It is common for people to think the idea of animal rights to be absurd; that it’s a view limited to hippies, social justice warriors, or philosophers out of touch with reality. While this is a common view in theory, in practice it is not as much the case, and I feel there may be some contradiction, or at least confusion. For example, a man will say that a dog does not have rights, and yet, if someone were to lock up dogs in their basement and starve them to death, they would call that person a criminal. And then that same man, when informed of a farmer operating a slaughterhouse for cattle, would not likely call the farmer a criminal.
We make all sorts of ethical distinctions in regard to animals that seem to have little rational to them. We stomp on a bug but not a new born kitten. We eat cows and chickens but not horses or dogs. We put animals in cages for our amusement, but demand the cage to be sufficiently large and the animals to be treated “well”.
What I want to discuss today is not a solution to these problems, but a contemplation of them. However, it is a directed contemplation towards the idea that animals likely do have some claim to rights, and that human virtue is necessarily intertwined in them in some capacity. I will discuss three important concepts on the subject:
- The Laws of Nature
I really don’t like pit bulls; in fact, there are times when I am close to hating them. I read a story recently of a grandmother who was looking after her two year old grandson, when a pit bull at the house attacked the child, ripping his face to shreds. In trying to save him, the grandmother was also attacked and killed. And this is hardly a rare occurrence; you can read about it more here, if you like: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/barbara-kay-theres-no-argument-pit-bulls-kill
But I had also once read a story about a dog fighting ring, where participants would train their pit bulls to fight each other and the winner received the prize money. In order to train the dogs, they would starve them for days at a time, beat them, show them pictures of other dogs while administering electric shock, and a variety of other cruelties. When the police arrived and busted the dog fighting event, they found a collection of pit bulls lying in a pit, some dead and some very injured, crying and whimpering audibly. I realized, in that moment, as my heart ached at the thought of these dogs being treated so horribly, that even pit bulls deserve to be treated to a certain standard, and as much as I dislike them, I don’t want them to suffer.
The capacity for empathy is intrinsic to morality. It is in the emotions drawn from the experience of others that we feel an obligation to do what is best for them. If someone told me that some rocks were being beaten and thrown into a pit, I would not care. But, for some reason, I care about animals; even my least favorite ones. This empathy for animals is not limited to myself, and can be witnessed in a huge number of relationships of humans with their animal friends. Simply by virtue of human empathy, we know that animals ought to be treated with a certain dignity. Rights are a protection of a valuable thing under attack. Since we find value in animals, and they are under threat of attack, we therefore must allocate them rights.
There is a famous passage in Genesis where God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have 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.”
Whether or not we believe the Biblical myth to be real is not the point. Its allegory is true regardless; that mankind has a clear superiority to animals in our intelligence and technology. This has given us the ability to dominate them, despite being physically inferior in many ways. We have “dominion” over them.
Now, we may say that having dominion over them means we can treat them in any way we please without consequence. However, there is a meaning to dominion that is more than literally “dominance”. It also entails responsibility, like how a parent has dominion over a child, or a teacher has dominion over their students. The parent, in having dominion, is not expected to use it to abuse their children, but rather to do what is best for them. So too, we may say that humans have a duty to treat animals with the responsibility to look after them.
But a parent or teacher also has a responsibility to operate with a certain purpose in looking after their children. A parent has to fulfill the purpose of helping them grow up. A teacher has to fulfill the purpose of educating them according to the curriculum. We may then ask what the purpose of animals is. We will consider this in the following section.
The Laws of Nature
If left to itself, the earth has an amazing ability to sustain life in all its diversity and expression. It’s so incredibly complex, fine-tuned and beautifully creative that if one believes in God, they certainly find him in it. And if one does not believe in God, finds a god-like miracle in it. Ecosystems naturally abide in equilibrium, and can adapt to anything the universe throws at them, that is, except for humans.
Humans have a parasitic, virus like tendency to drain the life from the environments they interact with. When “sophisticated” man came to America, they nearly wiped out all of the Buffalo and fish. The Industrial Revolution enabled human populations to flourish, but destroyed entire species of animal and plant life. Deforestation ravages once vibrant ecosystems, leaving death in its wake. Global warming causes fluctuations in temperature that severely disrupt life cycles and habitat survival.
In our greed, our insatiable discontent, our megalomaniacal arrogance, we bite the very hand that feeds us. Our relationship to animal and plant life is naturally a mutual symbiosis, with each benefiting from the other’s existence. They provide us with life sustaining food, labor, and companionship and we provide them with companionship in return, and cultivation, maintenance, etc. that are supposed to result in mutual flourishing.
Fighting the laws of nature leads to humans becoming parasites, devoid of virtue, and ultimately, devoid of life itself. There is a compatibility that needs to be harnessed; one of understanding the process of nature, and living with it rather than opposed to it.
As previously mentioned, I am not here to give a full opinion on how every matter of conduct should occur between humans and animals. I simply want to contemplate it, and hopefully help to re-orient ourselves towards a more edifying understanding.
I believe that it is bad for animals to suffer in all cases, but is a reality of nature in some cases. It is not man’s duty to protect a gazelle from a cheetah who needs food; that is simply nature taking its course. Humans may too use animals for food when necessary and in moderation. However, humans should never be responsible for the unnecessary suffering of animals, for that is going against good morality. Humans should never be responsible for making an entire species extinct, for that is going against the laws of nature and ultimately against our own benefit.
The capacity for empathy towards animals is a peculiar thing, and leads me to believe that there is something innate within every creature that lends to us a responsibility to care for it. In doing so, we develop our own good virtue. It is said that owning a pet does many good things for a child in teaching them affection, care, relationship, and so forth. But children who mistreat animals have a tendency to mistreat humans as well. Despite this article being limited in scope, I can say from what I have read, thought, and shared with you today that humans, animals, and the environment we share can be put to good use in developing us as individuals, serving our animal friends, and sustaining our miraculous planet.