Our next moral challenge
It's been called our next big moral challenge. Over the next century, activists say, we will come to see animals in a different way and recognize that we can no longer use them for our own ends. In the future, no one will argue for using animals to test medicine, killing them to provide food or burdening them to do our work.
Animal rights means that animals, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away just because it might benefit others, according to PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In their quest for better treatment for animals, such groups make the case that animals have - or should have - legal rights. In opposition are those - many with an economic interest in the status quo - who think of PETA as a bunch of spit-gargling extremists bent on disrupting our way of life.
But no matter which side you land on, there is a problem at the heart of the issue that has not been solved. At the core of the animal rights issue is the question of exactly what, if anything, separates human beings from animals - or from other animals.
All the remaining issues, from the biblical verse giving "man" dominion over the beasts to whether Sharon Stone should wear fur, pivot on this single question. And it is a question with many gray areas and no satisfactory answer.
Animal rights activists, such as members of PETA, emphasize the similarities between animals and humans. They point out that the chimpanzee, for instance, shares more than 98% of its DNA with the human. Not enough of a difference, they say, to warrant treating these apes as property.
The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes the distinction in Genesis, when Jehovah creates Adam in his divine image and grants Adam dominion "over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth." This has been considered as theological permission to use the animals for food, for transportation and for medical research.
Since then, however, science has had trouble with the border between human and animal. It's been forced constantly to retreat from its definition of what distinguishes the two.
Once, we were the toolmaking animal, until we learned that chimpanzees can make a primitive form of chopsticks to pluck termites out of their nests. Then we were the linguistic animal, until gorillas started learning sign language. By now, science can only fall back on DNA: humans are genetically distinct. That's not much of a mandate to reign over Creation. After all, each species is genetically distinct.
This gradual blurring of the human-animal border would seem to benefit PETA. However, it could end in confounding their own argument.
Traditionally, we have thought of life on Earth as a hierarchical "great chain of being," in which certain species are "higher" or more advanced than others. PETA's argument tacitly accepts this principle, even when others are finding it outdated or even paternalistic. PETA wants to "raise" animals to a human level by including them in our laws.
If you approach equality from the top down, as PETA does, and you see the question as raising the animals up to a human level, you get one set of answers. But you can also blur the line between humans and animals without recourse to the hierarchical principle. If you do, you get an entirely different result. PETA's argument, essentially, is that animals are people, too. But you make the same argument with different results if you state it in reverse: that people are animals, too.
Another problem with PETA's paternalism is that it treats intelligence as a shibboleth. If, for instance, science can show us that whales and dolphins are intelligent, or that gorillas or chimpanzees can learn to use sign language, does that mean those animals should receive special recognition under the law, and that dumber animals should not?
After all, we don't give more legal rights to smart people over dumb ones. Why should animals be different? Is intelligence the determining factor in deciding what animals have near-human legal rights? And if we decide that is not the case, then why are humans accorded special distinction among the animals, unless by divine fiat?
More important, if you erase the line between human and non-human, you may end by making the case for the opponents of legal rights for animals.
For since the case can be made that human beings are also animals, one species among many, we have no reason for assuming our laws - the recorded customs of our species - can work for animals but not the other way around. Turnabout is fair play: if we start applying our laws to animals, why is that preferable to applying animal laws to humans? Why should humans not be asked to conform to the moon-baying, alpha-male pack organization of wild dogs?
In fact, the chief reason humans exercise dominion over other animals has less to do with scripture or law than it does with sheer power: humans dominate other animals because we can. No rational person doubts that, say, mastodons or sabertooth tigers would dominate the Earth - including humans - by force, if they could.
Further, animal rights activists talk about "speciesist" behavior - parallel to racist behavior - in which we favor our own species over others. Yet in the animal world, each species favors its own over other species. Our own species-ist behavior is something we share with other animals, and if our behavior underlines the distinction we draw between ourselves and the beasts, it weakens the argument that animals should be treated like people. Call it the animal rights Catch 22.
In other words, if there is no distinction between animal and human behavior in speciesist behavior, then there is a valid line between humans and animals and no logical reason to grant animals the legal rights we grant ourselves. To do so is to deny our animal natures and pretend that human beings are different from animals. And if we do pretend that humans are substantively different from animals, we again make the case against smudging the legal line between animal and human.
Of course, all this reflects only on the legal question and underscores the point that the treatment of animals is properly a moral, not a legal, issue. PETA may be barking up the wrong tree.
One does not need to make the legal case that animals are humans to recognize the fraternity of creation. We need only see all that is not ourself as equal to ourself. In other words, recognizing the aliveness, existence and independence of the teeming individuals on the planet, we see in them the mirror of ourselves.
It has always been easier to see family, or clan, or tribe, or nation as "thou," and easier to see strangers or foreigners or different races as "it." But that argument is just as compelling when you look into the eyes of a dog, or a horse or a canary. We easily see our pets as "thou." But just as moral action requires we see other people as "thou," we shall have to begin considering animals other than our pets as "thou," also.
This may not make PETA entirely happy, because even when we recognize other people as "thou," we may still find just cause to end their lives. And even when we take animals as "thou," we may find it acceptable to eat them.
Many tribal cultures have done just that, revering the animals they kill and eat. All life is a smorgasbord, with one species eating another. Even if we become vegetarians, we kill plants. Life feeds on life; life is not gentle.
The moral action is not necessarily to refrain from causing injury, but to take responsibility for it and never to cause injury blindly and blandly. Making a law to enforce action - such as proper treatment of animals - tends to take away our personal responsibility and lets us obey blindly and blandly. This might be just as bad.
Richard Nilsen writes for the Arizona Republic.
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 13, 2001.