Animal rights: lunacy or liberation?

The Animal Rights movement is generally misunderstood and occasionally even ridiculed. To a certain extent this perception can be traced to the actions of a few considered a ‘lunatic fringe’. To a larger extent this perception can also be ascribed to the human tendency to ridicule that which one does not fully understand.

The movement is also feared by those who stand to lose financially and therefore heftily oppose it, much as the abolition of human slavery was opposed by slave traders and –owners alike.

Historical Perspective

Animal Rights has been described as the last of the great freedom movements, with the domination of slaves, women and animals all having a common root cause and being a manifestation of abusive power relations. They are thus inextricably linked.

Like racism and sexism, it has its fundamental origins in a patriarchal society where blacks, women and animals were seen as inferior.

When philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, forerunner of later feminists, published her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, her ideas were ridiculed and elicited the response “Women’s rights? They will be telling us animals have rights next!” Her treatise was dismissively parodied in Vindication of the Rights of Brutes.

The churches also long played a part in the general acceptance of women, animals and blacks as inferior beings with the status of ‘property.’

The Rev. Andrew Linzey, director of the Centre for Theology and Ethics at Essex University, England, admits that Christian theology ‘served long and well the oppressors of slaves, women and animals.” He points out that, only 131 years ago, William Henry Holcombe wrote confidently of slavery as the “Christianisation of the dark races.” It took 1900 years for theologians to question seriously the morality of slavery and even longer, the oppression of women. Keith Thomas reminds us that over the centuries theologians debated “half frivolously, half seriously, whether or not the female sex had souls, a discussion which closely paralleled the debate about animals.”

But there are indications that the Christian Churches are rethinking the role of humans’ relationship to animals and there is a steadily increasing amount of serious scholarship addressing the theme of human responsibility to the created order.

In 1977 Anglican Archbishop Donald Coggan stated: “Animals, as part of God’s creation, have rights which must be respected. It behoves us always to be sensitive to their needs and to the reality of their pain.” Archbishop Robert Runcie warned in 1988: “The temptation is that we will usurp God’s place as Creator and exercise a tyrannical dominion over creation. Too often our theology of creation, especially here in the so-called “developed world”, has been distorted by being too man-centred….. our concept of God forbids the idea of a cheap creation, of a throw-away universe in which everything is expendable save human existence.”

This view is reiterated by African sage, writer and sangoma, Credo Mutwa. In his book Isilwane- The Animal, he states: “In the past, African people did not regard themselves as being above the animals, trees, fishes and birds.” He speaks of the strange Western belief that man is superior to all other living beings on earth and that he was specially created to be overlord and custodian of all things, animate or inanimate. He goes on to say:

“We must stop – immediately – regarding ourselves as superior and special creatures created in the image of some imaginary god. We must bring the Almighty back into our lives – not just on Sunday or Saturday, but every hour and day.”

It is this view of animals as soulless, lowly beings which helped the growing commerce in animal hides, furs and meat, as subjects to be exploited in animal husbandry, in factory farming and as subjects for entertainment.

Marjorie Spiegel, in her book The Dreaded Comparison – Human and Animal Slavery (1966) describes the hunting and trapping of slaves: the branding; the transport ships where more than half the occupants typically died in the dreaded Middle Passage; the break-up of families and lovers at auctions; the rapes; the beatings; the forced labour and the subjugation to every whim of the master. Substitute ‘animal’ for ‘slave’ and one has a snapshot of what routinely happens to non-human animals.

Animal rights as a social movement

The Animal Rights movement has been described by Maneka Ghandi as “perhaps the most altruistic freedom struggle in history since those engaged in it do what they do without any expectation of returns, recognition or reward – people who have taken up the fight for living beings that have neither voice, nor choice, in our human-centric world.”

In the late 1960’s, respected philosophers raised important ethical issues. Prof. Peter Singer elaborated on the concept of ‘speciesism’, a term first coined by Richard Ryder, and argued that animals’ interests counted. In Singer’s book ‘Animal Liberation’, published in 1976, he argued that speciesism was very much like racism and sexism, which made arbitrary distinctions between individuals, based on colour and sex. He went on to define animals’ moral status according to their capacity to suffer.

In his subsequent book in 1984, ‘The Case for Animal Rights,’ Lawyer Tom Regan went on to accord rights to all creatures that could be the subject of a life and had qualities such as memory, beliefs, preference and emotional status. Not least of these rights he considered to be the right to life. The killing of animals in laboratories and on the farm was therefore wrong, as the animal was being deprived of its future. Death was, therefore, the ultimate harm, because it was the ultimate loss – the loss of life itself.

Towards legal rights

Prof. Steven M. Wise of Harvard Law School points out how other races and women were not always given legal rights and how, over time, rights have been extended to all humans (in some countries at least). The next logical step is to extend limited rights to other species who currently enjoy none and who are suffering because of it. Along the way, Wise naturally explains that we view other species as we do personal property and as we used to view slaves. They are something to be owned, controlled.

In his book Rattling the Cage. Toward Legal Rights for Animals (2000). he postulates that in denying creatures such as chimpanzees (who are so similar to humans) fundamental rights, we undermine our own foundation of human rights. This issue is, therefore, everyone’s problem, not just that of the animals. He points out that our culture currently operates under an outmoded system when it comes to the policies and decisions we make about animals, both domestic and wild.

Wise tells us the way we presently view animals in our culture began philosophically in ancient Greece. “The belief that non-human animals are somehow ‘made for us’ lies at the root of what the law says we can do to them today.” He repeatedly makes the point that just as the ancient world regarded slaves (and sometimes women) as personal property, our own society until recently did so as well.

Slaves, like animals, were considered incapable of reason, intelligence, or any higher-order thinking. Animals and slaves could be bought, sold or discarded because they were owned. What discourages him most is that animals are legally “things” in our society.

He asks questions that challenge our beliefs: Must a person be physically able to make a legal claim in order to have one? Animals cannot speak for themselves, they cannot make a claim for legal rights and freedom. However, if you ascribe to this belief, then mentally challenged adults, infants and people who are in a coma or vegetative state would also be unable to make a claim for rights. He poses the question: “Are things or beings or ideas valuable because we value them or because they are inherently valuable?

If non-human animals or humans are valuable only because we value them, then they must lack value when we don’t and we must face the fact that Adolph Eichmann, Adolph Hitler and the killing (Nazi) doctors who did not value many kinds of humans (and ‘legally’ euthanased the mentally ill, epileptics, the paralyzed) were correct. It would then follow that the Final Solution, legal in Nazi Germany, was neither illegal nor unjust.” Disregard for the living being which does not have legal rights, Wise says, threatens the disregard for all living beings. These are arguments that would be of interest not only to those who are interested in animal rights, but human rights as well.

Rights vs. Welfare

The lines of distinction between the Animal Rights- and Animal Welfare movements appear blurred. Broadly speaking, one could make the distinction that animal welfarists don’t accord equal value to the various species of animals. Accordingly, while the abuse of dogs and cats might attract wide public condemnation, it is decidedly not politically correct to campaign for the rights of the pig. Animal welfare, unlike animal rights, rests on the notion that animals are property and that virtually every animal interest can be sacrificed in order to obtain `benefits’ for people.

The animal rights movement, on the other hand, considers all animals as individuals of intrinsic, and equal, value whose lives are as precious to them as ours are to us. It abhors what it considers the moral schizophrenia of loving our pets while turning a blind eye to others being led to cruel slaughter.

In his book Rain Without Thunder, published in 1996, Professor Francione, Professor of Law at Rutgers University, explores the modern animal rights (AR) movement in America. He traces the emergence of the movement as a direct reaction to the conservative philosophy of Animal Welfare. In this thought provoking book he enables one to see how the Animal Welfare movement has come to reaffirm the basic underpinnings of animal exploitation, even adopting, in their terminology, the rhetoric of exploiters of animals.

Francione postulates that, in order to stop animal exploitation, the AR movement has to move away from this counterproductive liberal approach and take a more radical stand that recognises that animals are not property and that they have fundamental and inalienable rights. The welfare movement, which morally accepts that animals may be exploited as long as they are treated ‘humanely’, is therefore not able to accomplish the real goal, which is the elimination of the property status of animals. In line with the Marxist notion that reforming a corrupt system only makes that system stronger, Francione therefore rejects the mere reformation of animal welfare.

The Animal Rights movement, once considered beyond the pale as was the human rights- and feminism movements, today has some very well respected proponents and is rapidly achieving mainstream approval.

This is evidenced by the rapid growth of professional organisations devoted to animal concerns. Veterinarians for Animals Rights, the Animal Legal Defense fund, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have all come into being during the last decade.