Earlier this week, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni declared that "an era of what might be called animal dignity is upon us." If he merely meant to draw attention to the fact that we're more attached than ever to our pets — spending billions of dollars a year on veterinary care and paraphernalia, even making places for them in our wills — then the point would be undeniable.
But that was not Bruni's aim. Beyond these sociological observations, Bruni was writing to endorse the movement that's working to establish the legal personhood of animals and grant them legal rights.
I agree that this movement is important and in the long run may very well succeed in its efforts. But I don't at all think we should be cheering it on. On the contrary, it's something that all humanists should find deeply troubling.
Let me be clear: I'm all in favor of treating animals decently, with special sensitivity to their pain and suffering. By all means, let's pass stricter regulation of factory farming and laboratory experimentation.
But the basis of these reforms should not be any quality we presume the animals themselves possess. It should grow out of an expansion of the sphere of human concern and sympathy, along the lines of the old aristocratic ideal of noblesse oblige — the notion that one's superiority obliges one to act nobly toward commoners. In other words, we should treat animals decently not because they're just like human beings, but rather because they're not.
The animal rights movement, by contrast, invariably takes the opposite tack — either reducing us to the level of animals or attempting to raise them up to ours. Both should be resisted.
The founding father of the animal rights movement, Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer, takes the first approach. In a series of writings going back to his seminal book Animal Liberation (1975), Singer has developed a version of utilitarianism that denies any special status to human beings, and claims that the only significant moral consideration is the degree of pleasure or pain experienced by a sentient being. Since both humans and (other) animals are sufficiently sentient to endure pain, we have as much of an ethical obligation to avoid inflicting it on animals as we do on humans.
Provided that specific humans and animals are equally sentient, that is. In cases where that equality is unclear, Singer is notoriously willing, for consistency's sake, to endorse infanticide for (ostensibly pre-sentient) human newborns — and to say that we have fewer moral obligations toward severely disabled human beings than we do toward certain highly evolved animals.
Once the dividing line between humans and animals has been erased, it's hard to uphold any fundamental ethical distinction between them.
Steven Wise, a law professor and founder of an organization — the Nonhuman Rights Project — that fights to establish the legal personhood and rights of animals, takes the opposite approach. (The group's most recent lawsuits along these lines were dismissed by a judge in mid-December.) Rather than trying to establish human and animal equality on the low basis of commonly experienced pleasure and pain, Wise works to elevate animals to the human level. Chimps and bonobos can reason, they exhibit emotions, and they live in and contribute to primitive cultures. That makes them more than things; it means they possess the same degree of dignity as fully functional humans.
That claim is crucial. Philosophers and lawyers bicker about what grounds human rights. Do we acknowledge them and use government power to protect against their violation simply because we have a history of doing it? Does a right just pop into existence as soon as a certain number of human beings clamors for getting a law passed in its name?
In the end, though, the only way to make sense of the spiritually wounding experience of having a fundamental human right violated — even in places with no history of codified legal rights — is to presume that rights protect the violation of intrinsic dignity. To kill an individual is wrong, in this view, whether or not a particular political community publicly recognizes a legal right to life — because to kill an individual is to violate the intrinsic dignity that he or she possesses simply by virtue of being human.
Wise (like Frank Bruni) understands that if he can demonstrate that certain higher animals possess the same intrinsic dignity that human beings do, the law within liberal democracies will be obliged to recognize that such animals are persons possessing at least some fundamental, inviolable rights.
So why not do it? Because there's too much at stake with regard to human self-knowledge. We should do more to protect animals from needless pain and suffering, but not at the cost of denying so much of what makes human beings distinctive.
As I pointed out several years ago in an essay for Commentary magazine (currently trapped behind a paywall), animal rights advocates are right to note that humans and animals can each be motivated by hunger, but they can't explain "a person's choice to starve himself for a cause." They recognize that humans and animals both crave sex, but they can't explain how or why "some choose to embrace celibacy for the sake of its noble purity." They convincingly highlight the tendency of humans and animals to avoid pain and bodily harm, but they can't explain a man's "willingness to face certain death on the battlefield when called upon to do so by his country. Still less can [they] explain why stories of such sacrifice sometimes move us to tears."
Human dignity is inextricably linked to these moral qualities, which grow out of and reside in a shared public world defined by distinctively human ideas of virtue and vice, beauty and ugliness, right and wrong. That's why I concluded my essay by insisting that to demonstrate that it possesses inviolable rights, a chimp or bonobo would need to do nothing less than "stand up and, led by a love of justice and a sense of self-worth, insist that the world recognize and respect its dignity." That's what it would take to prove that the members of an animal species possess the same intrinsic moral worth as human beings.
Anything short of that is an expression of human self-deception. And blindness about all that we are. Losing sight of that reality and truth in an act of advocacy-driven conceptual obfuscation is simply too high a price to pay, even for the promise of alleviating the suffering of our closest cousins in the animal kingdom.