The state of play on the animal welfare question
I think it’s about time to put the issue of environmentalism and animal welfare aside for the time being. It is definitely worth returning to in the future. Thank you all for your excellent comments, especially the people who disagree with me; preaching to the choir is always a waste of time. So here are what I see as the key points that came out of this weeks-long discussion:
- It is impossible to avoid making value judgments, no matter what your view of environmentalism. Aside from the core mission to preserve the life-support systems of the Earth, which simply reflect our desire to survive, environmentalism very quickly leads into all sorts of moral terrain because there are many species and natural habitats that human beings could potentially survive without.
- Morality by definition means human judgments about what is right and wrong. Natural processes are merciless; they have led to the eradication of 99.99% of all species that have ever lived and planet Earth could care less if humans live or die. Looking exclusively to “nature” for clues to human morality is a losing endeavor.
- Since morality can never be “proven,” the best we can hope for are well-thought out positions based on rational argumentation, reasoning, and a basis in scientific fact. This is crucial. As David Roberts pointed out, although we all must begin with moral stances, how we judge success, failure, or whether certain actions are consistent with our morals has a scientific, objective, and factual basis. In addition, the basis for our moral claims should be derived at least partly from objective facts about reality; e.g., my stance on animal welfare is based on the scientific fact that many higher order mammals have high levels of consciousness, enjoy complex social interactions, and have a heightened capacity to experience pleasure and pain.
- There is an immense amount of suffering in the world inflicted on animals by humans. While environmentalists may differ on what specific conduct is right or wrong, examining our moral assumptions about whether environmentalism should have a larger or smaller role in promoting animal welfare is a worthwhile undertaking since movements should be grounded in well-articulated and defensible positions. This is especially true at a time when many of the issues that have symbolized environmentalism over the decades — e.g. opposition to whaling, dolphin slaughter, killing baby seals, hunting elephants — are not consistent with an environmentalism that only focuses on the sustainability of resources, once these animal populations achieve sustainable levels.