AR Philosophy > Debating AR

Response: Sept. 2005 response to points 5 and 7 from reader Jake

The Top 10 Stupid Arguments in Defense of Animal Exploitation
— And How to Respond to Them

Henry Cohen

Trying to argue someone into accepting animal rights can be very frustrating. Although reason and logic certainly favor animal rights, no one is ever persuaded to support animal rights solely through reason and logic. This is because reason, as the philosopher David Hume said, is the slave of the passions. A person's passions must predispose him toward animal rights before reason will persuade him.

But what determines whether a person's passions predispose him toward animal rights? There are many factors, probably both genetic and environmental; the latest finding is that laterborn siblings tend to be more open to new ideas—presumably including animal rights—than are firstborns and only children.

In any case, for those whose passions predispose them toward animal rights, the effective use of reason may push them to support it. Even such persons, however, are raised to eat and to wear animals and to be relatively unconcerned with animals' well-being. Even they, therefore, will tend at first to resist arguments for animal rights. They will come back with arguments of their own, but these arguments are extraordinarily weak and easy to refute—if you are prepared. So let's be prepared. The following list includes some of the most common arguments animal rights advocates hear, and suggested responses to them.

1. How do we know that plants do not feel pain? Must we stop eating altogether? Plants do not have brains, and pain has never been known to exist in the absence of a brain. It is also highly unlikely, from an evolutionary standpoint, that plants would have developed the capacity to feel pain, because plants cannot flee from danger. Anyone who is concerned that plants feel pain, however, must become a vegetarian. This is because far more plants are killed to raise farm animals than are killed if humans eat plants directly.

2. Animals eat other animals, so meat-eating is natural. Apart from the fact that factory farming is hardly "natural," this argument overlooks that humans, unlike other animals, have evolved the capacity to make moral judgments. We do not usually use animals as our role models in matters of morality. Lions are not immoral if they kill deer; we are.

3. We can't just release all the farm animals and laboratory animals into the streets. This is not a real-life problem, because meat eaters, vivisectors, and other animal exploiters are not, unfortunately, all going to stop at once.

4. If everyone became a vegetarian, all the people in the meat business would become unemployed. Everyone has to eat, so new jobs in the vegetable, fruit, and grain, and nut businesses would be created.

5. More animals are given the gift of life because we use them for food or for experiments. This "logic" would justify parents in abusing and even killing their own children. In addition, it is highly questionable whether animals raised in factory farms or laboratories are better off for having been born.

6. Why aren't you helping people? This question, carried to its logical conclusion, implies that everyone must, at every moment, be engaged in the single most important activity imaginable, whatever that is. But we do not ask someone who is seeking a cure for muscular dystrophy why he is not seeking a cure for cancer or AIDS. Of course, the question can also be turned on the person asking it: why aren't you helping people?

7. How do you know animals feel pain? Humans and other animals have common ancestors, and therefore have similar nervous systems, and exhibit similar responses to similar stimuli. There is no more reason to believe that animals do not feel pain than to believe that other humans do not feel pain. Of course, we cannot know that animals feel pain, but then we cannot know that other humans do either, or even that they exist. You might be a figment of my imagination.

8. Are your shoes leather? This is an ad hominem argument—an attack on the speaker, instead of on what he is saying. Of course, you can best counteract this argument by not wearing leather shoes. If you are wearing leather, though, you can respond that leather is a by-product, and that, if animals were not raised for meat, they would not be raised solely for leather. And you don't (of course) eat meat.

9. Humans' lives are worth more than animals' lives. Don't get caught in the trap of arguing this point, because you can concede it and still consistently advocate the end of all animal exploitation. The only time it matters whose life is worth more is when you have to decide whom to save from a burning building, and when was the last time you faced that decision?

10. Animal experimentation can cure human diseases. Unless you are a qualified physician or scientist, you are not in a position to deny this, although you can point out that the real question is not whether animal experiments can cure diseases; it is whether they can cure them better than non-animal experiments. You could also argue that, even if animal experimentation can cure human diseases, that does not make it justifiable, as human experimentation might cure diseases too. But this argument may get you dismissed as a fanatic. It is best to argue that, even if some animal experimentation can cure human diseases and is defensible for that reason, it constitutes a tiny percentage of all animal experimentation, not to mention of all other animal exploitation. Ask your questioner how he or she can defend cosmetic testing, meat eating, fur wearing, and all the other exploitation of animals that confers no important benefit on humans. Once we stop these abuses, we can address beneficial animal experimentation, if it exists.