“What you do to the least of these, you do to me,” says the Son of Man, the ultimate Judge and Abiding Presence of the Christian scripture.
“By me is this entire universe pervaded. All things are in Me, and I in them,” declares Lord Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu himself in the Bhagavat Gita (BG 9:4).
“We are members of one great body, planted by nature,” echoes the immortal stoic Seneca from the silver age of ancient Rome. “We must consider that we were born for the good of the whole.”
That my entire cosmology is premised on complete, though intricately developing, oneness of all things, should not be news to my regular readers. My feelings toward non-human life, naturally, are shaped as much by this worldview as by my non-verbal and primordial instinct: to touch, to love, to muse.
If you wonder what I mean, look up “On the least of His” and “On falling asleep and putting to sleep.” My friends already know: I am the one who picks up the spider and treks out of the house in my pajamas to put him down on some tree; I am the one who dives into the pool to get the drowning bee and the one who waves away the mosquito instead of slapping her down on the table. I get a sense that I am somewhat infamous both for the hassle and for the guilt trips I bring into my communities: my family, my friends, my Dominican Sisters… Yet unlike what most people think, my impetus to live and let live with surrounding insects, to avoid industrially produced meat, and to give a wide berth to city zoos does not come from some sort of excessive tender-heartedness, I don’t think. I just don’t consider my connection with the critters any less involving than those with the humans in my life. Watching one of them writhe in pain would hurt me, be it a bear, a spider, or my niece. Watching one of them die what one might consider an avoidable and torturous death… It hurts. Causing such a death deliberately is unthinkable.
“Were we incapable of empathy – of putting ourselves in the position of others and seeing that their suffering is like our own – then ethical reasoning would lead nowhere. If emotion without reason is blind, then reason without emotion is impotent,” writes Peter Singer in Writings on an Ethical Life.
Of course, it’s not all that simple. I can just imagine my sister reading the previous paragraph—and what an explosion I am to expect at the implication that her daughters and some spider occupy, in whatever sense, the same level of affection in my heart! And my sister would have a point.
I can’t in good conscience compare the loss I feel after my niece stomps on a spider before I can interfere with the grief I can conceive of should, God forbid, something happen to the girl. It’s natural: her I know, love, and berate. I understand what she says, dreams about, and aspires to when she is being beautiful, shallow, or infuriating. The spider is a mute and momentary presence. In any specific way, I don’t understand him; I don’t even know if he is aware of me until I take him in my hand and after I let him go. My niece and I are family. The spider and I are fellows in Creation. Is there not a difference?
There must be.
What is it?
The animal rights movement has been a somewhat acknowledged phenomenon since the 1970’s, especially with the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, a thorough moral argument for taking into account the suffering of all animals—human and non-human—in our consideration of the consequences of our actions. “All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact,” he says, “In suffering the animals are our equals.”
There’s no doubt that we don’t practice this maxim. Not today. Not in the vast majority of human cultures and industries. Our food production (meat, dairy, and eggs), leather, some of the wool, medical and cosmetic research, some transportation, pet-keeping, and several types of entertainment (add if I’ve missed something) reign as pillars of torture, confinement, and exploitation. It’s just… Currently this only bothers a relatively small number of people planet-wide—because they’re animals. We’re used to it. They don’t know any better. They have no rights. They are not people. And even though we are aware that they experience pain and fear, we don’t really think of them as suffering, not quite as we do of humans. They’re animals. We use them, and then we discard them. They are here for us. We notice their free will mostly when one of them kills a human being—a bear or a tiger—and then it gets punished by death that feels to us more than casual. It feels righteous.
The question that the animal rights movement has dragged out of the basement of academic buildings and onto the stages and banners of public discourse is: Why? What makes this question of treatment so different than all the previous questions humanity has faced? What makes animals different from any other group of living beings that had been killed, enslaved, exploited or simply disregarded? Sub-human?
“So were dark-skinned humans regarded by whites not long ago,” shout back animal liberationists. “So were Jews, Gypsies, blacks, and Slavs regarded by the Nazis. The term ‘sub-human’ presumes that humanity is on some sort of top of the living beings’ pyramid. What if it’s not a pyramid at all?”
“Animals are not intelligent!” people say again. “They are not aware, they are not sentient!”
“For one, we don’t really know the extent or kind of intelligence different animals possess,” the answer might come. “We keep making astonishing discoveries in that regard. But if indeed humans are the smartest animals on Earth, how does that give us the right to exploit our less intelligent brothers?”
“We’re not exploiting brothers,” someone could argue. “We are using the resources available. You, on the other hand, are imbuing animals with anthropomorphic qualities. I haven’t heard them complaining.”
“That’s because we can’t communicate with them!”
“Uh-hah! Exactly! They don’t speak a language, they don’t order nature around them, they don’t evolve as societies. Stop trying to make them into our equals.”
“More and more we learn that animals have languages, and we are making the first, tiny steps toward understanding them. Ancient Greeks, then Romans called pretty much all foreigners ‘barbarians’ because they couldn’t understand what they were saying, and the word came to mean ‘uncivilized’ and ‘brutal.’ They couldn’t conceive of tribal peoples as their in any way equals, and they didn’t think twice of piling up bodies. Are we doing the same now?”
“To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.” Peter Singer again.
Peter Singer is the animal liberation movement’s, if not founder, certainly one of the most notable fathers. This position of species equality is one of his strongest and, possibly, most controversial, and I see the controversy. I, with all my mystical attachment to the living universe that disregards not only species but what we usually consider “animate” versus “inanimate” states, can see the outrage people experience when they read Peter Singer’s moral philosophy. Really.
Will you judge a person who didn’t pause a second before choosing to save a man not a rat from a burning building – if she could only save one? Will you give the last piece of food to a starving child or to a starving hyena? If you come upon a woman in a boa constrictor’s grip, how long will you hesitate before taking sides in that fight? He seems to be saying that it’s wrong. I think that’s because I’ve painted too simple a picture.
I think there is indeed a principal difference between humans and non-human animals. It’s not a difference where our relative worth is concerned. It’s not a difference in the quality or depth of our suffering or joy, or in our place in or importance to God or the Universe. It’s the difference in how we can relate to other humans and to non-humans. Of course, there’s a difference.
To be continued. In Part II: Why I think animal liberation runs into a problem and where I stand on the issue.