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Peter Wilson Ethics

Secular Ethics and Animal Rights (1995)

Peter D. Wilson


Since the beginning of recorded history humans have searched for the knowledge that teaches us right from wrong. Most of the time, people have found this knowledge in religion. But for those of us who do not believe in gods, we are left to fend (and think) for ourselves. Many theists cry out that without a god, all morality becomes relative and society degenerates into anarchy. They claim that good behavior can only be inspired and justified by religious belief. This is reflected in the recent pushes to reinstate school-sanctioned prayer into public schools wherein prayer and religious indoctrination are seen as the cure-all for today’s social problems.[1,2] But is it true that only theists can be moral and that a secular and atheistic world is doomed to degenerate into chaos? This article argues yes for the former but no for the latter. Furthermore, a secularly based ethic is developed that coincides with the majority of what people consider right and wrong. These ethics do go against one widely accepted belief, though, by providing strong support for animal rights.

Morality tells the individual how to behave in order to be a good person. The source of most morality is religion where a holy book inspired by a god reveals the Truth and commands proper behavior. Coming from the Creator of the Universe, these moral codes are accepted (if not actually followed) without question—since the god is perfect, the morality must also be perfect. In some religions to behave immorally is to risk eternal damnation, adding extra incentive for obedience. Often, the very act of questioning is itself immoral. This further protects the religion and its morality from attack. But because there is no incontrovertible evidence for the existence of a perfect god, it is impossible to know which of the many conflicting claims of revelation is to be accepted. Therefore, in the name of religion any atrocity—ethnic cleansing, terrorist bombing, inquisitions, witch burning—can be defined as moral by appeals to divine law without needing further justification.

Atheists, in contrast, do not have a moral code to which they must subscribe. No stone tablets contain an atheist morality to which obedience is commanded. Whatever morality, if any, an atheist has can only be as good as the rationality of its justification. As humans are often an irrational lot, such rationality arguments are bound to be flawed and open to interpretation. Therefore, because atheists deny the existence of a perfect god handing out a treatise on good behavior, atheists must also deny the existence of an absolute perfect morality. There will always be some subjectivity in a human founded morality hidden by collective prejudices.

As the atheist only believes in things that can be observed, an atheistic morality must somehow be derived from the observed workings of the universe. So, what sort of natural morality can be drawn from the universe?

Just a few centuries ago, we thought we were at the center of the universe and that the universe existed just for us. With this view, anything and everything observed in the universe needed to be interpreted in human terms—comets foretold the death of kings; disease was the punishment for sin. We have since learned that our place in the universe is one of insignificance, undermining the earlier anthropocentrism. Humans have existed for only the last 0.01% of the universe’s existence and live on just a tiny dust speck in the vastness of space. The universe does not care one whit what we do. We could destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust tomorrow without having any effect beyond our own planet. The universe will continue to expand and follow its destiny whether we live or die. Even if we do not kill ourselves, blind chance may. Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid hit the Earth that killed probably 99% of all life on the planet and caused the extinction of at least half of the major marine species, as well as the dinosaurs.[3] It is nothing more than pure luck that another one does not hit today. Even if we survive these flips-of-the-coin, in five billion years the sun will expand, engulf the Earth, and destroy whatever life still exists here. It will happen whether we behave morally or not. The deterministic nature of the universe undermines any possibility for a universal imperative for moral behavior. So, the only morality to be drawn from the universe is nihilistic.

On a much smaller scale, life itself is nihilistic. Everyone will die eventually. It is unavoidable. Without an afterlife of eternal bliss or eternal damnation to motivate moral behavior, life ceases to have ultimate meaning. That there is no meaning to life should not, however, be interpreted to mean there can be no meaning in life. Without an imaginary god commanding your behavior and religion forcing a meaning onto your life, it is up to you to choose what makes life worth living. To me, this gives life extra meaning because my life truly becomes mine.

Even without an ultimate meaning to the universe and life, we could simply take the physical laws of nature as examples for moral laws. Nature, however, is infinitely better at enforcing its laws than we ever could be; the laws of nature can never be broken no matter how hard we try, so nothing `unnatural’ can ever occur. This makes it impossible for right and wrong to exist in nature. There is only `is’ and `is not’. Therefore, it is necessary to reinterpret nature in human terms. We must connect the `is’ to the `ought’. But this reinterpretation is so subjective as to be pointless, unless one first postulates that the physical laws were created specifically for this purpose, thereby making it possible to believe that there is a “correct” interpretation. Like divine revelations, then, natural moralities are little more than Rorshach tests of their proponents. The embracing of Social Darwinism by the early industrialists[4] is but one example of projecting one’s own desires onto nature. Claiming that there exists a natural order on which a morality can be based and actions can be objectively judged just substitutes one make believe god with another.

The atheist is thus in a bind when it comes to morality. Without a god or a purpose to the universe there is no reason to believe that any morality is better than another. At this point, then, morality for the atheist becomes demoted to the level of a personal preference with no right or wrong answer. This is the moral relativism that theists fear. But is the loss of morality a bad thing?

When one has a morality coming from a god (or universe) that exists everywhere and defines what is good and bad, all aspects of one’s life are subject to morality. Morality determines what one can think, how one can dress, and who one can marry. (Ironically, the believers in an omnipotent god thought their god was incapable of enforcing its own laws, so many of these moral laws have come to be enforced by society and government. The victimless crime thus comes into existence.) Without a god or natural order against whom one can sin, actions that affect only the individual or groups of consenting individuals (e.g., drug use, prostitution, gay marriage) cannot be judged as right or wrong. The atheist cannot make appeals to authority to determine good behavior and must, therefore, judge actions only on their effect on others.

Whereas morality deals with the inherent worth of actions themselves and the motivations behind them, ethics deals with the worth of the probable effects brought about by actions, especially when the actions affect non-consenting individuals. So, although the atheist cannot behave morally, the atheist can alternatively behave ethically.

Without divine revelation, though, there cannot be an absolute foundation upon which secular ethics can be built. We must instead choose a foundation that sounds reasonable and see where it takes us. As such these ethics will always be imperfect and must be subjected to rigorous questioning, debate, and possibly subsequent modification. But what is the best foundation for ethics? It must be objective and, yet, intuitive enough that most people can accept it without the resulting ethics being too dependent on individual interpretations. A good candidate is a Fairness Principle that requires making ethical judgements in a consistent and similar manner unless there is a relevant difference between the situations that justifies dissimilar treatment. In essence, this means that one cannot make arbitrary distinctions between otherwise similar cases. Unfortunately, many invalid reasons have been offered in the past to justify unequal treatment; the inability of people to identify with others different from themselves has led to slavery and genocide. To make the Fairness Principle as objective as possible we must replace simple intuition and emotional rhetoric with science and logic. Whenever a difference is claimed to justify violating the principle, that difference must be scientifically verifiable and logically relevant to the unequal treatment in question. Only in this way can we hope to produce an ethic based on reason that is not easily swayed by fear and hate.

The Fairness Principle by itself does not prescribe the ethics; it is just the tool that allows us to build the ethics. The ethics themselves will come from applying the principle to the real world and locating what constitutes similar situations and relevant differences.

The starting point of our development of ethics must be Descartes’s conclusion, “I think, therefore I am.” There seems little doubt within each person’s mind that they can think and feel. If you prick your finger, you can feel it. No argument is going to convince you that the pain you experience is not real. Nor can you be convinced that your thoughts are also illusory. There is no denying that they exist. Having admitted the existence of the mind, where does it come from? What creates the ability to think and feel? For the theist it is believed to derive from the soul. But in the naturalistic universe revealed by science, the source is undeniably the brain and nervous system—purely materialistic means.

With nearly absolute certainty you know that your biological make-up produces feelings and thoughts. It is then by virtue of these abilities that you have interests in what happens to you. Because you experience pain when injured, you have an important interest in not being injured. Likewise, because you are aware of your own existence through time, you have an interest in not being killed (see below). On the other hand, you are not affected by the color of your shoes so you do not have any (ethical) interests in that regard. If these interests are important enough, they can be viewed as rights which cannot be violated without your consent. So, it can be argued that you have the right to be free from unnecessary and avoidable pain as well as a right to life.

But what about others? Do you alone have these rights?

Consider your identical twin who has exactly the same genetic structure as you. Could your twin be just an automaton, built to behave like a human being but lacking any feelings? If an automaton, in ethical decisions your twin should be given no more consideration than a pocket calculator. In a universe with a god giving out souls, this is certainly possible. But without a divine entity to muck up the issue you cannot reasonably deny your twin’s sentience without denying your own since you both share the same biology. Strictly speaking, the biologies are not absolutely identical because the environment has some influences on brain structure.[5] It may therefore be possible to imagine an accidental difference in brain structure that renders you conscious while your twin remains an automaton. This, however, seems to be untenable. Since it is impossible to get inside another person’s mind, we can only infer mental states in others from their observable behavior. So when the outward behaviors of you and your twin—saying ouch when injured or laughing when tickled—are similar, you must conclude that similar mental states exist in you and your twin.

With all the similarities apparent between you and your twin, in the absence of evidence to the contrary anything you can feel should also be similarly felt by your twin. Therefore, the Fairness Principle requires that any right you claim for yourself must also be granted to your twin. Any behavior in which you feel justified in engaging, your twin must also be justified in behaving the same way. So, if you don’t want your twin to lie to you or otherwise harm you, you cannot lie to or harm your twin. To do otherwise would be rationally inconsistent and hypocritical, because ethically you and your twin are equals.

But how far does this equality extend? It cannot be an absolute equality because you and your twin are not exactly identical in ability. If you are a trained surgeon and your twin is an artist, in an emergency where consent cannot be given you would be justified in operating on your twin but not vice versa. The equality applies only in issues where the relevant characteristics are shared. In surgery, the relevant characters are skill and training, in which you and your twin are not equals. But, when considering the ethics of harming one another the relevant character is the ability to feel the harm, in which you and your twin are equals. Cutting off a hand will cause pain to either one of you, so you both have an interest in avoiding it. Unless you are willing to condone your twin cutting off your hand, you should not cut off your twin’s hand. Of course, if consent is given (e.g., the hand is gangrene) it ceases to be an issue of ethics.

These ethics would be worthless if they could only be applied to identical twins. Fortunately, the boundary of consideration is easily expanded. Your non-identical sibling on average shares 50% of your chromosomes but still differs genetically only infinitesimally from you; the biology is virtually the same as in the identical twin case. Hair color and height may differ but what issue of ethics has as the relevant character hair color or height? Siblings may also differ by gender which many people have claimed is an ethically relevant difference. But is it? Gender is determined by only a single chromosome out of 46, so the biology of the genders are to a large extent still identical. In those cases in which there are clear differences (as those obviously in reproductive abilities) different rights may be present (e.g., a woman can have the right to choose an abortion while a man cannot). But for most issues the relevant characteristics lie in the brain not in the reproductive organs. As both genders have very similar brains, it follows that they have similar characters and must be given equal ethical consideration. Rights denied to women in the past (ownership of property, voting) but given to men were wrongly based on prejudice rather than true measures of ability. Laws or societal pressures currently applied differentially between the genders (unequal pay for equal work, appearance standards and dress codes) are likewise unethical.

The envelope is easily expanded to include your parents and children since they are so closely linked; each shares exactly one-half of their chromosomes with you and therefore does not differ from the sibling case. The intimacy of the biology makes it impossible to entertain the possibility that a family member is actually an automaton undeserving of ethical consideration. But with the parents come grandparents and all their descendants, then great grandparents, etc. How far back in common ancestry can you go before hitting the biological wall between sentient and automaton? Is it at the split in the races tens of thousands of years ago? Is there any race of humans that lack the biological ability to think and feel? Many people in the past have searched for a justification for their bigotry but despite several erroneous claims, they have failed.[6] Whatever differences that do exist are dwarfed by the similarities. The envelope must go at least as far back as the origin of the human species. In broad general terms all human beings share identical biologies which imbibe them with consciousness and feeling. Because of this all humans are ethical equals, thus demanding each person behave in a manner that does not harm another. The recognition of similar characters demand similar consideration.

We need to pause here to consider some of the implications of this foundation of ethics in order to make sure they do not contradict our major notions of right and wrong. The most obvious implication of the preceding argument is that we must adopt a principle of equality that prohibits discrimination on any basis other than a demonstrable difference in a characteristic relevant to the discrimination. This means that in accepting students a college can discriminate based on the students’ academic records but not on, say, their shoe sizes. The former is a measure of their ability to succeed in college while the latter is not. Of course, if a scientific study shows intellectual ability is more strongly linked to shoe size than high school performance, then shoe size becomes a relevant measure of ability. But in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, equality must be assumed.

One of the worst crimes recognized by society is murder. We have already admitted a right to life but glossed over exactly what harm was being done to justify the right. Just by the Fairness Principle murder is prohibited: because you do not want to be murdered, you cannot murder others. And hopefully, others would see the same reasoning and would not murder you. But what is the harm that is actually being done and that determines which others share this right to life? Murder robs the individual of the future, so obviously one must be self-aware and have a concept of the possibility for one’s own future in order to be harmed by its loss. Clearly, most people do conceive of their own future and, in fact, make plans and look forward to it. Ending their life robs them of the ability to experience that future. But people who suffer severe brain damage and become “vegetables” would cease to have a right to life. And as has been mentioned several times before, consent circumvents this argument, so assisted suicide also does not qualify as murder. Finally, although it is still a controversial issue, the necessary higher brain functions probably do not exist in a fetus during the first trimester, so early abortions are ethical provided the fetus is unable to feel any pain during the procedure (e.g., it is a very early abortion or anesthesia is provided).

In addition to murder, it is easy to similarly show that rape, theft, arson, etc., are also prohibited because they cause harm to nonconsenting individuals. Acts that are more innocuous, like lying and cheating, do not directly harm others, so they loose much of the force present for the other often violent actions. But still the Fairness Principle prevents lying and cheating from becoming acceptable. Because you can only act in a manner in which you would want others to act, in addition to judging your actions by the harm caused to others, your actions must also be judged in terms of what would happen if everyone (or at least a lot of people) acted in the same way. So, although a single student cheating on a test taken by a thousand other people does not harm those others, a hundred cheating students would. And if most of the students cheated the whole purpose of the test is undermined and the test becomes meaningless. Lying has a similar effect on truth and honesty. This is essentially Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to a principle which you can will would be an universal law.”[7]

These ethics are based on the principle of “similar characters demand similar consideration” where characters must be scientifically identified and logically linked to the consideration. On the whole this principle leads to ethics that conform with most people’s intuitive sense of right and wrong, yet there was never any need to appeal to a supernatural being or a mystical inherent value to human life. A secular and scientifically supported ethic, therefore, does appear capable of producing an orderly society.

But the argument is not complete. We stopped expanding the principle of equality when it encompassed the entire human race. Because the principle is based on scientifically measurable characteristics, we need to ask if there is a valid justification for applying the principle only to human beings. Do the differing biologies of humans and nonhumans warrant the current lack of consideration given to nonhumans?

Quoth John Merrick, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”[8] Darwin long ago showed the error of such statements. Humans do not occupy a special place in nature that completely separates us from all other animals. The evolutionary tree provides an unbroken link between humans and all other life just as your family tree links you to your parents to your grandparents and on to the rest of the human species. We share 99.6% of our active genes with our nearest cousin, chimpanzees,[9] and all terrestrial life, from the smallest bacterium to the largest whale, share the same genetic language. The biological similarities of all animals cannot be denied. Behavioral similarities also exist, including many of those characteristics thought unique to humans (tool use, language).[10] The discovery of these similarities provide support for Darwin’s contention that the differences between humans and animals are ones of degree not kind.[11] Once the link between humans and animals (and plants) is recognized and the absolute supremacy of humans shattered there can no longer exist a sharp line separating `us’ from `them’. This prevents any a priori justification for excluding animals from all ethical consideration. Instead, each issue needs to be examined separately and the question of similarity of relevant characteristics needs to be answered character by character.

As no one knows exactly what it feels like to be anything other than a human being it is impossible to know how much harm a cow is capable of feeling and whether a pig feels more or less. Strictly speaking of course, one cannot even know exactly what another human feels. In fact, the medical community has acknowledged the ability of human infants to feel pain only in the last decade.[12] Despite the obvious uncertainty, by appealing to our biological and behavioral understanding of pain and consciousness we can build a likely relative scale for major groups of life. The Institute for Medical Ethics has selected by analogy to humans 7 possible criteria on which the ability to feel pain might be judged.[13,14] These criteria include biological similarities in nerve and brain structure and behavioral similarities in responses to possibly noxious stimuli. The inclusion of behavior allows for the possibility that different physiologies can create the sensation of pain. While these tests do not provide an absolute basis on which pain can be judged, they do provide a useful starting point. As expected, mammals meet all the criteria and are unquestionably capable of suffering. Birds satisfy 6 of the criteria with the seventh one left unknown. Reptiles, amphibians, and fish have nervous systems increasingly different from humans and fail some of the criteria, but it is still likely they are capable of some suffering. Insects, in contrast, fail most of the criteria. Plants are not considered in the institute’s report, but in lacking any known mechanism for consciousness, they may reasonably be considered incapable of suffering.[15]

To help ground the bottom of the scale, consider simple inanimate matter. Because in the absence of souls and supernatural beings consciousness and feeling must be caused by purely materialistic means, when one fails to find any such means consciousness and feeling must be denied. A rock, for example, is a static object, changing only through external means—weathering, etc. But mental ability at the very least must be mirrored by internal activity which is not seen in rocks. Therefore, we can conclude with nearly absolute certainty that rocks (and other inanimate matter) do not have any ability to think or feel, removing any justification for giving them ethical consideration. If you put inanimate matter together in the right combination, though, you can start getting internal activity and behaviors that bear some resemblance to pain avoidance. Take as a very simple example the thermostat of an air conditioner. When the temperature leaves the desired range, the thermostat switches the air conditioner on or off in order to bring the temperature back into range. Does the thermostat feel pain when it gets too hot or too cold? Or, is it more reasonable to consider the thermostat as blindly reacting to certain stimuli in a pre-programmed way? The latter is most assuredly the better viewpoint. Single-celled organisms and plants are much more complex than the electrical circuit in a thermostat. But is it not more parsimonious to consider the reactions seen in them to be pre-programmed by their DNA rather than to ascribe consciousness and pain to them when the internal physiology producing these mental abilities cannot even be identified?

The scale we have built runs from you to other humans to other animals to other life to simple machines to inanimate matter. At no point on the scale is there a sharp boundary demarcating life (or, more generally, entities) capable of suffering and life incapable of suffering. The scale contains only differing shades of grey, but the further down we go the more confident we can be that we are reducing suffering.

We can similarly build a scale to help determine which animals have a right to life. This right is linked to the ability to conceive of the future, thereby producing a perceivable harm by the loss of that future. This is much more difficult to show than the presence of pain and is probably present in fewer species. But a dog demonstrates the ability to conceive of future possibilities when it begs at the table for food. And a mouse demonstrates it each time it runs through a maze to reach a piece of cheese. Birds might be demonstrating it when they meticulously select material for building their nests. Unfortunately, the author is not familiar enough with other groups to even speculate on their abilities, but at the very least all mammals and probably birds do have a right to life.

The recognition of these rights is drastically different from the western view which is dominantly theistic. Had a god created each species separately or directed evolution to form humans, a line would definitely exist between humans and animals that could be used to restrict rights to humans. Humans would have a soul or a divine spark missing from the `lower’ animals. Any level of cruelty could then be justified by claims of divine sanction. Of course, religion is also able to justify (and has many times) drawing the line at race, nationality, or gender. Claims of divine right insulate believers from the need to think rationally and to justify their beliefs. Alternatively, the theist may consider animals as “God’s creatures” and deserving the same respect as humans. Whether a theist accepts animal rights or not is arbitrary, depending mainly on the individual’s compassion. So, the theist may just as well flip a coin to learn which absolutist argument to believe. Even if the theist (arbitrarily) decides to consider the issue rationally, as is done here, the theist can always “insert miracle here” should the logical consequences be unsatisfactory and thereby reach whatever conclusion desired. To go all the way and reject a priori any divine intervention is to undermine the very idea of theism—belief in a god manifesting himself in the world—and to become an atheist. Unlike theistic ethics, then, the secular ethics developed here has animal rights as a natural and unavoidable consequence.

We now turn to how the presence of these two rights—right to avoid avoidable harm and the right to life—affect modern society’s treatment of animals.

The easiest cruelty to eliminate, and therefore the most abhorrent, is that which is caused by vanity. There is no conflict in interests here; the suffering is borne solely by the animals. What necessity is there in fur coats, leather jackets, lizard skin boots, ivory sculptures, or musk perfume? Humans would not suffer any from the absence of these items. Because many desire the items as symbols of social status or as objects of beauty, millions of animals are killed each year[16] and many species have been driven to extinction.[17] Often the deaths are long and painful. Animals caught in leg traps (set in order to make fur coats) may take several days to die.[18] Nearly one-fourth of the animals chew off their own leg to escape, only to die a short time thereafter from blood loss, predation, or infection.[19] And for the sake of maximum musk production the life of a civet cat is one of constant pain. The animals are kept in sheds where the temperature is raised to 110 degrees and every day the musk is scraped from their genitals, making the genitals raw and swollen.[20] There is no justification for such suffering.

Food, however, is a necessity. In fact, most life needs to feed on other life to survive. Therefore, our right to life may come into conflict with the right to life of our food. But we have a choice of what food we eat. Jeffrey Dahmer chose to eat other human beings and he’s in jail. McDonalds has served billions and billions of cow burgers and can be found in every sizable town. Why is one choice so taboo and outlawed while the other is an unquestioned tradition? Is a cow so different that it warrants zero consideration? A cow, by sharing the fundamental biology of human beings, undoubtedly feels pain and suffers just as a human does. If one admits humans have a right to live free of unwanted cannibalism one should also recognize a similar right for the cow. The extent to which the cow has this right may arguably be less than that for humans because there are (minor) differences between the two species, but the much larger similarities demand the existence of this right. So, if it were a necessity it would possibly be ethical to kill a cow for food and not a human. But is it in modern society a necessity? If cows did not exist would humans die? Certainly not. The human diet is capable of such variety that the loss of cow flesh would not even be noticed. But some source of food is necessary even though cows, specifically, are not.

How far down the suffering scale can the human diet be restricted before beginning to inflict suffering on humans? Apparently all the way down to plants. The health of life-long vegans provides incontrovertible evidence to this conclusion. Therefore, to eat above this level on the scale is to risk inflicting unnecessary suffering. In fact, the better health of vegans shows how eating animals also inflicts suffering in humans. Whereas the average American man has a 50% chance of dying of a heart attack[21], a vegan man’s chances are only about 5%.[22,23] Vegan women have lower risks of developing breast cancer and osteoporosis as compared to their meat and dairy eating counterparts.[24] Other possible health benefits include reduced risks of prostate cancer, diabetes, and obesity.[25,26] Throw in the many environmental benefits gained from becoming vegan (decreased pollution, greenhouse gas emission, and rain forest clearing[27]) and the eating of meat clearly becomes a really dumb, as well as unethical, practice.

The fur and meat issues are so one-sided that the answers are obvious. There just are not any important benefits gained from using animals for clothes or food that can be used to justify the enormous suffering inflicted upon the animals. This is not the case when it comes to animal experiments. Since the human benefits can be saved lives, discussions tend to be overly emotional and cast in hypotheticals forcing you to choose between your child and a rabbit. Because we started this argument by rejecting emotional pleas as too subjective, we must continue on this path or else we undermine all that has come before and open the door to hypotheticals that force you to choose between your child and a Jew, or a black person. So we must ask if there is any scientifically measurable and relevant difference between humans and nonhumans that make it ethical to do experiments on one and not the other.

Humans suffer from many painful and deadly diseases. To reduce and/or prevent this suffering scientists must perform experiments in order to find cures. The standard procedure today is to take a healthy animal, infect it with the disease, study how the disease progresses, and then attempt experimental treatments. But is it ethical to do these experiments on unwilling animals? Consideration of the suffering of the animals requires experimentation as low on the suffering scale as possible but in order for the knowledge to be applied to humans the experiments often must be on subjects high on the scale (i.e., similar to humans). The most reliable subjects are humans themselves because unlike animal subjects there is no need to extrapolate the results to humans. At times, governments have resorted to human experiments that were analogous to those currently performed on animals. Nazi doctors performed experiments on Jews in concentration camps during World War Two[28] and the United States government performed radiation tests on unknowing citizens during the Cold War.[29,30] In these cases the individuals’ rights to be free from harm were egregiously violated. It has been widely accepted for most of the twentieth century that informed consent is required before possibly harmful experiments can be performed on humans.[31] This is clearly also the case when adopting these secular ethics. But what if these experiments had the possibility of preventing harm in others? Does this change the situation?

Consider a hypothetical in which several people are in desperate need of new organs and will die without them. And you have the only match. By using your organs doctors can save the lives of these other people. Can the doctors force you to give them your organs and in so doing cause your death? (This is actually a real situation. People routinely die for the lack of donor organs.[32]) A purely utilitarian argument would require your death because there is a net saving of lives. But this has not been a utilitarian argument. By virtue of your ability to feel pain, you have a right to avoid avoidable pain. By virtue of your sentience, you have the right to avoid avoidable death. Therefore, you have the right to refuse the doctor’s plea to donate your organs. The prevention of suffering (or death) in any number of people does not justify willfully inflicting suffering (or death) in even one other person without their consent. If this were not already a common belief, laboratories across the country would be performing experiments on and doctors would be removing organs from healthy people in order to save a large number of other people.

Since it has already been argued and concluded that most animals feel pain and that mammals and birds are aware of their own future, we cannot use these animals in any experiment in which we would be unwilling to use a human. So, it appears that all but the most innocuous experiments performed on animals, especially mammals and birds, are unjustifiable on these ethical grounds.

But, without animal experiments won’t all advances in medicine cease, condemning future millions to premature deaths? While it is true that many human lives have been saved because of animal research, it is impossible to know for certain that animal research was the only way to get the medical knowledge, especially considering how little effort has been put into finding alternatives. One of the largest areas of animal research is toxicity tests of new chemicals.[33] The two most notorious tests are the Draize Test (the chemical is put into the eyes of rabbits and the amount of irritation is observed) and the LD50 (the material is given to a group of animals in increasing doses until 50% of the animals die). In just the few decades during which research into alternatives has been seriously conducted, in vitro tests have become faster, cheaper, and more reliable than these animal tests,[34] making them “desirable both economically and scientifically.”[35] Computer/mathematical modeling, use of less sentient organisms such as yeast, hydras, and bacteria, and human epidemiological and post-mortem studies are a few more alternatives that have been used successfully in advancing medical knowledge but are often ignored in favor of traditional animal research.[36]

For those cases where alternatives are insufficient for medical research, the only ethical alternative is to do the experiments on human volunteers. In particular, those who are already inflicted with the disease should be the primary subjects. Surely many of those suffering from the disease would be willing to try experimental treatments, first in hopes of being cured and second to speed up the discovery of a cure. Disgusted by the foot dragging of the FDA in allowing AIDS patients access to experimental drugs, Larry Kramer pleaded before a Presidential AIDS commission, “Let us be your guinea pigs.”[37] Of course, everyone would rather have the other person do the really risky tests with animals being the current involuntary subjects, but the responsibility for curing human disease should be carried primarily by those who suffer from the disease. And if the number of volunteers is too small for effective and speedy research, so be it. The disease obviously is not so threatening if a strong desire for a cure does not exist among those suffering from the disease.

Is this an uncompassionate view? From the view of a person with a terminal disease (or the scientist supported by NIH research grants), perhaps. But from the view of the animals put to death in the distant hope that maybe someday a cure might be found, it is the most compassionate view. When one considers the fact that a lot of disease is preventable, it truly becomes cruel to have animals suffer for our short-sightedness. The diseases that kill most people (heart disease and cancer[38]) are strongly linked to the high fat and high cholesterol content in a meat containing diet,[39,40] so turning vegan would save more lives than any treatment found from animal experiments. Likewise, not smoking would prevent most lung cancer.[41] To quote an old wise saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The ethics developed here have drawn heavily on the similarity of biology and genetic ties between individuals as well as species. This is currently a sufficient basis for the argument since we know of only one form of life and one biology leading to consciousness. In the future, however, two new forms of life may be encountered to which our ethics must be able to adapt. These are extraterrestrial life and artificial intelligence. Having gone through billions of years of independent evolution, life on other planets will very likely not have a biology similar to ours. If this life has developed a civilization equal to or greater than our own, whatever ethics one has it should undoubtedly be able to embrace the alien life on equal terms with human life. The ethics developed here, since it is based on the recognition of similar abilities and characters rather than membership in an arbitrary group, does allow for alien life without modification. Ethics based on the premise that humans are special, cannot easily adapt. If they are to adapt to alien life, they must first reject the uniqueness of humans and adopt the ability-based ethics developed here.

Artificial life is harder to judge. These ethics were developed essentially from the top down where one starts knowing that sentience exists within yourself. Artificial life, on the other hand, is being built from the bottom up. When the computer program is written by humans and can be printed out on paper, it becomes difficult to imagine a computer capable of feeling as we do. But there is nothing magical about the brain. It operates by biochemical reactions and obeys physical laws, so it should be artificially reproducible. At what point in the increasing complexity of computer programs and technology does the computer gain consciousness? The answer to this question will probably have to wait until that complexity is reached and then passed.

To summarize, in the absence of a perfect god, a universal morality cannot exist. It is then up to the individual to decide what actions are right or wrong. But the individual is a part of a society of other individuals. Adopting a Fairness Principle leads to the recognition that others have the same right to make the choice of right and wrong. This produces a secular golden rule whereby one’s actions are judged by reversing the tables and asking whether that action would be acceptable if directed at the individual. For example, I will not kill you because I would not want you to kill me. By rejecting morality, secular ethics necessarily remove from public consideration private action and actions involving only consenting individuals. The theist, however, believes in an absolute morality independent of whether the actions have any effects on others. The theist has thus successfully passed laws that restrict my private actions on the grounds of the action being immoral or unnatural. Such laws are unethical.

Secular ethics cannot make a clear distinction between humans and nonhumans. Limiting the ethics to just the human species is arbitrary and inconsistent with the evolutionary history of life. One could just as easily choose to limit ethics to one’s own race, but this has been almost universally rejected. Ethics should not be based on one’s membership in a class but rather one’s characteristics. Therefore, if any creature suffers or feels the harm caused by an action, the creature’s welfare must be considered and judged against the harm caused by not acting. This immediately leads to the conclusion that the use of animals for clothing and food is wrong. The use of animals in research is a harder question to answer but there are ethical alternatives to most if not all animal experimentation, although some of the alternatives are less convenient. The advancement of science does not provide an absolute justification for obtaining knowledge by any means deemed necessary. If unethical experiments are allowed in the name of science, then science will have become a new god with animals being offered in sacrifice to gain Science’s favor. And that altar must topple.

[1] Christopher John Farley, “Without a prayer,” Time, Dec. 20, 1993, p. 41.

[2] Rob Boston, “Armey of God,” Church & State, Feb. 1994, p. 7-10.

[3] David Morrison and Tobias Owen, The Planetary System (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987), p. 220-222.

[4] James Rachels, Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 63-64.

[5] James W. Prescott, “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov. 1975, p. 10-20.

[6] Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981).

[7] Bernard Rollin, Animal Rights and Human Morality (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992), p. 40.

[8] Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, and David Lynch, The Elephant Man (Hollywood, Ca.: Paramount Home Video, 1981).

[9] Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (New York: Random House, 1992), p. 277.

[10] Ibid., p. 365.

[11] James Rachels, p. 57.

[12] K.J.S. Anand and P.R. Hickey, “Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus,” New England Journal of Medicine, Nov. 19, 1987, p. 1321-1329.

[13] Patrick Bateson, “Do Animals Feel Pain?” New Scientist, 25 Apr 1992, p. 30-33.

[14] Jane Smith and Kenneth Boyd, eds., Lives in the Balance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 58-67.

[15] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1990), p. 235.

[16] PETA, PETA Guide to Animal Liberation (Washington, D.C.: PETA), p. 25.

[17] Lewis Regenstein, “Animal Rights, Endangered Species and Human Survival,” in Peter Singer, ed., In Defence of Animals (New York: Blackwell, 1985), p. 118-132.

[18] PETA, p. 25.

[19] Ibid.

[20] James Rachels, p. 210.

[21] Neal Barnard, Food For Life (New York: Harmony Books, 1993), p. xiv-xv.

[22] PETA, p. 9.

[23] Patrick Perry, “Diet for a Longer Life,” Saturday Evening Post, Jan/Feb 1992, p. 26.

[24] National Institute of Nutrition (Canada), “Risks and Benefits of Vegetarian Diets,” Nutrition Today, Mar/Apr 1990, p. 27-29.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Stanley Gershoff, The Tufts University Guide to Total Nutrition (New York: Harper Row, 1990), p. 233-244.

[27] Harriet Schleifer, “Images of Death and Life: Food Animal Production and the Vegetarian Option,” in Peter Singer, ed., In Defence of Animals (New York: Blackwell, 1985), p. 68.

[28] Arthur L. Caplan, ed., When Medicine Went Mad (Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 1992).

[29] Colin Macilwain, “US admits to use of humans in radiation experiments,” Nature, Jan. 6, 1994, p. 4.

[30] Arjun Makhijani, “Energy enters guilty plea,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mar/Apr 1994, p. 18-20+.

[31] Bette-Jane Crigger, “Yes, they knew better,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mar/Apr 1994, p. 29.

[32] Roger Evans, Carlyn Orians, and Nancy Ascher, “The potential supply of organ donors: An assessment of the efficiency of organ procurement efforts in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 8, 1992, p. 239-246.

[33] Jane Smith and Kenneth Boyd, p. 20-21.

[34] Alan Goldberg and John Frazier, “Alternatives to Animals in Toxicity Testing,” Scientific American, Aug. 1989, p. 24-30.

[35] Constance Holden, “Industry Toxicologists Keen on Reducing Animal Use”, Science, Apr. 17, 1987, p. 252.

[36] Martin Stephens, “Replacing Animal Experiments,” in Gill Langley, ed., Animal Experimentation: The Consensus Changes (New York: Chapman and Hall, 1989), p. 144-168.

[37] William Booth, “AIDS Policy in the Making,” Science, Mar. 4, 1988, p. 1087.

[38] Neal Bernard, p. xiv-xv.

[39] Sue Gebo, What’s Left to Eat (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), p. 90-105, 124-139.

[40] Stanley Gershoff, p. 207-218, 233-244.

[41] Sue Gebo, p. 124.

"Secular Ethics and Animal Rights" is copyright © 19?? by Peter D. Wilson. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Peter D. Wilson.