Animal abolitionism and animal rights'¦a Pandora's box
The Pandora’s Box I opened up by begging for your favorite pet sites is only just beginning to reveal itself…starting with this post. It was the Animalblawg site, written by a couple of Georgetown law students on the subject of animal rights law that sunk its claws right in and refused to let me off easy. Now that I’m newly armed with some recently-informed, deadly opinions on the issue of animal rights, you’re in for the same—so get ready. Here goes:
Remember third grade Social Studies? That was right around the time most of us first learned of Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad and Abolitionism (as in, the movement that led to the elimination of slavery).
Well, there’s a new meaning to the term, “abolitionism,” and it has nothing to do with human slavery. It’s a term now recycled to refer specifically to the release of animals from the despotic influence of human interference over their God-given "sovereignty" (a term our dear President couldn’t define just a couple of years back).
Not that I want to advance an acerbic tone early into this discussion, but there’s a lot wrong with the concept of animal abolitionism. Ask any mainstream “animal rights” activist and you might find that even many of those who favor what most of us would term a “radical” animal rights agenda are in agreement with me on this: Animals are independent beings with intrinsic value, but that doesn’t mean they get to play on the level of the Harriet Tubmans and Martin Luther Kings of this world. (Stop me now, if you think I’m wrong on this.)
The issue with animals is that they are ultimately constrained by their cognitive abilities. As beings less capable of grasping what we [as humans] can, they are essentially relegated to the role of children, at best, and base property (like your toaster oven), at worst.
The reality is that, in the US, they are viewed neither as children nor as toaster ovens, but, rather, somewhere in between. So far, I think this gray zone-designation is appropriate. Problem is, there’s a lot of ground to cover between how we treat these two groups of “individuals.”
Abolitionists would have us fail to distinguish between how we treat adult humans and animals, asserting that even pets have intrinsic rights that preclude even petdom. In other words, we abuse by forcing them into a subservient, child-like position when we take them on as “pets.” Animal abolitionists would have us turn our backs on the evolutionary heritage that put dogs and cats into close proximity to humans in the first place (for more info on this natural history, check out Harper-Collins’ new release: Dogs: A Natural History by Jake Page)
Many of them reject the notion that animal-human emotional companionship has a symbiotic, sociobiological foundation—for both species. Ditto that for cows and other animals we eat who benefit, biologically speaking, from our preference for their disposition, metabolism and flavor—though sans the emotional component.
It might sound strange that as a vet with 12 years in practice and over 25 years in the industry I’ve managed to live so long without being fully exposed to this seemingly persistent animal rightist’s world-view, but animal abolitionism is something of a strange concept to those of us raised within the pet paradigm and schooled in mainstream animal health. After all, we consider pets and production animals, alike, as creatures worthy of care and protection—but we don’t raise them to the level of humans on instinct and principle.
And that might be wrong, I’ll admit. My upbringing and education may well be steering me wrong, here, but there are so many perils inherent in accepting animals as essentially on par with human children that it boggles the mind.
If healthcare, my domain, is woefully unprepared to tackle the consequences of an abolitionist perspective on animals, our world’s protein supply is even less ready to assume the burden of such moral imperatives. Granted, that’s not a moral argument, but a practical consideration. Nonetheless, society’s current needs and the daunting challenge of global “change management” renders such arguments null and void from a utilitarian standpoint.
Sure, we don’t want to be in a position to choose who of our sentient equals deserves to be cast out of the raft on the open seas when rations dwindle, but reaching that high plateau of general consensus on the subject of species equality is utterly devastated by the reality of inequity among the humans of this planet.
It’s easy to talk a big game when it comes to protecting the animals of this world, but in my view, it does no one any good once you cross over the line that separates animal welfare from animal abolitionism. To me, it seems that animal abolitionism is a dead end argument precisely because, philosophically, it knows no bounds. What’s next? Antibiotic restriction in support of bacterial rights? Soil power?
That argument may ring hollow when juxtaposed with pro-slavery contentions of the past. After all, these, too, gave voice to the practical implications of accepting racial differences as null and void. They might well have capped their claim with a similar line: “What’s next? Granting dogs the right to vote?”
Yet animal welfare advocates understand that some division needs to exist to further the cause of animals who are stakeholders in a functioning economy—and not merely because of extreme global concerns on 2007 planet Earth. Rather, we choose to accept the paradigm that animals are morally inferior due to their limited cognition and genetic otherness. Hence, they’re in a position to serve human needs.
But that doesn’t mean they deserve to suffer or have their basic rights denied (food, water, shelter, medical attention, consideration of their physical pain, etc.). The knowledge that we are morally superior, in fact, implies a moral imperative to care for them, especially when they are being “used” for our selfish human purposes.
I don’t claim to have all the answers on this—I’m certainly no expert. On the issue of animal abolitionism, though, I’ve pretty much made up my mind. I’ve decided to have faith in inter-species distinctions based on sociobiological paradigms (i.e., my genes come first). Maybe I’m wrong and that’s way too simplistic (after all, I'm just a vet)…but then you’re free to disabuse me of my selfish gene theory with your own. Go for it.