What's Wrong about Animal Rights

There are hidden contradictions in the minds of people who "love Nature" while deploring the "artificialities" with which "Man has spoiled Nature." The obvious contradiction lies in their choice of words, which imply that Man and his artifacts are not a part of "Nature" - but beavers and their dams are. But the contradictions go deeper than this prima facie absurdity. In declaring his love for a beaver dam (erected by beavers for beavers' purposes) and his hatred for dams erected by men (for the purposes of men) the "Naturalist" reveals his hatred for his own race- i.e., his own self-hatred. (Heinlein).

Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, once said "Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They're all mammals" (qtd. in Oliver 206). To make a statement like this, and then call eating meat "barbaric," hunters "sadistic lunatics," and farmers "cruel," displays both the speaker's lack of understanding about the natural world, and her contempt for her own species. The animal rights movement is not a pro-animal movement, it is an anti-human movement. Activists claim to want equal rights for animals, but in actuality they elevate animal rights above those of humans. It is natural for a wolf to hunt caribou, but morally reprehensible for a human to do so. It is natural for animals to form mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, yet it is slavery when humans and dogs work together. It is natural for ants to farm aphids for their excretions, yet it is abusive for humans to raise cattle for theirs. It is natural for those same ants to kill ladybug larvae that endanger their livestock, yet it is murder when humans do the same. In short, is it morally wrong for the human animal to use other animals in the same ways that they use each other. Clearly, a rat is a pig is a dog is NOT a boy.

When news of some act of human barbarity, greed, venality, or deception prods us towards misanthropy, we often turn to animals, projecting onto them a moral superiority to humans, the fallen beings who have tasted the forbidden fruit. Innocence is the word most often applied to animals, implying a guileless existence in which they always reveal their true feelings...I don't think so...To their credit, animals don't deserve their reputation as moral paragons. I say to their credit because the more sophisticated forms of deceit require consciousness, an awareness of others' mental states, and the propositional abilities that go with artful scheming. Conversely, if some animals posses higher mental abilities, they should also be capable of putting those higher abilities to lower ends. Far from an innocent kingdom populated by straight shooters, the animal world is rife with con artists, devious manipulators, and dissemblers. (Linden 63).

If intelligent species are more "capable of putting those higher abilities to lower ends," arguably the concept of morality evolved in humans, the most intellectually advanced species, to keep such behavior in check. Morality is a strictly human concept, created and shaped by societies, religions and cultures for the purpose of ensuring the safety and cooperation of all. The natural world, however, is completely without morals. In his book Rocks of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould, the foremost authority of his time on Darwin and evolution, argues that humans cannot use the natural world as a model for moral behavior:

Nature is amoral- not immoral, but rather constructed without reference to this strictly human concept. Nature, to speak metaphorically, existed for eons before we arrived, didn't know we were coming, and doesn't give a damn about us. . . Therefore we cannot use nature for our moral instruction, or for answering any question within the magisterium of religion [Gould argues that religion's sole purpose is to provide moral instruction, and therefore does not conflict with the purpose of science]. We certainly cannot follow the old, intellectually squishy tradition of searching for moral certainties within nature's supposedly warm and fuzzy ways. (195).

In my botany class we watched a film called "Sexual Encounters of the Floral Kind," which explained the reproductive methods of various flowering plants, including some very bizarre examples. One species of orchid had evolved in such a unique fashion that it could only be pollinized by one particular species of fly. My instructor lauded this as a reason why we need to save the rainforests and all their diversity. This bothers me. First of all, extinctions occur naturally all the time, and this particular orchid is a prime candidate for extinction, even without human involvement. If anything happens to reduce the numbers of its pollinator species, it won't be able to reproduce. It is an example of an evolutionary bottleneck. While the methods of its reproduction are fascinating to behold, this species isn't very adaptive.

A better species would be one that could adapt to any situation. Take, for instance, the common crow. This highly intelligent bird has not only expanded its range along with humans, it has learned to utilize human environments to its own advantage. For instance, crows will deliberately place nuts in the middle of the road so that they will be crushed open by cars (Davies). This very adaptive species will no doubt survive much longer than the orchid. Yet most "environmentalists" would not give crows a second glance because they are so adaptive and signify the spread of humans.

Animal rights activists purport to want humans to live once again by natural law, but in their misunderstanding of natural law, they fail to see that humans already live according to it. If anything, animal rights activists should be arguing against nature, for all the human exploitations that they hate so much stem from nature's command to multiply, expand and conquer. Any other species, given the same faculties as us, would be acting in the same manner. Most already do, it just isn't as noticeable because of their small size (humans are very large as organisms go). Under natural law, we have absolutely NO obligations towards ANY other species other than our own- we can exploit them all we want, and our methods don't even have to be humane. This is pure "speciesism," to use Peter Singer's word. Yet Singer denounces "speciesism," the "attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species," as being the equivalent of racism and sexism (Bender and Leone 22). Yet natural law demands that every species be a "speciesist."

This brings us to another interesting point. Since the natural world is amoral, and we shouldn't use natural laws as moral codes, maybe we should give all other species the same consideration as our own. Why is this view impractical? Because there is no way to survive without violating the "interests" of other species. Even if we do as some activists suggest and go back to being gatherers (hunter-gatherers would be "barbaric"), we would still be killing insects to save crops, wrecking habitats to plant those crops, battling bacteria to cure infection, fighting off predators to save ourselves and destroying habitats to create our dwellings. "The only goal of a doctrine that demands such a sacrifice of man to animals can be the annihilation of man" (Epstein and Brook). Indeed. Practical implementation of this view is impossible without the extinction of our species, which would not be able to survive without harming others. Sound far-fetched? In fact, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement has existed for quite some time.

The only way to practically implement animal rights would be to separate out the species so that some have rights and others don't. But how does one make such a distinction? Should plants not have rights simply because they lack a central nervous system? Should protists and bacteria suffer simply because of their minute size? What about insects? Would you distribute rights according to level of sentience? How would level of sentience be determined in animals? If sentience is to be a requirement for holding rights, what then of comatose, retarded or otherwise mentally-challenged humans? Should they have rights stripped? Frighteningly enough, some animal rights activists say yes: "John McArdle of HSUS suggests the use of brain-dead people in experiments. ‘It may take people a while to get used to the idea,' he admits, ‘but once they do, the savings in animal lives will be substantial'" (Marquardt et al. 60). Others suggest using murderers or retarded people for medical experiments (60). In their failing pursuit to attribute human morals to animals, animal rights activists have themselves become unethical.

Previous Page Works Cited Next Page

Feisty Feathers
Go Back

Articles and images contained on this site are © 2003 by Karen Trinkaus unless otherwise noted and may not be reprinted or used in any way without the author's permission.