Monday, February 11, 2008

Animal rights: an urban myth?

Dispatches from the front lines

One of the topics that really seem to stir up the “sentimental pot” to a rolling boil is whether or not animals –in contrast to humans- have basic rights. This would include such ideas as the right to be free, to not be eaten by man, and to not suffer.

For example, large and active elements of the animal rights movement would have us believe that the use and consumption of animal flesh (for some even animal by-products like eggs and milk) are tantamount to genocide and crimes against humanity.

Several animal rights philosophers such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan, and writers like Joy Williams and J. M. Coetzee express similar sentiments that support the premise of equality among all animals. For example, Singer argues that “equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact” and morally speaking everyone’s interests should have equal consideration no matter “what they are like or what abilities they have …If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?”

In fact, following this line of reasoning will eventually take you to a strange realm where the concept of racism is stretched and expanded to include other animal species. The term “specieism” has been coined to describe those who draw a line between humanity and certain other animals. As mentioned some go so far as to describe specieism an evil just as morally reprehensible as the racist mindset that led the Germans to create their killing fields. Coetzee has noted that if the animal rights groups are correct then a great crime is going on everyday all around us (regarding the use of animals for food and maybe even as companions- pets- for that matter).

To a certain extent, these passions are understandable and laudable. They reflect a level of sensitivity and compassion towards some (not all1) of our creature brethren and seem to belie a kind recognition –however strange- that they have as much right to be on this earth as we do.

However, the reality is these worldviews and paradigms are built from nothing more than assumptions and a clear ignorance of how the world of nature really works. They reflect beliefs that betray an astounding lack of ecological knowledge and commingle such unrelated themes as human politics, utilitarianism, and urban individualism with ecology, evolution, mutualism, and other species to species relationships. Even so, some of the claims of animal right supporters do have merit and need thoughtful consideration.

For example, the notion of an equal status among some animals has led to the search for a common need amongst species. Initially, for many, this has been the need to avoid “suffering” in animals. The problem here –and this goes with a lack of biological knowledge- is that the term "suffer" can be a rather slippery and nuanced concept taken beyond the scope of human consciousness.

Some neurologists and philosophers note that human suffering has a uniquely layered and amplified meaning due to our ability to think about our thoughts, examine our condition, and reflect upon our existence. According to Polland, Daniel Dennett “suggests we draw a distinction between pain, which a great many animals obviously experience, and suffering, which depends on a degree of self-consciousness only a handful of animals appear to command. Suffering in this view is not just lots of pain but pain amplified by distinctly human emotions such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread.” There seems to be –as Dennett implies- a spectrum or gradation of perceptions where different animals will experience perhaps varying levels of “suffering” and therefore perceive pain differently.

In other words; there is a difference between “pain” in general and “human suffering.” This has several important implications in how we interact with other animals as well as ourselves and how we perceive these interactions.

This means, as obvious as it might seem to some, that we are not cows, nor are cows us. Our beloved dog or cat see the world through their dog and cat eyes- not ours. All the anthropomorphising in the world can not change that.

On the other hand, in reaching out and offering a loving and altruistic hand, relieving animal pain when it is seen (along with whatever associated suffering or “quality of life” it implies) greatly benefits many animals. In return, they provide a source for deeply moving, beautiful, and meaningful interactions for people- these are truly powerful bonds. Obviously, a good thing if not taken to extremes (i.e.; take care of the animals- but the baby comes first).

One straight laced -no bullshit- view that might make all this philosophical tongue twisting easier to understand is to take a simpler position. This is where a good farmer’s practical view of the world can teach us volumes on how to live cooperatively with our animal brethren. Though real farmers are perhaps a minority today in an overly insensitive and industrialized sector, if we look at the set up of a “traditional” farm there are glimpses of what a sound human/animal bond might really be- one that reaches beyond the concepts of “rights” and putative “crimes.”

Expanding our focus beyond the "suffering" angle, there is a broader and more fulfilling approach to understanding this bond. It has to do with respect, humane treatment, and an allowance for animals to be themselves; to let an animal as Pollan notes have “the opportunity to express its creaturely character- its essential pigness or wolfness or chickenness.” He adds “This, it seems to me, is where the animal rightists betray a deep ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue that whole relationship- to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species.”

Perhaps another way to describe this relationship is through the eyes of evolution, where several species “realized” that working together enhanced the prospects of survival for all of them- it was a fair bargain. This describes more a web of interaction where the welfare of one species is dependant another’s which is not the same as a world of literal equality.

This simple perspective helps clarify much of our philosophical angst regarding animal rights and proper treatment. For one, the human social construct of “rights” does not work well in human/animal frameworks because it belongs elsewhere. It helps humans relate to humans within a social and cultural context- it is an abstract tool best for human use only. When it comes to human/animal relationships, the concept of animal welfare, for lack of a better description, seems a better fit.2

The bottom line is that there is a schism in today’s urban/ suburban setting. A majority of people seem to be separating themselves from a vital part of their existence and- corny as it sounds- have lost a vital connection to their roots.

By not facing this connection and looking it in the eye we confuse ourselves with the world around us and everything becomes too people centered. That humans are a small part of a grand tangled web of interacting life gets buried in the details. This is how we lose our way down dead end roads, but then any simple farmer could have told us that.


1) According to William Pollan many animal rights philosophers draw the line of sentience (a point beyond which you can “morally” eat animals) “just north of scallop.”

2) Another issue where mutual “respect” can impact animals in a positive and reasonable way is to confront many of the problems with the extreme industrialization of certain agricultural sectors. As Pollan notes “This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism- the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society. Mercy towards the animals in our care is one such casualty.”

Though this is but a tiny part of a larger socio-economic system, reducing our meat consumption to allow for improved conditions would be a small price to pay for a “compassionate mutualism” and it could help steer industry towards more sustainable and successful business plans.


Pollan M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Group.New York, New York. 2006

Blackmore, S. Conversations on Consciousness. Oxford Univ Press. Oxford, New York. 2006


Tracy said...

The point is that animals feel pain. Suffering is not like self-pity. Suffering is like pain and torture. No animal (including humans) deserves that.

It doesn't take a long, esoteric blog post to realize that. It takes basic compassion.

Like animals?
Wanna lose weight?
Care about the environment?

wandering primate said...

But pain is one thing and suffering another. Suffering is very complex and variable (Torture is yet another topic altogether). "Basic" Compassion is a no brainer- but this too can get pretty complicated.
The point is developing an honest bond -good farmers do this well. No matter what is going on all around, you're more likely to do what's best- things aren't always as black and white as you imply.

ng2000 said...

Another resource for you:

Dr G said...

ng2000...and your point here is???
Obviously, like tracy, you haven't spent much effort in trying to understand the post.

I'm all for civil and thoughtful discussion but your 'party' response is pretty predictable and rather vacuous. If you have anything of substance to say, please comment again...otherwise prostletyse somewhere else...

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