Letter to the Editor: New welfare war
I read with great interest the September 2009 article, "The New Welfare War." Veterinarians are appropriately heavily invested in animal welfare, and society will place increased demands upon us to take positions on these concerns. I was disappointed, however, to see no mention in the article of the central—and the most contentious—ethical issue in the debate: animal rights. Most veterinarians would like to sidestep any mention of animal rights, preferring the less philosophical and more pragmatic idea of welfare, but we must be equipped to offer answers to those who hold to the notion that animals have rights.
The idea of "speciesism," indicating prejudice against animals because they are not human, considered akin to racism and sexism, was once a fringe view made famous by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. It has become more mainstream. Even veterinary ethicists have latched onto the idea. Animals, because of their ability to feel pain, are granted an equivalent moral status to humans. Most veterinarians would not embrace this view, but it fills the animal-rights literature.
While many veterinarians would like to consider themselves animal rights moderates, such a position may be untenable. If we embark down the slippery slope that grants animals rights, we transfer a human concept to nonhumans that are unable to be moral agents. With rights come responsibilities, and it is inappropriate and unreasonable to extend this to animals.However, animals should be afforded some level of moral status, and it should be a high view for the animals who serve as companions, food and clothing for us. Humans have strong obligations to animals. Veterinarians should lead the charge for compassionate, responsible care and husbandry for animals. This can be accomplished without use of the loaded language of rights.
The author correctly states that "veterinarians are taking advantage of flying under the legal radar," in the traditional environment where the amount pet owners spend on care far outpaces their value as "property." If animals have rights, which, frankly, many of us as small-animal veterinarians seem to at least imply when we make recommendations based on the pet's place as a "family member," then we must be willing to face the legal consequences if we violate those rights.
Within our profession, many of us need to get off the fence in how we view the rights of animals, or we'll face confusion and embarrassment in legal and ethical challenges. We must enter the public discourse with a clear and distinct understanding of animal rights versus our obligations to animals.
—JERRY L. RISSER, DVM