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Be an animal rights philosopher. Take animal philosophy to the people by critically reasoning for and against the arguments for animal rights.
Some people shout emotional inanities to bully you into agreeing with them. More refined people apply smart arguments to make you agree with them. But philosophers do it by critically reasoning for and against the arguments; a more effective strategy.
"Thus, if we are to grant them an inferior moral status or, indeed, no moral status whatsoever, a justification is required and such a justification must spell out why it is that we are entitled to treat them differently from ourselves and what it is that their moral status entitles us to do to them."
Robert Garner (1)
The first Western philosophers lived around 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece and surroundings. They were among the first important thinkers of Western society. Unlike other people they did not think dogmatically but reasoned rationally and methodically. Significantly, they expected listeners to disagree with what they said and make opposing assertions to support reasonable counter arguments. This was a tremendous event in the evolution of thought. Until then people explained the world in terms of the supernatural, blind faith or authority, building ideas on emotional illogic, immediate impression, mistaken belief, fantasy and much other irrationality.
Philosophers in ancient times lived and worked among ordinary people. But by the 19th century they had confined themselves within universities and limited their questions to elucidate narrow and obscure matters. However, philosophy has undergone a rebirth since the 1970's as new ideas and directions for exploration broadened its scope. Nowadays a new philosophical avenue is practical ethics
, by which people from all walks of life try to resolve everyday moral issues that affect them (see Applying Philosophy, below).
You do not, therefore, have to be a university professor to philosophise; thinking fundamental and deep thoughts is open to everyone. You just need to ask questions rationally and methodically about the nature of life, its ostensible meaning and purpose and come up with rational answers. Philosophising could be for you if you are interested in seeking answers to ultimate questions and enjoy rigorously marshalling arguments for and against ideas and issues.
Landmarks in Animal Philosophy
Many key philosophers of past centuries have damned their moral status by being largely negative about animals. For example:
Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) said that the most important faculty is the power of reasoning, only humans can reason, therefore they are the most important beings. He concluded that we can use animals without the consideration we would give to people.
Descartes (1596 - 1650) thought that animals cannot feel pain, even though they act as though they do. He concluded that animals are automata, mere machines.
Kant (1724 - 1804) believed that animals are not conscious and may therefore be used as a means to an end, that is as a way of getting something you want.
These and other philosophers spelt tragedy for myriad animals by doing nothing that challenged the deeply rooted assumption held by people, that the claims of humans always have priority over the needs of animals.
Animals do not have it easy even in our own times, as one practising physiologist makes clear, believing that:
"In contrast to ourselves, animal behaviour is mechanical, driven by the dictates of nature and immune to the processes of reflective cognition that we take for granted. It is a black, silent existence that is not conscious of its own processes or, at the very most, a dark murky experience that does not compare with our own." (2)
However, the 18th century might have witnessed the beginning of rescue for animals. In an often quoted phrase Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) wrote about animals (albeit only in a footnote):
"The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?" (3)
Bentham thought that animals can feel pain and that the essential attribute qualifying an animal to moral consideration is the capacity for suffering and no other reference is necessary, not the power of reasoning, nor consciousness nor cognition. Then, in the 20th century, Peter Singer opened the floodgates of moral concern for animals by writing his book Animal Liberation
(1975). Translated into over 17 languages the book started a chain reaction of thought and publications, still expanding, about animals and why they matter morally. Indeed, Singer is widely credited with founding modern practical ethics.
Philosophy & the Real World
Does philosophy influence our material everyday world? Yes it does. The human-world is constantly shaped and re-shaped by philosophical ideas. Ethical reasoning permeates and influences our everyday world. For more see Do Philosophical Ideas Work?
in Chapter 2: Animal Ethics.
Areas of practical ethics are diverse and could include almost any area of human activity in which moral dilemmas rear up. Some areas of practical ethics are:
- Environmental ethics: how should humanity relate to and deal with nature?
- Medical ethics: how should we deal with sick people?
- Feminism: how we should behave towards women?
- Education ethics: how and to whom should education be taught?
- Animal ethics: how should humanity treat animals?
- Legal ethics: how should lawyers deal with each other and their clients?
- Corporate responsibility: how should businesses engage with individuals and society?
- Internet ethics: how should people use the internet responsibly?
Where does animal rights fit in to all this? Animal rights is a part of the field of animal ethics. Animal ethics examines beliefs that are held about the moral status of animals. But animal ethics does not presume that any particular point of view is good and right; it accommodates a number of approaches for trying to resolve animal-human moral issues. Animal rights, on the other hand, is a doctrine about how humans should treat animals and states that animals should have rights, somewhat like but not exactly the same as humans rights. Animal rights concentrates on sentient animals and its basic doctrine is that using animals for human gain is morally wrong and should stop. More in Comparing Animal Philosophies, Chapter 2.
An essential objective in philosophy is to be able to evaluate ideas and construct reasoned arguments by yourself. So toward this end this is what you can do. Read as much about philosophy, ethics and animal rights as you can. Clarify the arguments and counter-arguments the writers present. Select and explain which are the more convincing arguments and try to come up with new arguments of your own.
Try the following exercise:
1. Write down your ideas about animal rights or some aspect of the subject.
2. Compare and contrast your ideas with the various points and arguments that one or more philosophers have written on the subject.
3. Think up objections to what these philosophers say and find out objections that other writers have put forward.
4. Rewrite step one in light of steps two and three.
5. Get people to criticise what you have written in step four and engage them in friendly critical discussion about what they say.
6. Rewrite step one again.
7. Compare what you first wrote in step one with your final draft and in a few sentences write down what you have leaned.
You may be wondering why you have to write down everything? Expressing your ideas on paper is better than only thinking about them. Writing forces you to think deeper about your subject, enables you to progress without wastefully going over the same ground, and is a basis for circulating your ideas to other people, such as when writing an article or a book.
When philosophising, check the assumptions you make and ask yourself if they are valid. Abandon anything that does not stand up to your critical examination. Come up with new ideas as necessary. Keep doing this over the years. Never stop thinking rationally and critically. Do not be afraid to put forward radical ideas. This may be difficult at first but like any accomplishment the more you do it the easier it gets. Be able to accept and learn from criticism and remember that good philosophers attack arguments, not their proponents.
Take Animal Philosophy to the People
As an animal rights philosopher you should communicate your ideas to the public and to anyone who will listen to you. For giving talks see Public & School Speaker, Chapter 4. Also lend your pen to write animal philosophy articles for magazines.
You will need to write at least one book on your philosophical animal rights subject to gain recognition as an animal philosopher. Come up with an original thesis to argue about. Your thesis could be your own original inspiration or your development of someone else's idea in an original way. Write the book as a straightforward philosophy work - with a beginning, middle and end - or in an off-beat style like a novel or a play. These days you could even fashion it as an illustrated comic.
Courses in Philosophy
Feeling the itch to study philosophy formally? Ensure that you include in your study of philosophy the branch called 'moral philosophy' or 'ethics' - different names for the same thing.
There are various types of courses: online learning, distance learning, part-time evening courses, full-time college, and university level routes. You might find a few animal rights courses online, at a relatively lightweight level. Some college and university philosophy courses offer modules dealing with animal rights as part of their overall course. But you are unlikely to find a comprehensive, full-time course in animal ethics and certainly not one devoted entirely to animal rights. However, the situation is changing so keep a look out.
In view of the dearth of animal rights courses, do not be afraid of being self-taught. You can be a good philosopher without taking a formal course in philosophy; after all, many famous philosophers never followed an authorised course themselves and obviously the first philosophers could not. Books on philosophy are plentiful. Read some about philosophy in general to get an overall grasp of the subject. After that do the same for ethics. Then read up on animal ethics in particular and finally zero in on animal rights.
(1) Garner, Robert. Animals, Politics and Morality
. Manchester University: Manchester. 1993:4.
(2) Derbyshire, Stuart. In Gilland T et al. Animal Experimentation: good or bad?
Hodder & Stoughton. 2002:47.
(3) Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
. Vol xvii, 1789:311.
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