Eating Intelligent Beings

Eating Intelligent Beings

By Walter Cummins

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Many studies in recent years have demonstrated that animals—from mammals to birds and insects—possess much greater intelligence, problem-solving ability, and sensitivity than previously assumed. This new knowledge has led to reconsiderations of the interactions between human and nonhuman animals, specifically theories of how humans should treat other creatures, including the question of animal rights.

The three books discussed here address these issues, agreeing the relationship of humans and other animals is much more complicated than simply that of master and resource. The authors view nonhuman animals as complex beings deserving benevolent consideration, arguing for better treatment than now exists. Where they disagree is on the fundamental question of whether humans have the right to slaughter creatures for food, despite the fact that these creatures should possess certain basic rights. But if animals are denied the right not to be killed to satisfy human dietary cravings, do any other rights matter?

For centuries the great majority of humans have considered animals inferior others and taken them for granted as resources, existing to serve our needs, including dietary. Aristotle argued animals had no interests of their own and lacked reason, relegating them to positions far below humans on The Great Chain of Being. More crucial for recent centuries has been Descartes’s mechanistic separation of humans and animals, which considers the nonhuman lacking souls, minds, or reason and, therefore, not deserving of rights. Writing about animal consciousness in the essay “One of Us” in the Lapham Quarterly, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that Descartes considered animals mere automata, paraphrasing: “We look at them—they seem so full of depth, so like us, but it’s an illusion. Everything they do can be attached by causal chain to some process, some natural event.” Because animals lack mental capacity that provides for awareness, Descartes wrote, animals do not feel “pain in the strict sense.”

Even though other thinkers of Descartes’s time, like Hobbes, Voltaire, and Spinoza, disagreed with the automata conclusion, finding evidence for some manner of consciousness, they still did not deny human power over animals, Spinoza stating that any argument against slaughtering animals is not based on “sound reason.” For him, animal nature is not like ours.

Although Darwin initiated the study of animal consciousness in a lab setting, it was, as Sullivan notes, the many experiments beginning in the twentieth-century that have significantly deepened human understanding of animals, for example, the evidence that dolphins grieve, that bees communicate though a dance code, that birds recognize themselves in mirrors. He cites the conclusions of the recent document, “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Nonhuman Animals,” which states, “Humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”

More and more research reveals evidence of greater animal intelligence and sensitivities than our predecessors imagined. In a Wall Street Journal essay titled “The Brains of the Animal Kingdom,” primatologist Frans de Waal cites studies that demonstrate such intelligence, noting, “A growing body of evidence shows, however, that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. Can an octopus use tools? Do chimpanzees have a sense of fairness? Can birds guess what others know? Do rats feel empathy for their friends? Just a few decades ago we would have answered ‘no’ to all such questions. Now we’re not so sure.”

Previous tests to determine animal IQ, de Waal argues, have been deficient, biased against the animals because of anthropomorphic misassumptions. For example, because chimpanzees failed at recognizing photos of human faces, they were judged deficient. But when an experimenter thought to show them photos of chimp faces, they were expert at knowing who was whom and even which offspring belonged with which mothers.

Elephants were considered unable to recognize themselves in a mirror until experimenters realized the mirrors used were too small to produce a full reflection. Another error led to a conclusion that elephants could not use tools, in this case a stick, to retrieve food because the elephants were expected to use their trunks to guide the stick. But the stick blocked their acute sense of smell and, thus, their ability to detect food. Instead, given a different implement, an elephant was able to push with its feet a box to stand on in order to reach something edible.

Other experiments proved that rats confronted with a trapped companion and a chocolate container did not hog the treat, but rather freed the other rat first and then shared the chocolate. De Waal concludes, “[S]cience keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.”

How should this knowledge of intelligence and awareness affect the ways humans regard nonhuman animals and relate to them? If animals can engage in creative thinking and can demonstrate caring, how should humans develop guidelines for interacting with them?

Not that we treat other human beings all that well, as any history text or half hour of cable news makes clear. Yet we have standards that we are supposed to apply—The Golden Rule, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Should there be a declaration of universal animal rights to help us define the nature of our obligations to nonhuman creatures? And how should we balance human rights with animal rights? Most crucially, does our desire to consume meat override that of animals not to be slaughtered and eaten?


The French philosopher Élisabeth de Fontenay addresses these issues in Without Offending Humans: A Critique of Animal Rights, translated into English by Will Bishop. The title reveals her concern as she examines a range of ethical and philosophical writings to determine how humans should behave toward animals and what to do if calls for animal rights conflict with the rights of humans.

De Fontenay is hardly insensitive to the abuse of animals and the need for protections. She speaks of “the mysterious responsibility of good will toward beasts,” but does not consider these beasts deserving of equal consideration because they lack “certain singularities of human realty.” While criticizing the philosophical anthropocentrism of the post-Cartesian tradition, she believes that we will never be able to avoid a minimal amount of such anthropocentrism.

Her most vehement attacks against radical animal sympathizers are directed toward the utilitarian positions of Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri. Singer, she says, argues for an egalitarianism that applies to both humans and animals and goes to the extreme of considering people with extreme cognitive limitations more appropriate candidates for vivisection than animals and places fetuses and newborns in a category with reptiles and fish, below that of certain mammals. Cavalieri, she says, claims that the “intellectually disabled human” does not deserve a higher moral status than a great ape.

The positions of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty meet de Fontenay’s approval because, she says, they are the only Western authors who “account for animals ontologically” and propose the case that the treatment of animals should be based on the fact that “they have worlds, worlds that can intersect with the world of men.” These worlds of animals possess their own integrity and should be appreciated, but they do not belong in the same realm as the world of men [i.e., humans], to be regarded with the exact same ethical guidelines. While animals should have rights, they are not the same rights as those possessed by humans.

But de Fontenay also criticizes Husserl because he establishes a “troubling analogy between the more evolved animals and the insufficiently watchful man,” ignoring the beasts’ lack of a rational aim, of the cogito, and theoretical thinking. As in her much more severe condemnation of Singer and Cavalieri, she reveals a basic objection to equating humans and animals.

Her recognition of animal worlds does not really solve the question of hierarchy. Even though they may prove to have interests and demonstrate reason, what does that mean to the chain of being if they are not elevated to a level equal to that of humans? When our worlds intersect, should the human always prevail, giving us priority to slaughter and eat, cage for experimentation, dislocate from habitat for developments that house and feed humans? De Fontenay does want limits on our human powers over animals.

Her concluding chapter, “The Ordinariness of Barbarity,” makes a passionate argument that even though animals and humans do not exist at the same level, the world is afflicted by a widespread cruelty toward beasts:

For as things currently stand, it is no longer only death that constitutes the most atrocious violation for an animal, but the enclosure of its poor body and its poor life in the terrifying abstraction of the pet store and the laboratory or in the concentration-like space of factory farming.

All this occurs not because of sadism but rather of indifference. “Our model of industrialization of the living is fundamentally nihilistic.” Humans have a duty to develop legal reforms that regard the status of animals with a sense of kinship and pity. Yet her arguments put limits on how much kinship and how much pity. The right not to be abused on the farm does not extend to denial of the abattoir, rather that humans should practice benevolent slaughter.


Because de Fontenay’s work is a collection of essays, the book is not a systematic approach to the questions of animal rights. Such a method may be found in Alasdair Cochrane’s Animal Rights Without Liberation: Applied Ethics and Human Obligation. His work can be considered a model of lucidity. He explains his premises, the sources of his reasoning, the strengths and weaknesses of other theories on the subject, and the implications of his conclusions when applied to specific areas of human-animal interaction.

His title, however, sets up a straw man, the notion of total liberation as developed by Tom Regan, whose argument demands, in Regan’s words, “the total dissolution of the animal industry as we know it.” Cochrane dismisses what he concludes would be animal liberation in the early pages of his book and turns to considering a theory of animal rights emerging from systematic moral reasoning and principles. Such rights do not preclude the continuing existence of various forms of an animal industry, as long as the animals within those domains are not subjected to unnecessary pain and suffering.

For Cochrane, animals do not wish to be free because they lack the conception of such liberty. They are, for example, quite content to live in a home as pets as long as they are not abused or mistreated. Humans are under no imperative to liberate them. “So while sentient animals have particular interests that impose strict duties on us in a whole variety of contexts, those duties do not include having to refrain from using, keeping, and owning them.”

He calls his an “interest-based rights approach” in that sentient animals possess interests. Such interests, however, are not absolute; they vary with context. In each context the interests of animals must be identified, evaluated, weighed against any competing interests, and balanced against the burdens they place on those with responsibility for them.

Cochrane’s approach amounts to a pragmatic set of principles to be applied when humans interact with animals in a range of specific situations—animal experimentation, agriculture, genetic engineering, entertainment, environmental obligations, and use in religious practices. He writes separate chapters on each area and comes to a similar conclusion in each case. We have a moral obligation not to kill or inflict pain. In practice, that means forbidding animal sacrifice, sterilizing rather than hunting to control species overpopulation and damage to the environment, and experimenting without killing or hurting. Fundamental to Cochrane’s conclusions is his belief that animals have a right not to be killed.

Many people would agree with certain of his conclusions, for example, those opposed to inflicting pain on and killing laboratory animals or to herd-thinning hunting seasons. However, Cochrane’s ultimate position on animals in agriculture—consistent as it is with the logic of his overall position—faces widespread lack of support because of its implications for the great majority of humans. A good number will be disturbed by his descriptions of the sufferings inflicted on animals in factory farms, and some people will be willing to pay higher prices for free-range meat. Nonetheless, most people will object to Cochrane’s arguing, on the basis of animals’ rights not to be killed, for eliminating meat from the human diet, even if steers, pigs, or lambs lived free-range lives before being trucked off to the slaughterhouse, even a “humane” one of the sort designed by Temple Grandin. Despite the nutritional studies supporting Cochrane’s claim that we can survive well as vegetarians and even benefit from avoiding meat, the reality is that people will refuse to give up steaks and Big Macs and that people in countries emerging from poverty associate meat eating with a reward of growing affluence.

With likely reactions to the case against meat, the moral argument for animal rights confronts a practical barrier that can undermine its less controversial aspects. If we can kill a beast in order to enjoy its flesh charbroiled, why shouldn’t we kill lab animals if their deaths will result in a new medication that reduces human suffering and mortality? We’ve back to the chain of being that makes our human welfare more important than that of animals.


A broader perspective on the complexities of human-animal relationships and animal rights may be found in Margo DeMello’s Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies. Ostensibly a textbook for a beginning course in a new academic discipline—HAS (Human-Animal Studies)—DeMello’s book surpasses the typical textbook in offering a well-written overview of the field, with historical and cultural coverage of the changing categorizations of animals, the social construction of animals, the various human use of animals, attitudes toward animals, and symbolic manifestations of animals.

Citing criticisms of calling the discipline human-animal studies, as if humans weren’t animals, DeMello offers a more accurate definition of the field: “the study of the interactions and relationships between human and nonhuman animals.” She also places works like those of de Fontenay and Cochrane in the field of critical animal studies (CAS), which she says is “dedicated to the abolition of animal exploitation, oppression, and domination.” CAS has a clear political and moral agenda, while HAS attempts to provide a contextual understanding of how humans regard for and treatment of animals developed and changed.

The question of flesh eating provides a good example of the distinction. Rather than addressing the moral validity of cultivating creatures to kill and eat in just the present, she goes back to the Paleolithic Era for the history of what served as food. Our pre-human ancestors probably had diets like today’s chimpanzees, mainly vegetarian with some supplementation by a hunted or scavenged small animal. As the stone tools and arrowheads of those times reveal, as humanoids evolved and brains became larger, they formed societies of big-game hunters. Overhunting depleted some animal populations and led to different meat sources, such as small animals, birds, and fish. Therefore, twenty-first century humans descend from thousands of years of meat-eating ancestors. A CAS proponent like Cochrane probably would say that by now, as have our hunting and agribusiness skills, our moral capacities should have advanced to the point of realizing the meat eating is wrong.

DeMello devotes a chapter to the question “The Making and Consumption of Meat.” There she considers meat taboos, how animals become meat, meat consumption in the past, modern meat production, why we eat meat, slaughterhouse workers, cultural implications of producing and consuming meat, and the ethics of meat eating. While Cochrane came to his conclusions from an exclusively moral analysis, DeMello considers the ethical just one variable of approaching humans as carnivores.

Yet her approach also builds a case against meat eating, or at least against the consumption of meat produced through the abuses of factory farming, in which animals are considered products rather than sentient beings. Though a short recapitulation of the relationship of Americans to meat, she argues that such farming is not “natural,” primarily because of recent customs and cultural assumptions, which, lately, have been bolstered by agribusiness advertising and government subsidies.

Now most of us take for granted that a daily meal or two with meat is the way it’s supposed to be, but DeMello stresses that this is a relatively new expectation for Americans and for most of the world. In the United States the abundance of undeveloped land for grazing coupled with the coming of the railroad and, later, refrigerated cars permitted the large-scale raising of livestock and the distribution of its results throughout the land. Meat can be produced cheaply in this country. While throughout much of modern history, meat eating was associated with status and power and often limited to a small elite, everyone now has access to tons of beef, pork, and chicken.

Yet humans do not need meat to survive. They just think they do. And not only do animals on factory farms suffer lives that are nasty, brutish, and short, so do the humans who work in slaughterhouses to butcher them for delivery to markets. These workers are exploited by their bosses, paid minimally, and often injured or made ill from viruses and bacteria in the buildings. Annual turnover is almost one hundred percent.

While raising meat on open grazing land was ecologically sound, factory farms cause great environmental harm as a result of the 1.5 billion annual tons of waste and the amount of water used. Moreover, the more meat people consume, the greater the increase in worldwide human hunger for people who could survive on the grain used to fatten animals or on the grain that could have been grown on land being used to raise livestock. In addition, current studies have shown a correlation of eating red and processed meat with colon cancer.


Despite the case she builds, DeMello, unlike Cochrane, does not argue that animals have a right not to be killed. Her pragmatic analysis, ultimately, might lead to a denial of using animals for food. But she does not go there. Opposed to the cruelty of factory farms, she wants better treatment of animals, and she applauds the growing numbers of vegetarian alternatives and people who are eating free-range eggs and animals raised locally under “humane” conditions; that is, non-factory farming. With this stance, she agrees with de Fontenay, who calls for “kinship and pity” in our relationship with animals.

Cochrane, of course, would argue that a “humane” death is still a form of being killed and, therefore, a violation of animal rights. DeMello notes that animals raised for food are not given names the way we do our pets because “We do not eat those with whom we have a personal relationship.” Is this distinction between pets and food just a rationalization? In some parts of the world, as DeMello points out, dogs are raised for the dinner table.

The recent outrage at the discovery of horsemeat in some mixtures labeled as beef demonstrates all people might draw a line or make distinctions, refusing to eat certain kinds of meat, but for some people horsemeat is on the far side of the line. People in one culture are often disgusted by what members of a rival culture eat, often using such food as a term of derision; e.g., the English have called the French “frogs.” Yet few cultures, if any, don’t kill some nonhuman animal to satisfy their dietary preferences.

It may be that other animals, like other people, have a right not to be killed. Yet such a right will continue to be idealistic as humans continue to slaughter their fellow creatures for food, just as they continue to slaughter other humans for territory and resources, or because of religious beliefs, tribal hatreds, or just sadism. Some people may brood over the horrors of factory farming, as they sit at the dinner table taking a knife and fork to a leg of lamb or a porterhouse steak taken from humanely raised creatures.

Personally, I am convinced by Cochrane’s logic. Before reading him, I would have been satisfied by the similar positions of de Fontenay and DeMello. I was already buying range-free chickens, imagining happy creatures pecking away at grain with the run of the farmyard, unlike the factory-farmed fowls with severed beaks and flesh pumped with hormones. But now I cannot deny that after a few months of good times the range-free hen is still killed and hacked apart so I can devour a drumstick or a slice of white meat. And that’s not to speak of cattle, pigs, and sheep. Although they’re not common in suburban New Jersey, I have hiked among them in European fields and enjoyed their company, even made eye contact. I’d never consider butchering any one of them for a meal, and I don’t have to. I can survive without being a carnivore. Life is the ultimate right for both human and nonhuman animals. To conclude less is a rationalization.


Walter Cummins is the author of five short story collections and co-publisher of Serving House Books. His recent collection is The Lost Ones, from Del Sol Press. He teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. His reviews Seeking Creatural Diversity and The Worlds of the Ordinary appeared in Zeteo in July 2012 and November 2012 respectively.

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