The expanding circle

Animal welfare and the protection of the biosphere

No other living specie exerts greater influence than humankind on the environment around it. Overwhelming scientific consensus keeps reminding us the consequences of such an influence and the fragility of resources as nebulous and only superficially limitless as the biosphere and the stock of resources on planet Earth, and calls us to responsibility to protect them.

The concept of specism defines “the assumption according to which human beings are superior in status and value to other animals, and as such are entitled to more rights than them”. One of the fiercest opponents of such an idea is philosopher Peter Singer (6th July 1946 - ), and one of the most successful arguments he advanced against specism is the so-called expanding circle. Such concept takes root in the idea of plasticity and historicity of human morality, whose boundaries have been progressively stretched to include categories of individuals that were beforehand simply outside the field of moral consideration (and as such cut off from rights and possibilities acknowledged and offered to those inside that field). Such principle has been used to account for, amongst other things, the abolition of slavery (which would originate from a paradigm shift within the evaluation of slaves, rather than a juridical acknowledgement of their rights in a theoretical sense), and offers the potential to keep expanding the circle of individuals to whom we should offer moral consideration; this would allow, in due time, to arrive at a point in which humanity surpasses a specist conception of the animal kingdom and of the biosphere as a whole and starts avoiding looking to both as piles of resources there to be exploited and expended at its exclusive leisure. Animal welfare, whose most basic idea is to extend the equalitarian principle we recognize to other fellow humans to non-human animals too, would find a niche in such a field.

The moral vision and consideration we reserve to other human beings can be expanded to include new subjects; this does not entail, of course, the same treatment for everyone: humans and non-human animals are different living beings and would be impossible to just fit homologate them. What they have in common, though, is their capacity to suffer and the fact that such possibility highlights their common interests (they share, as an example, the common interest to avoid or minimize their own suffering). What differentiates suffering animals from suffering humans would then just be the boundary of our circle of moral consideration, which denies to us the chance to consider one of the two categories as bearing interests in the very same manner as, just a few centuries in the past, it denied the chance to recognize suffering slave as the same of suffering citizen.

Singer goes on to state that in a field of naturalized ethics there is no space for some animal being more equal than others just because human beings (the only beneficiaries of such a favorable treatment) lack any special kind of dignity or worth by virtue of being part of a particular species alone.

Anthropocentrism, by that meaning the concept of humankind as the focal point of the world, is to Singer a concept to abandon; its assumption are lacking and incapable of justifying why we should consider Homo Sapiens as entitled to interests more worthy of consideration than other species, and as such there is no reason allowing to attribute it any priority compared to the well-being of the biosphere or, more generally, of the system-planet in which we find ourselves to live. Such assumptions demand, perhaps even before widespread political action, a shift of our forma mentis to a stance of greater responsibility and accountability: it is no longer sustainable to just exploit limited (and low, as of now) resources without weighing how such actions will impact the future; it is essential to begin weighing the pros and cons and to try keeping an eye on the potential consequences and (within the limits of our foresight) the interactions of interests and necessities that may end up conflicting.

The consideration of interests of non-human animals must not brings us the think that them and humans share the same identical necessities; by virtue of their differences, in fact, it is necessary to adopt solutions and answers that can be weighted and calibrated on each specific case. We must act as if we were internal to the system, as we indeed are, rather than the detached and imperturbable and external observers we (may) wish to be. The planet as a whole (including the presence of plants and animals) is a complex conglomerate of realities that interact and influence one another in a non-linear fashion such as, to borrow words from Jane Bennet’s (31th July 1957 - ) Vibrant Matter (USA, Duke University Press, 2010), an assemblage defined as: “[…] ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within” (ivi, p. 24).

We cannot forecast the entity of the long-term consequences of what we accomplish today, and only in recent times the consequences of decades of bad resource management are starting to manifest in any meaningful (and distressing) way: it is as such of primary importance to act with caution in order to avoid depriving the assemblage “planet Earth” of elements that may cause unforeseen reactions. Even before advancing propositions and laying down plans and long-term strategies to mitigate the damages caused in recent times in a direct (suffice to think to the effects of global warming, or to sceneries that lead to extinction specific groups of animals) or indirect (the recent catastrophe that invested Australia) way, it is necessary to change the way we think: where there are no hierarchies, such as within an assemblage, it is mandatory to keep an eye out for and pay attention to compared interests, even at the cost of give some way to others from time to time.


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