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A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy

An American bioethics writer defends "human exceptionalism" against the sometimes sinister agenda of the animal liberation movement.
Bill Muehlenberg | Jun 28 2010 | comment  
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Our society rests upon the unspoken acceptance of a number of truths, like the rule of law, the authority of reason, or solidarity with our neighbours. One of these is so obvious that it used to need no defenders: human exceptionalism, the notion that humans are special and unique amongst living things. But today, animal rights activists are holding a big question mark over this hitherto undisputed truth.

Radical animal rights activists deny that there is anything special about human beings. Their campaign to grant animals rights is ultimately a campaign to revise Shakespeare’s assessment – “in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals” -- and disrobe him of any unique significance.

That is the argument of this important book. Wesley J. Smith distinguishes between animal welfare and the animal rights movement. The humane treatment of animals is something all of us should support. But animal rights is a worrying development. What looks like a noble and worthwhile crusade is at bottom really an anti-human ideology. It is in fact “a belief system, an ideology, even a quasi religion, which both implicitly and explicitly seeks to create a moral equivalence between the value of human lives and those of animals,” says Smith.

Smith is an American writer on bioethics and biotechnology with a dozen books to his credit. He is deeply suspicious of scientism, the belief that science has all the answers to our dilemmas, but he is not a knee-jerk opponent of progress. Rather, he is a humanist champion of "human exceptionalism". He has a keen interest in animal rights, as this is ground zero in the battle to defend the uniqueness of the human species.

The animal liberation movement is often extremist, utopian, and open to the use of violence. For those who are still trying to figure out the quirky title of the book, it has been taken from a 1986 quote from the head of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Ingrid Newkirk. All four are mammals – end of story.

The true believers in the animal liberation movement are not gentle dog lovers or cat owners. They are fanatics who are capable of harassing, vandalising and destroying anything they consider to be abusive to animals. Indeed, Smith warns us of what sort of world we would live in if these radicals had their way: “Medical research would be materially impeded. There would be no more fishing fleets, cattle ranches, leather shoes, steak barbecues, animal parks, bomb-sniffing or Seeing Eye dogs, wool coats, fish farms, horseback riding, pet stores... Millions of people would be thrown out of work, our enjoyment of life would be substantially diminished. Our welfare and prosperity reduced.” Indeed, all domestication of animals would be taboo. There goes the family pet.

And there goes human uniqueness and dignity. All in the name of a fanatical ideology which will even resort to threats of murder to achieve its aims. This book carefully documents the ideology, the tactics and the fanaticism of this growing movement.

The thinking of philosopher Peter Singer was instrumental in shaping the ideology of animal rights. Although not a campaigner himself, he did help to get the ball rolling with his influential 1975 volume, Animal Liberation. In it he argued that the interests of all animals should be granted “equal consideration” to those of people. Another utilitarian philosopher, the late Joseph Fletcher, took this thinking to its logical conclusion, even promoting the idea that we should create human/ape chimeras to do “dangerous or demeaning jobs”. How would this come about? By “sexual reproduction, as between apes and humans. If interspecific coitus is too distasteful, then laboratory fertilization and implants could do it. If women were unwilling to gestate hybrids, animal females could.”

And PETA ran a vegetarian campaign which was called, “Holocaust on Your Plate”. Yep, you got it. To chomp into that T-bone on your plate is the moral equivalent of gassing Jews in the concentration camps. Gary Francione is another radical animal rights campaigner who insists that no animal can ever be owned by humans for whatever reason. No pets, no guide dogs, no zoos, nothing.

Philosopher Tom Regan, like Singer, is against “speciesism”. To argue that one species is greater or more valuable than another is akin to racism and anti-Semitism. Like Singer, he believes that some animals have more rights than humans do. (However, he opposes human infanticide, which Singer fully supports in certain cases.)

It is not just intellectuals and academics who are pushing all this. Activist groups are targeting children and schools. They seek to convince young children that all domestication of animals is evil, and they must rise up and act now. There are even PETA comics. One produced in 2003 for its anti-fur campaign, “Your Mommy KILLS Animals!”, depicts an evil-looking mother knifing a rabbit to death, with gore splattered all over the page. These fear campaigns and propaganda exercises are found in schools all around North America.

Smith also documents the growing use of bombings, terror, violence and even death threats by some of these campaigners. Groups like the Animal Liberation Front and the Environmental Liberation Front appear to be willing to use any tactics to achieve their ends. ALF trainees, for example, are instructed on how to commit acts of sabotage and terror. They are taught how to make bombs, burn down buildings, and trash research facilities. They are told how not to leave any evidence behind, and how to maintain internal security to weed out detection.

Smith also looks at the validity and necessity of much animal research and testing. For example, all sorts of invaluable pain relief which we take for granted today came about because of prior animal testing. All sorts of cures, remedies, vaccines and treatments for numerous diseases and ailments, including AIDS, has and is being developed thanks to animal research. To be sure, regulation is needed to protect animals. But this is already in place. For example, the US Animal Welfare Act mandates the use of drugs to relieve pain and suffering in research animals. Great effort and expense are exerted to ensure the humane treatment of animals.

Rights can apply only to humans, because only humans possess moral autonomy. Seeking to include animals in the area of rights “would degrade the importance of rights altogether, just as wild inflation devalues money”. Given that Switzerland is now talking about “plant rights” it is time that we started thinking clearly and soberly about what rights really mean, and why humans are unique. At the same time we can and should ensure proper animal welfare. Smith gets this balance right. With so much irrationality and emotion being generated on this issue, his cool logic and common sense come as a welcome relief.

Bill Muehlenberg is a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at several Melbourne theological colleges and a PhD candidate at Deakin University.

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