The Future of Animal Rights

October 4, Genoa

Thank you so very much Professor Battaglia for your kind introduction. Thanks as well to others who have made this event possibile, Antonio Monaco and Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni, in particular. It is my great pleasure and honor to be here. It is always inspiring for me to be among people who are truly committed to the struggle for animal rights, not for a month, not for a year but for a life-time. Only a whole life lived in steadfest pursuit of our goals approaches an adequate response to the incalcuable suffering, deprivation and death animals endure at the hands of our fellow humans.

Among the challenges we face, growth is the most important. How do we grow the animal rights movement, both our numbers and our influence, from where we are today to where we need to be tomorrow? The plain fact is, our movement is not going to grow in the numbers we need unless two things happen. First, we must retain the activists (the people who are actively engaged in movement campaigns) that we already have. The limits of time necessitate that I bypass this important challenge on this occasion.

Second, we must do a better job of recruiting new people to the movement. And not just a few. In the years ahead we must recruit very large numbers of new people to our already existing ranks. Only then, I believe, will the animal rights movement have a realistic chance of transforming itself from what we are today: a fringe movement, in the eyes of the general public and our elected officials to a powerful force of social change.

So we ask (as we must): How do we attract people in such numbers? My leisurely answer to this question will be found in my book, Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights, from which some of what I will be saying has been excerpted. We begin with this simple fact: Most peoples’ perception of animal rights is based on how this idea is presented in the media, a source of information that I need not tell you often is misleading at best. Only (as we all know) this tendency to mislead is multiplied when it comes to animal rights. For the most part (at least this is true in America) the media is interested in animal rights only when Animal Rights Advocates (ARAs) do something outlandish or illegal. Understandably, therefore, the general public views ARAs as emotionally unbalanced people who are found of flaunting the standards of civil behavior or breaking the law. How could it be otherwise? Since this is what the media says we are, this must be what we are. Right?

One great challenge we face is to help the public get beyond the largely negative perception they have of animal rights. A way to try to meet this challenge (and it is only a way) involves having a clear understanding of relevant scientific facts, a clear understanding of key ideas, and the patience to explain both. Our journey begins with the best scientific knowledge available, a fact that (ironically) undermines the charge that ARAs are “anti-scientific.”

What are other animals like, not merely physically but psychologically? Here is what our best science tells us.
Many nonhuman animals (literally billions of them) are like us in the following respects. They are in the world. They are aware of the world. They are aware of what happens to them. And what happens to them matters to them because it makes a difference to the quality and duration of their life, as experienced by them.

To express these similarities using different language, we can say that these animals have a biography, not simply a biology; they are the subjects of a life, not a life without a subject.

Scientists disagree concerning exactly where to draw the line when it comes to which animals are like us in the respects just noted. For example, some maintain that some invertebrates (octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus) have an experiential welfare. Others dispute this judgment. One thing this dispute should not obscure is this important truth: Among scientists today, there is all but universal agreement that all mammals and birds are “above the line.” In the case of these animals, that is, our best science, not to mention plain common sense, speaks to the same truth: These animals truly are like us in the respects mentioned earlier.

Moreover, note this: This consensus concerns those animals at the center of animal rights activism, including the animals various industries turn into food, turn into clothes, turn into competitors, turn into performers, or turn into tools. Given the scientific facts as we know them, people outside our movement should be able to understand why ARAs select these animals for our special concern. If other mammals and birds are like us in being subjects of a life, how can we have two dramatically different moralities: One prescribing how we can or should treat one another, and a second, very different morality prescribing how we can or should treat these animals? Once this deceptively simple question takes hold, many people are only a step away from thinking seriously about animal rights.

Of course, not a few people substitute ridicule for serious thought. “You mean animals should have a right to free public education, the legal right to marry, the right to vote? The whole idea is too absurd to merit further comment.” In the minds of some people, this represents the end of their thinking about animal rights. In some cases, alas, nothing we say can reach them. Hard as it is to accept, some people have to be given up as lost causes. For the rest, an opportunity presents itself: We can explain to them why things are not as simple as they sometimes appear.

Take the right to vote. People in the United States who have been convicted of first degree murder do not have a right to vote; that right was lost because of the crime they committed. Even so, this hardly means that we are at liberty to turn convicted murderers into food or clothes. Thus, even granting that it is absurd to think that animals do or should have a right to vote, it does not follow (and we can explain why it does not follow) that nothing wrong is done to them when they are turned into pieces of meat between two slices of bread. In general, familiar attempts to reduce animal rights to absurdity — to ridicule the idea — fail.

What is more, attempts to avoid the question concerning animal rights conveniently ignore a hard question all of us (both proponents and opponents of animal rights) need to ask, namely: “How should humans treat one another?” If we don’t have a thoughtful answer to this question, it is hard to imagine how we can have a thoughtful answer to the one that asks about our treatment of animals. How should Animal Rights Advocates answer the question about human obligations, one to another? Our basic answer (as I understand our position) is straightforward.

Advocates of animal rights must make it clear that we are also advocates of human rights. In fact, I for one do not understand how we can be the former unless we are the latter. So rather than our presenting ourselves, or allowing others to present us, as being anti-human or misanthropic, we should make it as clear as possible that we are advocates of human rights, not only of animal rights. This small step by itself can help lessen the negative stereotype the media has hung around our necks. “Yes,” we say, “count us among those who believe in human rights and” (and it is vitally important that we take the offensive here, without offending) “here are some of the key characteristics of our rights.”

To possess moral rights is to have a kind of protection we might picture as an invisible “No Trespassing” sign. What does this sign prohibit? Two things. First, others are not morally free to harm us; to say this is to say that others are not free to take our life or injure our body as they please. Second, others are not morally free to interfere with our free choice; to say this is to say that others are not free to limit our free choice as they please. In both cases, the “No Trespassing” sign is meant to protect our most important goods (our life, our body, our liberty) by morally limiting the freedom of others.

Moral rights breathe equality. They are the same for all who have them, differ though we do in many ways. This explains why no human being can justifiably be denied rights for arbitrary, prejudicial, or morally irrelevant reasons. Race is such a reason. To attempt to determine which humans have rights on the basis of race is like trying to sweeten tea by adding salt. What race we are tells us nothing about what rights we have. The same is no less true of other differences between us.

My wife Nancy and I trace our family lineage to different countries; she to Lithuania, I to Ireland. Some of our friends are Christians, some are Jews. Others are agnostics or atheists. In the world at large, a few people are very wealthy, many more, very poor. And so it goes. Humans differ in many ways. There is no denying that. Still, no one who believes in human rights thinks these differences mark fundamental moral divisions. If we mean anything by the idea of human rights, we mean that we have them equally. And we have them equally regardless of our race, gender, religious belief, comparative wealth, intelligence, or date or place of birth, for example.

Every serious advocate of human rights believes that our rights have greater moral weight than other important human values. To use an analogy from the card game Bridge, our moral rights are trump. Here is what this analogy means. A hand is dealt. Hearts are trump. The first three cards played are the queen of spades, the king of spades, and the ace of spades. You (the last player) have no spades. However, you do have the two of hearts. Because hearts are trump, your lowly two of hearts beats the queen of spades, beats the king of spades, even beats the ace of spades. This is how powerful the trump suit is in the game of Bridge. The analogy between trump in Bridge and individual rights in morality should be reasonably clear.

There are many important values to consider when we make a moral decision. For example: How will we be affected personally as a result of deciding one way or another? What about our family, friends, neighbors? It is not hard to write a long list. When we say, “rights are trump,” we mean that respect for the rights of individuals is the most important consideration in “the game of morality,” so to speak. In particular, we mean that the benefits others derive from violating someone’s rights never justifies violating them.

In a general sense, our several rights (to life, liberty, and bodily integrity, for example) are variations on a main theme, that theme being respect. I show my respect for you by respecting these rights in your life. You show your respect for me by reciprocating. Respect is the main theme because treating one another with respect just is treating one another in ways that respect our other rights. Our most fundamental right, then, the right that unifies all our other rights, is our right to be treated with respect. Now, human rights are not limited to those who are capable of understanding the words I have been speaking.

Human infants have these same rights despite the fact that they (perhaps blessedly) are unable to understand anything I’ve said. This fact duly acknowledged, we do not go on to say, “Let their bodies be turned into tools for researchers because they are unable to follow a philosopher’s discourse.” If anything, we say something strikingly different: because they lack abilities you and I share, because they are so vulnerable and incapable of defending themselves, our duty to see that their rights are respected is all the greater.

Thus do we — you and I, yes; but also the people to whom we are willing to try to explain our beliefs—thus do we all arrive at the point where the idea of animal rights can be seriously engaged. For we are now in a position to ask a simple question: How is it possible, on the one hand, to believe that human infants have the right to be treated with respect, and, on the other hand, to believe that all other mammals and birds lack this right? After all, human infants and these animals are on all fours, so to speak, when it comes to being in the world, being aware of the world, and being aware of what happens to them. Indeed, in incalculably many cases, these animals actually are even more aware.

Where is the justification, then, in thinking and acting so radically differently towards each when they are so fundamentally the same? Answers to this question vary. One begins by stating the obvious. Human infants are human. Other animals are not. That’s why human infants have rights whereas nonhuman primates, for example, do not. The premises of this argument certainly are true; it’s the reasoning that is defective. The fact that all and only humans are Homo sapiens only tells us something that is true as a matter of biology; and biological truths tell us nothing about moral status.

Consider one’s race, for example. To the extent that race is a biological concept, the human population can be divided into those who are Caucasian and those who are not. However, despite what our fore bearers may have thought, which humans have rights cannot be decided on the basis of which race different people are. The same is true of other biological differences — gender, say. But logic plays no favorites. Because biological differences between humans do not entail a difference in moral status among humans, biological differences between humans and other animals do not entail a difference in moral status among humans and other animals.

A second answer relies on potentiality. Human infants have the potential to understand philosophical discourse. Yonder cow or elephant do not. Thus, the infants have, while the animals lack, rights. Again, things are not this simple, and we can explain why. Some human infants do not have this potential. Because of their mental limitations, some human infants will never understand human speech; in many cases, even when they are fully mature, they will understand far less about the world than yonder cow or elephant.

Do we therefore say, “Well, then, let us turn these infants into food or clothes?” No, we do not say this, and never should. But if we are to be consistent (and consistency is the first requirement of rational thought), people cannot judge differently in the case of the animals we have been discussing. Other answers appeal to the existence of souls which (many people believe) all and only humans have.

Now, personally, I am not against having a soul. Personally, I profoundly hope I have one. And the same for you as well. But our hope (and this is all that it is) that we will live after our all too mortal flesh perishes hardly counts as a good reason to deprive wild animals of their freedom, assault the bodily integrity of animals used in laboratories, or take the very life of baby calves for the pleasure of our table. It’s not hard to understand why not. Who or what has a soul only tells us something important about what happens after our bodies die, something that offers no guidance whatsoever concerning how anyone should be treated while they are alive.

Consider this analogy. After I die, my personal wealth and possessions will be distributed among my heirs. My wife will inherit the major share, but some assets will pass down to my children. Given that this is how my estate will be divided after I die, it hardly follows that my children are entitled to begin drawing money from my checking account today, while I am still alive. In general, what happens after we die is one thing; how we should be treated while we are alive is quite another.

And as for God (and here I confine myself to Judaism and Christianity): not a few people believe that we have rights that other animals lack because God saw fit to distribute rights in this fashion. After all, didn’t God give us “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”? Doesn’t this prove that humans are special in the eyes of God? Yes, I think humans are special, given the message of the relevant holy books. Why? Because we are the only ones who are called upon to nurture and protect a magnificent creation that was good in its own right. Just consult the opening chapters of the book of Genesis; that’s where we learn about God’s hopes for and plans in creation. The words we find there cannot be read without understanding that God’s creation was good before humans (in the persons of Adam and Eve) came on the scene.

And notice this: in paradise, as represented by the Garden of Eden, humans did not turn animals into food, into clothes, into performers, and so on. In Eden, humans were vegans who lived in peace and harmony with the animals in their midst. So (if we are speaking to Christians or Jews) we can ask: What shall it be? Shall we live our life in a way that daily frustrates God’s hopes for and plans in creation, or shall we commence our journey back to Eden by treating animals as God hoped we would — by not eating and not wearing them, for example?

When the question is asked within the context of belief in God, I think it answers itself. Do animals have rights? Should they be protected by invisible “No Trespassing” signs? Should respect for their bodies, their freedom, and their life “trump” other important values, including our deference to social custom or the pursuit of economic interests?

As I said earlier, we should not expect anyone to be converted to animal rights on the spot, just because of what we say. For most Animal Rights Advocates — this was certainly true in my case, and probably is true for many of you — belief in animal rights comes slowly, over time, not quickly, in an instant. Our willingness to “make the case for animal rights” by way of rational argument isn’t every thing; but (when presented with patience and respect) it can be something. In fact, it can be more than the words we use.

By taking the time to share our understanding of animal rights with others, we can go some ways towards counter-acting the largely negative stereotype of Animal Rights Advocates presented by the media. We can prove by our example that belief in animal rights is not limited to lawless fanatics or publicity-seeking goof-offs. If my experience has taught me anything, it is that the medium (how we present ourselves) can be what enables some people to begin to hear our message can be what helps them take the first step down the path that leads to animal rights.

So, here we are, then, back where we started. Acknowledging (again) that movement growth is our greatest challenge. How do we grow the animal rights movement, both our numbers and our influence, from where we are today to where we need to be tomorrow? One thing we can do to further this goal is: do a better job of explaining what we believe and why we believe it.

“Animal rights” is more than a rallying cry. It is an idea with real content. If we need more people actively involved in the animal rights movement, we need to be able to tell them, clearly and patiently, what the movement’s central idea means. Indeed, we are obligated to do nothing less.

With some of our challenges addressed, incompletely and imperfectly as they have been, I end as I began, thanking you for your commitment and hard work. At times like this, in the company of people like you, who can doubt that we can accomplish great things.

To the animals!
Thank you.