Concern about animal welfare and treatment is a old as Mankind. Early human populations depended on animals for food, hides and for implements that they made from antlers and hoofs. Humans developed a special relationship with some species, especially dogs.
An early animal rights advocate, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), wrote, “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality."
In our exploration of the topic we find a range of viewpoints on the value of animals, animals rights, animal protection, and the use of animals in biomedical experimentation. Here are some points upon which there is general agreement.
- Animals have value.
- Animals should be provided with basic necessities for survival: food, water, access to fresh air and protection from dangerous weather conditions.
- Animals used in biomedical research should be treated as feeling beings and their suffering should be minimized.
Animal right activists often exhibit a stunning insensitivity to human tragedy. Animal liberation is routinely compared to slavery or the women’s rights even though no one would suggest a radical difference between blacks and whites or men and women. Over the last few years, the increasingly shrill People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have compared the victims of the Holocaust to animals kept in warehouses or killed. Whatever sympathy Holocaust on a Plate ad may bring for chickens, can such campaigns do anything but trivialized human suffering?
Such rhetoric may be mere attention-grabbing, hyperbole. However, the race card and Nazi bogeyman also reflect a popular rational basis for animal rights articulated by Princeton University bioethics professor, Peter Singer. Singer argues in Animal Liberation (1973), the Magna Carta of four-legged freedom, that the belief in the inherent dignity of human beings is speciesism and no more rational than racism. Of course the implication is that since racism is evil then the belief in human dignity is also evil.
Singer is not alone in the halls of our academies. Earlier this year, London School of Economics sociology professor Alasdair Cochrane published a paper contending that the concept of human dignity should be removed from bioethics. Cochrane at least avoids dragging in the KKK but attacks the claim that only and all humans have inherent moral worth as “unhelpful and arbitrary.”
If human dignity is only a crazy, cruel fiction, what happens when we dump the myth?
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) viewed humans as brutish beasts. To avoid mutual destruction, Hobbes proposed establishing security through cooperation. His solution was a social contract whereby individuals agree to a strong government (monarch) which keeps us from tearing each other apart. Hobbes’ account of humanity emphasizes our animal nature, yet his social contract assumes that humans can reason with one another, something animals cannot do.
Aristotle viewed the human as a political creature whose highest good is to seek his own holistic fulfillment. This too sets the Human apart from other animals.
Hobbes believed that the parent has authority over the child, not because the parent begat the child, but because the child consents to be cared for by the parent. By consenting to parental authority the child receives protection, material provision, training, guidance, nurture and perhaps sufficient bounty to make a marriage. We find in Hobbes’ view the beginnings of children’s rights. Later Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) adapted this principle in his promotion of animal rights. Instead of regarding animals as inferior to humans because of their inability to reason, Bentham held that the capacity of animals to suffer that gives them the right to equal ethical consideration. Because animals suffer, their welfare is relevant to humans.