Friday, April 10, 2009

Animal rights

Nicholas Kristoff's op-ed this week looks into animal rights and speculates that that ethical obligations beyond our own species is finally catching on. While this idea has been promoted the eccentric Peter Singer for decades, legislation is finally popping up that suggests its entry into the mainstream is nigh. Kristoff quotes Jeremy Bentham's litmus test as the new standard: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Kristoff looks at new legislation in California as a sign of progress. Switzerland has gone even further in protecting animals from harm and has adopted laws which allow for a better quality of life for "social" creatures. Before we cheer the revolution in animal rights, maybe we should step back and think about what it means when someone like Alan Dershowitz can be both pro-animal rights and pro-torture. Do we care about animals more than people?

Animal rights activists often see their campaign as fitting in the trajectory of ethical advancement. Over two hundred years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft's appeal on behalf of women's rights was argued to have equal merit as an appeal for animal rights. At the time, this was meant as an insult. Now, many animal rights advocates are coming back to this point. In drawing a comparison to violations of human rights, they hope to draw the connection that animals are just like us; they deserve rights too. But when the Holocaust is compared to dinner, the campaign seems more to diminish the former than promote the cause of the latter.

Clearly that's not what the well-intentioned, albeit sometimes misguided, folks at PETA have in mind. It's a tactic that has similarly been used by the pro-life community, pro-Palestinian activists, even those raising awareness of global warming (on both sides). All such comparisons are meant to do is proclaim: this is serious stuff. The offense stems from the perception that they diminish the seriousness of the Holocaust, but that's not what any of these groups and individuals have in mind. They are working under the assumption that we all get how serious the Holocaust is, and they are using this common conception to draw our attention to another, in their eyes, very serious issue. In doing so, they actually reinforce the belief that the Holocaust is an unquestionably horrible event. It's pretty common to hear of Hitler-Satan comparisons, right? Does that make Satan any less evil?

So it's a similar thing when animal rights advocates compare their task to that of anti-slavery activists, the women's liberation movement, and the gay rights movement. Such a comparison shouldn't be seen as a threat to the importance of those causes, but rather a reinforcement of their importance. There is no reason to claim that animal rights advocacy takes away from the promotion of human rights. Right?

Well, you can't ignore the visibility of animal rights activists. They are dousing fur-clad celebrities in paint, taking out full-page magazine articles, and liberating lab animals. And of course it gets people wondering: where are the radical Darfur protesters? Or the anti-poverty demonstrations? Who is sticking up for women's rights these days? The high profile nature of animal rights activists suggest that they don't care about human causes. When PETA sends a letter to Hamas asking them to stop swinging cats around by their tails, you can't help but think they are really really stupid. It reinforces what many folks who don't already care about animals are thinking: how can you stick up for animals when so many people lack basic rights?

It's not that obvious. Pro-lifers face similar criticism--why waste your efforts on the unborn? For them, as for the animal rights advocates, the task isn't just to secure rights for those who deserve them, it's to convince people that these individuals deserve them in the first place. This increases the gravity of the call. Because otherwise they'd have to bow out entirely, right? Until the rights of the borned humans are fully realized?

OK, I'll sever the abortion-animal abuse link right now, I was just trying to broaden the issues a little bit. But basically, I think it's short-sided to say that we can't fight for animal rights so long as people aren't provided for. Perhaps if the human rights community would accept the animal rights advocates, the latter would be able to prioritize their campaigns and show proper concern for human atrocities. The emphasis has to be on inclusiveness. Similarly, the animal rights advocates should consider working towards joining the greater community of people fighting for rights of the oppressed rather than fight for animal rights only and using comparisons that further alienate the cause. Think about how hurt gays in California were by the seeming snub of African-American voters when Prop 8 passed. It certainly highlighted the insularity of these movements. If you care for the rights of the oppressed, you should care for all who are oppressed, in whichever form. People have an immense capacity for empathy; there's no reason we can't care about multiple issues at a time.

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