Every year, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services releases data on the number of animals killed at the Commonwealth’s animal shelters, including the facility operated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), located in Norfolk, Virginia. And every year, PETA kills a higher percentage of animals than are killed at most of the “kill” shelters located throughout the country.
The 2011 numbers were certainly disturbing. PETA reported that out of the 2,050 animals that it took in (1,214 cats; 778 dogs; 58 “other” companion animals), it killed 1,965 (1,198 cats; 713 dogs; 54 “others”). That’s an overall kill rate of almost 96 percent, with 91 percent for dogs and almost 99 percent for cats. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the national kill rate at shelters is 60 percent for dogs and 70 percent for cats.
PETA’s kill rate would be high if it were a traditional “kill” shelter. But it promotes itself as an animal rights group; indeed, it claims to be “the largest animal rights organization in the world, with more than 3 million members and supporters” and states that it “has always been known for uncompromising, unwavering views on animal rights.”
How can an animal rights group kill any animals, much less kill more animals than plain-vanilla shelters that have no pretense to being animal rights organizations?
PETA suggests that it only kills animals when they are suffering and there is no alternative. But elsewhere it has acknowledged that it has been killing healthy and adoptable animals for some years now. For instance, in 1991 it killed a group of rabbits and roosters at a shelter it had at that time, claiming a lack of money to care for the animals. So even if we assume that some of the animals that PETA kills are suffering and cannot be saved, at least some, and probably many, are healthy animals. How can this be?
The usual responses are less than satisfying. The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) maintains a website, PETA Kills Animals, which claims that PETA is just engaged in outright deception by maintaining a “slaughterhouse operation” at the same time as it peddles a “phony ‘animal rights’ message.” But then CCF is an organization that lobbies on behalf of the fast-food, meat, alcohol and tobacco industries, so (because PETA has a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the fast-food and meat industries) it would be unrealistic to look to CCF for anything other than inflammatory rhetoric.
Some animal advocates try to attribute PETA’s activity to psychopathology, claiming that its co-founder, Ingrid Newkirk, harbors “dark impulses” and is a “‘disturbed person,’ a ‘shameless animal killer,’ and the executrix of a ‘bloody reign’ of terror over dogs and cats”; Newkirk is even compared to “nurses who get a thrill from killing their human patients.” Putting aside the hyperbole here, in a very large organization like PETA it is unlikely that the policy on killing animals can be a manifestation of any one person’s alleged personality characteristics.
I am not reluctant to criticize PETA and have done so extensively in the past. But I believe that there is an issue at stake much more fundamental than PETA’s ostensible inconsistency. There is, and forgive the pun, an 800-pound theoretical gorilla in the room whose existence is being ignored by all of us: Is what PETA is doing in painlessly killing dogs, cats and other animals, at least some of whom are healthy and adoptable, actually inconsistent with the “animal rights” position?
In order to answer that question, it is necessary to identify what the animal rights position is, or, at least, what it is commonly understood to be. And to do that we need to turn to the position of Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher whose 1975 book Animal Liberation is rightly or wrongly credited with moving us all from the animal welfare era into the animal rights era. We are told time and time again: “The modern animal rights movement may be dated to the 1975 publication of Animal Liberation by Australian philosopher Peter Singer.”
It is important to understand two things about Singer from the outset. First, he is a utilitarian. Utilitarianism is the theory that what is morally right or wrong depends on consequences; the right act or policy is that which will result in the best consequences for all affected. In assessing consequences, we must be impartial and give equal consideration to everyone’s happiness or pleasure or other interests, without regard to race, sex, sexual orientation, intellectual or physical abilities and so on. Singer’s primary contribution is to argue that species should be regarded as morally irrelevant just like race or sex, so that we should not undervalue animal interests based solely on species. But this does not make Singer an animal rights theorist. Utilitarians reject the notion of moral rights because, as we will see as this discussion continues, rights protect the right holder even if the balance of consequences does not favor that protection. So although Singer is characterized as “the father of the animal rights movement,” Singer does not propose a theory of animal rights at all.
Second, and following from the first point, Singer does not maintain that animals have a moral right to life. But, more importantly, Singer has often expressed the view that many species do not even have an interest in their lives, because they exist in a sort of “eternal present.” He has recently acknowledged that at least some of those species may in fact have mental continuity but he has thus far failed to recognize that they have the same kind of morally significant interest in continued existence that he accords to humans, nonhuman great apes, marine mammals and elephants, and that would make veganism a moral imperative. Singer continues to maintain that it is morally defensible to eat animals so long as they are provided a reasonably pleasant life and a relatively painless death, and he supports the advocacy efforts of large organizations that promote “happy” animal use. In short, Singer continues to promote the notion that the primary problem with animal exploitation is not that we use them but how we use them.
PETA claims that all the animals that they kill are killed painlessly. The animals are, in all likelihood, not suffering; they are surely dying a better death than they would if they were “food” animals being slaughtered at any federally inspected slaughterhouse. And, truth be told, PETA is probably delivering a better death to these animals than they would get at most animal shelters.
So if we assume that animals do not have an interest in continuing to live, and if PETA is, as a factual matter, not imposing pain and suffering on animals when they are killed, then what PETA is doing is not in any conflict with Peter Singer’s position.
According to Singer, then, animals, or at least many of them, do not care that we use and kill them; they just care about how they are treated when we use and kill them. At this point, you are probably asking where Singer could have gotten this idea. But it turns out that his position not only has a long history but—and here comes the big surprise—is one that is actually shared by most people.
Put aside dogs and cats for a second. Ask yourself: how do you feel about the morality of animal use for the meat, dairy products and eggs you consume?
The chances are that you share the conventional wisdom that has been the cornerstone of western thinking for 200 years now when it comes to animal use: that it is morally acceptable to use and kill animals for human purposes so long as we treat animals “humanely” and do not impose “unnecessary” suffering on them. Suffering matters; killing, as long as it is not accompanied by suffering, does not.
But then our conventional wisdom is really no different from Singer’s position, the one that informs PETA’s actions. We may get upset about what PETA does but that has more to do with how we fetishize dogs and cats than with the morality of killing animals. Putting aside dogs and cats, most people agree with PETA that an animal death without pain and suffering is morally acceptable. The primary difference between PETA and Singer, on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other, is that the former think that the “humane” treatment standard requires a great deal more than the latter does. But this is basically a quantitative matter, not a qualitative one.
Why are we so comfortable with the idea that animals, as a factual matter, have an interest in not suffering but do not have an interest in continuing to live? What is the source of our conventional wisdom on this matter?
The answer requires that we go back several hundred years. Before the nineteenth century, animals were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the moral and legal community. As a matter of our social, moral and legal institutions, we did not regard animals as beings to whom we could have direct obligations. Animals were just things; neither our use nor our treatment of animals mattered morally or legally. There were some who, like French philosopher René Descartes, claimed that animals were literally nothing more than machines. He called them “automatons.” Descartes denied that animals were sentient; that is, he did not believe as a factual matter that animals were perceptually aware and able to have conscious experiences, including the experience of pain. They were just like machines created by humans, except they were created by God.
For the most part, however, it was accepted by almost everyone else, including Aquinas, Aristotle, John Locke and Immanuel Kant, that animals are sentient and have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering. But these thinkers argued that we could ignore animal interests and treat animals as if they were Cartesian machines because they were different from humans in that they were supposedly not rational or self-aware, not able to think in terms of abstract concepts or use symbolic communication, incapable of engaging in reciprocal moral relationships with humans or not in possession of a soul.
However, regardless of whether humans regarded nonhumans as machines that were not sentient and had no interests, or as sentient and with interests that could be ignored because of supposed cognitive or spiritual defects, the bottom line remained the same: we could not have direct moral or legal obligations to animals. We could have obligations that concerned animals, such as an obligation not to damage our neighbor’s cow, but that obligation was owed to the neighbor as the owner of the cow, not to the cow. The cow simply did not matter morally or legally.
All of this changed in the nineteenth century. Various progressive movements emerged and, as part of that shift in social thinking, people began to ask why it was acceptable to impose suffering on animals just because they were not rational, or self-aware, or otherwise like humans. For example, the English philosopher and lawyer Jeremy Bentham argued that although a full-grown horse or dog is more rational and more able to communicate than a human infant, “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Humans and nonhumans may be different in many respects, but they are relevantly similar in that they are both sentient; they are perceptually aware and able to experience pain and pleasure. And there is no reason not to give weight to animal interests and, in particular, the interest in not suffering.
Did this mean that Bentham and others advocated that humans stop using animals for human purposes? Not at all. The fact that animals were supposedly not rational and otherwise had minds that were dissimilar to those of humans did not give humans a license to do whatever they wanted with animals, but it did mean that it was morally acceptable to use and kill them for human purposes as long as we treated them well. According to Bentham, animals live in the present and are not aware of what they lose when we take their lives. If we kill and eat them, “we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have.”
And thus was born the idea that animals do not, as a factual matter, have an interest in continuing to live, and death is not a harm for them. It’s morally acceptable to use and kill animals as long as we minimize animal suffering. That moral sentiment was translated into laws that were enacted in Britain in the nineteenth century and then spread throughout much of the rest of the world, prohibiting humans from imposing “unnecessary” suffering on animals.
Although the idea that humans had the direct moral obligations to treat animals “humanely” represented a significant paradigm shift, it was, however, clear that this moral commitment remained woefully unfulfilled in most respects. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the exploitation of animals got worse and not better.
In the 1970s, first in Britain, and then in the United States, a new group of progressives rediscovered what Bentham and others recognized two hundred years ago: animals were, in effect, being treated as though they were things that existed wholly outside the legal and moral community. Although there was important work done at this time before Peter Singer’s entry on the scene, it was Singer’s work that is regarded as the beginning of the “animal rights” era.
Although Singer, like Bentham, argues that we are not giving adequate weight to animal interests, he does not advocate that we stop using animals altogether. Like Bentham, Singer does not regard most animals as caring about whether we use them for our purposes but only about how we use them. They do not care whether they continue to exist because they are not self-aware, or capable of abstract thought. He states that “[a]n animal may struggle against a threat to its life, even if it cannot grasp that it has “a life” in the sense that requires an understanding of what it is to exist over a period of time. But in the absence of some form of mental continuity it is not easy to explain why the loss to the animal killed is not, from an impartial point of view, made good by the creation of a new animal who will lead an equally pleasant life.”
Singer maintains that if we accord sufficient moral weight to animal interests in not suffering, we may continue to consume animals:
If it is the infliction of suffering that we are concerned about, rather than killing, then I can also imagine a world in which people mostly eat plant foods, but occasionally treat themselves to the luxury of free range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm.
Does the notion that animals do not have an interest in their lives, that they have an interest only in not suffering, make any sense?
I don’t think so.
To say that a sentient being—any sentient being—is not harmed by death is most peculiar. Sentience is not a characteristic that has evolved to serve as an end in itself. Rather, it is a trait that allows beings to identify situations that are harmful and that threaten survival. Sentience is a means to the end of continued existence. Sentient beings, by virtue of their being sentient, have an interest in remaining alive; that is, they prefer, want or desire to remain alive. Therefore, to say that a sentient being is not harmed by death denies that the being has the very interest that sentience serves to perpetuate. It would be analogous to saying that a being with eyes does not have an interest in continuing to see or is not harmed by being made blind. The Jains of India expressed it well long ago: “All beings are fond of life, like pleasure, hate pain, shun destruction, like life, long to live. To all life is dear.”
Singer recognizes that “[a]n animal may struggle against a threat to its life,” but he denies that the animal has the mental continuity required for a morally significant sense of self. This position begs the question, however, in that it assumes that the only way that an animal can be self-aware is to have the sort of autobiographical sense of self that we associate with normal adult humans. That is certainly one way of being self-aware, but it is not the only way. As biologist Donald Griffin, one of the most important cognitive ethologists of the twentieth century, notes, if animals are conscious of anything, “the animal’s own body and its own actions must fall within the scope of its perceptual consciousness.” We nevertheless deny animals self-awareness because we maintain that they cannot “think such thoughts as ‘It is I who am running, or climbing this tree, or chasing that moth.’ ” Griffin maintains that “when an animal consciously perceives the running, climbing, or moth-chasing of another animal, it must also be aware of who is doing these things. And if the animal is perceptually conscious of its own body, it is difficult to rule out similar recognition that it, itself, is doing the running, climbing, or chasing.” He concludes that “[i]f animals are capable of perceptual awareness, denying them some level of self-awareness would seem to be an arbitrary and unjustified restriction.”
It would seem that any sentient being must be self-aware, in that to be sentient means to be the sort of being who recognizes that she or he, and not some other, is experiencing pain or distress. When a sentient being is in pain, she necessarily recognizes that it is she who is in pain; there is someone who is conscious of being in pain and who has a preference, desire or want not to have that experience.
We can see the problematic nature of the Singer-Bentham position if we consider humans who have a condition known as transient global amnesia, which occurs as a result of a stroke, a seizure or brain damage. Those with transient global amnesia often have no memory of the past and no ability to project themselves into the future. These humans have, in the words of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “a sense of self about one moment—now—and about one place—here.” Their sense of self-awareness may be different from that of a normal adult, but it would not be accurate to say that they are not self-aware or that they are indifferent to death. We may not want to appoint such a person as a teacher or allow her to perform surgery on others, but most of us would be horrified at the suggestion that it is acceptable to use such people as forced organ donors or as non-consenting subjects in biomedical experiments, even if we did so “humanely.”
Even if animals live in a similar “eternal present,” that does not mean that they are not self-aware, that they have no morally significant interest in continued existence or that death does not harm them. A similar analysis holds for what Singer identifies as “any other capacity that could reasonably be said to give value to life.” Some humans will not have the capacity at all, some will have it less than other humans and some will have it less than other nonhumans. This deficiency or difference may be relevant for some purposes, but it does not allow us to conclude that a human lacking the capacities that Singer identifies as giving value to life does not have an interest in continuing to live or that death does not harm her.
Do nonhuman animals have different minds from those of “normal” humans? Probably. We are the only animals who use symbolic communication so our minds are probably very different from the minds of beings who do not. But so what? To the extent that humans and nonhumans have different sorts of minds, those differences may be relevant for some purposes, just as differences between and among humans may be relevant for some purposes. Mary’s greater ability at math may justify our giving her a scholarship over Joe, who lacks ability at math. Our four rescued dogs very much like to sit with us when we watch movies, but we do not consider their likes and dislikes in movies when we choose a movie because, at least as far as we can tell, they do not have any. There are relevant differences between the minds of humans and the minds of nonhumans. Any differences, however, are not logically relevant to, for instance, whether we use dogs in painful experiments or kill them for other purposes, just as Joe’s inability to do math is not relevant to whether we should take his kidney to save Mary or use him in an experiment to obtain data that may benefit Mary.
To be clear: if a being is sentient—that is, if she is subjectively aware—then she has an interest in continuing to live, and death harms her. It is not necessary to have the autobiographical sense of self that we associate with normal adult humans. Moreover, we cannot say that her interests in her life or the quality of her pain or pleasure are of lesser moral value because her cognitions are not the same as those of normal adult humans. The fact that the minds of humans differ from nonhumans does not mean that the life of a human has greater moral value any more than it means that the life of a human who has normal mental capacities has greater moral value than the life of a mentally disabled person or that the life of an intelligent person has greater moral value than the life of a less intelligent one. Although the differences between humans and animals may be important for some purposes, they are completely irrelevant to the morality of using and killing animals, even if we do so “humanely.” 
The limited purpose of this essay was to explain how PETA could think it morally acceptable to kill animals and why PETA’s thinking, which reflects Singer’s thinking and is a version of our conventional wisdom, is just plain wrong.
The present debate on animal ethics in the United States, Great Britain and most Western countries focuses on whether we can morally justify raising animals in the crowded conditions known as “factory farming.” But the debate takes that form because we focus on treatment and not on use. We focus on whether we can justify the suffering of animals raised for food. But we do not stop and think about whether the real issue is whether our use— however “humane” it may be—can be justified. And we don’t think about that because we have accepted the idea that animals do not care about their lives.
Ironically, one of the reasons that so many of us reject PETA’s killing of any healthy dogs and cats is that those of us who have lived with these animals recognize that is wrong to regard them as not having an interest in continued life. Our relationships with these animals allows us to see—clearly—that although the minds of these animals are different from the minds of humans, they are similar enough to justify our concluding that their untimely death is a tragedy, not just for us, but for them.
I suggest that rather than extending our conventional wisdom that death does not harm an animal to cover dogs and cats, as PETA appears to do, we reject our conventional wisdom altogether and recognize that the only reason why we ever believed it wise in the first place was that we are desperate to find a justification that allows us to keep using animals for food and other purposes.
So my answer to the question put by The Point, “What are animals for?” is: animals are not for us to use, however “humanely.”
This article is part of a wider symposium on the question, What Are Animals For? To read the whole symposium, including articles by Alice Crary, Heather Keenleyside and Christine Korsgaard, please purchase Issue 6 here or at your local independent bookstore.