In ‘Homo Deus’, Yuval Noah Harari envisages a future in which a small group of people who understand Artificial Intelligence will control the world. He warns us that ‘The way humans have treated animals is a good indicator for how upgraded humans will treat the rest of us.’
For most of history and in most places, non-human animals have been treated as inferior creatures, and, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, they were created for our benefit. As Genesis has it:
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.
Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.
For centuries, humanity’s view of the natural world, at least in the west, was based on these few lines from an ancient and unreliable text. God created the world, and everything in it, for us to rule and exploit.
Evolution, by contrast, posits that humans, like all living things, developed from earlier species by the process of natural selection. Unlike religionists, scientists will always consider new evidence that challenges their understanding, but so far no new evidence has been found which falsifies the conclusions arrived at by rigorous argument and based principally on the fossil record. We are, in varying degrees, related to all other animals, and from other animals we are descended. Even Hamlet, who describes man as ‘noble in reason’ ‘infinite in faculty’, ‘in form, in ‘moving, express and admirable’, ‘in action like an angel’, ‘in apprehension like a god’, ‘the beauty of the world’, concludes that man is ‘the paragon of animals’. Homo sapiens belongs to the genus Homo in the family Hominidae, the order Primates and the class Mammalia. It is towards others of the class of mammals that humans have been most hostile, with birds coming a close second.
Human exploitation of other animals has a long and shameful history, as recounted in Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’. As Harari writes in the Preface to the most recent edition, ‘Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history.’ Is this something we should be proud of? If it is not, then we should be making vigorous efforts to stop it. This is not because many non-human animals are fluffy and cuddly. In the case of pets, that’s just the way we’ve bred them. It is because there is a moral imperative to do so. For centuries, men have caused women suffering, and some still do, as recent events have shown. White men have treated black people in the same despicable way as they have treated non-humans. Successive generations have treated the deformed, the mad, the sexually different as outcasts. Fortunately, attitudes in these areas have greatly changed, but we can look back only with abhorrence at what men, principally white men, have done to others of their species. There seem to be no grounds for not regarding with equal abhorrence our continued treatment of other species.
You may not be concerned that to produce milk cows are separated from their calves, which are killed if they are male; that battery hens are kept in appalling conditions; that pigs are kept confined to grow fat; that geese are force fed to swell their livers; that in the UK foxes and deer are hunted for fun, in spite of the ban; that animals that belong in the wild are forced to perform for human entertainment in circuses and zoos; that animals suffer in scientific experiments. Yet if human animals were treated in this way, there would, quite rightly, be outrage. So there would be if someone’s pet dog, cat or rabbit was set upon, tortured and killed by a group of thugs who happened not to be on horses and wearing expensive fancy dress.
There is no rational explanation why it’s OK to treat one group of animals in barbaric ways, when it’s not OK to treat another group of animals, similarly. Even those who believe in the literal truth of Genesis must question whether their god intended other animals to suffer for the sake of human pleasures and desires. It may be argued that non-human animals don’t matter so much, because their faculties are so much inferior to our own. But as Jeremy Bentham pertinently asked, ‘The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but rather, “Can they suffer?”’ You may claim that non-human animals do not have the same capacity for suffering as humans, but their physiology is similar, and they display the same signs of suffering as humans do. They cry out, they change their facial expressions, they writhe in agony.
I have so far not spoken of animal rights. Some may see difficulties with the term, because the cognitive facilities of non-humans are different from those of their human cousins. Noam Chomsky has gone so far as to say that non-human animals have no responsibilities, so it’s hard to see how they can have rights, as we understand them. But, they do have responsibilities, if not to ourselves, then to one other. In any case, consider this. Unborn children don’t have responsibilities, a patient in a vegetative state does not have responsibilities, a severely mentally disabled patient does not have responsibilities, but do none of them nevertheless not have rights? If so, how is that a fully sentient mammal cannot have rights. If you really cannot stomach the idea of animals having rights, then it’s hard to deny they have interests? They have interests in being well fed and housed, in not being tortured, hunted or ill-treated, and in living a full life to its normal span. If we think it is wrong to frustrate such interests in human animals, it is also wrong to frustrate them in non-human animals.