Let’s suppose that you and I are standing on the top of six-story building, each holding a brand new baseball of exactly the same size, shape, and mass. As an experiment, you throw your baseball straight up into the air, and I throw mine straight down to the ground. Assuming that we use our special baseball throwing skills to throw both balls from exactly the same height, at exactly the same speed, which ball will be moving faster when it hits the ground?
Intuition provides the obvious answer, the ball I’ve thrown straight down will be moving faster when it hits the ground. No need for any fancy theories or complicated systems of thought here, some things are easy enough to understand without them.
That’s the same argument you’ll get from people, especially other advocates who disagree with you, when you ask them to consider different theories about animal rights. They’ll tell you that the questions about animal rights are known to everyone and, more importantly, that the answers to those questions are as plain as day. They’ll tell you that complicated systems of thought aren’t necessary and that “thought leaders” in the movement aren’t doing us, or the other animals, any good. After all, what theories does one need to understand to know that how we treat other animals is just wrong?
The problem for other animals as clear as the problem of the two baseballs.
But, rather than showing why theories are unnecessary, the problem of the two baseballs shows exactly why we all need to carefully consider and understand the philosophies and theories of animal rights.
As I am sure many of those reading this post know well by now, our intuition about the solution to the problem of the two baseballs is wrong. Despite one of the baseballs being thrown straight up and one being thrown straight down, it is a fact that the baseballs will be travelling at exactly the same speed at the moment they both hit the ground. The ball thrown straight up will take longer to get there, but when it gets to the ground, it will be going just as fast as the other ball. Without going into the equations involved, the easiest way to visualize this is to consider that as the ball first travels upward, it slows down until it reverses direction. It then picks up speed as it falls, and when it passes the point in space it was originally thrown from, it is going just as fast as it was when it was thrown – only now in the downward direction – and that is the same speed as the other ball had in the downward direction when it began. The trip up and down from the initial point just brings the ball to the same starting position, at the same speed, as the other ball, so from there down it will continue to pick up speed at exactly the same rate as the other ball. It will end its downward journey traveling just as fast as the other ball, although the total trip takes slightly longer.
There are theories about the laws of physics which explain all this. When one understands those theories and those laws, which in their basic form are easy enough to understand (if I can understand them, almost anyone can), then one can know something about the world around them, and how best to interact in and with it.
And here, finally, is the important part!
Because we can know the theory – and because when the theory is well constructed, well thought out, subjected to scrutiny and the questioning of others, and when it stands up to those tests – we can reject our intuitions whenever they are in contradiction with the theory. Whatever at first we might want to think about the speed of the two baseballs, we know that we can reject any idea except that they will be travelling at the same speed when they hit the ground. It will be of no use to argue differently, because the theory is correct, and there is no escaping it.
In the case of animal rights, our intuition tugs at us and wants us to believe certain things about how we can best solve the nearly intractable problems our relationships with other animals causes them. But when those intuitions are in contradiction with valid reasoning, with a cogent theory, then we must reject them, no matter how much we’d like them to be true.
Sometimes, the things we might do to help other animals do nothing of the kind, and, in fact, often what we know intuitively is the right answer to a problem can be shown by theory to be exactly the wrong answer to the problem.
If you are at all interested in seeing the world move away from the rampant and pervasive exploitation of all living things for our trivial aims – if you are at all interested in the lives of others and our obligations to each other – then invest your time in understanding the philosophy and theories of animal rights.
This isn’t a physics problem, but there are answers which can be known. You owe it to yourself and all others to understand what they are.