The Fallacies of Egoism and Altruism, and the Fundamental Principle of Morality
For those who have never heard of friesian.com, it is THE source for philosophical knowledge on the internet. BAR NONE. And not because I like this article or whatever, I've been using this site for over 10 years and it is always amazing how much I can learn from it.
The ability to enter into contracts, and to respect interests of person, property, and contract, is the mark of a rational being. Since animals lack abilities in some or all of these respects, they are not rational beings. That is different from judging them incompetent: they are not incompetent rational beings, simply competent animals. As such they cannot be persons in the same sense as human beings. Their personhood, however, can be defined differently than as identical with that of a rational being. An animal may be a sentient being, i.e. able to perceive and suffer. Respect for sentient beings imposes duties not to gratuitously or maliciously inflict suffering. This means that there are "animal rights"; but animal rights cannot be the same as the rights of persons in morality as given above. For animals cannot respect the rights of others and must lose some rights, at least, in consequence.
Nelson distinguished between beings as "subjects of rights" and as "subjects of duties." He denied that animals are subjects of duties (since they are not rational), but also affirmed that animals are subjects of the same rights as rational beings. This cannot be so, not just because bears, lions, and sharks cannot be allowed to roam around eating people (which they would do with, for them, complete innocence), but because animals do not exist at the same level of consciousness, of existence, as rational beings. Indeed, there is a continuum of levels of consciousness, and animals at the higher end are worthy of more respect, thereby possessing more rights. As Schopenhauer said, a human being suffers more from a mosquito bite than a mosquito does in being killed by the human. A mosquito is very low on the scale even of sentient beings, and thus has a life that is respected by virtually no human beings (apart from the Jains in India, who accord equal dignity and rights even to the smallest insects and bacteria). Since human beings are natural omnivores, and have over the centuries artifically bred many species (like cattle) for food or clothing, there is no intuitive or prima facie moral claim for vegetarianism. Whether animals have rights to the extent that they should not be eaten or otherwise used by humans leads, however, off into more general questions about respect for the dignity of beings in general and what kinds of duties are imposed by any objects as goods-in-themselves.
Even if objects are neither rational nor sentient, their dignity can impose duties, e.g. not to vandalize nature. Since beauty, sentient beings, and rational beings are all goods-in-themselves, this indicates how morality and ethics are actually embedded in aesthetics, the theory of goods-in-themselves, and gives us a clue about the source of moral duty: that some goods-in-themselves simply involve moral duties, perhaps of different types. Goods-in-themselves are ends-in-themselves that restrict action to different degrees, imposing different degrees of respect. Animal rights advocates (e.g. PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who think that animals must be treated with the very same respect as people, or environmentalists who think that nature must be treated in much the same way, forbidding human "exploitation" of nature (e.g. Earth First!), have absolutized the value of sentient beings or natural objects to the same level as rational beings. No human cultures, except perhaps the Jains, have done anything quite like this -- and the Jains, who refuse even to be farmers, are absolutely dependent for life on the activities of others. Even hunting cultures, who respect their prey as spirits or gods, nevertheless still kill them. They simply do so reverentially (as one sees Russell Means, one of the activists in the American Indian Movement, doing at the beginning of the 1992 movie The Last of the Mohicans) -- though "reverentially," paradoxically, could even mean ritually torturing them. D'Arcy Moses, a Montreal fashion designer who works in furs at Natural Furs International, refuses to concede the ethical case of anti-fur activists precisely because he relies on the principles of his own background -- he is a Canadian Indian -- where furs are essential to life and pose no moral difficulty. Moses deliberately uses "Native" design motifs in his work. Although anti-fur enthusiasm was once common in the fashion industry, it has now receded.
The modern objection may be less to the killing and use of animals or the use of nature than to the mass culture and the division of labor which now means that animals are raised in vast numbers on farms by corporations and killed in slaughterhouses rather than given individual attention by consumers. It may, indeed, be reasonably questioned whether "reverence" is possible under the conditions of mass production. In Japan, where business and production are usually still protected by the Shintô kami (gods), to the point of having Shintô shrines even in laundromats, one may say that the old observances survive even in modern form. However, in the United States this is usually not regarded as desirable: Religion is being actively driven out of business, since a specifically Shintô, Christian, or Jewish workplace is regarded by law as religiously discriminatory (a "civil rights" offense). At some point such paradoxes are going to have be resolved: if reverence is demanded for animals and nature, then traditional sources of reverence will have to be respected also. One often suspects, however, that anti-corporate and anti-modern activists would look more benignly on Shintô-blessed business than on a Christian-blessed one, out of bias and antipathy against monotheistic religions of transcendent reverence, like Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm, which devalue nature in relation to God.
I don't think these activists are biased against Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm[?] because they "devalue nature in relation to God." They are biased against them because they are Western philosophies, while Shintoism is an Eastern philosophy. Activists may invent ideological reasons to justify their biases, but it is used to disguise a mere and thinly-disguised hatred for all things Western or Westernized.
Also, Western activists don't live in the Shintoist culture. Since it's not part of their culture, they are not likely to have developed much unreasonable resentment against it.