How animal rights gets a bad name

It seems to me that there a few reasons that animal rights groups get a bad reputation, even among those who might be expected to be sympathetic to the cause of better treatment for animals.

First, animal rights groups, like activist groups of all stripes, have a tendency to use rhetoric that is imprecise at best and inflammatory at worst. “Meat is murder!” and “Animal Liberation” are slogans that lack nuance.

This creates the impression that AR-ists value animal life equally with human life. While this may be true among a tiny minority, it certainly doesn’t represent the mainstream AR view. Certainly no organization I’m familiar with, even those that advocate legal rights for animals, has suggested that killing an animal is or ought to be treated as just as serious a crime as killing a human being.

This becomes even clearer when one turns to the “theoreticians” of the AR movement. In fact, given the charges often made against the AR position, one wonders if the critics have ever bothered to read the works of the primary thinkers associated with AR. Peter Singer, for one, doesn’t categorically reject all human use of animals, nor does he regard animal life as morally equivalent to human life (though there are borderline cases, such as an adult gorilla vs. a newborn human infant, where, on utilitarian grounds, he seems to draw an equivalence).

Tom Regan, who takes a more rights-based approach, categorically denies that an animal life is morally equivalent to a human life, and even goes so far as to say that a virtually unlimited number of animals could be sacrificed to save a single human life.

Part of the confusion no doubt comes from the term “speciesism” which seems to imply that any moral distinction between humans and animals is akin to unjustified prejudices like racism and sexism. This was probably an ill-chosen term since what most people who use this term want to say is that animal suffering that is equivalent to human suffering shouldn’t be disregarded simply because it’s animal suffering. In other words, animals aren’t equivalent to humans, but some kinds of animal suffering are equivalent to some kinds of human suffering, and so deserve to be taken into account in any moral calculus.

It’s not surprising that the AR movement, like so many other movements to social change, are more concerned about effectiveness than philosophical clarity and fine distinctions, but this is a case where I think a lack of clarity has hurt their cause. To the extent that the rhetoric of AR seems to connote a moral equivalence between animals and humans it will fail to win over the majority of people.

It’s noteworthy that a book like former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully‘s Dominion received favorable, if not entirely uncritical coverage in major conservative publications like National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the American Conservative. Political conservatives are rarely seen as sympathetic to AR. And yet Scully’s language of stewardship, mercy and compassion for animals tapped into a moral tradition that is much more amenable to the mainstream of Western political and religious thought. This doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with the AR agenda, but AR-ists shouldn’t give critics such an easy target by allowing themselves to be caricatured as holding the simplistic view that “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

A second, and more discreditable, reason that AR-ists are often dismissed as extremist wackos is that groups regarded as extremists like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth First! are taken (often disingenuously one suspects) to be representative of the broader animal rights and environmental movements.

I say this is discreditable because virtually every social movement of any significance inevitably attracts extremists, some of whom resort to violence. But this by itself hardly shows that the concerns of the broader movement are illegitimate, though opponents often try to use the actions of the extremists to discredit them. Few would seriously argue that John Brown, the Black Panthers, Eric Rudolph, or violent anti-war and anti-globalization protesters somehow show that the causes they were associated with were or are mistaken. So why should the existence of the ALF show that AR concerns are ipso facto unimportant? Those causes have to be debated on thier merits. Of course, representatives of those broader movements should disassociate themselves from and condemn those extremists who try to use violence to bring about social change*, and to the extent that they fail to do that they may justly bring public suspicion upon themselves.

*Leaving aside the interesting question whether violence as a tool for social change is ever justified when other means have been exhausted.

4 thoughts on “How animal rights gets a bad name

  1. eatingwords

    Scully’s book was what first directed my attention to this issue. You are absolutely right that the language Scully uses makes it more palatable to social conservatives. The book has been formative in my life the last couple of years.

  2. meowius

    Perhaps because I am not a religious person, I find it hard to agree that an individual animal is worth less than an individual human. Arguments for this seem to be based either on religion or on self-celebration – look what humans can do, feel, and think that animals can’t, etc. Basically, we value humans more than animals because we are humans.

    Why is animal life worth less? Why is any being worth less than another?

  3. Well, look at it this way – virtually no one is going to say that if you had to choose between saving a dog or a 9-year old child from a burning building that you should save the dog. And virtually no one is going to say that someone who kills an animal should be charged with 1st-degree murder.

    Call it a brute moral intuition if you want, but you have to start somewhere and that’s a place where most people start. And it’s hard for me to think of an argument that animals are of equal value to people that wouldn’t entail that, e.g. plants are equal to animals since once you abandon a “capacities” approach it’s not clear why you would draw a seemingly arbitrary line between the plant and animal kindgoms. Though I’d certainly be interested to hear arguments that purport to establish that.

  4. bs

    I wonder whether the concept of intrinsic worth is the best starting place either for capturing the existing mainstream view or for creating a normative system concerning animal rights.

    As to the former, my first intellectual impulse (as a mainstream omnivore who has not given this issue much thought) is to say that we have adopted a particularist, sort of “when in Rome” view: that we perceive ourselves as having absorbed the morals of the society into which we have injected ourselves. Perhaps we ask: Do chickens, apes, dogs value the sanctity of each others’ lives? Do they shun those that do not? And then we take a guess: chickens, no; apes, yes; dogs, maybe. This might explain why we could eat chicken almost everywhere without risk of disapprobation, apes almost nowhere, and dogs, well it depends. Most importantly, taking a position on whether animals, in fact, have universal worth is not a necessary part of this picture. I’m not saying that the particularist position is correct, only that it might explain the mainstream position.

    As to the latter, one wonders the degree to which an intellectual normative framework would have an influence on the mainstream’s animal rights position. It seems to me that debates about the morality in animal-human relations are, with few exceptions, about death or the conditions in which animals are put while awaiting death. This is probably because our interreaction with animals is far less textured than our intra-species interaction; it’s a little tidy, but imagine how absurd it woudl be if our laws dealt only with murder, wrongful death, and death row conditions. The lack of variety in the AR debates suggests that we simply have fewer salient experiences with animals. In other words, we don’t have many experiences that lead us to nuanced or complex normative positions. One byproduct of this simplicity, perhaps, is that our baser instincts inform our view of animal-human relations to a greater degree than they do (or could) with respect to human-human relations. While I haven’t an answer, I would suggest that this fact might explain why it anecdotally appears that unreasoned positions (e.g., food aversions, food poisoning, love of steak’s taste) have been the impetus for many a person’s views on animal rights. If true, might this mean that a sophisticated apparatus for determining other species’ rights will either fall on deaf ears or, conversely, will be reverse engineered simply to reify our unreasoned, base positions? I dunno.

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