Monday, July 10, 2017

Ethics: Our evolving understanding of animal rights

Photo by Rick Eh? — Used under Creative Commons License

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, December 15, 2003 by William A. Selke

In May [2003], a letter appeared in The Berkshire Eagle as part of a continuing debate as to whether the Housatonic should be stocked with trout or with smallmouth bass. While other writers had argued about the sporting merits of the different breeds, and which fish would survive long enough to be caught, this letter spoke of the "standard of ethical treatment of the stocked trout." Then, a few weeks later, a letter appeared decrying the exploitation of animals in circuses, the writer identifying herself as a member of People for the ETHICAL Treatment of Animals. Was the re-appearance of that word, ethical, coincidence, or was it a manifestation of a vast animal rights conspiracy? This is a report of my findings. That key word, ethical, is defined as: "pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality: pertaining to right and wrong in conduct." The writers using it were presumably among a growing number who feel, deeply, what is moral and what is right-and-wrong in our relationships with other creatures. Their position has evolved over a considerable period, not steadily, but, it seems, in fits and starts.

Humane folk have probably always been kind to their own animals, and sometimes encouraged others to do the same. Concern about the mistreatment of livery horses led to the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England in 1824. Right-thinking Americans traveling in England noted the success of that organization, and copied it with the founding of the ASPCA shortly after.