Some Thoughts on the Rights of Animals

Anyone who looks closely at how animals are treated in America today cannot help being confused. Hunters cherish their hunting dogs, but kill and trap wildlife without conscience or regret. Stylish women coddle furry house pets, but think nothing of wearing the skins of animals. At animal farms and petting zoos, parents introduce their children to a world of innocence and beauty, but see no harm in exposing them to circus acts which degrade animals, and rodeos, which brutalize them.

The law, too is contradictory. It is legal to butcher livestock for food, but not to cause them to suffer during slaughter (although federal law contains an exception: “ritually” slaughtered cattle are allowed to suffer). It is legal to kill chickens for the pot, but not to allow fighting cocks to kill each other. Animals can be used for painful laboratory experiments, but they must be exercised and their cages must be kept clean. Kittens can be drowned, but not abandoned. Certain types of birds are protected, but others are annihilated. With a permit, one can own a falcon, and with a falcon, one can hunt rabbits; but rabbits cannot be dyed rainbow colors and sold at Eastertime.

It is not surprising that countless contradictions exist in man’s relationship to animals, because never has there been a consistent humane principle to guide him in dealing with those dependent creatures who share his planet. What is surprising is that animals have been accorded any decent treatment at all, considering the overwhelmingly dominant attitude, from the earliest of times, that animals could be used, abused, and even tormented, at the utterly capricious will of man. Absent from the history of ideas has been even a semi-plausible notion to the contrary, let alone a defensible, fully integrated theory of animal rights.

The problem begins with the Book of Genesis (1:24-28): “And God said: ‘Let us make 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.” Later, after the flood, “…Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar, and the Lord smelled the sweet savour….” (Genesis 8:20-21). To express his gratitude, God “…blessed Noah and his sons and said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.” (Genesis 9:1-3).

In short, the view expressed in the scriptures was that animals were put on earth by God to be used by man.

The predominant Greek attitude, as expressed by its most influential philosopher, was no better: “…we may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of man, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all, at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man.” (Aristotle, Politics, Bk I, Ch. 8, Random House, 1941, 1137).

As to the attitude of the Romans, one need only recall history’s bloody forerunner to today’s bullfights and rodeos — the Coliseum — where no distinction was made between its animal and human victims.

When pagan Rome gave way to Christianity, men may have fared better, but Christian charity was not extended to animals. Indeed, early Christian thought seems obediently to echo the Genesis thesis; animals exist merely to serve man’s needs.

Hundreds of years passed, with no discernible change in ideas. With the coming of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s, the concept of animal servitude was reinforced. Aquinas, drawing on the old testament and on Aristotle, not surprisingly concluded that since all things are given by God to the power of man, the former’s dominion over animals is complete.

Aquinas’ theory of dominion says nothing, one way or the other, about the metaphysical nature of the animals being dominated, but renowned Christian philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes had a great deal to say on that subject. He held that animals were automatons — literally. He asserted that lacking a Christian “soul,” they possessed no consciousness. Lacking a consciousness, he concluded, they experienced neither pleasure nor pain. His conclusion was a convenient one; it allowed him to rationalize this dissection of unanesthetized living creatures. Although Descartes’ hideous experiments purportedly were done to advance the knowledge of anatomy, they properly earn him a place in history as the Seventeenth Century soul mate of Mengele, the Nazi concentration camp doctor who experimented on human beings.

Although the existence of the dominant Genesis-Aristotle-Descartes view of animals, and the resultant lack of an appropriate theory of animal rights, is reason enough to explain fifteen hundred years of man’s maltreatment of animals, there is a related explanation: during this same period there was no appropriate theory of the rights of man. From the days of the Pharaohs to the threshold of modern philosophy in the 1600s, man’s status fell into one of two categories: oppressor or oppressed. The tyrants of Egypt had much in common with the despots of feudal Europe; the Hebrew slaves who built the pyramids, with the serfs who tilled their lords’ estates. It is not surprising that cultures which regarded some men as other men’s chattels would treat animals, at best, as plants, and, at worst, as inanimate objects. Accordingly, when man’s lot improved, the lot of animals also improved, albeit slightly.

The historical turning-point for the Rights of Man came with the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment. It was a time of Adam Smith and laissez-faire capitalism, of John Locke, of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Man was recognized, at least by some, to possess inalienable rights, among them the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By no means had the world’s ideas about liberty changed, but a fresh wind was blowing for man, one which would soon lead to the creation of a new Nation — one, as Lincoln would say nearly a century later, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Surely, it is more than coincidence that at about the same time, thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Pope, and Bentham were questioning man’s maltreatment of animals.

Yet, despite these questions, for another two centuries the lot of animals did not improve noticeably even in the civilized world because the attitudes of most people remained rooted in the ideas of Genesis, Aristotle, and Descartes. Before change could come, these ideas had to be discarded. Although it was a long gestation, finally, in the last twenty years a handful of philosophers, scientists, theologians, and lawyers — among them Brigid Brophy, Andrew Linzey, Richard Ryder, Peter Singer, Gary Francione, and Steven M. Wise — have launched broadside attacks on the basic ideas which for so long have served to rationalize man’s brutalization of the only other living species with whom he shares this planet.

But merely exposing fallacies and immoralities, as important as that is, does not itself constitute propounding anything affirmative. Recognizing this, today’s animal rights activists have begun to build that affirmative, defensible theory of animal rights. (A parallel development is the current rethinking of the ethical base upon which man’s rights rests, an inquiry attributable largely to the groundbreaking ideas of the late Ayn Rand). Although the modern animal rights movement is no more than twenty years old, the efforts of its leaders have already produced important gains: philosophical symposia on animal rights are being held around the world; courses on animal rights are being offered in colleges and law schools; more and more books and articles on animal rights are being published every month; advocates of animal rights are in great demand as lecturers; the rights of animals are increasingly being assert in courts.

Finally, after thousands of years, the cries of anguish — animal and human — have become too loud to ignore.