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Ethics and Animals: An Introduction is a fine introduction to a set of issues concerning the variety of ways that humans interact with, treat, and sometimes exploit non-human animals. While Gruen brings the resources of both empirical science and normative ethical theory to bear on the issues, her book is clearly written, non-technical, and suitable for a general audience, including students from a variety of disciplines, and the reference list provides excellent resources for further reading.
The book is divided into seven chapters, each one dealing with a different ethical issue (or set of issues). Gruen discusses, in the order that these issues come in the book, why animals deserve moral consideration; why the fact that humans seem to naturally favor their own interests over those of animals does not imply that it is ethical for humans to do so; whether it is ethical to eat animals and what to do about factory farming; whether animals should be used in (often deadly) scientific research; how to deal with animals that have been kept in captivity; how to resolve conflicts over land and resources between humans and animals, and between some sets of animals and others; and finally, how activists concerned with animal welfare ought to work toward their goals. Throughout the book, one of Gruen's recurring themes is to analyze the dynamic of "speciesism" - the prejudicial attitude that the interests of one's own species rank more highly than the interests of other species or an individual member of another species.
The book has several virtues that I value highly in an introductory text. Aside from the virtue of clarity mentioned above, I think it is valuable that Gruen's introduction to animal ethics is an opinionated one. Among her conclusions: humans owe animals ethical consideration. A wide range of animal-related enterprises, such as zoos or commercial pet-selling, ought to either be done away with or have their purpose seriously re-thought. One generally ought not to eat animals, even if they have lived good lives and died of natural causes. (Gruen grants that it is possible that respecting animals and eating animals are compatible, but that compatibility seems to be limited to situations where eating animals is a necessity; she does not grant that compatibility to urban locavores who raise and slaughter animals themselves.) Though these conclusions are at odds with the way most humans interact with animals, they are carefully reasoned and never simply polemically asserted. In my experience, having a clear position invites the reader to examine one's reasoning more closely, and that is pedagogically important. A careful consideration of the book's opening argument serves to illustrate this point, since the rest of the book depends on this argument's conclusion.
In the first chapter, Gruen identifies and analyzes a philosophical view she refers to as "human exceptionalism" -- the view that human beings are the only beings deserving of ethical concern, and that humans have no ethical responsibilities to non-human animals. Underlying this position are two presumptions; one, that humans possess some trait that animals do not, and two, that possession of this trait entitles humans to membership in the moral community. Gruen rejects both presumptions. She presents a list of candidates for a trait that differentiates humans and animals -- among them, language use and tool-making -- and casts doubt on all of these traits by presenting the reader with cases demonstrating that the trait at issue cannot do the work that the human exceptionalist wants. With regard to the second presumption, Gruen argues that not all human beings possess the traits that the human exceptionalist wants to appeal to. For example, saying that humans are exceptional because they use language seems to imply that humans who do not use language are not deserving of moral consideration. Her treatment of this issue is compelling and highly plausible.
Occasionally, Gruen objects to the "bar-raising dialectic" of these discussions - that is, the practice of introducing a candidate for a differentiating trait that marks humans as special, and then refining the definition of that trait when presented with a counterexample. (Humans use language; animals don't. Oh, there are animals which can use language? Fine; but those animals don't use sentences like we do.) Now, in fairness to those interested in defending the possible existence of such a trait, it is important that alternative explanations be considered and exhausted. A simple charge of moving the goalposts against her opponents wouldn't be enough to make Gruen's case. Fortunately, for all the goalpost movings that she mentions, Gruen provides counterexamples which clearly cast doubt on the ability of such traits to do the differentiating work the human exceptionalist wants them to do.
From a pedagogical standpoint, the fact that this discussion comes first is very valuable. The first thought that many people have when considering ethical issues involving animals is that humans and their interests matter in a way that animals and their interests don't. Most people, in my experience, believe that we owe some kind of minimally decent treatment to animals, even if they do not much care about any of the particular issues Gruen writes about. So long as we do not cause animals unnecessary suffering, they think, we can generally do what we like with them, whether we eat them, hunt them, keep them in zoos, or use them for research. Thus, most people are not extreme human exceptionalists. But this thought may be generally indicative of the prevalence of a moderate kind of human exceptionalism. After all, one can be a human exceptionalist and believe that we ought not to treat animals poorly, since how we treat animals has implications for how we treat humans - or so Immanuel Kant thought. Gruen presents the reader, however, with a sustained argument against the underpinnings of this widely-held view. For teaching a class on animal ethics, or teaching animal ethics in a broader course on ethics, this can be quite useful. Even if one ultimately disagrees with Gruen's conclusions, her arguments are an invitation to the reader and student to refine and strengthen their own position.
© 2012 Justin Moss
Justin Moss, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Avila University, Kansas City, MO
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