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Duty and the Beast

  • John Benson (a1)

Non-human animals are as a matter of routine used as means to human ends. They are killed for food, employed for labour or sport, and experimented on in the pursuit of human health, knowledge, comfort and beauty. Lip-service is paid to the obligation to cause no unnecessary suffering, but human necessity is interpreted so generously that this is a negligible constraint. The dominant traditions of Western thought, religious and secular, have provided legitimation of the low or non-existent moral status of beasts. The rival tradition, which includes the Neo-Platonists, Plutarch and Montaigne, is eccentric and archaic. But the teleologies and hierarchies of orthodoxy are equally incredible now and owe their greater respectability and influence to the inertia of custom. Disregard for beasts is supported partly by the vestigial and unowned belief that they are intended for our use, partly by a more recent piece of lore which is not only thought to be compatible with, but is sometimes held to be integral to, an enlightened scientific outlook, namely that beasts are mere complex stimulus—response mechanisms. The latter is a vexatious obstacle to progress but despite that the state of scientific and philosophical knowledge is now enormously more propitious for a re-appraisal of the moral status of beasts. Two moral philosophers, Peter Singer and Stephen Clark, have recently published books in which such a re-appraisal is attempted. Here I try to compare and assess some of the main features of their very different approaches.

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1 I use the short ‘man’ instead of ‘human being’ for a member of the species Homo (see Shorter Oxford Dictionary, ‘Man’, first sense listed); ‘beast’ for an individual of any other species; and ‘animal’ for man or beast indifferently; but I have not always avoided the discriminatory sense of ‘animal’.

2 Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976); Clark, Stephen R. L., The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

3 Singer, , op. cit., 173.

4 Sidgwick, Henry, Methods of Ethics, 7th edn (London: Macmillan, 1907), III, xiii, 382; quoted by Singer, , op. cit., 6.

5 Clark, , op. cit., 45.

6 Clark, , op. cit., 92.

7 Cf. Porphyry: ‘Thus, the Arabians understand the language of crows, and the Tyrrhenians of eagles. And, perhaps, all men would understand the language of all animals, if a dragon were to lick their ears.’ On Abstinence from Animal Food, trs. Taylor, Thomas (London and Fontwell: Centaur Press, 1965), 112. Well, perhaps, but not unless.

8 Clark is not the first zoophile to have rated rather poorly the rational gifts of the general run of people. Porphyry believed that the vulgar were incapable of receiving any significant portion of wisdom, or of having such virtues as ‘fidelity and constancy in friendship and benevolence’. But then he did not expect them to abstain from animal flesh either. Op. cit., Book I, §§ 27, 52.

9 Clark, , op. cit., 108.

10 Clark, , op. cit., 114.

11 Clark, , op. cit., 171 note.

13 Clark, , op. cit., 133134.

14 Clark, , op. cit., 188.

15 Muir, Edwin, An Autobiography (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), 47 ff.

16 Singer, , op. cit., 250.

17 Singer, , op. cit., 185.

18 Singer, , op. cit., 251252.

19 Clark, , op. cit., 57. Clark is exposed to an argumentum ad hominem: he insists that we should renounce our fantasies of being superior to other species, admit our equality and follow the desires of the heart. And our predatory desires? Oh no, for we have reason to tell us that those desires are evil.

20 Clark, , op. cit., 8.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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