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Philosophy

Steve Sapontzis: Consistency and Traditional Morality

Rather than establishing a systematic moral theory, in Morals, Reason, and Animals, Steve Sapontzis utilizes traditional morality to advocate animal liberation. He argues that basic moral principles such as fairness, protecting the weak against the strong, and aiming to reduce suffering cannot logically be limited to humans because suffering, distress, enjoyment, and fulfillment are not exclusively human conditions. The basic standards to which a moral person should adhere do not simply evaporate when considering nonhumans rather than humans.

Sapontzis spends a fair amount of time debunking the notion that because humans are superior beings rationally, they are justified in exploiting nonhumans. Humans often argue that they are fundamentally different from other animals in the sense that humans are rational beings. However, like other differences, this difference is not fundamental, but is a matter of degree. In fact, given the evidence, it is irresponsible to claim outright that animals cannot reason. Sapontzis reminds us that animals do recognize some causal relations and that they can use them to solve practical problems. In The Descent of Man, Darwin himself wrote, "It is a significant fact, that the more the habits of any particular animal are studied by a naturalist, the more he ascribes to reason and the less to unlearnt instincts." The matter of abstract thinking may be a different story, but it cannot, nor can any other aspect of reason support our exploitation of animals. Sapontzis writes,

"Since he has no language, he may be killed to make a tasty dish. Since she lacks the capacity to abstract and conceive the future, she may be hunted and killed for amusement. Since they are not capable of forming goals by considering alternatives, they may be used in lethal experiments. Since he lacks an epistemic relation to his interest in life, he may be killed in order that his body may be used for making soap and perfume. Since she lacks a cultural life, she may be trapped and skinned to make a fur coat. Does this reasoning make sense to you?"

Much like Peter Singer, Sapontzis demonstrates that the existence of interests, human or nonhuman, is what justifies moral consideration. As sentient beings, nonhuman animals have an interest in living, in being happy, in being social (in most cases), etc.

Sapontzis convincingly argues that morality itself is not entirely a product of reason; it often involves or is associated with dedication, loyalty, or just an immediate feeling of the right thing to do in a situation. Furthermore, both humans and animals exhibit varying levels of moral behavior. There are many accounts of animals acting responsibly or even putting themselves at risk to help others--in some cases, a member of another species. The fact that they are often capable of recognizing the needs of others and acting accordingly discredits the idea that only humans can act morally.

The view of animal liberation, as put forward by Sapontzis, may be seen as one of fairness. He states, "Liberating animals ... refers to extending to animals the same sorts of moral protection for their interests that we already enjoy for ours." Sapontzis succeeds in placing the burden of proof on the shoulders of opponents of animal liberation: It should no longer be asked, "Why should we liberate animals?" but instead, "Why shouldn't we?"

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