Against Animal Rights

Coming soon:  my review of the new book A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy, by Wesley J. Smith. The title comes from something Ingrid Newkirk once said.  Longer version:  "When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."  Opponents of animal rights like to quote the short version.

Anyway, I was interested in the book (and asked the publisher for a copy) because my book challenges egalitarianism, and yet advocates for animals.  I wondered how Smith would get from "not equal" to his diatribe against the animal rights movement.  Can't we see ourselves as different but also recognize the wrongs we do to animals?

The book turns out to be interesting on another level.  Before requesting the book, I saw that Smith was affiliated with "The Discovery Institute."  From the bland website, this looked like some plain vanilla conservative organization.  I googled again last night and realized he's affiliated with the Discovery Institute-- the Seattle organization that promotes the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. 

That sheds light on Smith's main theme:  human exceptionalism.  He sees animal rights advocates as dangerously threatening the supremacy of the human species.  We're yielding our pedestal to the rats, pigs, and dogs of his title.

Must religion really lead us down this road?  Just to make things interesting, I'm simultaneously reading Why Animal Suffering Matters, by Andrew Linzey, the Oxford theologian.  Animal suffering does matter, he says, but not because there are no important differences between humans and animals.

Even conservativism doesn't have to lead us down this road.  Matthew Scully, the speech writer for George and Sarah, wrote Dominion, one of the finest books on animals there is.  In National Review, he writes this about Smith's appeal to human exceptionalism:

The great challenge hanging over the book is how to square the abuse of animals -- if not the worst of sins then surely among the lowest -- with Smith's grandiose talk of "human exceptionalism." It makes a mighty fancy defense for cheap meat, fine furs, and the like, and in practice seems to mean that instead of making informed moral choices we can just keep granting ourselves exceptions. "Human exceptionalism" is offered to us as some sort of all-purpose absolution for every human excess or iniquity at the expense of animals.
More on the book soon.


Taylor said...

"Human exceptionalism" is not simply or even primarily about affirming the dignity of human life. Such affirmation is quite compatible with ascribing to non-humans too the right to be treated with respect, to equal consideration of their basic interests. Human exceptionalism is first and foremost about refusing to admit non-humans to the moral community. It is about the (logically futile) attempt to draw a tidy, once-and-for-all line in the sand between humans and animals in order to justify the continued exploitation of animals for food, experimentation, etc. Smith's writings on the subject are polemical and philosophically unsophisticated. But philosophers are not his target audience.

Jean Kazez said...

So far (I'm 3/4 done) I agree with you 100%.