All morality is equal. But natural morality is better than unnatural morality!

I feel the need to return to an issue which might be confusing to readers who don't spend their time worrying about applying human conceptions of rights to animals, and that is sterilization.

While I have previously discussed my personal squeamishness over the idea of sterilizing my dogs, in no way did I mean to tell other people what they should be doing with their dogs and cats. What I do in my own life is personal to me, and even if it strikes me as "unnatural" to cut off a dog's testicles or a female's ovaries, I do not claim to be any sort of ultimate moral arbiter on these matters. For starters, it's not my business what other people do with their animals. They might have very good reasons. People have to make all kinds of choices about these things. (The animal might be an escape artist, there might be too many kids in the house who'd let the dog out, the dog might be lifting his leg on the furniture, three weeks of vaginal dripping is hell on carpets, etc...)

Plus, I have no more right than anyone else to declare what is natural and what is not. Just as two men screwing each other strikes some people as unnatural, being in a metal box and sitting for hours in front of a toll booth while surrounded by other humans sitting in metal boxes strikes me as a grotesque perversion of what man is all about. But I don't judge these things, because not only have I spent long hours sitting in the metal boxes we call cars, but I think human nature includes just about everything people do, and while I oppose doing harm to others, nature is pretty much what man makes of it. Is it natural for man to wear clothes? Why? And if it is, what dictates that today's suits, ties and dresses are more natural than the animal skins our ancestors wore? I don't have satisfactory answers, and I don't think anyone does. (Certainly, there are no answers on which we can all agree.)

Anyway, I don't want readers to think that when I decry animal sterilization I'm some kind of "nature" freak preaching and condemning people for doing what they consider the right and responsible thing with their pets. What rankles me about the sterilization movement is that it's one of the cornerstones of animal rights politics. In that context, the glaring inconsistency makes the words "animal rights" appear Orwellian and almost surreal.

A commenter yesterday suggested I read books by various animal rights authors. This is something I am not about to do. There are a lot of books I have not read, and life is too short to read them all. The point of this blog is to share my thoughts, and I don't have to read anything in order to think what I think. People who deem a thought or an idea expressed in a book to be especially valuable would do better to quote it than provide me with a list of books to read.

One of the recommended authors in yesterday's list is a man named Tom Regan. I don't have time to read his books, but I've read enough on line to see that my disagreement with his philosophy is so profound that it would waste my time to read his books. According to Tom Regan, animal rights are the same as human rights:

...the animal rights position, properly understood, is the human rights position. It's not that we are saying that non-human animals have a right to be treated with respect but human animals don't. We're dealing with the rights of all animals, and since we humans are animals, it follows that we have the same basic kinds of rights as they do.

As Regan explains here the common denominator of his philosophy is based on what he calls "subjects-of-a-life":

...meaning (roughly) that they are alive, in the world, aware of the world, aware of what happens to them, and aware of what happens to them matters to them -- aware that it makes a difference to the quality of life they are living. Moreover, I believe that nonhuman animals who are subjects-of-a-life have basic rights and possess equal moral worth.
I'm troubled by the idea of assigning humans and animals equal moral worth, for the simple reason that this cheapens the dignity of man, and leads inexorably towards profound moral nihilism of the anti-civilization variety. If there's no moral distinction between humans and animals, then there's no difference morally between killing a human for food and killing an animal for food -- and no difference between a man killing another man's children and a lion killing another lion's cubs.

Interestingly, Tom Regan's philosophy formed the basis for a fascinating scholarly essay -- "Do Animal Rights Include Reproductive Rights?" -- by University of Colorado's David Boonin. Like me, Mr. Boonin is not morally opposed to all sterilization or euthanasia of animals, but he's quite troubled by the animal rights community's inconsistency:

there is a strong prima facie argument in favor of the claim that Reganís position commits him to the view that spaying and neutering cats and dogs is, in typical cases at least, morally imper≠missible. I have now considered a number of responses which might be made on Reganís behalf, and have argued that none of them are successful. For better or worse, the claim that Reganís position commits him to opposing spaying and neutering seems to me to be true. The question now becomes: how shall we respond to it?
I'm not sure how important it is to devote a lot of time to the inconsistencies of a particular animal rights philosopher -- especially because Mr. Boonin has already done a better job than I could.

I fail to understand how things like sterilization and euthanasia can be justified in the name of "animal rights" when that would be a grotesque violation of human rights. Furthermore, the idea that some animals should be killed and sterilized but not for others strikes me as the height of human arrogance. Domestic animals, it is claimed, have no right to exist and should never have been bred. That's because they're a result of human exploitation of animals, and they must not be allowed to breed further. OK, now assuming that humans and animals have the same moral value, in logic why would an animal lose its moral value simply because humans were involved in facilitating its reproduction by allowing it to breed with another animal? Wouldn't this same argument mean that human slaves who were encouraged to breed by their captors were of diminished moral value, and could therefore be sterilized. Or euthanized (if there were "too many" of them, and "good homes" were not available)? Why should either forfeit the ability of reproduction? I suspect that the reason "domesticated" animals are seen as having less moral value is because of their association with humans. They are no longer "wild" and therefore suspect.

Again, this begs the question of what is natural. There seems to be a hidden assumption that animals are natural, and that man is not. Thus, any animal that man has touched, influenced, or moved is seen as having less value than untouched, unmoved animals. Thus, not only are "domesticated" animals bad, but so are "non-native species." Rats, pigeons, and feral cats are contaminated by human interference. If man is an animal, and all animals are equal, then why would the value of any animal be affected because of its contact with another animal (in this case, man)? It makes no sense to me -- unless the idea is that some animals are better than other animals.

Many animal rights activists (including Tom Regan) believe that dissection of animals is wrong. But if sterilization is in the best interest of animals from a communitarian perspective, then why is dissection wrong? If an animal can be euthanized for the common good, it escapes me why the dissection of that same animal becomes evil. And if dissection of animals in veterinary schools is bad, then why isn't dissection of humans in anatomy class bad? This is not to advocate killing animals (or humans, for that matter) in order to dissect them; only to raise questions about consistency.

I realize that it puts me in a strange moral position to countenance sterilization and euthanasia of animals even though I am personally against doing those things to animals I happen to love. But I would never advocate sterilization and euthanasia for human beings, though, and my objection is grounded in the difference between humans and animals.

People who advocate animal rights on the basis of the moral sameness of humans and animals while simultaneously deeming some animals morally less worthy than others are in no moral position to criticize those who believe humans are more morally worthy than animals.

I really don't care whether my argument is natural. Although in fairness, it might be that being unnatural is part of my nature.

One other disconnected point. As John Beck (who's celebrating a second blogiversary, BTW) reminded me in an earlier comment, I tend to neglect cats in this blog. I should probably read more about cats, and maybe spend more time visiting the cat blogs (or at least go to the Carnival of the Cats.) But I don't keep up with the cats as I should. For that I am sorry.

And I'm particularly sorry that I have no time today to devote to the pressing issue of "vegan cats."


Whether such a thing is natural or unnatural or moral or immoral depends on whether you believe in making the right moral choices for your cat, I suppose.

(Considering that cats prey routinely on other animals, for some people, policing a house cat would entail the same moral burden as keeping a man-eating tiger from eating your neighbors!)

posted by Eric on 03.12.06 at 08:52 AM


I would disagree that it's not in your right to make moral choices with the animals of others.

Letting them roam free and possibly cause harm to your family or pets is a bad thing, right? Letting them roam free and having causing you to swerve and smash into something while avoiding them is a bad thing, right? Their not neutering or spaying their pets, causing you to pay for additional costs for animal control in the form of taxes is a bad thing, right?

And failure to properly maintain a pet for disease control might cause the spread of animal diseases, especially if they come in contact with your pets.


Laurence Simon   ·  March 12, 2006 12:47 PM

I'm not talking about allowing animals to roam free, because that interferes with other people, and might be a form of animal cruelty. Nor do I have any problem with requiring vaccination (of either humans or animals), for diseases are communicable. But no one has the right to force me to neuter my animal (as is proposed in many cities now), any more than they have the right to kill it. If my unsterilized animal roams free and mates with someone else's animal, that's another matter, and I'd be liable for whatever cost were to result.

Eric Scheie   ·  March 12, 2006 12:56 PM

With cats, the leading ethical issue is whether or not to remove their front claws. I chose to let mine keep theirs except for one who had the habit of slashing the others -- not fighting, as far as I saw, just playing too rough. So this was not a hard and fast moral stand for me but rather a pragmatic decision to leave them alone unless there was a considerable benefit.

Allan Beatty   ·  March 12, 2006 3:44 PM

"There are five survivors [in a lifeboat]: four normal adults and a dog. The boat has room enough only for four. Someone must go or else all will perish. Who should it be? ... All on board have equal inherent value and an equal prima facie right not to be harmed. Now, the harm that death is, is a function of the opportunities for satisfaction it forecloses, and no reasonable person would deny that the death of any of the four humans would be a greater prima facie loss, and thus a greater prima facie harm, than would be true in the case of the dog. Death for the dog, in short, though a harm, is not comparable to the harm that death would be for any of the humans. ... The selection of the dog does not conflict with recognizing the animal's equal inherent value or the dog's equal prima facie right not to be harmed. ... To save the dog and to throw any one of the humans overboard would be to give to the dog more than is his due. It would be to count the lesser harm done to the dog as equal to or greater than the greater harm that would be done to any of the humans if one of them was cast overboard. Respect for their equal prima facie rights will not allow this."
-- Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, p.324

So respecting the equal inherent value of both humans and non-humans normally REQUIRES us to give preference to humans in cases where we are forced to make a choice. Of course, where we are not forced to make a choice, which is most of the time, then we ought not to impose unnecessary harm on anyone. It's not rocket science, but it's amazing how many people just don't get it (or don't want to get it, because they're too comfortable with their old ways of thinking).

mijnheer   ·  March 13, 2006 2:16 AM
scxx   ·  March 13, 2006 3:04 AM
Eric Scheie   ·  March 13, 2006 2:21 PM

I admire you for willingly lowering yourself to try and figure out these irrational people so that you can understand and expose the absurdity of their beliefs and arguments.

Most people just intuitively reject them and leave it at that. But, as you've shown, that's how the activists win, over time.

But this scares me:

"I really don't care whether my argument is natural."

Your argument IS natural, though. There's no contradiction in loving an animal and therefore not wanting to cut its nads off, on the one hand, and recognizing there is a difference between men and dogs on the other. You can't swim in a sewer idefinitely and not get shitty.

Harkonnendog   ·  March 13, 2006 6:54 PM

"You can't swim in a sewer idefinitely and not get shitty."

Er, what I mean is be careful- don't let them get to you- don't start thinking there's something wrong with you... You are absolutely correct and "natural."

Harkonnendog   ·  March 13, 2006 6:57 PM

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