I love animals.
On my Twitter timeline, political news and social commentary compete for space with adorable puppies and kittens — not to mention otters, bunnies, and other creatures great and small. I watch animal videos on YouTube. I donate to the local animal rescue league. I easily cope when human characters get killed in books and movies but get upset when animals die.
But I also eat meat and support animal experimentation, with safeguards for humane treatment of both farm and lab animals. I don’t support “animal rights” as advocated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which believes that animals have the same moral standing as humans — let alone more radical ideas about “animal liberation” whose supporters often use terrorism to promote their cause. Philosophically, morally, and practically, human lives must have absolute priority over (nonhuman) animal ones. When the slaughter of chickens for human consumption is compared to the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust, or the plight of dairy cows to that of rape victims, I find it profoundly insulting.
And I plead not guilty to charges of hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, “speciesism,” or placing convenience above morality. If anything, I think animal-rights rhetoric that blurs moral distinctions between humans and animals is bad not only for human rights but for animal welfare.
The late Hungarian-born American philosopher Tibor Machan, the author of many essays on animal rights and of the 2004 book “Putting Humans First,” wrote that “rights are founded on the moral nature of human beings, specifically on their moral agency”— which animals do not possess. Rights do not exist in the animal world. Indeed, no supporters of animal rights, be they activists or philosophers, have called upon cats to respect the rights of mice. We may love a touching story of a lioness treating an orphaned young monkey like one of her own cubs, but we wouldn’t think less of a lioness that treated it as lunch. Lions gotta lion.
Animals are not held to rights-based standards even in how they treat their own. We don’t condemn male dolphins for behavior that would be considered gang rape in humans, or males and females of other species (including some primates) who kill their rivals’ infants. We hold these creatures blameless because of their inability to comprehend, much less respect, any notion that others have rights. But that same lack of moral responsibility also limits how much deference we owe them.
Animal-rights advocates such as Australian philosopher and Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer, author of the 1975 book “Animal Liberation,” have argued that equality for animals is simply the next step after the liberation of women, black people, and gay people. But those groups and their former oppressors have the same capacity for moral discernment. That’s just not true for cats and dogs.
This is not “speciesism.” If we made contact with intelligent extraterrestrials, we would have a duty to treat them as having rights — not because smarter is better (it doesn’t matter whether this species had more or less intelligence than we do), but because the ability to understand right and wrong is key.
True, some humans with no moral agency — very small children, people with certain mental disabilities — are accorded rights, albeit not the same rights as people with full mental and moral capacity. But this recognition of the humanity they share with the rest of us is also rooted in their potential or past status as moral agents.
The idea that we have ethical obligations to animals certainly represents progress. Those obligations should include not inflicting unnecessary suffering. I would applaud a ban on bullfights in Spain or on cruel farm practices in North America. I would even support a ban on pest-control methods, such as glue traps, that cause a slow and agonizing death to rodents.
But our very ability to feel such obligations stems from the uniqueness and, yes, superiority of human beings. It also stems from reaching a level of development that allows the luxury of worrying about the welfare of cows and chickens.
An erosion of the belief in the special status of humans will almost inevitably lead to the erosion of human rights: Singer, for one, has defended both infanticide and euthanasia for people with dementia.
But animal-rights absolutism is also not good for animals, either. It often undercuts animal welfare goals; some doctrinaire animal-rights supporters, such as Rutgers-Newark philosophy professor Gary Francione, have opposed regulations to improve the treatment of farm animals on the grounds that such measures help reconcile people to animal farming itself. Absolutism can also backfire, as when hunting bans lead to depleted resources and animal starvation — or when misguided moral consistency leads people to put their cats or dogs on vegan diets, with dangerous health consequences.
Francione and other animal-rights champions think most of us are guilty of “moral schizophrenia” about animals — ostensibly caring for them, yet condoning their use as property and willfully closing our eyes to their killing for our use. But there is at least as much moral confusion in an animal-rights position that denies the specialness of humans, while still insisting that humans, alone among all life forms, respect the welfare and rights of other species.
If there’s any hypocrisy in loving animals but trying not to think too much about how we get our meat, leather, and fur, it’s not the only kind of willful blindness. There are plenty of things our beloved cats, dogs, and other beasties and birdies do that we also prefer to keep out of sight and out of mind.