Let’s stop justifying enslavement
- Published: 12 December 2010
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If you wouldn’t support a shoe factory that uses slave labor, then why would you support industries that enslave – and slaughter – non-humans? Tim Gier argues there is no justification.
13 December 2010
If we condition our relationships with other humans on only what benefits those relationships provide to us, we are not fully respecting the rights of the other humans.
For example, if I owned a shoe factory and used slave labor, although it might be better for me provide longer lunch breaks, or better working conditions to those laborers, if my reasons for doing so were that such treatment made my factory a more profitable one, or reduced the down time of machinery due to fewer accidents, the better treatment of the slave laborers would not in itself be more moral than the treatment before.
I would not be treating the laborers better because it was better for them, I would be treating them better solely out of my own self-interest – the benefits to them would be an ancillary effect.
Suppose, though, that I were to release 90% of my slave laborers to freedom, dramatically “reducing” slave-made products. Would I, in any sense, be acting morally then?
Given that I would still be enslaving some, the answer must be no.
The morality of my actions towards my laborers should not be measured as if my obligation was to a group, or an idea. Morality must be in relation to my actions towards the individuals involved.
It does not matter if I, as a slave-holder, own 100 slaves or only one; I would be acting immorally in either case, because slave-holding is wrong. Minimal use of the group still amounts to the total use of an individual.
Would it be moral for a person to do business with me as a slave holder if they only bought shoes once a year, or once every ten years from me?
If my business is conducted immorally, does it matter how much or how often you support me, or does it matter only that you support me at all?
If your support of my business has the effect of supporting slavery, then any support of me and my business is immoral, even if you were only to buy something from me once every hundred years.
Now consider nonhumans. If we condition our relationships with other animals on only what benefits those relationships provide to us, we are not fully respecting the rights of the other animals.
Most people already accept that it is morally wrong to treat other humans as things and property. They know that human slavery is wrong. The question is, by what relevant, non-arbitrary and consistent reasoning do they accept that moral principle only for human animals and not for all animals?
I submit that there is none.
Any reason that one can give to justify our exploitation of nonhumans can be equally applied to humans.
For instance, we can assert that humans are more intelligent than nonhumans. But we know that many humans are much more intelligent than other humans, and we don’t allow humans to be exploited on that basis.
It’s also not exactly clear how we can measure the intelligence of other species. Using human standards stacks the deck from the start.
Similarly, we can assert that humans are capable of moral reasoning – we can know the difference between right and wrong – and so we are justified in exploiting “lesser” beings as resources, because they presumably can’t tell right from wrong.
But, we know that many human beings are incapable of moral reasoning. Infants, the mentally incompetent, those with serious disabilities and others don’t possess the faculties necessary to understand the difference between right and wrong.
We don’t use that lack of ability to justify the exploitation of those people however, we most often do just the opposite. We protect such innocents from exploitation.
We can also assert that humans have evolved to a “higher plane” than nonhumans, that we are rational thinkers who like to impose order on chaos, so it is our right to exploit others.
But in what non-arbitrary sense is it true that there is an actual “higher plane” and by which set of criteria are beings assigned to it, and by whom? Isn’t it true that in the open ocean even a jellyfish is on a “higher plane” than humans would be?
Bats navigate using a sophisticated echo-location sonar system, sharks do the same thing with their sense of smell – are they not on a “higher plane” in those cases and in that sense?
Living beings who have survived as a species for tens and hundreds of millions of years are necessarily at the highest point of the plane in which they operate – it is the nature of evolution.
That we all occupy different planes is not a reason to subjugate others against their will.
Better to assess what obligations we owe to who based on moral relevant criteria – by what standards do we justify unequal treatment of others? If those standards are arbitrary, then they must be discarded.
For example, treating women as second class citizens by withholding their right to participate in self-governance is wrong because that treatment is based on the moral irrelevancy of which gender they happen to be.
Enslaving and slaughtering nonhumans, the ultimate disrespect of their most basic rights, is wrong because it is based on the moral irrelevancy of which species they happen to be.
How much use of others is wrong? In the case of humans, as we have seen, exploiting even one person as a slave is wrong, and any support of a slave-holder, no matter how minimal or infrequent, is wrong. Is the same thing true when it comes to nonhumans?
Yes, it is. Take the dairy industry as an example.
An actual living being must still be killed to put a leather belt around someone’s waist. The dairy industry provides spent dairy cows to slaughterhouses and tanning factories. It provides “veal calves” for slaughter as well.
Drinking even one glass of milk provides direct financial gain to, and support for, those practices.
Just as it would be wrong to provide any kind of support to someone who uses slave labor, it is wrong to provide any kind of support to those who enslave and exploit nonhumans.
If you drink milk or eat cheese, then you are supporting a business which profits from the death of others.
If you wouldn’t support a shoe factory which uses slaves, then you ought not to support the dairy industry in its enslavement and slaughter of cows.
It will be difficult if not impossible to change all human activity with respect to our relationship with other animals. But, we do not say, with respect to other moral wrongs, that since we cannot change everyone, or that since we cannot change even most people, that we will therefore participate in immoral behaviors ourselves.
It doesn’t matter to me, for example, that many, if not most, people are dismissive of the right to equal treatment under the law for gays and lesbians. I will not wait until they accept the wrongness of their actions before I change my own. I can change now, so I will.
You can change now too. If you eat other animals, ask yourself by what right you take away their lives. Question what you have been taught since the day you were born. Decide for yourself today if you want to be part of a system that exploits and kills others without reasonable explanation.
If you are a vegetarian who still consumes eggs, cheese and other products derived from nonhumans, ask yourself why it is morally permissible to provide support to those industries which make possible the enslavement and slaughter of innocents.
If you would not buy shoes from a slave-holder, why would you buy milk from those who enslave cows?
Life is precious, and the meaning of life is found in the living, no matter which species of creature we happen to be.
Tim Gier is a vegan abolitionist writer whose former career in automobile sales management spanned 25 years. He writes about business, politics, human behavior and sometimes pop culture at his blog, where this post first appeared and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.