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Socialism and “animal rights”

To compare the condition of animals to groups of humans that are oppressed is to view the latter through a paternalistic lens, rather than a lens of human liberation argues Paul D’Amato in the US online daily Socialist Worker.

OUR SOCIETY engages in practices that are cruel toward animals. The spread of capitalism worldwide has seriously shrunk or destroyed the natural habitat of thousands of species, and the routine mistreatment of animals that are raised and used for testing or for food is well-documented.

Capitalism treats animals as a means to an end–as things to be squeezed for as much value as can be gotten out of them. Animals on factory farms are packed together by the thousands, confined in spaces that allow them little movement, and deprived of fresh air and sunlight. Animal waste falls through slats into a collection area below, creating noxious gases. The conditions in these compounds are so toxic that if the exhaust system shuts down, animals quickly begin to die off.

These factory farms are not only harmful to non-human animals. Workers at processing plants labor at breakneck speeds slaughtering animals. One worker at Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel, N.C., plant complained that he is routinely splashed with backed-up hog feces and urine, and that “the human beings are treated like machines.”

According to the Web Site Sustainable Table, “Man-made lagoons on industrial farms hold millions of gallons of liquid waste, from which contaminants can leach into groundwater.” Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, whose massive hog operations have wiped out small farmers in the U.S., Eastern Europe and Africa, was fined $12.6 million for a toxic spill at a Virginia facility that was twice as big as the Exxon Valdez.

These are all practices that many of us would like to see changed. There is a clear connection between how a rapacious capitalism mistreats animals, how capitalism degrades the environment, and how capitalism cruelly exploits human beings.

Nevertheless, seeking more humane treatment of animals is not the same as calling for “animal rights” or “animal liberation.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WHEN I hear the terms “animal rights” and “animal liberation,” some pretty strange scenarios run through my head. Does a mountain lion that kills a deer have a right to a trial by a jury of its peers? Should cows have freedom of assembly, speech and religion? Would my cat be liberated if I tossed him out of the house and stopped feeding him?

An animal rights activist might dismiss my attempt at humor, but there is a point to it. Non-human animals don’t possess the biological and physical attributes that would allow them to engage in the activities and behaviors we associate with “liberation” and “rights.”

Ben Dalbey, in an unpublished essay, describes a video, produced by an organization concerned with protecting farm animals, that depicts “Maxine’s Dash for Freedom”:

“Maxine” is described in this Farm Sanctuary video…as having “escaped” from a New York City slaughterhouse. She was then “rescued” by police and firefighters, who found her wandering the streets, taken to an animal shelter, and then taken by the Farm Sanctuary to greener pastures.

In reality, we don’t know whether “Maxine” escaped, got lost, was let go by a human, or fell off the truck, because she can’t tell us. All she does in the video is sit in her cage and chew straw. It is the humans from the Farm Sanctuary who have imparted to “Maxine” a human name, a “will to live,” and an ability to “escape” from the slaughterhouse, which she does not have.

What is clear in the video is that “Maxine” demonstrates a “will” not to get onto the truck that will take her to the farm sanctuary. Here, because it is a human who always has and always will decide what is best for Maxine, her “will” is ignored. She–like all cows–must be pulled by ropes, prodded and enticed with food to go where the humans want her to be, whether that is the slaughterhouse or the Farm Sanctuary.

Though there is a basic biological continuity between all living things, there is also a qualitative difference that separates humans from other animals.

Animals have evolved and adapted to particular ecological niches, each possessing certain physical and behavioral attributes that allow them to survive in a particular habitat. Human beings have evolved certain attributes–a large brain, upright gait, dexterous hands, and, along with that, language and technology–that allow them to adapt to different environments by making those environments adapt to their needs. All species evolve and change, biologically speaking; only humans evolve culturally and socially.

Indeed, the only reason we can have this discussion about animals is because we have something they don’t have–language. The fact is that dogs cannot domesticate us. By extension, they cannot “liberate” themselves or demand “rights” from us, either; they can’t even formulate what a right or a demand is, Chicken Run notwithstanding.

Hence, realistically, when anyone speaks of rights or liberation for other animals, what they are really talking about is how humans behave toward animals. Human beings are, to a large extent, arbiters of the fate of other animals (for good or ill), a fact that sets us sharply apart from them.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I SAW a poster the other day that read: “racism=speciesism=sexism.”

Speciesism is “a prejudice or attitude of bias towards the interests of members of one’s own species, and against those of members of other species,” says Australian animal rights activist Peter Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation is credited with starting the modern animal rights movement. Those who believe that the needs and interests of the human species take precedence over those of other species is a “speciesist.”

Animal “equality,” in this scenario, is not equality between other animals and humans (obviously, we could grant cows the right to vote and to bear arms, but it wouldn’t matter much), but “equal” treatment by humans of humans and animals.

All living things are “speciesist.” The web of life on our planet consists of different species struggling to survive, many by eating other species. The fact that human beings have the capacity, unlike any other species, to create a hierarchy of being, and make decisions about what living thing is legitimate or not legitimate to eat, is itself proof that there is a qualitative divide between human beings and other animals.

In his essay “All Animals are Equal,” Peter Singer urges “that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species.”

The equation of racism and sexism with the treatment of animals is to trivialize the former.

Consider some of the campaigns organized by the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Its 2008 “Wrong Meeting” video shows a hooded Klansman attending a kennel club meeting to talk about “breeding to achieve a master race”–equating the breeding of dogs with the Klan’s white supremacism. A few years earlier, the group ran a “Holocaust on your plate” campaign that compared the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War to the slaughter of animals for food.

Non-human animals are helpless and, as I pointed out earlier, incapable of organizing and fighting for their rights. To compare the condition of animals to that of women, Blacks and other groups for freedom and equality is to view the latter through a paternalistic lens, rather than a lens of human liberation.

The astonishing logic of the idea that “all animals are equal” is revealed in a statement by Susan Rich, PETA’s outreach coordinator. When questioned about who she would rescue in a lifeboat if the choice were between a baby and a dog, she answered: “I might choose the human baby or I might choose the dog.”

Sometimes, the peculiar “speciesism” of the animal rights advocates comes through–that is, the elevation of other species over humans. For example, PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk said in 1990, “Humans have grown like a cancer. We’re the biggest blight on the face of the earth.”

EarthFirst! co-founder Dave Foreman made a similar point in a 1991 interview for Sports Illustrated: “If it came down to a confrontation between a grizzly and a friend, I’m not sure whose side I would be on. But I do know humans are a disease, a cancer on nature. And I also know I am far more interested in the plight of the spotted owl than I am in a logger in Oregon. I have a problem with glorifying the downtrodden worker.”

Hitler and his closest associates were also very concerned with the welfare of animals. He personally ushered through a Law on Animal Protection in 1933 that read in part, “It is forbidden to unnecessarily torment or roughly mishandle an animal.” Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering, who was head of the German Humane Society (!), issued a ban on vivisection (later modified), announcing that violators would be placed in concentration camps. Goering also restricted hunting, and forbid the boiling of live lobsters.

His concern for killing living things did not extend to Jews, Gypsies, gays, communists and Slavs.

Of course, many young activists who gravitate to animal rights activism don’t do so because they elevate animals above people, or have contempt for the working class, but because they are concerned about how capitalism degrades all living things. Such a concern is not to be pooh-poohed.

But in order to put that concern in the right perspective, we need to insist on the essential differences between human beings and other animals, and reject the idea of “animal liberation.”



Comment from Dave Bath
Time October 26, 2009 at 10:54 pm

I have a big problem with much of this because it perpetuates human exceptionalism.
The easist counter to your argument are those studies on other anthropoid apes, involving use of sign-language, and testing generalized non-reciprocal altruism.
These show that the mental and moral capacities of non-human anthropoids overlaps the capacities of humans… apes with sign language given IQ tests designed for deaf human children score about 80, less than one standard deviation below the human mean, and thus greater than approximately 15% of the human population.
“Sapient Rights” is what I’d argue for… sapients having the right NOT to be property, NOT to be mistreated, etc. Where is the borderline? Difficult question… and it’s getting fuzzier all the time.

I’ve written on this issue a few times:
Monkey Maths looks at a study published in PLoS:

We tested monkeys and college students on a nonverbal arithmetic task in which they had to add the numerical values of two sets of dots together and choose a stimulus from two options that reflected the arithmetic sum of the two sets. Our results indicate that monkeys perform approximate mental addition in a manner that is remarkably similar to the performance of the college students.

(No smartypants comments about the US education system!)

Of Rats and Men: Generalized reciprocal altruism pushes the boundaries, but generalized non-reciprocal altruism, if demonstrated by a species, especially towards another species, proves that the species has the moral maturity to deserve similar treatment in return. Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children Warneken F, Hare B, Melis AP, Hanus D, Tomasello M (2007) PLoS Biol 5(7): e184 shows that Chimps are as altruistic to humans (even ones they don’t know) as young human children are to humans (without the species difference).

The test I think we should apply to non-humans should be similar to the ones we’d want applied to us by hypothetical advanced extra-terrestrials.

So, unless you can pick something “essential” to humanity, and demonstrate the lack of an overlap in that capacity between humans and the other species (let’s say, if the top 15% of the other species is above the capacity of the lowest 5% of humans – some of whom would have the vote), then you’ve either got to grant rights to that species or remove them from the humans concerned – if you want your principles applied consistently.

And on economic theory, capuchins (see this in The Economist Free Exchange recently) demonstrate the same capabilities and errors as humans do with a fiat currency, disproving the “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog” assertion of Adam Smith in “Wealth of Nations” (although with a capuchin rather than a dog)

To do this, we introduce a fiat currency to a colony of capuchin monkeys, teaching them that small coin-like disks can be traded with human experimenters for food rewards4 and are fungible across a variety of possible trades. Using this new ability, we are able to conduct a number of revealed-preference experiments analogous to canonical human choice experiments….In response to both price and wealth shocks, capuchins adjust their purchasing behavior in ways consistent with the generalized axiom of revealed preferences

By the way, in that last paper, and related studies, lots of stuff for use by socialists to argue about inherent unfairness and impracticality of capitalist finance systems – again, from “The Economist” free exchange op cit

“The world in which our hominid ancestors evolved was pretty similar to the world in which these monkeys live. Notably, neither include things like financial markets. Which is a shame. Had financial markets existed a few million years ago, we probably would have evolved better market responses by now.”

So… human exceptionalism undermines a pretty good criticism of market theory! Don’t throw that ammo away!

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Comment from John
Time October 27, 2009 at 6:36 am

I think Paul misunderstands the idea of animal liberation. Few dispute the agency of such demands. It is one of the demands of some humans. The fact that PETA might have some ‘animals first’ and ‘humans are scum’ supporters among them is not relevant to the discussion of a socialist case for animal liberation.

Comment from Benjamin Solah
Time October 27, 2009 at 11:25 am

“The fact that PETA might have some ‘animals first’ and ‘humans are scum’ supporters among them is not relevant to the discussion of a socialist case for animal liberation.”

I disagree. You’re making it sound like those that put animals before humans are in the minority. I’d argue that they’re overwhelming feature of animal liberationist politics.

I especially hate when people cannot see the class difference in humans and blame ordinary workers for the horrors against animals, when workers suffer in these conditions too and have no control over their labour.