Monday, August 15, 2011

My Thoughts on Animal Rights


The way the government interacts with humans is largely framed, or at least should be framed, along the guidelines of human rights. It makes sense that laws regarding animals should be based on the same concept. So, what are an animal’s rights?

From the outset of pondering this question, one variable becomes apparent which distinguishes it from the question of human rights. That is the question of species. Unlike humans, “animals” as we generically classify them are not all one species. There are thousands of species of animal; do they all have the same rights? And why limit it to animals? Truly, it is a matter of “organism rights”. From the blue whale to the smallest microorganism, there are all sorts of other types of living creatures. Do they all have the same rights? Technically, humans are animals too. Does that mean animals should have the same rights we do?

I don’t believe so. I think a human should have very different rights from a bacterium. Both are equally alive, in a scientific sense, but I don’t feel life alone is enough to grant you your rights. Unlike humans, I do not believe all living creatures are created equal. I doubt many would challenge this contention.

Since we’ve established that not all organisms are created equal, we are faced with two other possibilities. One is a straightforward line in the sand: some organisms have rights, others do not. The other is scaled rights (no pun intended…reptiles…scales…), as in some organisms have more rights than others. Both of these alternatives are problematic, because both require us to make either one distinction or multiple distinctions between animals. Where do we draw this line, or these lines? What metric do we use to rank the organisms in terms of “most rights”, “fewer rights”, or “no rights”? Do we do this based on how advanced their brains are? Based on an ability to feel pain? Based on their scientific classification in the 5 kingdoms (animals, plants, fungus, protists, and prokaryotic bacteria)?

None of these divisions make sense to me. Many plants have brains, some more advanced than basic animals or bugs. Many can also feel pain. All have cells. There is a joke website (I think...I hope) out there called vegetablecruelty.com which speaks of a "Vegetable Rights Militant Organization" of "meatarians" and tries to establish plant rights based on these discoveries, on the justification that animals, unlike plants, can at least defend themselves! But this is silliness. Even the most ardent vegan eats plants and fungi and the fruits offered by those plants. Nobody complains when we kill protists or bacteria, especially if they cause illness. If we establish a right to life for anything with a brain, we would starve for inability to kill and eat anything! A mere cluster of cells performing a cognitive function is not enough to warrant a right to life. Similarly, we cannot in my opinion safely draw a line between some amount of brain function and another. While it may seem easy to distinguish between an ape (generally considered the smarted, closest-to-human animal) and a rat, how can you draw a line between an ape and a monkey, that it’s okay to kill one but not the other? Or between a monkey and a sloth? Or a sloth and a kangaroo? Or a kangaroo and a dingo? Or a dingo and a dog? Or a dog and pig? Or a pig and a fox? Or a fox and a squirrel? Or a squirrel and a rat? I have not studied any of those animals, how they think, or how advanced they are, but to me it does not matter. They are all animals. I cannot draw a line. I cannot justify or condemn killing one any more or less than killing another. They are equivalent, to me.

I can, however, draw a line between a human and anything else. It seems obvious to me that human beings are fundamentally different from any other creature that has ever walked this earth. Humans have civilization. Humans have religion. Humans have morality, and a series of systems in place to defend that morality. Humans have art and science and philosophy, an ability to appreciate beauty and love. Humans have brains developed enough to conceive and understand abstract concepts, and language sophisticated enough to articulate and communicate these concepts. Humans have the self-awareness and intellect to inquire into the truth and nature of their own existence, the introspective curiosity needed to wonder about the meaning and purpose of their lives. We are capable of detecting higher purposes to life than base physical pleasure; things which may not have survival value, but which somehow give value to our survival.

Yes, advanced animals live in colonies, and laugh, and look out for their families based on instinct. One or two can even be taught sign language. And yes, oftentimes humans kill one another or act like animals. But it is silly, to me, to claim that any animal equates to a human in terms of cognitive function, communication, and advancement. When ape’s start walking among us, using fire and tools currency and spoken language and written language, and living by human laws and concepts of morality, perhaps I’ll reconsider extending human rights to apes. Until then, the only reasonable distinction I can make is human vs. nonhuman.

With this distinction made, I do not believe any nonhuman organism has human rights, including the right to life. I am okay with humans killing any animal for food, dress, or even sport. Why should we not kill animals when animals have no moral qualms killing each other? Animals do not afford one another the right to life, and humans needn't afford it to them either.

But this does not mean they have no rights. There are rights that are perhaps even more basic than life; for instance, the right not to be tortured. Is bullfighting okay? Cockfighting? Dogfighting? What about something as sick as slowly dismembering an animal, or raping an animal? Surely we must have laws against these things - but once again, where do we draw the line? Let’s think…

If animals have a right to not be tortured, we must define torture. What level of pain or discomfort is sufficient? Can an animal be kept in squalid conditions? Well, I guess it depends on how squalid. This is subjective, and I feel it can only be left to the interpretation of law enforcement. Another variable is the purpose for which the animal is being placed in that pain or discomfort. What about riding a horse or ox or something until it dies, like they used to do with livestock centuries ago? Or keeping fish out of water until they suffocate? Or clubbing a seal to death to wear its pelt? Or kicking your dog to death because you’re mad? The latter is the worst to me, because I don’t view venting your frustration as a just motive, while the others were for transportation, food, or clothing. Still, that’s a mighty thin line. There are thousands of motives, and it sure doesn’t make much difference to the animal, does it? This is culturally biased, too. Someone in Spain feels differently about bullfighting than I do. Most Christians feel differently about eating cows than a Buddhist, and differently about eating pigs than a Muslim. Most Americans feel differently about eating dogs than some Chinese.

It is easy to just say “I call em’ as I see em’”, but that is a cop out; ultimately, the law must establish what is legal and what isn’t! So my opinion is that yes, animals have a basic right to not be tortured, and it is law enforcement’s responsibility (the cops who arrest you, the jury who convicts you, and the judge who sentences you) to make subjective evaluations about what constitutes as “torture.” But my definition of “torture” is probably a lot more strict than somebody from PETA. Keeping an animal in a small cage is not torturing it, to me. It may be to a jury, I don’t know. But this is the closes we can get to a fair answer; allow elected officials to evaluate the severity on a case by case basis.

Beyond that, I can’t think of anything else animals should be entitled to.

If you draw the line differently than I do, that’s fine, you are entitled to your opinion. If there’s one thing this post demonstrates, it’s that there is a LOT to consider on this issue, so many people will likely come to many different conclusions. The key is to respect differences in opinion. I’m perfectly fine with vegetarians or vegans, in just the same way as I’m fine with Democrats or Atheists or another group with which I disagree, so long as they don’t roll their eyes or scold me when I order KFC. You eat your thing, and I’ll eat mine, and we’ll still be friends.

I am not okay, however, with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). PETA is even worse, not just because I disagree with them more strongly, but because they demand that I act according to their beliefs. That’s arrogant and unfair as it is, but it’s especially irksome when those beliefs are so asinine. They essentially value animal life on par with human life. Among PETA activities I’ve discovered over the years:
  • They’ve thrown red paint on anybody who wears fur. This is assault, and vandalism, but they often get away with it.
  • They’ve protested mousetraps and rat poison, even when the rats have infested a house and carry potentially life threatening diseases.
  • They’ve protested bug zappers and even bug spray (it’s toxic to the bugs, you know!), even when the bugs are causing humans pain and discomfort and also potentially spreading disease.
  • They’ve protested President Obama when he slapped a fly that was buzzing around his face during a prolific interview.
  • They’ve launched an anti-fishing campaign using the “cuteness” strategy, with the slogan “you wouldn’t eat fish if you imagined it as a sea-kitten!” Not only would I still eat the sea-kitten, but as Seth Myers of SNL observed, it also makes me more likely to consider eating a land-fish.
  • They’ve protested people who buy meat at supermarkets by getting naked, spraying themselves with fake blood, and lying by the side of the road in enormous Styrofoam trays to simulate what the meat you’re buying is supposedly equivalent to.
  • They’re opposed to Heifer for Humanity because they care more about the cows being shipped in tiny crates than the people the cows go to feed.
That last one really makes my blood boil, and it’s indicative of the larger problem I have with the organization. I’m all in favor of treating animals ethically, but I’m not in favor of a group that tells everyone else what their ethics should be. And I’m certainly not in favor of placing animals before people. The fact that there are so many starving people in Africa who need those cows for Heifer for Humanity shows why nobody should be donating a penny to groups like PETA right now. In a world rife with famine, cancer, AIDS, other diseases, oppression, poverty, civil unrest, wars and genocide killing thousands of innocent people a day, every dollar spent saving the whales could be spent saving human lives instead.  For lack of a better term, we have bigger fish to fry :)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article posted recently on this topic at Reason.com. Includes several philosophic perspectives, many that I disagree with, but overall it furthers the discussion:

    http://reason.com/archives/2011/09/23/do-animals-have-rights

    ReplyDelete