Animal Rights in a Secular World

For the recent chunk of human history, societies have been supported by the vast legs of religion and its devout moral codes. We have looked to scriptures, tablets and holy books for ethical guidance, and instructions on how to live. However, those foundations are crumbling, with a new secular world order beginning to sprout from the dying body of religion. The old religious principles are slowly becoming redundant. Yet, it appears that some of their deeply ingrained concepts have permeated the social consciousness, and have embedded themselves in modern standards, despite the loosening of the religious grip and the rise of atheism. An important idea that has remained in the worldwide consciousness is the concept of dominion – that humans have control over animals and the environment due to a greater intrinsic value. However, can this idea of intrinsic value, deriving from concepts of the soul, be applied to our increasingly secular and materialist world?

Let’s have a look at dominion. In Christianity, it derives from a belief in the soul and the principle of Imago Dei, which states that humans were made in the image of God. These ideas, according to some Christians, give us greater intrinsic value than animals and plants (who don’t harbour these characteristics – they were not given souls) and place us above them in the Great Chain of Being. Essentially, our divine animation places us above the ‘beasts’, meaning we can do whatever we want with them, including using animals for food and as a means to our end, such as in medical experimentation.

One might argue that prehistoric humans, with no known notion of religion, still killed animals for food, and therefore dominion cannot be considered a religious concept. However, the technology did not exist back then to measure pain and consider the rationality and autonomy of animals as we currently do, and thus there was no possible method of comparing animals to humans. Therefore, dominion in our age can be considered a non-secular concept.

There are perks to dominion, such as the use of animal meat as a food source and reducing experimental risks to humans. However, although the human race is waning off religion and entering a more materialistic age of belief, this old groove has remained; this idea that animals can be extorted for human means. To most people, the human subjugation of animals is considered a norm, due to the concept of dominion still lurking in the dark, musty recesses of our minds. Yet with atheism on the rise (25 % of England and Wales classify themselves as having no religious beliefs), a materialistic worldview seems to be incompatible with our current treatment of animals.

To understand this, we’ll have to backtrack to religious morality. Theists argue that without absolute and deontological rules to live by, morality becomes relative and leads to social disorder. This is largely considered to be a flawed belief, as there is no convincing evidence for the existence of a divine being, subsequently refuting Divine Law, from which theists pluck their moral codes.  Subsequently, it has seemed rational for people to switch to a materialistic and naturalistic worldview, where only physical interactions occur. This is the crucial point at which we have changed our beliefs, but forgotten to re-establish ethics concerning the treatment of living beings. Why don’t we formulate some rules?

Firstly, we are able to rule out the application of ethics to non-living matter, such as rocks, due to unobserved and unmeasured rationality, autonomy or ability to feel pain (caused by material interactions, if we are to follow this worldview). Plants can also be ruled out due to not meeting the criterion of self-consciousness. Thus we come to the dilemma of whether humans and non-humans can be considered equal.

Secular ethics based on materialism cannot make the distinction between humans and non-humans, as both parties are capable of rationality, autonomy and self-awareness and both are capable of feeling pain. If all living matter is fundamentally equal, inequalities in different forms of such matter are absurd without a moral principle that places humans above animals.  If the Golden Rule is applied here (do unto others only that which you would have done unto you), current treatment of animals can be considered a form of discrimination: ‘speciesism’, according to Peter Singer. It is impossible to tell how much pain a lamb feels when slaughtered, yet we can measure a lamb’s material reactions to pain, just as we can in humans. Both animals and humans meet the criteria, so what’s the difference? Why not slaughter humans and sell their meat in supermarkets? According to materialism, it’s perfectly acceptable.

This is the problem, limiting our morals and ethics to the human race is now becoming arbitrary when we apply materialism to ethics and are forced to consider animals to be on the same grounds as us. In a secular world, any action that causes harm to a being must be treated equally, regardless of the being. The loss of the belief in an intrinsic human value has downgraded us to the level of beast, and to think otherwise would be speciesism.

Theoretically, animal equality is a sound argument, and one that highlights the ethical fallacies deriving from purely material beliefs within a secular worldview. However, it may not be pragmatically feasible, as meat contributes largely to the global food economy, with the meat and poultry industry contributing $832 Billion to the US economy alone. It will be a hard task to end animal slaughter and maltreatment for human benefit, but one that will hopefully come to fruition if we wish to live by coherent ethics.

Contributed by Mustafa Majeed

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