By C. Ben Mitchell, PhD, CBC Board Member and Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, TN
Hello. My name is Ben and I’m a speciesist, a member of Humans Anonymous. I confess that I’m addicted to the human species, and that I am uncontrollably addicted to being human myself. Furthermore, I have the audacity to believe that being a member of the species Homo sapiens entitles me to a whole bundle of privileges, responsibilities, and rights. I take seriously the claim enshrined, for instance, in The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable right of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” I believe it is self-evident that, as the founders of the American republic put it, “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Believing as I do in the priority of the human species among all other animal species probably makes me, ironically, a dinosaur, but happily, I’m not alone.
Attorney, author, and activist Wesley J. Smith is also a proud speciesist. His latest book, A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, is not only a carefully documented analysis of a movement, it is a tacit defense of human exceptionalism.
Rights for Animals?
Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, the father of the contemporary animal rights movement, coined the term “speciesism” in his mid-1970s manifesto, Animal Liberation. “There will surely be some nonhuman animals,” he wrote, “whose lives, by any standards, are more valuable than the lives of some humans. A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of senility.” While not technically a proponent of animal rights, Singer’s utilitarianism has been part of the conceptual apparatus the movement has used to make its case in the public square. Just as there are racists who elevate their race over others, and chauvinists who elevate their gender over others, speciesists elevate their species above other species.
As Smith chronicles, the prophets of animal rights believe not only that we should be kind to animals (who doesn’t?), but that animals should be granted essentially human rights. The mission of the movement was stated transparently by Ingrid Newkirk, president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Washingtonian magazine: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all mammals.” What Ms. Newkirk meant by that, however, is entirely different from what most of us understand about our common mammalian identity. Newkirk later told a New Yorker reporter that “the world would be better without humans in it.” Using the language of the early abolitionists, some in the movement even argue that we should “liberate” all the animals from zoos, stop using dogs as guides for the blind, and give animals “equal consideration” as people.
The Cost of Animal Rights
Smith’s carefully researched, accessibly written, and copiously footnoted volume shows the toll the animal rights moment has taken on humanity. Far from peace, love, and understanding, the animal rights movement not only propagates human self-loathing, but often promotes violence against humans, incongruously, for the sake of loving animals, as seen in a popular animal liberation instruction manual called, A Declaration of War: Killing People to Save the Animals and the Environment.
To be fair, most animal rights activists are not violent, but most have drunk the PETA cool-aid and find being human a liability, rather than a gift. While decent people clearly differ on whether or not we should use animals for food or for research purposes, almost no one thinks we should treat animals inhumanely. And where true violations of animal welfare occur, authorities are usually quick to prosecute.
Why has the animal rights movement gained so much momentum in the United States and Europe? Largely because of the erosion of the West’s belief in “intrinsic human dignity”, says Smith. Where humans are devalued, animals are supervalued. Where human dignity is affirmed, it is typically seen as a quality to be respected rather than merely ascribed.
The Legacy of Human Dignity
In his New Republic essay, “The Stupidity of Human Dignity,” atheist scientist Stephen Pinker argued that appeals to human dignity are really a way to sneak in religious values. So I say, let’s not sneak anything in, let’s be quite honest about it. At the end of the day, human dignity is grounded in the Judeo-Christian affirmation that every human being is made in the image of God, the imago Dei. One doesn’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to believe that that’s the case, but we should be honest that the notion owes its origins to the revelation of God, not to the canons of science.
And what has that legacy bequeathed to us? It would take more space than we have here even to begin to outline that inheritance, but suffice it to say that belief in human exceptionalism has been the bedrock of human medicine, democracy, international human rights, religious liberty, the rise of hospitals, abolition, civil rights, and a host of institutions we take as evidence of a civilized society.
The alternative of a society devoid of the concept of human exceptionalism is too ghastly to imagine. It would not be a world in which the lion and lamb would rest together and the human and the kudzu would co-exist. It would be a world like that of Hobbe’s Leviathan, red in tooth and claw. For while humans may contemplate animals rights, animals do not consider human rights in the least. Which world is more conducive to human flourishing? The one where human exceptionalism is protected or the one where animals are given human rights? The one where human slavery is evil and keeping Koala bears and sheep in comfortable habitats is not? The one where the sanctity of the great apes is respected and humans — especially the unborn, disabled, and elderly — are loathed?
We should be suspicious of any attempt to elevate animals at the expense of humans. Doing so is a price too high to pay.
Copyright © 2010 Breakpoint, reprinted with permission. The article was originally posted at “Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview” (www.colsoncenter.org).
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