Despite the significant differences separating the philosophy of animal rights and other, more traditional moral theories, such as Kant's, there are important similarities. For example, like Kant's theory, the philosophy of animal rights recognizes the noninstrumental value of the individual; and animal rights philosophy, as is true not only of Kant's theory but of utilitarianism as well, articulates an abstract, universal, and impartial fundamental moral principle—abstract because the respect principle enjoins us to treat others with respect, without regard to time, or place, or circumstance; universal because the respect principle applies to everyone capable of making moral decisions; and impartial because this principle does not favor some individuals (e.g., family members or companion animals) over others. Some contemporary moral philosophers find this approach to ethics archaic; among these critics, some of those who classify themselves as deep ecologists (see, in particular, Devall and
Sessions) command a growing audience. (For a more systematic and in some ways different version of deep ecology, see Naess. For importantly different approaches to environmental ethics, see Taylor; Rolston; Callicott, 1980.)
Both traditional moral theories and the philosophy of animal rights are doubly to be faulted, according to Devall and Sessions—first, because these moral outlooks offer an overly intellectualized account of the moral life, and second, because they perpetuate the myth of the moral preeminence of the individual. Considering this latter charge first, Devall and Sessions argue that the concept of the isolated, atomistic individual, which arises out of the anthropocentric traditions of Western philosophy, is false to the facts of all life's embeddedness in the larger life community. People are not independent bits of mind existing by themselves; they are enmeshed in networks of relationships that bind them both to their evolutionary past and to their ecological present. Expressed another way, humans do not stand "above" or "apart from" nature; they stand "within" nature. And the natural world does not exist "for us," as a storehouse of renewable human resources (a view that is symptomatic of a "shallow" view of humanity's relationship to nature); we are inseparable from the natural environment (a view that indicates a "deeper" understanding of what it means to be human).
Thus, acceptance of the illusory concept of the isolated individual, existing outside the natural order, has done, and continues to do, incalculable damage to those who seek self-understanding. So long as we carry out this quest with a fundamentally flawed preconception of our place in the larger scheme of things, the longer we search, the less we will understand. As for the charge that traditional moral theories overintellectualize the moral life, Devall and Sessions argue that the moral life should be viewed as primarily experiential, not inferential, a life that is characterized by our coming to experience certain values in the concrete particularities of day-to-day life, rather than by apprehending abstract, universal, impartial moral principles by means of our rational powers.
Among those values to be found in the concrete particularities of day-to-day life, some involve other animals; and although deep ecologists have not written extensively on some of the most pressing practical issues, the general disdain these thinkers display toward reductionist science and industrial societies' technological domination of the natural world suggests that they would be strong reformists, at a minimum, in response to such practices as factory farming and animal model research. In the case of sport and recreational hunting, however, Devall and Sessions not only find nothing wrong, they applaud the practice. In pursuit of their prey, hunters tap into natural means whereby, through the act of killing, they can obtain greater self-understanding. Viewed in this light, Devall and Sessions seem to understand our duties with respect to animals as indirect duties limited by the overarching quest for self-knowledge. While, therefore, deep ecologists like Sessions and Devall can be counted upon to add their voices to those of reformists and abolitionists in some cases, they emerge as defenders of the status quo in others.
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