The Debate About            

(Who Has What and Where it Gets You)
A Suggested Methodology

by David Lee Winston Miller



THE SUGGESTION--A Methodology for Resolution:


The Debate 

I have frequently been a participant in discussions about animal rights. Often, these discussions center around properties said to be exhibited or not exhibited by humans as opposed to the rest of the animal kingdom--properties like intelligence, instinct and awareness. Often, it is claimed that such differences (real or imagined) are a legitimate basis for rejection of rights for animals.

I take the position that animals have rights. In this text, I try to familiarize the reader with my line of reasoning and I offer a methodology for resolving the debate. The centerpiece of this procedure uses a metaphor that I claim to be logically empowering yet simple and sound.* I also try to examine what I believe are some of the common objections to the position I have taken. For many people, the argument revolves around what I refer to as animal properties.

...We know from the truths of evolution and ecology that we are all related and interdependent. Anthropomorphism (crediting animals with human emotions and traits) is, however, outdated. Rather we know that we are like animals.

--Michael W. Fox

A Methodology for Resolution:

I am in the habit (justifiably I believe) of asking those who reject animal rights, to studiously reexamine the basis for their arguments. I usually approach the discussion in the following manner:


First, I point out that, clearly, not all properties are equally attributable to humans and non-humans, but many properties are at least shared to some degree. I ask that alleged differences be categorized as qualitative differences and quantitative differences. Often, differences that are posed in black and white terms can be more correctly identified as differences along a continuum. So, the proposal that non-human animals are not, say, intelligent, may become the agreement that non-human animals are less intelligent than humans (at least with respect to the most common understanding of the term "intelligent"). Of course, the debate now becomes even more interesting (and difficult) if one wants to quantify the statement. (Indeed, it is the bewildering, if not impossible, task of quantification that usually leads us to simplistic black and white statements.)

There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties...The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.

--Charles Darwin


Next, I ask that such discussions be carried out with maximum intellectual honesty. I ask this, not on the basis of any individual's propensity toward intellectual dishonesty, but because that I know, and others know, that if they come to agree with my positions concerning animals, it may become much more difficult to live in the same manner as before (i.e. eating animals etc...). (I shouldn't make it sound so bad; vegetarianism has some wonderful advantages.)

You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Suppose that we [women] had to kill for ourselves the creature whose bodies we would fain have upon our table, is there one woman in a hundred who would go to the slaughter-house to slay the bullock, the calf, the sheep or the pig? ... We are not free from the brutalizing results of that trade simply because we take no direct part in it.

--Annie Besant

In science, we do not first ask how we will manage with, say, a round earth--we first ask if it is true that the world is round. We follow truth; truth does not follow our preferences. Philosophy is similar: In order to engage in an intellectually honest conversation about animal rights, we would do well to suspend our individual material interests in the outcome of the discussion. And above all, we should not let the moral condemnation implied in the debate, get us off track.

The ethic of Reverence for Life prompts us to keep each other alert to what troubles us and to speak and act dauntlessly together in discharging the responsibility that we feel.

--Albert Schweitzer

That's hard to do if you are a meat-eater and it has just been implied that you are some sort of murderer. Of course, the same needs to be said to those like me who take the position of animal rights--we also have an emotional interest in the discussion; we tend to seek vindication of our efforts and, more importantly, see lives (which we view as sentient) in the balance. I must say that I have seen wrong-headed and disingenuous arguments from people (on both sides of various animal questions) who are normally extremely rational. My approach is, when possible, to engage those who have open minds, active consciences, and an ability to deal with the condemnation that my position implies.

The quiet conscience is an invention of the devil.

--Albert Schweitzer

I also ask that, when possible, groups of humans be interposed in the wording of questions concerning animals and that the rules of logic be applied equally and uniformly. For instance, if one holds that "animals have no rights because they are animals," I ask that the same logic be examined with specific humans as the subject. You wouldn't hold that "blue-eyed people have no rights because they are blue-eyed." Replacing "animals" with a group of humans in a proposition often exposes a problem in the logic (although not always).

I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things as crawl upon earth.

--Mohandas Gandhi

Analogies are not, of course, infallible--but they can often be illuminating. A more technical exchange of humans for animal subjects may further undermine senseless positions. For instance, one would not claim that "Europeans have no rights because they are animals." By changing the subject, this particular criterion for rights is thus shown to be inconsistent, inexact or underdeveloped.

Of course, analogies can backfire for emotional reasons--I sometimes get responses like "Are you equating the killing ants to the Holocaust?!" Of course not. That's a problem with analogies--the listener doesn't know how far you intend for the analogy to apply. While I may mean to highlight a single illogical aspect of a statement or a single axiom, the listener may think I am claiming that every nuance in my analogy applies in a parallel fashion to a detail in the statement in question.

Still, I believe that analogies and similar techniques have utility in an intellectually honest conversation provided that one is tactful and sensitive. On the other hand, analogies should probably be avoided in political discourse. (Ever witnessed an intellectually honest political debate?) Otherwise, you'll end up being accused of comparing someone's mother to baboon. Finally, to the best of my knowledge, analogies do not prove points, they simply clarify or further obfuscate them.


--All Aboard a Metaphor!

When pondering which life forms possess a particular property (say, sentience), I encourage envisioning the debate resolution process as a long train trip in which various humans and other forms of life are passengers--each of which may or may not arrive to the final destination (which signifies possession of the particular property in question). At each stop, the conductor says things like "everyone who doesn't have neurons gets kicked off at the next stop." And so, the plants get dumped in Akron--ants at least make it further (if not all the way). The train trip becomes a bit more than a metaphor for the resolution of a specific proposition--it becomes a less confrontational means to answer the very general question posed ("which life-forms are sentient?"). This, in my view, can help keep things a little more scientific (than some discussions) by clearly sorting the apples from the orangutans using fair (justifiable) criteria.

We'll get back to our train trip shortly. However, we would do well here to reflect back on the question of shades of gray. For instance, some may hold that some animals are more sentient than others. (I, unlike many of my fellow animal rights advocates suspect this, but do feel that most animals are probably far more sentient than most people believe. I base my suspicion mainly on brain size variation--I have little proof to support this.)

If sentience does come in degrees, the utilitarian might hold that the less sentient gets no rights because it is important that the less sentient serve (or at least, give way to) the greater interests of the more sentient. But life is not the zero-sum game ("your loss is my gain") that many tend to see it as. In fact, granting animals rights, in my view, tends to bestow great benefits to all and has few disadvantages (which often turn out to be hypothetical or due to past dependence on using animals).

And we must question, at least to an extent, this brand of utilitarianism (that denies rights based on greater interests). If not, we may also want to distinguish, for instance, the interests of someone who has one week to live and those who have a full life ahead. We can conjure up situations (two people in a fire--a baby and a dying centenarian--and only enough time to save one) in which utilitarianism might have some value. However, we wouldn't want to go too far with this, denying rights to the old in general. But, if we see things in a "zero-sum" fashion, we may do just that. (In fact, it can be argued that we add more meaning--and even happiness--to our lives by being more inclusive.)

I believe that this "zero-sum" thinking is a rather common error that tends to occur in human thinking at some sort of subconscious level. It seems to be an assumption that we frequently fail to question. Thus, we get "animal sacrifices" in animal research sometimes when another method of inquiry (see references for Models--Accuracy) would clearly be better scientifically. "Zero-sum" thinking is rarely appropriate. Occasionally, it even fails in situations that it is most appropriate--like chess and war. We should view life, to the greatest extent possible, as an open-sum game (in which everyone can maximize gain or minimize losses). Even utilitarians tend to recognize that rights can achieve utilitarian objectives. Let's consider including protecting sentient beings in our objectives and exploring means and ethics to do so. Shades of gray should not prevent us from establishing general rights, but may give rise to mitigating circumstances and exceptions, which tend to occur with most any ethic. If an ethic that includes animal rights tends to be more "blurry" than say, human rights, it is not therefore necessarily invalid.

I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.

--Abraham Lincoln

Is there some point at which we have to draw some sort of practical line and say, "I can't worry about every little life form on earth!"? Possibly yes. Maybe some life is so lacking in sentience that my arguments seem much to do about nothing--the utilitarian's logic is more difficult to refute when interests (or sentience) seem scaled in radically different orders of magnitude. Maybe. But, I believe that most people will be pleasantly surprised how inclusive and harmless they can be (to so many of the smallest creatures) if they make a reasonable attempt at it. I personally feel that I live a happy, practical and productive life while trying harder than most to respect the lives of small creatures. I do not think it crazy or even impractical to try to include even insects.

Some will claim, however, that if the goal of harmlessness is impossible to fully achieve, then it should not be attempted. The basis for this logic seems unclear. Practicalities (and ambiguities) crop up with most any value or principle--but does not necessarily invalidate them. Practicalities (and ambiguities) may leave us wanting simpler, more clear-cut effective ethics; however, simpler is not necessarily better. We did not choose to live in a world in which trying to live harmlessly still means a virtual 100% probability of stepping on (or driving over) insects. We did not choose to live in a world in which trying to live harmlessly still means a possibility of driving over a fellow human or a virtual 100% probability of harming someone sometime somehow. But yet this fact does not invalidate the ethic of compassion for others.

Fair Criteria

The Anti-Vivisector does not deny that physiologists must make experiments and even take chances with new methods. He says that they must not seek knowledge by criminal methods, just as they must not make money by criminal methods. He does not object to Galileo dropping cannon balls from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa; but he would object to shoving off two dogs or American tourists.

--George Bernard Shaw
(The original in-your-face vegetarian.)

For the time being, let us simply decide who has what property--we can consider the extent or degree later (and again ponder the implications of such variations). We again consider our train trip: Our job, as intellectually honest discussion participants, is to determine if the conductor's criteria are germane to the question at hand and sufficient to exclude certain groups from reaching the final destination (say sentience). If the conductor commands that we throw all nonwhites off at the next stop, we, of course, can challenge him to prove that skin color is relevant to the question at hand (sentience in our example). If the conductor commands that all cold-blooded animals are to detrain, we may lodge a similar complaint. (If the conductor replies that the relevant reason is that cold-blooded animals are not human, then I would say that we got on the wrong train or need another conductor! Begging the question with circular reasoning is, unfortunately, one of the most common problems I run up against in these discussions.)

Fair Conclusions

Keep in mind that every imaginable group of humans is included on this trip. For instance, "severely-retarded", non-communicative, but conscious, infants are one group. Such inclusions help us enforce a sense of fairness--we will be less tempted to kick cows off the train for simply lacking speech.

The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?

--Jeremy Bentham

When all stops (except the final destination) have been passed, we have remaining on the train all those not proven to be unworthy of reaching the destination. (Read that again.) We have not, of course, proven that they are worthy--we only proved that the ones left behind were unworthy. We are now reduced to having Danny DeVito "Throw Mamma From the Train" simply because he thinks she is not sentient--though he can't prove it. (Perhaps she is of extremely low intelligence, lacks language, is unable to fashion tools, growls in public or offers no proof of awareness; he may suspect that such status precludes the possibility of sentience.)

Now, at this stage of the trip, if we are so brash as to throw anyone off the train, we cannot do so and claim that we did it on the basis of proof--we have to admit that we did it because of suspicion. So, it is during this rather subjective and lawless phase of our trip, that we must first admit exactly what it is that we are doing, and second confess to ourselves that it is now that we are most likely to act out of prejudice, habit, training, culture, or failure to see from other perspectives. Perhaps, also, we will be blind to the present limitations of our scientific knowledge. We might assume that some individuals are not sentient simply because we honestly tried to find proof of their sentience but failed. This may seem reasonable if you believe our present science to be complete.


This perspective problem previously mentioned is an egocentric one and may take different one-perspective forms. For instance, the DeVito character may wish to throw his mother off the train on the basis that she is a woman. This male-centered view might hold that you cannot prove that women actually have any feelings at all. (Maybe they just act like they do. They are surely different from men. Indeed, the very nerve cells that would allegedly make them have feelings are composed of different chromosomes than those of men.) Alas, DeVito doesn't know for sure that anyone but he is sentient. (Only his brain is structured with his exact genetic makeup, his exact nerve structure and connections, in his space with his quantum states.)

...we sacrifice other species to our own not because our own has any objective metaphysical privilege over others, but simply because it is ours. It may be very natural to have this loyalty to our own species, but let us hear no more from the naturalists about the "sentimentality" of anti-vivisectionists. If loyalty to our own species--preference for man simply because we are men--is not sentiment, then what is?

--C.S. Lewis

Proof and Reason

Since we have mentioned sentience, we might do well here to say a word about pain. Pain--or at least awareness of pain--has never been adequately qualified or quantified in any way that would prove that anyone but the person reading these words experiences it--obviously, only those who experience it directly know it. So, we are left with reasonableness: If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, what is it? The reasonable (but unproven) conclusion is that it's a duck. (An additional difficulty with terms like "awareness" and "consciousness" is that we can't seem to adequately define them--that makes it more difficult to say who--or what--has these properties. Interestingly, there is convincing evidence that consciousness cannot be explained by classical physics, but might be explained by modern physics: quantum mechanics. See Henry P. Stapp's excellent lecture for more information. Maybe a more definitive answer will be developed.)

What gives man the right to kill an animal, often torture it, so that he can fill his belly with its flesh? We know now, as we have always known instinctively, that animals can suffer as much as human beings.

--Isaac Bashevis Singer

If non-human animals act like they are experiencing pain, they probably are. Some will say that you can program a computer to act like it is in pain and that seeing should not be believing. It seems, however, unlikely that anyone is trying to deceive us about animals. If non-human animals act like they experience pain, but somehow don't, then it would be strange happenstance. A similar argument can be made for sentience, consciousness and awareness as was made for pain--at least for the animals that appear from observation to exhibit these qualities. And for any deemed not to exhibit these qualities (say, for instance, that one holds that a newborn human lacks proof of consciousness), we may still choose to give them the benefit of doubt. I would urge this.

It should be noted that years and years of scientific research have been predicated on the premise that non-human animals can serve as psychological models for humans. Countless numbers of animals have been subjected to indescribable pain and the basic results are that animals generally react in basic ways as we do. It is incumbent on those who want to throw animals off the train at this point to assert more than inconsequential differences. The weight of the evidence is that animals experience pain and that at least some animals experience awareness (in different degrees depending on how you define it). For those who, at this point, again began speaking of "proof," I assert the following: If we require absolute proof, Mamma isn't going to make it. And as for the "severely-retarded", non-communicative, infant? He doesn't even have a chance.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the 'Universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest--a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

--Albert Einstein

QUESTION THOSE ASSUMPTIONS--(The Argument May be Unnecessary)

Back to the more general question of animal properties: One important thing to consider is the reason a particular point of discussion is occurring in the first place. For instance, the reason that two people may be debating animal intelligence may be that both assume that unintelligent animals would have no rights. Thus, the debate about intelligence would supposedly resolve a debate about rights. Often, such premises should be closely reexamined. (Clearly, intelligence should not be the measuring stick for rights--again, our unintelligent infant would not fair well and neither would some animals.)

It may be useful to take another carefully planned train trip here--we can use specific animal properties (assuming that we have already resolved the property questions) for passage along the way to a new final stop (which signifies rights). Hopefully, we will not administer a gender test or an intelligence test on this trip: If Mamma or the infant don't make it, then I suspect that there is a problem in our logic.

I am in favour of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.

--Abraham Lincoln

So, as we progress from a discussion about animal properties, we get into the implications of the various properties. As before, we must try to be intellectually honest and consistent.

Pesky Little Aliens

To this end, I sometimes ask people to think of disingenuous arguments that could be lobbed at us by a "superior" alien visiting our planet. This can often turn a dubious conclusion around. For example, some folks note that non-human animal behavior is less learned and more "instinctive" than human behavior and argue that this fact somehow puts animals on an extremely low plane of importance. The visiting alien might argue the opposite--that, in his world, everyone is born with knowledge, personality, purpose etc... In contrast, the lowly human does not possess as much of an intrinsic self. Instead, humans are, to some extent, just mirrors of their environment--a recording of something in which the value is from the original. You are what you are, not because of what you are intrinsically, but largely because of something else that is external to the instinctive/intrinsic self. If humans do possess an intrinsic self, it is so negligible that it can sometimes be wiped out by poor environment. The intrinsic self is the basis for rights and humans don't qualify. ("But we would still like to have you for dinner.")

But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.


Our disingenuous aliens might have other arguments to turn around. For instance, it is often argued that non-humans have no soul. Perhaps our aliens will actually agree with this. And since this is the only life they (and other non-humans) supposedly have, it is they that should have all the privileges of rights. Humans, on the other hand, have eternity to compensate them for any suffering--so what are humans whining about?

Our aliens might also argue that their ancesters were meat-eaters and that it's "natural" for them to eat lower animals. They might argue that their religion permits eating humans. Perhaps they will want to raise us for that purpose and that will make it all right. They might argue that if they gave us rights, they would have to give plants rights too. ("And we can't have that can we?")

Easy Positions / Thoughtful Positions

"Aliens" can be extremely useful in intellectually honest discussions. If one would assert, for example, that a species of superior intelligence has the right to dominate those of lessor faculties, the smart alien can vaporize this fantasy. Obviously, if humans were not the most powerful and intelligent species on earth, we would surely have developed a far more inclusive and compassionate philosophy. We would thus be light-years ahead of our speciesist (and smug) cruelties and we would never entertain the notion that we are not animals; we would not hold that we are so qualitatively different, separated from the rest of life by some great gulf.

I believe I am not interested to know whether vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn't. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it. THE PAIN WHICH IT INFLICTS UPON UNCONSENTING ANIMALS is the basis of my enmity toward it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

--Mark Twain

The fact that modern philosophers such as Tom Regan and Peter Singer are routinely challenging traditional views of animals is encouraging. A philosophy that is grown from simple might may not be much of a philosophy. It would certainly seem that the better philosophies would be those that don't kowtow to who's in power; the better philosophies would tend to be unbound to the situation or perspective you view things from.

It is my belief that the philosophies of Reagan and Singer, along with aspects of those of Da Vinci, Schweitzer, and many others, will gradually prevail as future generations condemn our present-day actions. Da Vinci's prediction of a radical change of attitudes ("...the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.") may be finally starting to become true; future generations might view their great grandparents in poor regard asserting that the culture of our times was no excuse.

Animal Liberation will require greater altruism on the part of human beings than any other liberation movement. The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations, or bombs. Human beings have the power to continue to oppress other species forever, or until we make this planet unsuitable for living beings. Will our tyranny continue, proving that we really are the selfish tyrants that the most cynical of poets and philosophers have always said we are? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power, not because we are forced to do so by rebels or terrorists, but because we recognize that our position is morally indefensible?

The way in which we answer this question depends on the way in which each one of us, individually, answers it.

--Peter Singer


Back to our aliens: I wouldn't recommend bringing up aliens (or even superior terrestrials) to just anyone--only the most intellectually honest. Even the intellectually honest may be tempted to point out that the existence of aliens is, at best, unproven (and the thought of superior terrestrials is just a fantasy). However, analogies don't have to depend on true facts to make a valid point. It is often valid to test an ethic or action by hypothetically changing the situation or turning the tables--even if doing so creates an implausible story. To illustrate this, I will close with the following true story told to me by my mother (who is, incidentally, extremely intelligent):

One day, Mother was visited by a dear old friend of mine who has some sort of intellectual disability (which we would normally label as mild "mental retardation"). He (we'll call him Frank) had a new radio with him. Mom complimented his radio and asked where he got it. He replied that he saw it in a car and took it. This was unusual behavior for Frank and Mother was surprised. Naturally, she felt obliged to gently challenge the morality of his deed, suggesting that it's wrong to steal from people.

However, Frank was unrepentant--even cross--saying "Well, they shouldn't have left the window rolled down." Mom thought about how to explain her point and then came up with an analogy sure to reach him: "Well think about it, how would YOU feel if someone took a radio from YOUR car?" "Oh, THAT'S EASY," replied Frank confidently, "I don't have a car."

Copyright 1996, David Lee Winston Miller. This document may be reproduced provided that it is duplicated in its entirety including all credits and copyright notices. This page has been accessed  times since 11-06-96.

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