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Animal Rights Aren't Natural


When I wrote my book A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, I thought the movement was on the march and its violent arm growing ever more dangerous. These days, not so much.

I do think the animal rights movement has influenced society. People are certainly more attuned to the duty, derived from our exceptional status as humans, to treat animals humanely. As a result, for better and worse, animal welfare reforms -- not the same thing as animal rights -- have been made.

The movement continues to cause disruptions, more as a pest these days than an existential threat -- with the exception of the ongoing legal attempts to transform chimps and whales into "persons" and allow animals to sue in court.

I wish I could take some credit for that, but I think the unnaturalness of forcing oneself to believe that humans and animals are moral equals has taken its inevitable toll.

An animal rights ideologue, writing in The Guardian, validates my thoughts on the current state of animal rights, although certainly not my explanation for it. Catherine Shoard thought that rising secularism would mean increased rights for animals. Now, she is bitterly disappointed. From "Whatever Happened to Animal Rights?":

25 years ago the idea that we'd still be committed nowadays to cooking 50,000 tonnes of turkey on Christmas Day and then the next morning applauding as people trotted off for organised slaughter would have been bizarre.

Many confidently foresaw a post-hunting, post-battery farming future in which more people avoided meat than not. As society became more secular, ran the logic, so we would embrace animals within a new spirituality, no longer assuming that man had dominion.

You don't typically think of "spirituality" as a particularly secular concept. When the term is so deployed, as here, it often means that the "believer" means that "the universe," God, or whatever validates his or her own beliefs, sentimentalities, and concepts. Very convenient

But the idea that most people would embrace equal brotherhood and sisterhood with the "non-human animals," and that "speciesism" would come to be equated widely with the evils of racism and other invidious distinctions that are wielded against humans, has always been a stretch.

It takes work and self-delusion to ignore our natural understanding that we are not animals -- in the moral sense, not biologically -- and they are not us. Thus, in our hearts, we know that there is a huge and consequential difference between running over a child with your car, and accidentally turning a squirrel into road kill.

But Shoard's deeply held ideology blinds her to our understanding of natural differences. She thinks the problem is that we are oh, so selfish:

It's easy to forget how radical things were and how certain an animal rights revolution seemed. But it never happened. Those children who -- like me -- went vegetarian and wept as Neighbours' duck hunt saboteur Kerry Bishop martyred herself, lapsed at some point into meek meat-eating, hiding behind the hope that paying reassuringly high prices would wash the blood off our hands.

Why? The clue perhaps lies in the main reason now cited to encourage us to go vegetarian: lowering your carbon footprint. Self-interest now ranks higher than any ethical concern -- there needs to be something in it for you as well as the animal.

Kerry Bishop is a character from an Australian soap opera. If a real person died trying to stop ducks from being killed and eaten, it would be a tragic fool's errand. A human life matters so much more than a duck's.

That aside, animal rights doesn't "grab" most people simply because it isn't natural. Here's an example of what I mean: I once debated a major leader of the animal rights movement on television. We got along and afterwards he told me that he still salivates when he passes an Italian restaurant and smells cooking meats and melting cheeses.

I said, "Of course you do. Meat is your natural food!"

"No!" he insisted. "Eating meat is an addiction."

It's not, of course. My vegan friend still had to work very hard, even after many years, to avoid all meat and animal food products. Why? Because he was resisting his own intrinsic, natural, and wholesome appetites.

That's his choice, of course. But that he has the ability to engage that struggle is one of the unique attributes of humans that make us exceptional. No animal ever would. No animal ever could.

Image credit: Ali Ringo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted at Human Exceptionalism