AR Philosophy > Opinionatedly Yours

"Opinionatedly Yours"
#2: July 14, 1997
How to Achieve Animal Rights
By Barry Kent MacKay

In Opinionatedly Yours #1, I simply defined "animal rights" as: "A right that is established in law or custom that is adequately enforced or adhered to."

This definition, which was purposely kept very simplistic, may seem monumentally unimportant. We constantly hear animal "activists" chant that the time to do something is now. They, particularly the younger ones, are impatient of what is seen as navel-gazing and useless philosophizing or semantic nit-picking. However, it has been my experience that an understanding of what it means is essential if we are to actually achieve animal rights.

An unpleasant polarity has occurred within the animal protection movement. It has, in my opinion, sometimes even led to counterproductive actions, simply because those advocating for animal rights have so badly failed to define what it is that they seek to accomplish. Put perhaps a little differently, if everything that we want to achieve ... an end to cruelty and injustice ... is not going to be achieved (and no action ever has), is it therefore valid to work toward that part of all that we want that can be achieved? It is particularly valid when you realize that "absolute" abolition derives from series of reforms. If these steps toward abolition are valid to take, is it not also logical to hope that all activities by people sharing the same ultimate goal do not work against achieving those goals that can be reached?

We all recognize, or should recognize, that we cannot prevent suffering. It is an inevitable part of life for those animals who are capable of suffering. Without debating what animals do or don't feel various comparable levels of pain, I would hope that we all agree that at least for vertebrate animals, with their highly developed nervous systems and their easily observed reactions to stimuli that we know would cause pain in ourselves, pain and suffering are very real in non-human species.

Pain is essential to warning all of us, regardless of our species, when we are in danger from illness or injury, so that we may take action to avoid the source of the pain, when possible, and thus protect ourselves. Even when not possible, as when pain derives from terminal illness, usually we seek the most comfortable circumstances possible.

But that in no way means that we should be indifferent to suffering in ourselves or in others. It does not morally justify the imposition of pain on others for trivial reasons. The question of whether or not the imposition of pain on others for non-trivial reasons is morally acceptable, or how we even define "trivial," are matters I will avoid discussing at this time. For the purpose of this essay I will assume that for all of us the answer is that nearly all, or indeed all, the traditional reasons given for society for the imposition of pain on animals on a large scale ("institutionalized cruelty") are not morally defensible. Ours is a minority opinion, but that does not mean it is a wrong opinion.

And we are not going to ever abolish cruelty. People can be exceptionally cruel, even some children will torment other children unless they can be convinced not to. Even then, some children can't be taught; some take pleasure from the infliction of pain in the absence of remorse; some people put self-interest forever well above the interest of others and always will.

But that does not mean that we need to accept cruelty to animals or cannot legislate against it, if it is separated out as something undesirable to society. It is already undesirable to us.

The problem is the socially sanctioned abuses of animals happen anyway. What you or I think does not, in and of itself, prevent animals from suffering cruelty imposed by various interests and agencies for various reasons that may or may not be morally justified. What we do is another matter.

Before we discuss what is to be done, it is necessary to know what it is we hope to achieve. Which brings us back to the reason why I sought a simple definition of "animal rights" in Opinionatedly Yours #1. It's useless to claim we want rights for animals if we don't know what we mean by "rights" (or animals, for that matter). Too frequently, it seems to me, well-intentioned "activists" go to great lengths and personal risks in the interest of either relatively modest goals (such as media attention and subsequent public awareness or to irritate and "punish" people profiting from legal abuse of animals) or in the interest of something not achievable by the methods used (such as an absolute end of use of any animals in medical research or to produce food on a commercial level, for human consumption). If, on the other hand, such action is in concert with a specific effort toward a specific goal, it can be part of the means by which success is ultimately achieved. But first success must be defined.

The history of the development of the laws that protect various human rights is a very long one, and (one fervently hopes) a history that is very far from complete. What human "rights" should be protected by law is a matter of opinion that varies widely from person to person, from culture to culture, and from time to time through history. Although the observation probably applies far less to animal rights advocates than to the population in general, I fear that there is a tendency to make assumptions that some of the rights we humans have established for ourselves are self-evidently "natural" and "ought" to exist.

I also fear that among many of those humans who are enjoying the most rights that are relatively well enforced by the state that there is complacency that human rights are now more or less sufficiently established. In short, they may well be taken for granted.

In fact such rights that do exist are hard won and not necessarily easy to enforce or to protect. They are far from "complete" for humans, let alone animals. And very often they have the potential to conflict with each other. In such cases the "right" of the more powerful still tends to prevail.

The "right" we have not to have someone else hurt us may conflict with the "right" of an industry to market a harmful product, such as cigarettes, or even automobiles. As I was writing this column news broke locally of a human baby who had starved to death, even though supposedly in the care of the Catholic Children's Aid Society. In this case, even though the parent, a young single mother clearly not suited for motherhood, had been identified as being unlikely to be able to adequately care for her infant, her "rights" superseded that of the infant, who was left in her care. In a few weeks the newborn died in a state of advanced emaciation, never having metabolized any food but the tissues of his own tiny body. The "right" of a parent to her child was better enforced than the "right" of this newborn to receive adequate care. Both had their respective rights, but the infant's rights were worthless to that infant. And that is why the quality and level of enforcement or implementation of rights is as important as the establishment of the rights, themselves.

Americans, it seems those of us who are not American, take particular pride in their "freedoms." Put simply, American law is based on an interesting premise; that one should be able to do anything one wishes to do as long as it does not hurt someone else by interfering with their ability to do anything they wish to do (as long as it does not interfere with the same rights of anyone else). The problem is that life is vastly complex and interrelated, and it may be very hard to determine when an action (farming, for example, which provides food essential to the survival of society) does or does not hurt someone else (such as people downstream whose water supply is contaminated by farming). It seems that every time I visit the United States I read where the peculiarly American "right" of someone to bear arms has superseded the "right" of some innocent person to live.

In this scenario of conflicting freedoms animals are normally recipient of very little, if any, consideration. Ultimately any consideration that animals are given is still given in the interest of human-based values. For example, in theory fish have a right not to have their numbers depleted, not for the sake of the fish, themselves, but for the sake of the fishing industry dependent upon those fish.

Americans were recently provided a graphic example of the complexity of this problem on their TV screens. A popular American "news-magazine" show, 60 Minutes, did an "expose" on hog farming in North Carolina. In its zeal to promote hog farming, the state seriously compromised the ecological integrity of its rivers and waterways. Runoff from "lagoons" designed to hold wastes from factory pig farms have killed untold numbers of fish. The presence of those lagoons thus abrogated the "rights" of other Americans to catch fish or crabs as part of their "right" to commercial enterprise, or to simply enjoy the river recreationally, or to live in its proximity without fear for their health.

In showing this classic conflict of rights and freedoms the show also provided a huge viewing audience with an all-too-rarely-experienced view of the suffering imposed upon pigs victimized by the modern commercial pork industry. Cruel treatment of hogs was not the issue. Showing the plight of the pigs was done to contrast such public perceptions of pork production as may have been fostered by the popular movie, Babe. That feature movie featured a quaintly improbable family farm where various domestic animals lived under relatively serene free-range conditions, at least until the time of slaughter. 60 Minutes successfully sought to impress the viewer with the magnitude, callousness, and greed of the pork industry. It indicated the North Carolina pork industry's political power and lack of accountability to what might fairly be considered the greater public good.

The whole issue of the consequence of the North Carolina pork production on the wildlife and people dependent upon the health of that state's coastal waters and rivers is explored in the best-selling and highly recommended book, And the Waters Turned to Blood, by Rodney Barker, published (1997) by Simon & Schuster (ISBN 0-684-83126-0). Barker pays tribute to Dr. JoAnn Burkholder and her efforts, as a scientist, to prevent the spread of a micro-organism, a one-celled species of dinoflagellate known as Pfiesteria piscicida. This "cell from hell" thrives on the wastes of the hog farms and is responsible for killing wildlife, particularly fish. Toxins produced by the dinoflagellate cause serious neurological disorders in humans. Simply inhaling toxic vapors can lead to pain, narcosis, memory loss, personality disorder, and other serious disorders. While Burkholder had the facts on her side, she was pitted against the politically motivated denials and sluggish lack of acceptance of her irrefutable findings.

Where do rights enter into all this?

Fishers, crabbers, and oystermen and -women surely believe they have the right to continue family businesses. For many it is the only work they know. They believe they have a right to uphold a traditional way of life.

Pork producers believe they have a right to produce pork and to use those methods that are legal and most likely to produce the highest profits. They work in a field of international competition.

Consumers believe they have a right to eat pork, fish, crabs, oysters, or other traditional foods they've been conditioned from infancy to believe provide necessary nourishment.

Landowners believe they have a right to sell their land to the pork producers.

Investors believe they have the right to invest in any legal enterprise.

Politicians believe they have the right to support legislation that clearly favor the interests of those people whose donations to their campaigns make it possible for them to be elected. Or the politicians may be guided by sincere belief in their right to support legislation that they honestly have no doubt contributes to the greater public good by increasing income and subsequent tax revenues in the state of North Carolina.

Scientists like Burkholder believe they have a right to raise an alarm when their work exposes a threat to what they believe to be the public good.

The public believes it has a right to know what is going on, and to be protected against threats to their health. The public also believes it has a right to employment, as represented by various competing factions in this complex scenario. The public also believes it has a right to vote for the person who convinces them that he or she is the best person to vote for, and that opinion is based, in good part, on the resources available to the politician seeking election.

But what about the "rights" of the dinoflagellates; oysters, clams, and other shellfish; fish, crabs, and other marine life that die from the degradation of their environment caused by the massive pig farms?

What are the rights of fish that people like Dr. Burkholder must use in her experiments? Remember that the results of those experiments are essential if the threat of the pig farms is ever to be resolved.

What of the rights of the dolphins, herons, grebes, loons, water snakes, turtles, frogs, terns, and a great many other species of wildlife who require a supply of fish and other aquatic organisms in order to live?

What about the rights of the pigs whose ghastly living conditions were so graphically portrayed by 60 Minutes?

As the laws are now written, the animals named in the above paragraphs have rights in law that range from essentially zero, to relatively little. None have rights comparable to what humans have managed to establish for themselves. But those human rights are in conflict with each other, and the one that prevails can render the conflicting right weak or meaningless. Some people's "rights" are sacrificed in the interest of other people's "rights."

Rights are first applied to (or taken by) and most defended for (or by) those most able to do so. In social terms that tends to mean those generally most powerful by virtue of various characteristics, including wealth and the influence it can literally buy. It could be argued that ruthlessness and selfishness are requisites for power, as well, but to be a little more generous, I would suggest that value systems vary greatly. In North Carolina hog farm owners may be far from the most powerful figures around, but collectively their interests are clearly dominating those of other folks, not to mention animals. Also, other humans made powerful by virtue of their wealth and influence may better benefit if the park farmers' "rights" take precedence of those of, say, crab fishers or recreational boats, or ten-year-old kids wanting to swim in the river. And in this medley of conflicting rights, all humans ... the only ones able to establish rights ... benefit, or believe they do, from the superiority "their" rights take over virtually any "rights" we might think should be given to any or all of the animals named.

Of course, you could say that precisely because of the fact that so many human rights have been swept aside, that the assigning of enforced rights to pigs not to be close-confined in such numbers would ultimately benefit those people who are currently not being adequately protected by their own "rights." You could say that by protecting the "rights" of terns, kingfishers, water snakes, and herons to a clean environment you would protect the "rights" of humans to also experience the benefits of the same cleanliness of the environment. In other words there are areas where the rights of those who cannot establish their own rights (such as animals) overlap those who can (which means adult humans capable of understanding complex issues and voting according to their own best self-interest).

However (and this is where many animal activists fail to deliver the very thing they seek) in order to do this you must understand and use the value system that is the only one that can establish and uphold rights, that of the people who determine what rights are established and upheld. That does not mean "buying into" a system that is responsible for the suffering imposed on so many feeling beings of a multitude of species, but it does mean working within the only system that effectively can and does establish "rights."

The alternative we sometimes hear mentioned, revolution, won't work for reasons that I will discuss in a future column. Out of these first two columns I hope only to establish a "right" is a concept that becomes a fact ... that only can become a fact ... when it is established in law or custom that is adequately enforced or adhered to. Once we understand what rights are, we can work to achieve them.