Irresponsible scholarship

If the ultimate test of our humanity is how we treat nonhuman animals, then we are failing spectacularly. Earth is home to vastly more farm animals than wild mammals and birds, and almost all of them live in factory farms – where conditions vary from horrible to horrific – and die violently. The sheer numbers make our treatment of animals one of the most pressing moral issues of our time. You do not need to be an animal rights advocate to recognize this truth. If you believe that animals have any moral standing at all, that unlike stones they matter, at least a little bit, then the monstrous amount of gratuitous suffering we routinely inflict on animals should offend your moral sense. A Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans in fact are either somewhat or very concerned about the way in which the animals we raise for food are treated, and extend that concern to the animals used in entertainment and research as well.

In recent decades, philosophers have increasingly turned their attention to this important issue, developing ever more nuanced and careful moral arguments. Unsurprisingly – they are philosophers! – conclusions differ, but there does seem to be a broad consensus that the current state of the human-animal relationship is a moral disgrace and things need to change, probably fundamentally so. Against this background, hearing people defend the status quo by pointing out that they “like meat,” or with a flippant declaration that “things have always been this way,” can be frustrating, or even annoying. But when professional philosophers do the same, it is irresponsible. They ought to know better. They ought to know that those arguing for a profound transformation of our relationship with other animals are well aware that many people “like meat,” and have given this fact whatever consideration it may be due. Today’s body of philosophical literature is littered with thoughtful and detailed responses to all of the common objections to arguments that challenge the status quo. In fact, for any given one of those objections, one will have no difficulty at all finding countless responses, from not just one or two but many different philosophical perspectives.

Before giving their stamp of approval to any of the immensely harmful practices involving nonhuman animals, philosophers have a responsibility to consider carefully, and with an open mind, the arguments of philosophical animal advocates (and their opponents), and to exercise great caution in crafting their own. These are general intellectual virtues, of course, but they are especially important in this context, as it may happen that people look to philosophers as expert authorities on issues of morality, and will act or fail to act based on what a supposed expert says.

In a recent article I wrote with Valéry Giroux, Angie Pepper, and Kristin Voigt, we critically discuss a chapter in Daniel Bell and Wang Pei’s recent book, Just Hierarchy, published by Princeton University Press no less! The chapter offers a defense of hierarchy between humans and other animals. In it, Bell and Pei do somewhat better than the friend who merely exclaims his or her love for meat, yet their discussion does not rise to the level of engagement with the existing animal ethics literature we ought to be able to expect – it is not even close. One of the points we make in our article is that that is irresponsible, and that people who are trained in philosophy need to do better.

There is a general lesson here, which is why I think that even those with no particular interest in Bell and Pei’s book can benefit from reading our article: It is essential that we hold academics to a high ethical standard and do not shy away from demanding that they live up to their responsibilities as authorities in their respective fields, and that we recognize the inherent danger in failing to do so.