(5)


At this point in history, the situation in most areas of the so-called "civilized" world is one in which the usage or exploitation of nonhuman animals by humans is justified via a system of valuation dictated almost entirely by an anthropocentric viewpoint, wherein the worth of nonhuman animals primarily depends upon the degree to which they benefit or harm humans.  At the same time, the argument in favor of the right to exploit nonhuman animals is grounded in the concept of universal indifference:  in nature, so this aspect of the argument goes, animals exploit each other freely and cause much suffering in doing so, which suffering takes place in an amoral field; humans who exploit nonhuman animals are therefore justified in doing the same (humans being, after all, but animals themselves).  Taken in tandem, these attitudes result in a system of legalized exploitation of nonhuman animals, by which means they are treated as mere commodities whose capacity for physical and psychological suffering is placed a distant second to their "objective" worth as material goods.  Any protections given nonhuman animals is to be viewed as a form of largess, a kindness magnanimously bestowed and which may without pain of conscience be withdrawn when need arises.  Gratuitous torture  is the one and only act indulged in by humans consistently perceived as an unnatural form of exploitation, it being generally considered to be the product of a diseased mind (though even here there may be exceptions, as when the torture of an animal has been socially sanctioned as a form of entertainment, or as a function of ritual).

The crux of the argument against this point of view centers upon the fact that humans are animals who have developed the capacity for moral thought, this itself being an outgrowth of the self-reflective aspect of human consciousness.  Bearing in mind, however, that the power for abstract thought, upon which the ability to develop and amplify the moral sensibility depends, is born of materiality, that the principle of materiality is inclusive of both "self" and "other" as these terms are commonly conceived, and that the moral sense is best realized via the power of empathetic awareness, which is itself derived from an understanding of the interdependence of self and other, it will quickly be seen that what proponents of animal exploitation ignore is the necessity of viewing the value nonhuman animals place on themselves, as opposed to the value human beings apply to them.  The line of argumentation taken above does not ignore the principle of universal indifference, but rather is a fuller expression of it in that it recognizes not only the unity but also the disparity which exists between self and other:  our duty lies in recognizing both the dependence of humans on the broader ecology, and in recognizing as genuine the "otherness" of the other.  The exploitation of nonhuman animals by the biomedical industry, as a food resource, for use as beasts of burden or even for the purposes of entertainment, are all validated via the displacement of the anxiety which is caused by the exploitation of animals – that is to say, via the displacement of our empathetic awareness – and replacing it with a belief that in treating nonhuman animals as exploitable objects we obey, or at least mimic, the principle of universal indifference.  The effect of this displacement, especially as it is formulated by and disseminated via promulgation of the scientific method, is to cause us to ignore the relative value of individual perception – or, more to the point, it allows us to ignore the value of nonhuman animals' individual perceptions in favor of those which are shared by humans.

It is a curious fact that humans generally perceive their capacity for abstract thought and a moral sensibility as constituting some sort of unbridgeable divide between themselves and nonhuman animals; as a matter of convenience, the fact that humans too evolved from beings who are assumed to lack such capacities is forgotten, set aside, or simply never acknowledged to begin with.  Disregarded or discounted is any recognition of the fact that nonhuman animals have the same capacities, albeit in nascent form:  self-awareness and a moral sensibility reveal their presence in rudimentary manner via the desire for self-preservation as well as in any given organism's preference for individual well-being and the preservation of its species.  While such preferences may occur in nonhuman animals primarily as a matter of instinct, it is from just such instinctive drives that the higher faculties are born.  Were another species of animal to evolve to the complexity of humans, the development of their nascent abilities would in all probability parallel our own:  human and nonhuman animals are part of a continuum.  Having recognized the desire to protect our own individual and species well-being, we become obligated to recognize that all individuals of other species hold a similar desire; to accord them less than equal consideration is to erect a standard of moral worth based solely on the ability of individual members of a given species to express a sufficiently complex moral conception.  The question then becomes a matter of who it is that has the right to erect that standard and thus be placed in the position of deciding the fate of those who fail to meet it.  While the proponents of nonhuman animal exploitation may believe the answer to this question easy to formulate, further difficulties will arise upon recognition of the fact that this questionable standard must now be applied not only to nonhuman animals, but to humans as well.

Clearly, we do not apply such a standard evenly:  membership in the human species is considered reason enough to accord its members sufficient moral worth to prevent their becoming, generally speaking at least, the subject of exploitation.  Again the appeal being made here is to the principle of universal indifference:  humans, like any other species of nature, quite naturally place a higher value on themselves than they do on members of other species and, just as competition between species is in accord with natural law – the root manifestation of universal indifference – so it follows that the exploitation of members of other species for the betterment of our own is justified.  This conclusion, however, violates the moral awareness we have gained via the consideration of our origins in materiality, as well as of the continuum that exists between self and other.  It violates the empathetic awareness fruited through the exercise of the moral sense, and substitutes scientific detachment for a genuine recognition of the "otherness" of the other with regard its individuated, experiential consciousness.  It also substitutes, for the placement of humans within the natural order, the artificial order of humanly created laws and mores, and replaces a moral sensibility which acknowledges the moral worth members of other species place on themselves with those biases which are inherent to anthropocentrism.  The laws and mores which (broadly speaking) humans have invented to adjudicate between the moral valuations we place upon ourselves and each other cannot rightfully be used to justify the exploitation of members of other species.  Just as acceptance of the principle of universal indifference may lead a prisoner about to be executed to a bodily sense of awareness with regard the wrongness of execution, so there exists a fundamental wrongness to the exploitation of nonhuman animals, who register the impacts of that exploitation in their bodies even when their ability to register such psychologically may be held in doubt.

And yet, to all of the above there will still exist those humans whose response will be, simply:  "So what?"  So what if the "wrongness," the immorality, of nonhuman exploitation is true?  We cannot survive without it, anymore than we can survive if we allow those prisoners whose crimes are so heinous as to condemn them to permanent incarceration or death to go free.  If we are wrong, we are wrong; that too is part and parcel of universal indifference.  There is no real reply one can make to this, beyond mentioning the fact that in conjoining ourselves with this indifference we raise ourselves above our proper station and so risk condemning ourselves, as surely as does that man or woman who has committed some heinous crime, to the realm of tragedy.  For in so doing we deny the very essence of our moral sensibility, which insists that, along with the ability to recognize the fundamental indifference of the universe, it is incumbent upon us to recognize our own place within it.  That includes accepting those duties entailed in placing equal moral value upon those other entities with whom we share the world.  In light of all this, it becomes clear that a claim of adherence to universal indifference is fundamentally motivated by egoistic self-interest, whether thoughtlessly or with forethought applied:  which is to say, its motivation springs from the fear or dislike of that self-abnegation which the principle of universal indifference implies.  Such reactions are rooted, however, in the ideal of a falsely transcendent self; self-abnegation, when performed in accordance with the ideas presented above, simply consists of a genuine recognition with regard the true value of both self and other.  If it has been understood that each individual is part of a greater whole, then self-sacrificial acts may occur for the sake of that greater whole, whether that be represented by another human, a nonhuman animal, or even by some aspect of the natural or humanly created environment, if the continued integrity of such is believed to be necessary for the continued health of the whole.

The single most important factor, with regard to how any individual decides to act, lies in the concept of personal integrity; personal integrity shapes itself first as "self-consciousness," then as "conscience," in human beings.  One may break with humanly created laws and mores only so far as one's self-conscious application of conscience will allow.  Conscience may dictate that current social standards, as represented by laws, customs and mores, must never be broken; or that they must be obeyed, at least in the main, even while being protested against; or that they may, under certain exceptional circumstances, be broken with entirely.  With regard these behaviors, moral thought must act as the guide.  For it is only under the auspices of personal integrity as shaped by moral thought that genuine freedom can be found.




~ END ~







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