How should we treat non-human animals (and I insist on the 'non-human' modifier to emphasize our own inclusion in the animal kingdom)? Or, more generally, how should we figure out how to treat them? NHAs cannot tell us how they're doing and are almost entirely incapable of fighting back, but are (or at least some of them probably are) capable of being hurt. Indeed, if you were to add up, as a utilitarian would, all the suffering occurring on this planet at this instant, the bulk of it may well be among our livestock animals. Our treatment of NHAs is a major thorn in contemporary society's side. (cf PETA) I say this as someone who has been advocating for better treatment of NHAs, particularly livestock animals, for several years now. The reactions I get range from awkward embarrassment to outright hostility at the mere thought of caring about other species.
I bring this up now in response to our discussion about Dewey as a test for the experimentation, reflection, and deliberation he advocates, which has some support here. I am curious as to whether the ethics Dewey represents and utilitarianism actually reach different conclusions in practice. I suspect the treatment of NHAs will serve as a worthy example topic because it is one which utilitarians harshly criticize widespread contemporary practice. If Dewey's ethic sides with the popular practice, I will harshly reject it. However, if it sides with utilitarianism, then perhaps we're all arguing over nothing.
A good reading on this is the Posner-Singer debate. Singer is a utilitarian ethicist and leading figure in the NHA welfare movement. Posner is a judge who cares about NHA welfare but rejects Singer's views. The key philosophical difference between the two is on the moral relevance of species membership. Singer argues (and I agree) it has none, that the only morally relevant matter is wellbeing. Posner, however, argues that it does have relevance, and that we should support our own species (and cats should support cats).
Posner says this in his rejection of the idea that we should sacrifice human wellbeing for even greater NHA wellbeing. He is unclear on the matter, because he recommends some such sacrifice, but not "too much", without any specification of what constitutes "too much". We can, if we'd like, never define such terms and always just make them up as we go along. (Perhaps this is Dewey's experimental approach?) But, I would argue, this leaves us vulnerable to anyone doing anything and then arguing that to do otherwise would be "too much" of a sacrifice. Can the experimental approach find limits to sacrifice? Alternatively, in the absence of well-defined limits, how would it judge what's best? If by deliberation, what if deliberation reaches gridlock? What if deliberation reaches wretched conclusions, such as accepting widespread livestock suffering?
I also have a problem with Posner's us-against-them ideology because it promotes (or at least doesn't prevent) conflict. Would he recommend that cats hurt us, if this was in their interest? (Posner recommends humans hurting dogs here.) Furthermore, Posner does not stop with species: "Americans have distinctly less feeling for the pains and pleasures of foreigners than of other Americans". (same link) When the interests of nations conflict, and both nations insist on doing what's best for them, if they are more evenly matched, war often breaks out. However, if there is a power imbalance, we get oppression. In human-NHA conflicts, the power imbalance is so large that we end up with today's massive-scale factory farming in which hideous treatment of NHAs is legally sanctioned and so thoroughly accepted that those who speak out against it are, for the most part, social outcasts.
Or at least they used to be. Thanks to people like Singer (and many non-utilitarians too), supporting NHA welfare is more socially acceptable, if still not widespread. Posner himself is no outcast but a highly-respected intellectual. He says this:
What is needed to persuade us to alter our treatment of animals is not philosophy, let alone an atheistic philosophy (for one of the premises of your argument is that we have no souls) in a religious nation, but to learn to feel animals' pains as our pains and to learn that (if it is a fact, which I don't know) we can alleviate those pains without substantially reducing our standard of living and that of the rest of the world and without sacrificing medical and other scientific progress. Most of us, especially perhaps those of us who have lived with animals, have sufficient empathy for the suffering of animals to support the laws that forbid cruelty and neglect. We might go further if we knew more about animal feelings and about the existence of low-cost alternatives to pain-inflicting uses of animals. And so to expand and invigorate the laws that protect animals will require not philosophical arguments for reducing human beings to the level of the other animals but facts, facts that will stimulate a greater empathetic response to animal suffering and facts that will alleviate concern about the human costs of further measures to reduce animal suffering. (same link)
Setting aside the matter of religion, let me note that to improve livestock animal welfare, we'd need to either change our diets to reduce our consumption of animal products or pay more for them. Whether this constitutes a "substantial" reduction in our standard of living depends on what we consider "substantial". I have changed my diet, and while I did enjoy eating meat, I find my life still good (except, ironically, when people give me a hard time for my vegetarianism- and yes, this happens, and not infrequently). Also note that Posner, loathe he appears to be to admit it, is himself engaging in philosophy, just of a different sort than Singer. Any time we talk about what we should or shouldn't do, we are discussing ethics, even if these discussions don't resemble those of professional philosophers.
Should we adopt, as Posner recommends here, an empathy-based ethics system? One objection to basing our ethics on empathy is that our empathy is often paradoxical and unsatisfactory, as Singer himself points out in The drowning child and the expanding circle. While this example concerns only humans, it can readily be extended to NHA treatment: What when our empathies are blind to widespread NHA suffering (and they very often are)? How do we know how far to extend our empathies, were we to attempt such a project? We may be back in similar territory as above in imprecisely placing limits.
If we may accept an ad hominem argument, note that the rest of the time, Posner belongs to the (I would say) notorious Chicago school of economics, notorious for its incessant determination to place monetary value on everything. (Here, Posner argued that humanity's existence is worth about 600 trillion dollars. Would we sell our existence for this sum? What would we do with all the money?) I bring up his affiliation with the Chicago school because it would recommend anything but empathy as the foundation for our decisions. Indeed, the school could be in some sense considered a strand of utilitarianism gone wrong. It's certainly "atheist" as Posner would use the term.
I'll end here with questions: How would you recommend treating NHAs, or, more generally, how would you go about deciding how to treat NHAs? In particular, what would you do if broad discussion among humans lead to the conclusion (and it very well could) that we should keep the status quo of widespread NHA cruelty?
...Two great readings on NHA wellbeing- itself a challenging and fascinating scientific question- are Can fish suffer?: perspectives on sentience, pain, fear and stress (pdf) by K.P. Chandroo, I.J.H. Duncan, R.D. Moccia, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 86 (2004) 225-250; and The Moral Standing of Insects and the Ethics of Extinction by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, The Florida Entomologist, Vol. 70, No. 1. (Mar., 1987), pp. 70-89. Briefly, these conclude that fish are probably conscious (and thus capable of suffering) and insects might be.