Nihilism as Compassion

Wesley J. Smith on the animal rights movement’s assault on Judeo-Christian moral philosophy.

Wesley J. Smith is a Senior Fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics at the Discovery Institute. He is also a consultant to the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant for the Center for Bioethics and Culture. Smith spoke with CWR in February about his new book, A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement.

How did you decide on the title of your book?

Wesley J. Smith: The name of the book is actually the famous quote by Ingrid Newkirk, who is the head of PETA. She was once asked something to the effect of “Shouldn’t we use animals in research to help humans?” And her response was, “Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals.”

She was basically saying that humans and animals have the same moral value.

But I think just as important is the subtitle of the book, which is “The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement.” This is not a benign movement about being nicer to animals. That’s animal welfare. Animal rights, properly understood, is a rigid belief system that says people have no right to domesticate animals, because what matters in terms of moral value is the ability to feel pain and suffer. Hence, cattle-ranching is as odious as human slavery. And that needs to be rejected, because it would cause tremendous human harm if it were ever adopted throughout society.

How did we move so quickly from a culture that embraced animal welfare to one that speaks in terms of animal rights?

Smith: That’s a very good question. First off, I think using the term “animal rights” was a brilliant stroke because we are a society that is very concerned with rights, and so that term is very catchy and the media picked it up as a sound bite. Many people who think they support animal rights really don’t. They support animal welfare. But that term has become so confused in the public mind that many think it means being nicer to animals. For example, the Michael Vick dog abuse case is talked about as an animal rights case. It’s not an animal rights case. It’s an animal abuse case. It was an example of inhumane treatment. Humans have duties toward animals, of course, which we violate when we abuse animals.

Back to your question, here’s what happened: Peter Singer, the utilitarian bioethicist now at Princeton, wrote a book called Animal Liberation. The book was not really a call for animal rights, per se, because Singer, as a utilitarian, doesn’t believe in rights. He doesn’t believe in fixed principles of right and wrong; he believes in utilitarian principles. What Peter Singer did that was different from all other previous utilitarians was to argue not only that we should make these crass utilitarian assessments based on how humans are affected, but also that we should expand the analysis to include animals. He said that animals should be given “equal consideration” in analyzing what should be done and what should not be done based on utilitarian views.

And he came up with what is called the “quality of life ethic.” He was saying being human in and of itself should not be what gives moral value. Or, to put it another way, the right of the human being should not always take precedence over the right of the animal simply because he is human. That is “speciesist”—discrimination against animals. That’s not a term he coined, but it is a term he popularized. He said that we should give animals equal consideration and that if there’s a conflict, the entity that has the highest quality of life should prevail.

He has said, as an example, that it was acceptable to use monkeys in experiments in England to try to find a cure for Parkinson’s. And he accepted that because he thought that people with Parkinson’s had a higher quality of life than the monkeys that were used in the experimentation. But he would also say the same thing about disabled babies and people like Terri Schiavo. In fact, he said to Psychology Today, and I quote it in the book, that rather than using chimpanzees to create a hepatitis vaccine, which was done, that we should use people diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state or as having severe cognitive incapacity, because the chimpanzee has greater value than the human based on that quality of life ethic.

People think he’s about animal rights, but he’s not. He’s about quality of life. And he’s about utilitarian measurements.

By saying that animals should get equal consideration, he really opened a Pandora’s Box, because the animal rights/animal liberationists ran way past Peter Singer. They came to believe that it is sentience or the ability to suffer that give one moral standing. So Richard Ryder said that the ability to feel pain is the only moral measure. The term “pain” wasn’t just referring to the physical sensation but also to being bored, to being afraid, those kinds of things. That’s PETA’s approach—that any suff ering is what gives moral value, and thus a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.

[Animal rights author and law professor] Gary Francione and other animal rights people go further. They say that if a being or entity has sentience, at the very least it has the right not to be considered property. That would include even a fly, because if you try to swat a fly, it has enough sentience to sense the swatter coming and fly off . So that is reducing the determination of moral value to a very low common denominator. For some, it has really become a quasi-religion that views animals as having equivalent rights, at least in terms of life and instrumentality, to those of human beings.

This view is very destructive, because if you destroy human exceptionalism— which the animal rights movement intends to do, it disdains human exceptionalism—if you say that we are not the highest life form on the planet, if our lives do not have greater value than those of animals, then you have completely changed how we perceive ourselves. Animal rights people may think that they are raising animals to the level of people, but what they are really doing is reducing people to the level of animals. And if that’s the case, if we have no greater value than animals, then why should we assume the unique human duties that come with human exceptionalism? And I worry that we will end up in a situation where our att itude will be: Why not give in to every impulse? Why not scratch every itch, just like those in the animal kingdom do?

If the ability to feel pain is what matt ers most, why—given what we know about the unborn child’s ability to feel pain—are the most ardently pro-animal rights politicians often the most ardently pro-abortion?

Smith: I think because this is a very nihilistic philosophy and belief system, and again, I’m not talking about people who love animals and want to protect them from being harmed and abused. A lot of people who wear leather shoes think they believe in animal rights. But by definition they can’t believe in animal rights because wearing leather is participating in using an animal instrumentally. People don’t get that, and it’s really important to make that distinction very clear.

One of the aspects of animal rights that I don’t think gets enough att ention is that it really is a strident assault on Judeo-Christian moral philosophy. And perhaps the hallmark of Judeo-Christian moral philosophy is the unique importance and sanctity of human life. When animal rights supporters argue that the belief that human life has special meaning must be disdained and discarded, you have basically broken the spine of Judeo-Christian moral philosophy.

Getting back to the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare, are there any prominent animal welfare groups?

Smith: The local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), local pet shelters—there are a lot of groups that take the approach of promoting animal welfare. But there are a lot of groups that are not really animal welfare groups but pretend to be.

One of them, in my view, is the Humane Society of the United States, which is not affiliated with local Humane Societies, which are animal welfare groups. HSUS is what I consider a stealth animal rights group. That is, it doesn’t preach the animal rights dogma like PETA, and it focuses on what it calls “animal protection.” But I have never seen it state that it believes people have the right to make proper use of animals; it has supported the idea of humane meat, but only as a way station on the way to vegetarianism.

Its head is Wayne Pacelle—a very professional guy, always in a suit, who doesn’t scream and yell. But he said back in 1993, before he was the head of HSUS, that he would like to see all domesticated animals gone in one generation. So HSUS, I think, is dedicated to impeding animal industries. Sometimes they engage in activities that are admirable. For example, they highlighted some inhumane treatment of cattle at a stock yard. And so I’m not saying that every time an animal rights group comes out with a complaint they are wrong. Sometimes they are right.

Do you think groups like PETA do a disservice to their cause by employing such extreme measures? It seems like a lot of people are put off by the overthe- top ad campaigns like PETA’s “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, which juxtaposes pictures of gruesome scenes from Nazi camps with disturbing photographs from factory farms and slaughterhouses.

Smith: But who is the PETA target audience? PETA doesn’t target me with “Holocaust on Your Plate” because they understand that I’m not going to ever believe that normal animal husbandry is the same thing as the death camps. But they are targeting youth, and the youth are much more likely to fall prey to this.

In fact, I first got the idea to write the book after an experience I had in Canada. I was asked to speak to a high school honors class about the quality of life ethic and personhood theory. I mentioned in passing that Peter Singer jump-started the animal liberation movement, and I said that there is a reason he supports infanticide and also believes that some animals have greater value than some people. A young high school girl came up to me after the speech and very earnestly said, “So you’re saying that a human being has greater value than a bunny?” And I said, “Yes.” I was rather stunned she would ask that. And she said, “No, no…a bunny can feel pain just like a human. We are equal.”

About a year later, I went on a radio show and mentioned that story on the air, and the host gasped and said, “Oh my gosh, my son came home yesterday and announced that the dog was equal to the rest of the family because he’d been taught that in school.”

So I think what you’re finding is that young people are very susceptible to this. And there might be three reasons for this. Number one is many have not been taught to think. They have not been taught to engage in looking at principles and empirical analysis as much as they’ve been taught to feel. Emotions are king today in our society, and nothing could be more emotive than the treatment of animals.… We don’t say anymore, “I think that this is wrong.” We say, “I feel…” And that’s because what we feel is often considered equivalent to what’s right.

But the second thing, and it’s kind of ironic, is that I think kids are hungry today for some absolute values. They are raised in so much relativism. Animal rights offer a clear right and wrong.

Thirdly, the animal rights movement accepts generally the idea that humans are the problem rather than the solution, which is reinforced in much of the environmental advocacy that kids are steeped in. There have been polls saying that the great majority of kids believe that because of human activities there are going to be other [natural] catastrophes. So I think there’s been a lot of anti-humanism accepted by youth.

And those three things make young people good targets for members of the animal rights movement, who are sometimes able to make presentations to students without any kind of counterbalance. They show bloody pictures of animals, they lie about how fur animals are trapped. For example, they say that those old-fashioned steel traps are still used, when that’s not true. So I think they are pitching this to the youth, and that’s where “Holocaust on Your Plate” has a greater chance of success.

PETA does animal welfare kinds of activities as well, because that helps in terms of getting good will. And so they are able to get people to donate for those purposes, instead of for their real purpose—the end of all domesticated animals. That’s the goal of the animal rights movement. No domesticated animals, period. But, naturally, they don’t talk about that much.

Polls show significant numbers of people care more about animals than they care about human beings. What can we make of this?

Smith: We have become so successful and prosperous that we have the luxury of caring as much as we do about animals. That’s a good thing. We should care about animals. But we are at a place where people are angrier if a dog is killed in traffic than if a child is killed in traffic.

Let me give you an example. There was a woman who was jogging in Los Angeles and she was brought down by a cougar. And they went out and shot the cougar because of human safety concerns. And a lot of money was raised for the offspring—of the cougar! More money was raised for the cubs of the dead cougar than for the children of the dead woman. There is a nihilism that has permeated much of the culture. You have to be careful. You can’t say that love of animals is nihilistic. Of course it isn’t. None of us want to see animals suffer gratuitously or be abused. But when you care more about animals than you do about people, then you’ve crossed a line that is not healthy.

We know the animal rights movement is anti-human. Could it also be considered anti-animal?

Smith: That’s an interesting question. It is in the sense that it would do away with a lot of animal medicine. It’s certainly anti-domestic animal; it doesn’t believe there should be any. In terms of wild animals, it believes that when humans come into contact with wild animals, their needs should be given equal consideration with our needs.

There is hypocrisy, because on the one hand they say that we should not domesticate animals, but they certainly would not be against us rescuing injured seals and the like. But the odd thing is that that would interfere with natural selection.

There’s an irrationality in the whole of idea of animal rights, because they are basically saying that substantial benefits to our species should be sacrificed for the higher moral purpose of not injuring, abusing, and interfering with the natural lives of animals. But that is an act of human exceptionalism. It’s engaging in moral and ethical thinking, which only humans are capable of. So as they deny human exceptionalism— the unique moral worth of human beings and our unique status on the planet—they actually engage in human exceptionalist behavior by advocating a radical self-sacrifice by people for ethical reasons.

The animal rights movement is irrational because if animals had rights, the only species that would be required to honor those rights would be people. Animals would not have an obligation to honor each other’s rights because they don’t understand the concept. Nor do they have the obligation to honor our rights, because they don’t have the capacity to understand the concept. Animals cannot be rights-bearing beings because they are not dutiesbearing beings. They’re amoral. Only human beings have a moral sense, and that’s one of the things that really distinguish us from the animal world.

Where do you think we’ll be in a generation in regard to the way society perceives the relationship between human beings and animals?

Smith: I think it’s a real concern if you think about how fast this movement has developed, probably starting in earnest in 1975. So it’s only been about 35 years or so. Animal protection and animal welfare has been a major consideration for well over 100 years. But the animal rights movement has managed to penetrate society to the point that large minorities of people oppose research on animals, and I think it’s based on a lot of ignorance and a lot of emotionalism.

But unless we make a stand for human exceptionalism and the unique importance of human life across a broad array of fields, including the animal issue, we will have a society that will call itself more compassionate but will actually result in greater human suffering and a greater disdain for the unique value of human life. And I find this is also true among some Catholics and Christians.

Sometimes I will go to speak against euthanasia, and if it’s a Catholic group or a pro-life group and people know about my work on the animal rights issues, sometimes someone will approach me and say, “Well, what is it about a consistent life view that would exclude animals?” And I will respond, “Why don’t you understand that the pro-life movement is about the unique importance of human life?” And I have had Christians come up to me and say that if you are a Christian then you have to be a vegetarian. And I respond that there is no biblical basis for this. If you take a look at the Last Supper, there would have been lamb—it was the Passover feast. Jesus ate meat. Vegetarianism has never been part of the Christian faith.

Christians should love animals. And Christians should care for animals properly as part of their stewardship responsibilities—as a human duty, not because animals having rights. As Luke 12 :7 states, “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.”


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About Daniel Allott 0 Articles
Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and a Washington Fellow at the National Review Institute.