Modern society has a somewhat puzzling view concerning treatment of animals. Pet animals are seen as de facto members of our families, yet the very same animals are also used for research, product testing, and agriculture. Most people spend very little time thinking about the reasons for the relationship that humans have with animals, and it is often simply assumed that our tendency to exploit animals is justified in some way. However, careful consideration of reasons for the view that we hold makes the obvious appropriateness of this relationship far less clear.
Religious arguments notwithstanding, most reasons for why exploitative treatment of animals is justified centers around some claim of superior intelligence. However, in addition to studying philosophical arguments that deny the moral significance of this difference, I recently had a rather telling series of experiences which illustrates the trouble with justifying harm on the basis of greater intelligence. In short, I learned that my cat is actually smarter than your baby.
The first part of this realization came while I was sitting with my wife, watching a group of children in a playground. A young child, no older than 18 months, was playing with a football. More accurately, he was dropping, carrying, and picking up the football in a manner that looked pretty boring, but that he found enthralling. At one point, his football rolled under a slide, just out of his immediate reach. He went through a series of attempts to grab it, including leaning forward and bashing his head on the slide, kneeling and resting his head against the slide that still blocked his reach, and finally realizing that crawling would allow him to get the football back.
This seemed to be a rather obvious example of rudimentary problem solving, and the difficulties that this young child displayed was something of an indicator of his knowledge and intelligence. Later that evening, under similar conditions, I watched my cat attempt to get a toy that was stuck under our coffee table. Unlike the toddler, my cat was quickly able to figure out exactly how to get the toy. He moved deliberately from one side of the table to the other, and there was an apparent purpose to his movement. He did not appear to be simply trying different strategies, as the toddler did, but examining the situation and making moves to achieve his goal.
The trouble here, is that if I want to claim that superior human intelligence makes it okay to treat animals badly, it seems that I can construct the same argument for treating a baby better than my cat. If being smarter means I must place greater limits upon how I treat you, and my cat is smarter than your baby, there are things I can do to your baby that I can’t do to my cat.
Hopefully this conclusion causes some raised eyebrows, and we might be wise to conclude that intelligence is not a good measure of moral considerability. If we choose not to give this up, we must support the conclusion that my cat has greater moral significance than your baby. It does not really matter what you choose to do, but you cannot hold that we can exploit animals because we are smarter than them, and also claim that the baby is of greater moral significance than my cat.
This type of tactic is helpful in explicating exactly what our moral reasoning leads us to. It is also a telling illustration of the world-as-teacher that is central to everyday ethics. While our socially supported beliefs and unexamined notions of morality claim that it is okay to treat animals as means to our ends because we are smarter than them, the world has other ideas in mind. By watching, listening, and pondering, we can move beyond our flawed moral conceptions and develop a greater understanding of what moral beliefs truly make sense.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.