Animal Rights Goes Legit

A Dostoyevskian Dilemma, or The Nature of the Beast

Animal rights isn't just for tree huggers and ecoterrorists anymore. Nor is it merely the foolish consistency of Seattle-style demonstrators who—or so an insider told me—once complained to their fellow complainants that dressing up in shark costumes to protest the World Bank's wanton usury was speciesist.

Yep. Times have changed. The ethical treatment of animals is no longer simply the rank hypocrisy of pious vegan pro-choicers who think that killing human fetuses, at any stage of development, is a woman's constitutional right, but who think having a rodent for dinner (the French call it lapin) is unconscionable.

Such silliness is all in the past, it appears. Empowering the rest of the food chain has gone legit. And it's a good thing, too, because Lassie and Moby Dick—heck, even Bigfoot—deserve better lawyers.

As it turns out, that may be just what they've found. Recently, in a ponderous exchange published on Slate, Judge Richard A. Posner, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and is a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, took on Professor Peter Singer, the infamous Princeton University ethicist and renowned animal rights advocate.

Both Posner and Singer agreed that whenever possible, we as a society should be doing more to alleviate animal suffering, especially the largely gratuitous kind we inflict on them in laboratories and factory farms. True enough. We should all be more willing to do without the latest antibacterial swab or the cheapest chicken breast, rather than torture an innocent beast with toxic chemicals or miserable living and dying conditions. So far, so good.

But what about testing treatments and drugs for human diseases like Alzheimer's, cancer, and AIDS? Without animals, such research would be sunk, and humans would suffer for it. And yet, should animals suffer simply so that we won't have to?

Arguing for animal testing under these circumstances begins to sound like the classic Dostoyevskian moral dilemma: If you could end all human suffering forever, on the condition that you torture one small child to death, would you do it? Most of us wouldn't.

So is torturing animals to treat and/or cure human diseases really any more defensible than torturing any other sentient, though less advanced, being—say, a child or a retarded person? Not really. Humans may indeed outrank other animals because they alone have souls, but that doesn't justify cruelty. For it is our souls that make us accountable for our actions. If we are indeed moral animals, then it is incumbent upon us to behave morally, which means treating all creatures as we ourselves would be treated: as ends rather than means.

Sadly, Posner fudges this bit, saying, in effect, that we're more important than animals because, well, we just are, and that's that. So much for that famous rationality for which our species is prized above all others. Or do I mean rationalization?

Finally, there's the question of eating animals. Now, if you agree with everything I've just said, it follows that meat is probably murder. So just don't eat it. Well, I thought that, too, until I met the owner of my local vegetarian restaurant. Much to my surprise, I learned that she eats meat. Why? Because about 10 years ago, while she was still a vegetarian, she went to her doctor complaining that she'd been suffering from unflagging fatigue for months. After doing a complete physical and blood workup, the doctor identified the problem. She didn't have any protein in her blood. The doc told her that some people's bodies can't synthesize a complete protein out of vegetable aminos. They need direct animal protein. So he urged her to start eating red meat. Much to her chagrin, she did, and felt better almost instantly. She's been eating burgers ever since.

So, we're back where we started. Should animals suffer and die so that we can thrive? Not if you're being morally consistent. But here Posner's earlier sophistry applies. When it comes down to a choice between us and them, we'll always choose us. Strictly speaking, it's not right, but hey, that's the beauty of a rationalization.

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