Animal Rights

It’s fair to say that most of us will agree that gratuitous cruelty to animals is wrong. But why? Is it because people who are cruel to animals are more likely to be cruel to human beings? Or is it because the animals have an absolute right not to suffer? Or are there more complex arguments about rights and responsibilities to be made?

The vast populations of cows, pigs, and chickens exist only because we raise them for food. A world of vegetarians would be a world without such numbers of animals, because there would be no economic reason to raise them. This would be a interesting conundrum; is it morally better not to exist than to face early death? A natural reduction – not elimination – of animals would be a result of a vegetarian world, but the animals that do exist would be free, cared for, and not suffering.

David Naguib Pellow also takes no prisoners in his energetically written polemic Total Liberation. This is a call for direct action. “All oppression is linked!” he raves. “Never apologise for your rage!” and “Liberation from government and market!” Pellow’s aim (the title of his second chapter) is nothing less than: “Justice for the Earth and all its animals”, and the book is as broad-brush as the rather impudent slogans suggest.

Rather more meditative, but still polemical, is Interspecies Ethics by Cynthia Willett, which styles the behaviour of young African and Indian elephants as an insurgency against human oppression. Adolescent males, she writes, alone or in gangs, “have been attacking villages and ploughing under swathes of crops in retaliation for the murder of their families and the destruction of their tribal land.” And this is no figure of speech. “Animals are like us,” she insists. We must “secure animal rights … support cross-species solidarity with animal co-workers and co-inhabitants of inter-species communities”.

I’m a cautious supporter of the animal rights movement, as I’m not sure I make sense of a concept of “rights” that doesn’t include “responsibilities”. My rights are how society must treat me; my responsibilities are the obligations I owe to society. The two necessarily go together. If animals have rights, what are their responsibilities?

I’m being thoughtful, I admit. Animal rights teach us that certain things are wrong as a matter of principle, that there are some things that it is morally wrong to do to animals. Human beings must not do those things, no matter what the cost to humanity of not doing them, or even if they do them in a humane way. For example: if animals have a right not to be bred and killed for food, then animals must not be bred and killed for food ever. It makes no difference if the animals are given 5-star treatment throughout their lives and then killed humanely without any fear or pain – it’s just plain wrong in principle, and nothing can make it right.

Accepting the doctrine of animal rights means:

  • No experiments on animals
  • No breeding and killing animals for food or clothes or medicine
  • No use of animals for hard labour
  • No selective breeding for any reason other than the benefit of the animal
  • No hunting
  • No zoos or use of animals in entertainment

The case for animal rights is usually derived from the case for human rights. The argument (grossly oversimplified) goes like this:

  • Human animals have rights.
  • There is no morally relevant difference between human animals and adult mammals.
  • Therefore, adult mammals must have rights too.

In the last few years, concern for animal welfare has grown. Take the fury which greeted the decision of a Japanese ice rink to entomb 5,000 dead fish beneath skaters’ feet. Or the scores who complained about the torture of live insects on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity. And those upset about the animal-fat loaded £5 note. These events speak volumes about a new moral reality we’re entering.

The animal rights revolution is coming, at a pace pro-meat lobbyists can’t get their heads around. When I first gave up meat as a teenager, it wasn’t very easy to go out for a meal unless you liked cheese and tomato pizzas or jacket potatoes. Since then – this was in the mid-to-late 90s – things have massively changed. Vegetarian and vegan restaurants have opened up everywhere, and most others have reasonable options on their menus. The UK now has 1.68 million vegetarians, and the number of vegans has risen by 360% over the last decade; it makes commercial sense for businesses to offer alternatives for non-meat-eaters, and allows people the confidence to join people for a meal out.

There are plenty of reasons why people are joining the cause, although people who remain determinedly carnivorous still rest on the tired arguments of pleasure, tradition, and nature. But the truth is that all of these are as outdated as other phenomena that were once justified: gladiator games and incest, to name but two.

Meat serves as a primary need when resources are low, but once people have food and shelter and their other needs are met, this times us time to consider a change of age-old behaviours. In the UK, it’s high time we reflected on the excessive consumption of meat, which is not just unnecessary, but wrong. We eat vast quantities of meat that has been reared in cruel, mechanised ways, and there is just no need for it now.

So mindless are our meat-eating habits that no one questions the logic behind why we consume certain animals,which varies according to our culture. Here in the West, we protest over China’s Yulin ‘dog meat festival‘ while defrosting a chicken pie. Our species-specific treatment of animals runs contrary to the way we treat humans; as equals regardless of their abilities. There’s no acceptance that animal minds have potential. Their destruction runs counter to evolutionary theory, which argues that no species is ever a finished product – any more than cavemen were the completion of our own kind.

The only way to make people abandon meat is to expose them to the processes that produce it, and to ask whether they are comfortable with them. Our complacent attitude is brought about by the distance between the slaughter and the sight of our own plate. But shove hideous ITV challenges into the public conscience and something hits home. We realise that we do not like cruelty to animals, any more than we enjoy watching gladiatorial games.

The public reactions to the Japanese ice rink, I’m A Celebrity, and the new £5 note are great symbols of animal rights flooding into the mainstream. Changes will be brought about most by young people, who are more likely than older generations to subscribe to animal-friendly diets. Inevitably they will hold the reins over the food industry in years to come, quietly driving meat out of general consumption. Tools like Instagram, which have greatly sold the young into veganism, will encourage introspection in others; acting as magnifying glasses to animal issues.

These are the revolutionary waves that will change the way we interact with our fellow species, which will no longer be seen as inferior – but different to ourselves. Enjoy your Christmas turkey now; all the signs are there that slowly, but significantly, the world is changing.

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