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animal rights

Flaws in the animal rights ideology

Some important flaws in the ideology of animal rights bear attention, with a view towards better serving the long range goals and principles that people who espouse this ideology presumably can agree on with others: more humane, ethical, and ecologically sound human behavior towards other animal and plant species.
We should all be able to see that we have a common interest in protecting this Earth that gives us life, which means protecting the full complement of species that live on it. Developing empathy for other life forms is crucial to that end.

Some of us go further, however, and insist that "animal rights," fully or almost fully analogous to human rights, should also pertain to the other species. Thus, eating animals for food, in this way of thinking, is tantamount to cannibalism of other human beings. Also, in this view, according to animal rightists, those of us not assenting to this proposition are committing "speciesism," a vice analogous to such other forms of vicious discrimination as racism, sexism, or classism.

I, however, do not agree with this ideology, and consider it riddled with inherent logical contradictions. Carrying it to its logical extreme can also lead to great divisiveness among otherwise possibly like-minded people. Unfortunately, I have found that it can be very difficult to have a civil discussion on these themes with those who hold these views. Often, in my personal experience, people who espouse the animal rights position will denounce anyone who expresses contrary views with extremely harsh epithets and ad hominem. Therefore, this little essay is in part a plea for civil discussion between people with opposing views.

The crucial point to make regarding "animal rights" concerns logical consistency. The most commonly asserted animal rights position tends to be that, to be consistent about humane treatment towards all living beings, we are required to extend the concept of "rights" to all those beings without distinction, to the extent that this is possible. (Presumably, even animal rightists would acknowledge those cases where it is not possible, such as the right to vote! I will therefore try not to engage in any cheapshots by claiming that their position necessarily leads to such obvious absurdities.)

Perhaps the most compelling analogy that animal rightists offer is to human beings who are disabled, mentally incapacitated, etc. No civilized person today would seriously dare argue that these people do not deserve the full complement of human rights. So why should we be held to any different standard towards animals?

There are several important flaws in this argument.

The first point to make is that, in denying animals "rights" equivalent to human rights, one does not need to make any theological arguments placing animals "higher" or "lower" in any abstract hierarchy of moral worth. In fact, I reject the concept of a "moral worth hierarchy" altogether.

Instead of an abstract hierarchy of "moral worth," which is a concept that is inextricably tied to Judeo-Christian theology and has no necessary universality, there is a very real, universal hierarchy of proximity. One has a responsibility to care most about those who are "closest" to oneself, based on various measures. This is largely a purely practical matter, and certainly subject to constant change and revision, and also to revision based on changes and evolution in moral values as well, obviously.

For example, I care more about my own family members than I do about people whom I've never met. This doesn't mean that I consider those strangers to be without rights, that would be absurd. They have "human rights" by dint of the fact that they and I are equally human, ie, we share proximity on a biological level. For example, even though I've never met them, I know that we can communicate using sophisticated human language abilities and come to very detailed agreements about things, cooperate with each other, etc.

Nonetheless, people I've never even met will have a lower status in my hierarchy of rights than my own family members. In addition to mere "human rights," for example, my own family members are given all kinds of enhanced legal rights towards me that strangers don't have. My family members, for instance, have the right to insist on seeing me if I'm hospitalized. They have the right to make decisions about my medical care if I become incapacitated, etc. Also, even beyond the legal sphere, like many people, I will generally agree to let my own family members come and go in my own house at will, a right that I'm not about to accord to any stranger who might happen by at random. Just because they're human doesn't automatically entitle them to precisely equal treatment!

Assuming that these kinds of distinctions are commonsense and probably acknowledged and accepted on a day-to-day level even by most animal rightists, then I must ask, why should the same hierarchy of proximity not also apply between species?

Even if there are (or should be) such things as animal rights (let us suppose so for a moment, although I'm not sure): In the scheme of things I've described, where rights have to do with some measure of "proximity," why would anyone expect "animal rights" and "human rights" to be equivalent?

I maintain that they are not and cannot be equivalent. Some of the practical reasons why they aren't equivalent include the fact that, as I've already described, humans can devise very detailed and complex agreements between each other. They can come to very detailed agreements about hours of work, for example, or suitable age limits for work. These then become "rights" acknowledged even in international treaties. There is no way, though, for humans and animals to arrive at such complex and detailed agreements. Only humans can come to agreements with other humans about what definitions to attach to "animal rights," if any.

Because "animal rights" is subject to definitions agreed to by humans with other humans, and not by humans with animals, the exact content, if any, that the words "animal rights" actually conveys, will be subject to and limited by the interests of humans who depend on animals for their livelihoods (which animal rightists often refer to as "animal exploitation").

This is a very big difference between "animal rights" and human rights. In the case of human rights, for instance, we wouldn't agree today to accept human slavery and negotiate the limits of it with slave owners, at least not if the enslaved humans get to have an equal say. Today, the human slaves will have heard of the concept of "human rights," and most will categorically reject any slavery outright. There is no way to go about legalizing any kind of human slavery today at all, without it leading to warfare and chaos. Thus, it has been universally outlawed (even if it still gets practiced secretly in some places).

Could what animal rightists call "animal exploitation" ever be similarly outlawed?

While it is not humanly INCONCEIVABLE that this could happen (afterall, some humans, the animal rightists, have already done so!), once again, the change would have to come about entirely within the human realm, not the animal one. One of the major reasons that human slavery doesn't exist today is the initiative of the human slaves themselves. Human beings, once they get the idea in their heads that they have "rights," are very unlikely to settle for less. This factor of initiative on the part of "the oppressed" is unlikely to ever occur, though, in the case of the animals, at least not without several million years of biological evolution endowing those animals with comparable human cognitive capacities.

In the meantime, though, human beings are still capable of empathy with other life forms. Subscribing to an ideology of "animal rights" is hardly necessary for this. Perhaps a broadening and deepening of this empathy will lead to something more and more resembling "animal rights" in the future.

However, once again, another crucial shortcoming of the animal rights ideology lies in failing to acknowledge that it is precisely the unique human capacity for moral thinking that even makes this whole discussion possible! There is a huge distinction between humans and other animals here, in that the latter have not evolved this capacity as far as we know. They will not be able to reciprocate our collective moral commitment to them. That doesn't argue categorically once and for all against ever making such a commitment. It does, however, mean that the incentives for doing so will be extremely different than the ones that exist for extending our universe of moral concerns to all other humans.

There is another possible outcome, differing from animal rights, though, that would also be consistent with the overall trend in world history towards expanding our human sphere of sympathies with other beings.

Another worldview, very different from the animal rights ideology, but still consistent with the goal of increasing empathy and compassion for all beings, is offered by Deep Ecology.

In the worldview of Deep Ecology, animals don't necessarily have political rights. Humans, however, do have moral and practical obligations to the natural world, including all other species. In this view, the survival of all species is interwoven and interdependent. Not only that, but threatening the survival of other species also threatens the survival of humanity itself, and is therefore madness.

Personally, I don't believe that anything very closely resembling political rights ever can or will be granted to animals by humans. One of the reasons for this is that, contrary to the doctrines of vegans and vegetarians, I believe that most humans are and always will be dependent on the use of various animal products for their basic sustenance. Endless arguments on this subject have been made and will continue to be.

However, while rejecting the animal rights ideology, I subscribe to the ideology of Deep Ecology. I'm happy to work with animal rightists on those subjects about which we can find agreement, such as protecting the habitats of wild animals, taking measures to ensure the survival of endangered species, even preventing wholly gratuitous brutality and cruelty to individual animals (although it doesn't affect the survival of whole life forms, which I consider vastly more urgent). Etc.

(By the way: In some ways, Deep Ecology is a lot more radical than animal rights! While we Deep Ecologists don't generally believe in political rights for other species, we do believe that humans have moral obligations to them, but we don't stop there! We even believe in moral obligations towards trees, grass, and rocks! There is no physical matter at all that is so "beneath" us that we can consider ourselves entitled to use it without care and gratitude! Of course, though, that also means that there IS a hierarchy of moral concerns, but once again defined by practical considerations rather than theology.)

To the extent that the animal rights ideology comes in conflict, however, with my understanding of human rights, such as the rights of traditional, aboriginal human cultures to continue their ancestral subsistence practices, such as hunting, I will staunchly take the side of human rights against animal rightists and their definition of animal rights.

Therefore, I hope that animal rights activists will use common sense and exquisite care in prioritizing their struggles. For example, there are plenty of fur farms to target who produce vanity products for rich people. There are plenty of factory farms that pollute the environment while also causing gratuitous animal cruelty. So I hope the animal rightists will exhaust all those targets before picking a fight with me and people I care about over our personal use of animals for meeting more basic human needs.

In return for such consideration, I will happily pledge to my fellow humans who espouse the animal rights ideology that I will refrain from (what I consider to be) gratuitous cruelty towards animals, or cavalier acceptance of the same. I'm happy to make this agreement both for the sake of their feelings, and therefore harmony and tranquility with them, as well as my own personal feelings and sympathies towards other sentient beings.