Not so long ago, animal-rights activists were viewed as crackpots if not thugs, the sort of people who splattered the fur coats of unsuspecting pedestrians with red paint or vandalized university research laboratories. This image was greatly enhanced by the extreme language in which the movement’s leading figures routinely expressed themselves. Ingrid Newkirk, the longtime president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), once opined that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”; on another memorable occasion, she offered the thought that whereas “six million Jews died in concentration camps, . . . six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”
In recent years, however, as some of the movement’s most militant groups have moderated their rhetoric and their tactics, the cause of animal rights has begun to achieve a quite astonishing degree of respectability. On Capitol Hill, elected officials from both political parties have become receptive to the movement’s concerns, sponsoring legislation and even forming a congressional caucus called the “Friends of Animals.” Perhaps even more strikingly, some of the nation’s leading law schools, including Harvard, Georgetown, and Rutgers, have begun to offer courses in animal-rights law, and a Washington firm founded by two veterans of Ralph Nader’s consumer-advocacy group has begun regularly filing suit to expand legal protections for animals. Its most notable achievement is a landmark federal-court ruling in 1999 that for the first time gives an individual the legal standing to sue on behalf of a distressed creature.
But the biggest victory so far for the animal-rights movement came last October, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by a group called the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation that was seeking to expand the scope of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. Since its passage, this act had been interpreted as empowering the USDA to oversee the treatment in laboratory experiments of large animals like dogs, cats, and primates. Left out of this regulatory regime were birds and, most importantly, mice and rats, which account for 95 percent of all animals used in scientific tests.
Under last October’s settlement—and despite the protests of indignant researchers—rodents are now to receive equal rights. The USDA has agreed to require universities, pharmaceutical companies, and other organizations that conduct biomedical experiments to fill out a report on the treatment of each and every warm-blooded animal, and to conduct random inspections to check for conformity to the new standards.
From the eagerness of politicians to please pet-owners to the all-too-familiar activism of the courts, one might point to all sorts of explanations for this dramatic change in the fortunes of the animal-rights movement. But the most basic reason is simpler and more ominous: many Americans have begun to accept the activists’ argument that there is a moral imperative to treat animals like, well, people.
The first leg of this argument concerns the capacity of animals to feel, and the definitive treatment of the question may be found in a book that helped launch the modern animal-rights movement. This was Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer, the Australian professor of philosophy who, amid much controversy, was recently appointed to a prestigious chair in ethics at Princeton.
The power of Singer’s book derives largely from the simplicity of its argument. Following the lead of the 19th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Singer begins by identifying what he takes to be an indisputable moral intuition: we have an obligation not to inflict pain and suffering on creatures that are capable of experiencing them. Next, using a series of shockingly gory anecdotes, he shows that animals can and do experience these sensations. Finally, and completing his syllogism, he concludes that human beings must not inflict pain and suffering on animals.
Much of Animal Liberation is concerned with applying this principle to various human practices—from the use of animals in scientific experiments to raising and slaughtering them on “factory farms”—and then advocating the radical reformation or abolition of those practices. As Singer writes with characteristic bluntness, “there can be no reason . . . for refusing to extend the basic principle of equality of [ethical] consideration to members of other species.” In this scheme, the dominion of humans over animals resembles nothing so much as a “tyranny” based on “arbitrary discrimination.”
Indeed, in a parallel that shows up repeatedly in his subsequent writings and those of his many admirers, Singer compares the amount of pain and suffering inflicted on animals to “that which resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white humans over black humans.” Just as slavery was based on racism, the abusive treatment of animals rests on what he calls “speciesism”—a prejudice “in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species.” Those who ignore the suffering of animals rely on the same sort of “difference that the most crude and overt kind of racist uses in attempting to justify racial discrimination.”
For Singer, in short, only a complete break from the anthropocentric views of Western philosophy and religion will allow us to see that when it comes to the all-important capacity to experience pleasure and pain, we are morally indistinguishable from many of our fellow creatures.
Steven Wise’s Rattling the Cage (2000) is perhaps the best-known book representing a relatively new tack in the project begun by Singer. He, too, offers an anguished cry of protest, again equating the present-day treatment of animals with human enslavement and describing the use of animals for medical research as “genocide.” But for Wise, who teaches the new course in animal-rights law at Harvard and is a tireless courtroom advocate for the cause, the essential similarity between men and (some) beasts is autonomy: that is, the shared ability to form preferences and act on them.
Scientists, Wise points out, have demonstrated important physiological parallels between human beings and the primates that are his chief concern in Rattling the Cage. Chimpanzees, for instance, not only share 98.3 percent of our genetic make-up, but they have similar brain structures as well. On the evidence of evolutionary theory, he declares, “as recently as 5 or 6 million years ago, humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos were the same animal.”
As a result, Wise argues, chimpanzees and bonobos possess myriad attributes that, through a combination of ignorance and prideful prejudice, we normally associate solely with human beings. They “feel” and “think,” exhibit “emotions” and live in “cultures,” “understand cause-and-effect relationships among objects, and even relationships among relationships.” More importantly, observation of these animals in captivity and in the wild reveals that their behavior echoes ours in striking ways. They seem to possess elementary self-awareness: they imitate one another, engage in deception and trickery, and use their own primitive languages to communicate basic information and emotional states. A chimpanzee named Lucy even regularly prepared tea for researchers and masturbated to pictures of naked men in Playgirl magazine.
Contrary to Western prejudices that trace back to the Bible and Aristotle, Wise concludes, animals—or at least chimpanzees and bonobos—are not simply “things” that can be treated as property. They are, instead, “persons” in the legal sense. Like us, that is, they are bearers of individual rights and deserve to be treated accordingly. As the renowned primatologist Jane Goodall puts it in her glowing foreword to Rattling the Cage, this book is meant to be the animals’ “Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and Universal Declaration of Rights all in one.”
That such arguments have found an audience at this particular cultural moment is not so hard to explain. Our popular and elite media are saturated with scientific and quasi-scientific reports claiming to prove the basic thesis of the animal-rights movement. Having once believed ourselves to be made in the image of God, we now learn—from the human genome project, the speculations of evolutionary psychologists, and numerous other sources—that humankind, too, is determined by genetic predispositions and the drive to reproduce. We are cleverer than other animals, to be sure, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind. As Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote on the editorial page of the New York Times, “Again and again, after starting from an ancient premise of radical differences between humans and other creatures, scientists have discovered profound similarities.”
But have they? Genetics and evolutionary biology may be, indeed, extremely effective at identifying the traits we share with other species. But chemistry, for its part, can tell us about the ways in which we resemble chunks of charcoal, and physics can point to fundamental similarities between a man and all the matter in the universe. The problem with these observations is not that they are untrue. It is that they shed no light whatsoever on, or rather they are designed to obfuscate, what makes humanity unique as a species—the point on which an answer to the likes of Peter Singer and Steven Wise must hinge.
For his part, Singer commits the same error that John Stuart Mill found in the system of Jeremy Bentham: he makes no distinction among kinds of pleasure and pain. That animals feel emotions can hardly be doubted; but human beings experience life, even at its most “animalistic” level, in a way that fundamentally differs from other creatures.
Thus, Singer can account for the pain that humans and animals alike experience when they are hungry and the pleasure they feel when they eat, but he cannot explain, for example, a person’s choice to starve himself for a cause. He understands that human beings, like animals, derive pleasure from sex and sometimes endure pangs of longing when they are deprived of it, but he cannot explain how or why, unlike animals, some choose to embrace celibacy for the sake of its noble purity. He is certainly attuned to the tendency we share with animals to fear and avoid pain and bodily harm, but he is incapable of understanding a man’s willingness to face certain death on the battlefield when called upon to do so by his country. Still less can he explain why stories of such sacrifice sometimes move us to tears.
In much the same way, the evidence adduced by Steven Wise to suggest that primates are capable of forming rudimentary plans and expectations fails to demonstrate they are equal to human beings in any significant sense. Men and women use their “autonomy” in a world defined not by the simple imperatives of survival but by ideas of virtue and vice, beauty and ugliness, right and wrong. Modern scientific methods, including those of evolutionary psychology, have so far proved incapable of detecting and measuring this world, but that does not make any less real the experience that takes place within it.
Western civilization has tended to regard animals as resembling things more than human beings precisely because, like inanimate objects, and unlike the authors of the real Magna Carta, animals have no perception of morality. Until the day when a single animal stands up and, led by a love of justice and a sense of self-worth, insists that the world recognize and respect its dignity, all the philosophical gyrations of the activists will remain so much sophistry.
None of this, of course, exempts human beings from behaving decently toward animals, but it does provide a foundation, when necessary, for giving pride of place to the interests of human beings. This has particular relevance for biomedical research.
Among the most vociferous critics of the USDA’s recent capitulation to the animal-rights movement were the nation’s leading centers of medical science. The National Association for Biomedical Research estimated that the new regulations would cost universities alone as much as $280 million a year. Nor is the issue simply one of dollars. As Estelle Fishbein, counsel for Johns Hopkins University, recently argued in the Journal of the American Medical Association,
Genetic research promises to bring new therapies to alleviate human suffering from the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological diseases, and virtually all other human and animal diseases. However, the promise of this new era of medical research is highly dependent on the ready availability of mice, rats, and birds.
Far from being a mere administrative hassle, she concluded, the new regulations would “divert scarce grant funds from actual research use, distract researchers from their scientific work, and overload them with documentation requirements.”
Serious as this threat is, a still more troubling one is the effect that the arguments of animal-rights proponents may have, in the long term, on our regard for human life itself. Peter Singer’s appointment at Princeton caused a stir not because of his writings about animals but because of his endorsement of euthanasia, unrestricted abortion, and, in some instances, infanticide. But all of his views, as he himself maintains, are of a piece. The idea that “human infants and retarded adults” are superior to animals can only be based, he writes, on “a bare-faced—and morally indefensible—prejudice for members of our own species.”
In much the same way, Steven Wise urges us to reject absolute demarcations between species and instead focus on the capacities of individual humans and individual apes. If we do that, we will find that many adult chimpanzees and bonobos are far more “human” than newborn and mentally disabled human beings, and thus just as worthy of being recognized as “persons.”
Though Wise’s inference is the opposite of Singer’s—he does not wish to deprive underdeveloped humans of rights so much as to extend those rights to primates—he is playing the same game of bait-and-switch: in this case projecting the noblest human attributes onto animals while quietly limiting his sample of human beings to newborns and the mentally disabled. When raising animals to our level proves to be impossible, as it inevitably must, equal consideration can only be won by attempting to lower us to theirs.
It is a curious fact that in virtually all of human history, only in liberal democracies—societies founded on the recognition of the innate dignity of all members of the human race—have animals enjoyed certain minimum protections, codified in our own country in the Animal Welfare Act. It is a no less curious fact that these same liberal democracies have become infected over the past decades with a corrosive self-doubt, giving rise in some educated circles to antiliberal, antiwhite, antimale, anti-Western, and now, with perfect logic, antihuman enthusiasms.
The proponents of these various but linked ideologies march under a banner of justice and the promise of extending the blessings of equality to one or more excluded Others. Such piety is to be expected in a radical movement seeking well-meaning allies; but it need not deflect us from the main focus of their aggressive passions, which the euthanasia-endorsing Peter Singer, for one, has at least had the candor to admit to. Can anyone really doubt that, were the misanthropic agenda of the animal-rights movement actually to succeed, the result would be an increase in man’s inhumanity, to man and animal alike? In the end, fostering our age-old “prejudice” in favor of human dignity may be the best thing we can do for animals, not to mention for ourselves.