Confucian Virtue Ethics vs. Animal Rights & the Predation Problem

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July-August 13:

Confucian Virtue Ethics vs. Animal Rights & the Predation Problem by Wolf Clifton

Steve Cooke, author of the Thrifty Philosopher blog, in a recent installment entitled Animal Rights & The Predation Problem demonstrated the fallacy of attempting to devise a perfectly coherent, all-encompassing ethical philosophy perhaps especially as regards a topic as diverse as the range of human relationships with animals, across the spectrum of species.

Even the most elegant ethical systems, when taken to logical extremes, lead to absurdities which contradict any normal person’s moral intuition. Examples include the utilitarian theoretical conclusion that a doctor should kill one healthy patient and harvest his organs to save six sick ones; Immanuel Kant’s deontological view that lying is evil even to protect others; or, in this case, that humans are morally obliged to kill predatory animals to save their prey, a perspective which has actually been enshrined in law at various times and places, albeit exempting predation by humans. The agency now known as USDA Wildlife Services, for instance, was originally formed in 1930 as “Animal Damage Control”, with a mandate to kill wild predators simply because predators kill livestock and hunted species.

Physicists struggle to map universal rules for physical phenomena. The rules they have found mostly take the form of complex mathematical formulae which are believed to be approximately true only under certain conditions. And it is often said that the human brain is the most complex physical system known to exist. Is it not vanity, then, to think that such lofty, abstract things as human thoughts, values, and ideals can be neatly confined to simple logical propositions?

The Japanese Confucian scholar Okada Takehiko, when asked by University of Colorado professor of religious studies Rodney Taylor in 1983 to comment on the issue of animal experimentation and whether it is justified to sacrifice animal lives in developing treatments that might benefit a far greater number of humans, suggested an alternative to relying on rigidly formulated ethical codes in making moral decisions. The idea of unlimited use of animals as well as the position that no animals may be used, both of these are extreme ideas. With the mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others, the problem will resolve itself. In some cases we need to differentiate between man and animals. In other cases it is important to see man and animals as the same. Thus the cases themselves change, and we need to be able to respond to such circumstances based on the mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others.

Confucian ethical philosophy, which bears some resemblance to Aristotelian virtue ethics in the West, holds that the human conscience not the rational mind or some external agent such as a deity is the origin of morality. Thus ethical decisions are best made not primarily through logic, but by cultivating one’s own moral intuition, with logic playing an important but secondary role in the practices of moral self-improvement.

If one practices virtues such as honesty, compassion, and respect in daily life, one will over time become an intrinsically virtuous person. As such, faced with an extreme moral dilemma, one will thus be capable of acting intuitively and making a responsible decision without necessarily relying on logical argumentation.

Not rights but empathy

For Okada, the solution to moral dilemmas involving animals begins not with whether or not animals have intrinsic rights, but with the truth that most humans naturally empathize with the suffering of others, including animals even if this empathy is often blunted or destroyed through cultural conditioning and desensitization.

Just as a Confucian-inspired ethical approach to animal experimentation would begin with a cultivated sense of compassion for both the people and animals involved, the answer to the predation problem lies in empathizing not just with the fleeing prey animal, but also with the hungry predator and the entire ecosystem of interconnected creatures of which both are a part.

From this perspective, it would be ethically consistent both to compassionately minimize one’s own exploitation of animals, which may involve anything from subsistence hunting to strict veganism depending on living conditions and resource availability, and to avoid policing nature by interfering with other creatures’ predation of one another.

Also relevant is the issue of associative duties, which Cooke dismisses but Confucianism accepts on the basis that a sense of kinship, and of greater obligation to those closest to oneself, is a natural element of human moral intuition.

A compassionate decision concerning animal experimentation or predation does not necessarily require equal compassion for all parties. Accepted societal obligations toward other humans, not shared with animals in nature, or a special relationship to a given prey animal, for example a pet one feels obligated to protect from predators, would also carry weight in a cultivated Confucian moral decision.

But feeling greater responsibility toward one party does not mean one should feel zero responsibility to the other. Even if human health is judged to take priority, that doesn’t mean one should not also work to minimize the use of experimental animals and their suffering. Even if one is obliged to protect his or her dog or cat against a coyote, that does not justify killing the predator if other options are available.

Admittedly this is a very subjective approach to ethics, but it does not require abandoning more logically rigorous philosophical thought. Even in virtue ethics philosophies, the selection of virtues to cultivate is largely guided by rational calculation. Within the legal sphere, which requires clearly-defined rules and penalties equally applicable to everyone, it is certainly safer to base laws on a strict system of ethical maxims than to trust lawmakers and enforcers to always cultivate and follow their own consciences.

Nonetheless, even the most systematic ethical codes are the product of human thought and thus intrinsically subjective and subject to error when applied dogmatically. Inevitably there are exceptions to every rule. This is why juries exist in courtrooms, to provide an element of conscience (and adaptation) to correct for the limitations and rigidities of the law. Confucian writings offer some intriguing proposals for a system of government rooted in moral self-cultivation, but do not disregard the need for consistent governance.

In exercising personal morality, it is best to acknowledge the intrinsic subjectivity of ethics, rather than treating any ethical code as absolute and inviolable. Confucian philosophy teaches how, by practicing virtue in our daily lives, we can develop a moral intuition rooted in rather than weakened by such subjectivity, and capable of acting in difficult situations even when philosophy falls short. This requires the courage to act even when the path is not clear-cut, the humility to admit mistakes and accept that even the best possible decisions may not yield perfect results, and respect for the moral intuition of others who, acting on their own best instincts, may make different choices than oneself.

WOLF CLIFTON  Special Contributor

wolfie-young-manPractically from infancy Wolf Clifton, a member of the AP family in both spirit and biology, has contributed art and other materials to enhance the publication. A recent graduate from Vanderbilt, he still carves up some time to send illustrations and articles on various subjects. His latest essay, The Evolution and Natural History of Dogs is now available in our blog section. In 2009 Clifton won the best animation on animal rights award for his film Yudisthira s Dog at the Third International Rights Film Festival in Kharkov, Ukraine,   during the week of December 12-19,  2009.   Produced in the style of an Indonesian shadow puppet play, and with narration by Nanditha Krishna, the film premiered at Asia for Animals 2008 in Bali, Yudisthira s Dog may be viewed at <>.

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