The Historical Legacy
Speaking of moral obligations owed directly to animals goes against the dominant tradition in Western thought, which traces from Aristotle through Aquinas to Descartes and Kant. It emphasizes the value of “self- controlled,” rational subjects, who are thereby deemed to have intrinsic value and also moral standing: they are beings to whom obligations can be owed. It is held that animals lack reason and so also intrinsic worth and moral standing: we have no direct moral obligations toward them. Their value is merely instrumental, and their role in the natural order of things is to be of use to humans. Moral constraints on our treatment of them arise only because some obligations to human beings are involved.
This is greatly simplified, but so too is its non-academic, social legacy. Signs of this derivative conception of their moral status are easily found. We have discovered a correlation between cruelty to animals and later violence toward people, but when people call for tougher laws against animal cruelty on this basis alone, animal suffering has no inherent significance. It matters solely as an indicator of human suffering to come. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many people refused to vacate their homes when ordered to leave their companion animals behind. A US law now requires that provisions be made for the evacuation of both people and their animal companions (if emergency funding from the federal government is to be received), but the rationale given is that human compliance depends on it.3
The sense of entitlement in using animals for human benefit is immense and still largely unshaken. There is a growing awareness of the suffering involved in some uses of animals (although deeply resisted in medicine, science, and sport), but we can see the historical legacy in what I call the “default position.” Most people do not question our general entitlement to make use of animals and offer no justification for it. Any concern raised has to do with some specific use.4 Challenges to specific uses, though, whether because of the benefit’s triviality or the animal’s suffering, do not dislodge the conviction that, other things being equal, it is our prerogative to use animals for our benefit.