The Moral Status of Animals


The Moral Status of Animals, by Stephen R.L. Clark, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, 221 pp., $13.

Who started the recent philosophical interest in animal rights? Some might say Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, who edited Animals, Men, and Morals (1972), in which various authors argued for vegetarianism and against vivisectionism. Others might cite Robert Nozick who, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), dared to raise questions about the moral status of animals in a major work on political philosophy.

Origins aside, this contemporary trend, once started, was impossible to stop. Next came Peter Singer with Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975), developing an articulate and systematic vegetarianism and antivivisectionism and arguing against speciesism (the view that the human species is superior). Following close on the heels of Singer was Tom Regan, who actually defended vegetarianism in a respected philosophical journal ("The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism," Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 1975). The surest sign that a philosophical topic has become popular is for an anthology on the topic to appear. Sure enough, in 1976 Singer and Regan brought out Animal Rights and Human Obligation, which contained classical and modern philosophical writings on the moral status of animals.

Philosophical consideration of the moral status of animals is popular, but is it philosophically respectable? Because of its scholarly approach and prestigious publisher, the latest philosophical defense of animals' rights gives the subject the highest respectability. Philosophers can no longer ignore the subject, since they cannot ignore Clark's book, The Moral Status of Animals.

Clark argues eloquently and passionately on moral grounds for vegetarianism and against vivisectionism. But he does more: he critically evaluates the worldview of the typical modern person—a worldview in which human beings are the highest stage of evolution, one in which all creatures and things in the universe are judged in terms of their value to human beings. Such a worldview, according to Clark, is an illusion created by human arrogance and hypocrisy.

Human beings are one species among thousands, a species closely related to and dependent on both plant and animal species. Instead of emphasizing the differences between humans and other animals, Clark brings out the similarities and common bonds, ones that humans would, according to Clark, naturally feel had not their sensitivities been corrupted by various streams of thought, including the philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church and scientism. In short, Clark attempts to develop a new vision of the place of the human species in the universe and an outline of an environmentalist ethics.

Clark's approach to animal rights should be contrasted with that taken in the best-known contemporary book-length treatment of the subject, namely Singer's. (Nozick's book treats the subject only in passing.) Singer bases his defense of animal rights on the simple premise that animals are beings with interests since they are capable of suffering. His vegetarianism and antivivisectionism derive directly from this idea. Singer's book is easy reading, obviously written to have broad appeal. It is a New York Review Book and has been widely advertised. It may well have a practical impact on animal welfare.

Clark's argument is not based on any simple ethical assumption. Indeed, he admits that he has no consistent moral system and is willing to argue on almost any basis to achieve his practical ends. Clark's book is not easy reading. Ancient and modern philosophical sources, passages from religious texts and literary references, are constantly worked into the argument. This scholarship, although impressive, sometimes gets in the way of understanding.

If Clark is really interested in achieving the practical ends he sets for his book, it is unfortunate that he wrote it as a scholarly treatise and published it with Clarendon Press. This book will impress people in the scholarly community, but it is difficult to believe that it will have much effect on animal welfare. (For an even more critical reaction to Clark's book see Tom Regan's review in Philosophical Books. Regan believes that Clark's style and manner may actually be harmful to the cause of animal rights.)

Practical import aside, does Clark make his case? There is no doubt that some of his arguments are very strong and that he successfully refutes many defenses of vivisectionism and meat eating, but all of his arguments are not entirely convincing. For example, Clark, like Singer, believes that if one grants that animal suffering from mass food production is morally wrong, one is obliged to become a vegetarian. Such a conclusion does not follow, however, unless certain other problematic premises are assumed. For example, the conclusion would follow if it was assumed that (a) becoming a vegetarian is the most effective means of stopping animal suffering in food production and (b) there is a moral obligation to use the most effective means to stop some moral wrong. But (a) is problematic (see my "Critique of Moral Vegetarianism," Reason Papers, 1975). These premises are not even mentioned, let alone argued for, in Clark's book.

Clark asserts also that killing animals will weaken people's respect for human life. Such a view may be correct, but it surely needs some supporting evidence, which Clark fails to give. I know of no such evidence, and I cannot help being surprised that Clark acts so confident. It is significant, I think, that although Clark is apparently completely convinced that killing animals weakens people's respect for humans, when he considers the belief of some philosophers and psychologists that animals have no reasons for their actions and no language, he becomes skeptical; he is amazed that people can be so sure that animals don't have reasons for action or a language. One might wish that such skepticism would have been more consistently applied.

Such problems aside, Clark's book provides the deepest and most scholarly defense of animal rights in recent literature. No doubt it will be widely discussed in philosophical circles.

Michael Martin teaches philosophy at Boston University.