Justice & Animals

Justice & Animals:

I prefer the company of serene turkey vultures overhead to that of a similar number of men, unless I can pick the particular men and am in the mood. Otherwise, I'll take the vultures every time. I know every dog within a mile of my house, though I know few of the owners. Wounded or frightened domestic animals follow me home, though they have never met me before. I've written about the joy of knowing horses, and of good dogs.

There are a number of reasons to feel that animals ought to be treated better than they often are. The world imposes hard limits on us, however. Consider the Humane Society: it began as a collection of caring people who wished to improve the lot of domestic animals. It has become the chief slaughterhouse for domestic dogs and cats. Precisely because it has undertaken to ensure their welfare, it must kill the ones for whom it cannot provide.

I mention this because of an article entitled "Animals and the Limits of Justice," by Paola Cavalieri. Cavalieri made her name by co-editing The Great Ape Project, an ambitious animal rights book that attempted to argue for extending human-style rights and protections to primates. In this latest work, Cavalieri argues that justice cannot really be achieved until we extend it to many other nonhuman species. Her summation holds:

Any arbitrarily limited justice creates and maintains by its own existence the existence conditions of injustice. This is, I believe, the kernel of truth that lies in the famous, and apparently mystical, dictum that no one is saved until everyone is saved.... Contra the Stoics, true justice can exist only if it is extended to (many) nonhuman beings.
I have a number of things to say about this article. I'll start by complimenting it. It is a beautiful piece. It does just what I like a work of philosophy to do: it starts with the Greeks, and does not limit itself to their philosophers, but explores also what their mythology tells us about the nature of their understanding.

In addition, I think it does a good job of disposing of large parts of the Stoic argument -- in her sections on absurdity, Cavalieri shows logical and disciplined reasons why many of the facets of the Stoic argument are improper and cannot be held seriously.

That said, she is finally, entirely, wrong. This is because she misunderstands both what justice is, and what the Stoics were saying.

But let us quote the Stoic position. They are holding that it is wrong to treat animals as equals:
Our opponents therefore say, in the first place, that justice will be confounded, and things immoveable be moved, if we extend what is just, not only to the rational, but also to the irrational nature; conceiving that not only Gods and men pertain to us, but that there is likewise an alliance between us and brutes, who [in reality] have no conjunction with us....

For he who uses these as if they were men, sparing and not injuring them, thus endeavoring to adapt to justice that which it cannot bear, both destroys its power, and corrupts that which is appropriate, by the introduction of what is foreign. For it necessarily follows, either that we act unjustly by [not] sparing them, or if we spare, and do not employ them, that it will be impossible for us to live. We shall also, after a manner, live the life of brutes, if we reject the use of which they are capable of affording.... For it would be impossible to assign any work, any medicine, or any remedy for the want which is destructive of life, or that we can act justly, unless we preserve the ancient law illustrated by Hesiod, a law by which, distinguishing the natural kinds and giving each class its special domain,

“To fishes, savage beasts, and birds, devoid
Of justice, Jove to devour each other
Granted; but justice to mankind he gave.”

i.e., toward each other.

But it is not possible for us to act unjustly towards those who cannot be just towards us. Hence, for those who reject this reasoning, no other road of justice is left, either broad or narrow, into which they can enter. For, as we have already observed, our nature, not being sufficient to itself, but indigent of many things, would be entirely destroyed, and enclosed in a life involved in difficulties, inorganic, and deprived of necessaries, if excluded from the assistance derived from animals.
I have highlighted the parts to which I will refer. As I said, there is much here that is not to the point, and I think Cavalieri has shown where those parts lie.

Yet these things remain, and undo her argument.

What is Justice?

Cavalieri offers Nussbaum's definition and Aristotle's. She disposes of Nussbaum early, but for different reasons than I would.
Martha Nussbaum states that, under the capabilities approach she favors - an approach stressing that individuals have the basic right to be “all that they can be” with the support of internal and external conditions - nonhumans, as conscious and purposive agents, do have entitlements based upon justice.
Cavaleri asserts that this is too little; I say it is too much.

Justice is a virtue that exists between parties. Normally, one party is being just to another. Nussbaum is speaking only of one party: a being is 'treated justly' if it has 'external and internal supports' that enable it to 'be all it can be.' If that is just treatment, who is treating it justly?

Who is providing these 'external' supports, and at what cost? This establishes who the real moral agent is in the situation. If justice is providing resources to others, then the recipient is not being just, but only being treated justly.

Who then is being just? Society, one supposes, since this is meant to be a universal formula: we are meant to treat everyone this way, and indeed (in Cavalieri's ideal) every animal.

Societies are not just or unjust. A society has no virtue, no morals, no heart, and no soul. It is a name we give to a collection of people. It is the people who have hearts and souls, morals and virtues. A society is not just or unjust. It is made up of people who are just or unjust. They pass laws, either justly or unjustly because of the people's intent. Those laws are applied justly or unjustly, because people apply them.

Thus, this vision of what justice might be cannot be correct. Justice cannot be measured in this way. Justice cannot be found in results. It has to be found in relationships. It is in how the people behave towards each other (or towards animals, to some degree -- we shall come to that). You cannot see it in the result, but in the process.

More, justice has a cost. What is the cost of paying for 'external supports' that enable you to 'be all you can be'? More, if you need expensive medicines than if you do not. If we pay for one man who needs hundreds of dollars a day in medicines, how many are not receiving this sort of care? Where is the money coming from? If it comes from taxes, does it not impair my ability to 'be all I can be' if you take away my resources? Is it just to help one man 'be all he can be,' by making many men be somewhat less than they might have been?

Cavalieri also cites Aristotle, with whom I normally agree. I disagree here, but I do not think the fault is Aristotle's, but that of language. Ancient Greek was a rich language, complex and capable of carrying many subtleties. Modern Greek, for example, has many fewer words. English is also a complex language, but we do not always have words that express precisely the same shades of meaning as the ancient Greek. When Aristotle says that justice means that "relevantly similar cases are to be treated alike," he is really speaking of something more precise than what we mean by "justice." The concept he is advocating here seems closer to "fairness," which is not the same as justice -- it is unfair that my neighbor escaped his traffic ticket since he was also guilty, but that does not make it unjust that I have to pay for mine.

What do we mean, then?

Justice is the virtue of using your power to achieve the kindest and most merciful result.

Several things flow from this definition:

1) Justice requires a sense of kindness and mercy.

2) Justice is limited by practical circumstances. It does not require a "kind" and "merciful" result, but the "kindest" and "most merciful" result that is possible and practical.

Return your mind to the Humane Society. The gentle-hearted souls who began it did not mean to slaughter kittens by the hundreds every year. Yet they do. Are they wicked? They are not -- no one feels the pain more than do they. Yet they know that, if they do not put down these children in a merciful way, they will starve or die of disease. This is not a kind or a merciful answer: but it is the kindest and most merciful.

3) Justice requires a power relationship. Cavalieri objects to this aspect, but there is no getting around it. She writes:
And, once stripped of its specific metaphysical background, the view that the sphere of justice should be limited by the interests of those to whom justice already applies reveals its true nature as an implicit appeal to privilege. What about the idea that, since we would (allegedly) live the life of slaves if we rejected their exploitation, we are entitled to maintain the institution of slavery?
Privilege, or power, is implicit in justice. If you have no power over another, you cannot treat them either justly or injustly. It is in the relationship, not the results, that the virtue lies. Indeed, that is why this particular virtue is a virtue.

The people of the Humane Society are acting justly, even though they are choosing a course that the animal would presumably not choose for itself (i.e., instant death). They and we are acting justly when we choose which animals will breed, and castrate or spay the others. We would not submit to a similar system ourselves -- would indeed resist it with all our power -- but it is nevertheless an act of justice.

I have known others -- Sovay in particular -- for whom this is not enough. For Sovay, she will do nothing that the animal would not choose (except spay or neuter, but let's set that aside for the moment). Yet the facts are the same for her. She can run her own personal 'no kill' shelter, and bless her for it -- no one living has said more in her praise than I have, and for good reasons I have seen with my own eyes. Yet still there are limits. She currently has, I believe, three dogs and four cats, all rescues except possibly one. This is the limit of what her resources will bear. This is all the justice she can afford.

The Humane Society, by contrast, will take all that come to them. Better that, they have decided, than to let these animals die in the streets (or breed in them). Many, most, end up having to be killed. They have chosen to be responsible -- they have taken the power that goes with responsibility -- and it carries this price. This is the most justice they can afford.

The Stoics

This is where the Stoics were right. First, to be just requires a sense of kindness and mercy. It also requires power.

Animals are outside the human conception of justice, because of their nature. They have no sense of kindness or mercy, and they do not have the capacity to obtain dominion over others -- save that sort of dominion that is quickly resolved, for the purpose of nutrition.

We do. We are different. There is no equine Aristotle.

Insofar as justice is to be extended to animals, it will forever be us "being just," and them "being treated justly." That being the case, we must do what we can practically afford. We can treat a few animals very well, or many animals as well as we can manage -- which may mean that we can only kill them painlessly. That is the choice that this world presents us.

This leads to the last and worst thing about justice I have to offer.

Justice is not the normal condition of the world. It is something to which we aspire, but can only achieve conditionally, in some cases. Most of the time, in most of the aspects of the universe, there is neither justice nor an interest in justice.

I seem to remember reading somewhere a slogan, which was deeply wise:

We should not expect justice. The best we can hope for is an occasional lapse in injustice.

That is the world we have.

UPDATE: There's a parallel discussion at Winds of Change. David Blue questioned me over the use of the word "dominion." Dominion can mean merely 'control,' which of course animals do practice, and is called dominance. I intended the word in the sense of exercising perfect power, as over a dominion of land:
You raise a good point about dominion. The word choice may be confusing. Horses, and dogs, and others, of course practice dominance in groups. What I meant by dominion was the larger quality to decide, as humans do for so many species, every aspect of their existence. A wolf or a horse who exercises dominance is doing so according to preset, instinctive rules. He does not have the power to change even his own society: he is only filling a role that his group is hardwired to require.

An animal can exercise perfect power of that sort only in killing another. Men, on the other hand, have the power to take wild cattle and make veal; to take wild dogs and make Shi Tzu; or to take horses from Mongolia and make hotblooded Arabians suited to the desert. We can order our own society as we like, and to a large degree we can order the lives of others too: deciding who will breed and who will not, making breeds and species larger or smaller, faster or slower, and indeed now altering their hormones and increasingly their genetics for our purposes.

I hope that clarifies what was meant by the word.

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