade provides him relief from the sun is protected by his legal property right as owner of the tree. Moral rights work to protect and facilitate interests, but they are enforced not by police, courts, and other agencies of legal systems. Rather, they are enforced by moral education, conscience, public approval and condemnation, religious institutions (in some cases), and other elements of morality.
The idea that having an interest is sufficient to generate a right to have that interest fulfilled might seem attractive, but that is not at all practical. Interests often conflict, as with Joe's interest in a tree's providing shade and Sue's interest in eliminating the tree to improve her ocean view. If every interest generated a right, there would be myriad conflicting rights, and to what could we appeal to resolve such conflicts?
Usually, we appeal to rights to resolve conflicts of interests-such as who owns that tree-but when rights conflict we face moral or legal dilemmas where we must try to work out compromises which balance conflicting interests. To the extent that such conflicting rights situations became common, the usefulness of rights in moral or legal reasoning would be undercut; consequently, it is preferable to reserve rights for certain interests, e.g., life, liberty, and other pervasive interests, and for establishing a reliable framework for fulfilling and facilitating interests that we can all (more or less) count on, e.g., roperty and citizenship rights.
Is it possible to have a moral right to something that influences ourinterests but of which we are ignorant?
One of the most important of moral obligations is to be honest, and that is correlated with our having a moral right to be treated honestly. Consequently, if someone steals an inheritance from us, our right to be treated honestly has been violated even if we are unaware of the inheritance. Similarly, if there is a right to something like a healthy environment, that would include many factors of which most people and perhaps all animals are ignorant, e.g., interdependent biotic communities and healthy levels of a wide variety of chemicals in the water, air, and food.
One can have an interest in something without taking an interest in it, e.g., the amount of vitamin A in one's diet. It is the interests we have that rights function to protect or facilitate, which is why infants can have rights. That is why taking an interest in something is not a necessary condition for having a right to it.
How will the animal rights movement play itself out in the next, say,decade or two?
Unfortunately, I live in a country which is far from morally or socially progressive in comparison to many other technologically advanced societies. My impression is that at least in the USA, animal rights is not as much the focus of energy and organised activity that it was in the 1970s and 80s. California just became the third state to put some humane limits on the factory farming of animals, but that leaves forty-seven states to go-and such limits are far from recognising that animals have "rights." My impression is that there are many fewer demonstrations today against the use of animals in laboratories, for fur coats, etc.; at least such "mass movement" events don't often make the newspapers or newscasts.
The philosophical debate over animal rights has pretty much run its course. The various pro and con foundations for such rights have been extensively developed and published. There remain university courses that discuss the topic, and that is very important, for there is always a new generation to get thinking about these issues, but there is not much new ground being broken here.
Changing the law to extend rights to animals seems still to be advancing, most notably with recent developments in Spain regarding the great apes. Still, most legal changes helping animals now seem to be in the area of animal welfare-i.e., limits on the suffering animals endure in our use of them-rather than in the area of animal rights, i.e., recognising that animal interests should not be routinely sacrificed in fulfilling human interests.
Generally, I think the "movement" of the 1970s and 80s is becoming less a unified social and moral force and consciousness and more of a loose association of groups dedicated to helping animals in specific areas of concern to them. These groups share passionate concern for the plight of animals and willingness to work tirelessly to benefit animals; they may even employ the rhetoric of animal rights; but to what extent they are willing to adopt each other's concerns and even to coordinate their efforts has to be worked out case-by-case.
In Morals, Reason and Animals what did you identify as what liberatinganimals is all about?
Liberating animals is about reducing-ultimately eliminating-our feeling that animals are just a resource to be used for satisfying human needs, wants, and desires. As with any moral movement, what is needed is to change the attitudes of those in power, so that they will cease to exercise that power in ways adverse to the well-being of those without power and even come to exercise their power in ways which benefit those with less. Thus, liberating animals is about changing human attitudes toward animals, thereby freeing them from our exploitation.
Is librating animals about changing the legal paradigm from 'thing' toproperty or is there a humanistic requirement needed to change people's lackof moral consideration for animals to have at very least the right to life?
People want to have animals killed in order to satisfy human interests in a wide variety of ways, and I doubt that will ever cease. Fortunately, animals' interests in better quality of life can be protected and facilitated even when their interest in life is not. That is because people can recognise that animals suffer and can feel that that suffering is a bad thing which should not be totally ignored. Legal codes restricting, prohibiting, and punishing neglect, abuse, and cruelty to animals abound even where animals are not recognised as having rights nor as being other than property or natural resources to be managed for human benefit. Of course, such codes fall far short of protecting and facilitating the fulfilment of animal interests that those of us who favour animal rights advocate, but they do show that extending a legal right to life to animals is not a necessary condition for any legal protection of their interests whatsoever.
I think what is most important to improving the human treatment of animals, including our laws concerning that treatment, is (first) to encourage the development of our ability to empathise with others and (second) to make us aware of animal feelings so that we can empathise with them and so that that empathy can motivate us to act in ways which do not sacrifice animals in the self-centred pursuit of our own interests.
Should research be done with those only who consent, since non-humananimals don't consent?
If lack of consent of potential research subjects would preclude the research, even if the lack of consent is due to the inability of the subject to consent, this would preclude research on rocks, plants, and embryos, and children, as well as animals. The idea behind the requirement for informed consent is that no one with interests should have those interests sacrificed in research unless they are willing to have that happen. When dealing with research subjects with interests but who are unable to understand how the research will impact their interests-e.g., young children-consent is sought from someone-like a parent-who can understand that impact and who has the best interest of the research subject at heart. The same can be done for animals, and some research involving animals is not injurious to their interest, so a concerned guardian could consent for them to participate in it. For example, for years at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, several goats were maintained to provide blood for some research projects. The goats provided small amounts of blood a couple of times a year, and in exchange for that they were fed and sheltered, received excellent veterinary care, and had a secure hillside to roam on throughout the year. Those goats lived far longer than the average goat. Unfortunately, very little of the research done on animals is so benign. That is to be expected because the primary reason for doing research on animals is that it would be unethical to do that sort of thing to humans, and no human would knowingly consent to be the subject of such injurious research. So, although not all research with animals would be eliminated by respecting their interests, most all of it would be.
What is winnable for the animal liberation movement within areasonable time frame from today?
There is a confluence at this time of events and causes from which animals can benefit, and animal advocates can work to see that they do. Concern with global warming is gaining momentum, creating a receptive audience for the plight of animals-like the polar bear-which are adversely affected by this warming. Concern with preserving endangered species remains strong, and the recognition of the importance of habitat for maintaining species is growing. Animal advocates can work with environmentalists to help animals here. Concern with obesity in technologically advanced societies provides an opportunity to reduce the demand for meat and dairy products, thereby helping farm animals. The growing urbanization of human populations can help animals, since city-dwellers have traditionally been more empathetic toward animals. The global recession may also reduce the demand for meat during the next few years; this could be a good time to press for humane restrictions on factory farming. Expanding human population is the primary threat to animals; with the election of a pro-choice President in the United States, restrictions that the Bush administration imposed on birth control should be lifted. Animal advocates can help animals by assisting in human birth control efforts. In the USA, perhaps elsewhere, too, there are growing numbers of people for whom their pets are their families. This growing, deepening bond with companion animals provides opportunities for strengthening laws protecting them, which can then be used to expand protection to other animals.
In the 1970s and 80s there was a feeling among animal advocates that a pervasive, fundamental change in social attitudes akin to that of the civil rights and women's liberation movements was imminent. That did not happen, nor is there any sign that it is happening. The opportunities to help animals now are more scattered, modest, and reliant on social concerns that are not directly about or limited to improving the plight of animals. That is discouraging, but it is also encouraging, since it means that there is a wide variety of opportunities for everyone who wants to help animals to pick out those areas that they feel most strongly about and make some real, hands-on improvements for animals in that area.
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