The Illusion of Animal Rights

By Oderberg, David S. | The Human Life Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Illusion of Animal Rights


Oderberg, David S., The Human Life Review


You might be wondering what an article on animal rights is doing in a journal devoted to the defence of human life. It turns out that the connections are closer than you may think. Grasping them is crucial to a proper understanding ofjust why innocent human life must be defended, of why the killing of even the tiniest, youngest member of the human species is an unspeakable crime. For it is by analysing the issue of whether animals have rights that we come to see the core differences between humans and other animals1-the differences in the nature of humans and animals that mean humans have rights and animals do not. Understanding the issue also gives us an insight into the ideological motivations of the anti-life movement, at least the significant strand of it which is influenced by Peter Singer and his followers.

The animal rights issue certainly has stoked up strong passions. In Britain, few other issues are capable of bringing so many people of apparent good will onto the streets; of causing otherwise quiet, politically inactive middle class citizens to pelt trucks (containing live animal exports) with rocks, form human barricades, break into laboratories to release captive animals into the wild, disrupt fashion shows and hunting meets, and bombard their politicians with letters of complaint about the abuse of animals.

True, Britain has been derided as a nation of "animal lovers," but such sentimentalism aside, one finds much hard-nosed, ideological resentment at the way animals are treated, resentment which can turn into action at a slight provocation. When the philosopher Michael Leahy published a book against animal rights,2 he was subjected to a fierce hate campaign. Academics like Roger Scruton3 and Peter Carruthers4 have braved ridicule and even contempt for their philosophical opposition to animal rights. Most people, seeing the passion and commitment with which animal rightists defend their cause, think: "Surely people who can get so worked up about an issue have a point?" And when someone stands up to say that animals do not have rights, or that it is at least an arguable issue, in many eyes it is tantamount to saying: "It's OK to do what you like to animals-they've got no rights," where the special emphasis on the last few words is supposed to convey the idea that because they have no rights, they have no moral standing whatsoever.

It is time the animal rights issue, like the abortion and euthanasia issues, was looked at in a less emotionally charged and more philosophical way. It's time that some myths, often deliberately sown, were cleared up. Here are a few. Myth #1: If you think animals do not have rights, you must think it is all right to do anything to them, that their welfare does not matter. Myth #2: Peter Singer and his followers believe in animal rights. Myth #3: Traditional moralists, who are both pro-life and oppose animal rights but believe in animal welfare, can make common cause with what I will call revolutionary moralists, who are both pro-abortion and either believe in animal rights or take a Singerian consequentialist line giving no special moral priority to humans just because they are humans.

Note the distinction between traditional and revolutionary morality. Singer himself subtitled his 1995 book Rethinking Life and Death as The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics,5 his target being precisely the morality that regards human life as both sacred and qualitatively distinct from that of any other creature on the planet. His use of "traditional" is correct. Indeed, one can go further: the traditional moral position of Western civilization is that humans have rights and animals do not. There are, however, people in the pro-life movement (their numbers are hard to assess), who believe that the sanctity of human life is justified by the same reason that justifies the sanctity of all (sentient? conscious?) life: these are all God's creatures, and they all have their special destiny. …

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