On animal liberation and falling off the edge of the world. Part II.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(Luke 18:9-14 NIV)

This parable was the gospel a week ago Sunday. My parish priest finished the reading, looked over the pews, and said, starting the homily, “I often ask myself, which one I am. But I think most of us are a little bit of both.”

I think he’s right. I know I feel like a moralist sometimes and profoundly lost in my own ethics other times. I oscillate between righteous indignation and bitter regret for falling short of my own principles. When it comes to defining for the whole humanity some grand ethical policy, I question my right to say anything at all, and yet I say. Because we must. That’s how grand ethical policies get defined.

People like Peter Singer, who do this for a living – moral philosophers – live between a rock and a hard place. They get knocked for lack of objectivity if they appeal to our values or emotions and for heartlessness if they appeal to logic or utility. They ask the offensive questions and push on the tender places, and it is by the number of protesters that they measure their impact on the world.

Peter Singer was scheduled to speak at Rosemont College later this November – a talk about alleviating poverty while reducing guilt. A topic of importance and nobility, and he has a plan. But the event has been canceled. Peter Singer is a moral philosopher with provocative stands, and some of his other positions are not coherent with the views of the Church and the college’s founding Society. Those don’t have to do with poverty – they concern other issues entirely – but he is a whole person, and our institutions have cut him off. He wasn’t coming to church but to a place of learning – but the boundary did not protect him and, maybe, did not exist. We won’t hear him speak, and we won’t get to ask him questions, and we don’t get to engage him in a debate.

I tip my hat to Peter Singer, with all about him that I agree with and all that I disagree with, and I apologize for the institutions I love and hold responsibility for: my academia and my Church. And I continue my debate about animal liberation.


Last time, in Part I of this essay, I introduced the utilitarian proposition that we must consider human and non-human suffering equally when we calculate the possible consequences of our actions because we are equal in suffering, and I became both sides of a brief shouting match on whether or not humans are superior to animals. My last thought was this: Not in worth, not in the quality of suffering, but there is a principal difference between human and non-human animals: It is in the way we can relate to each other, the way we relate to other people and to animals.

For one, we don’t understand each other’s languages. Yes, there is a very small degree to which some humans and some specific animals can send a number of signals to each other, but that’s it. We communicate with the members of our species. The Greeks and the “barbarians” eventually learned to talk – were forced to learn. With animals, who knows what will happen. At the very least this means that we don’t know what they want, and vice versa. Only the most basic needs and emotions common to all living creatures can we judge: pain, terror, joy, sometimes love, sometimes grief. Some animals we know better than others – we’ve developed relationships over millennia with dogs, cats, horses – and when those relationships are good and true, we understand more and need no coercion, no chain and no cage, to keep the animal near us. This, however, is rare. Most animals we touch we know nearly nothing about save what they can do for us, how they taste, or what their potential danger is.

Here’s another pretty principal difference: under all but the rarest and most extreme of circumstances, humans don’t eat each other. Most animals don’t eat each other within their own species either. But many, many animals eat other animals: carnivores and omnivores, and that includes humanity. We are omnivores. We became so a very long time ago, and this evolution allowed us to survive. We cannot relate to animals the same way we do to humans on the principal level because we eat them. At least, potentially. And some of them eat us.


Of course, in a large area of the globe a person no longer needs to eat meat or fish to survive. Vegetarians and vegans thrive on a balanced diet in both hemispheres. But do we have to? And if you can’t, is that a crime?

“In an earlier stage of our development most human groups held to a tribal ethic. Members of the tribe were protected, but people of other tribes could be robbed or killed as one pleased. Gradually the circle of protection expanded, but as recently as 150 years ago we did not include blacks. So African human beings could be captured, shipped to America, and sold. In Australia white settlers regarded Aborigines as a pest and hunted them down, much as kangaroos are hunted down today. Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.”

Peter Singer

Indeed. The progress in humanity’s ever-broadening concept of rights and the application of rights, our ever expanding formulae of dignity, compassion, mutual respect, and worth are the very reason I hold hope for a better future. We are not a perfect society by any measure, but if we cast a glance at a large enough swathe of history, we’ll see that we are getting better. I agree with Peter Singer that our treatment of non-human animals is very much a ripened issue in the conscience of humankind along with some older intra-human issues: respect for same-sex families, equality in gender relations, interreligious dialogue… But there’s a principle difference here as well. I believe that, unlike our intra-human issues, the animal liberation movement, if taken to its logical conclusion, can run into a problem both ethical and logical.

“It is easy to take a stand about a remote issue, but speciesists, like racists, reveal their true nature when the issue comes nearer home. To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada, while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet, or the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbors not to sell their houses to blacks.”

Peter Singer, from Animal Liberation

Yeah. Well. Sure. If we profess an ethic, we must live it. If we stand up for a principle, we must go all the way.

The question becomes, how far is “all the way”?

And will you fall off the edge of the world before you get there?

I am pretty much assuming that you, my reader, are a conscientious and compassionate person, so if you eat industrially produced meat, use cosmetics tested on animals and so on, you probably either disagree with one of the animal rights movement’s arguments or you haven’t really thought about it for one reason or another. Moralists like Peter Singer are there to call our attention to the issue and to persuade us. So far so good. But what happens when the argument of “logical-yet-absurd-conclusion” progresses beyond the things we can choose to do or not to do? Beyond buying only the “good” eggs or even going vegan? Beyond boycotting brand names?

sick childLet’s start soft. Medicine. Nearly all of Western medicine’s achievements in longevity and treating disease are steeped in animal experimentation, some to greater degree than others but deeply, all. The gamut runs from drug trials to genetic research, from behavioral studies to the use of animal organs and tissues in human bodies. A day may come when you or I are willing to give up our own lives because the cost of saving them with animal lives is too high—and then we will face every child with cancer, with asthma, infections, with a million other fatal and painful conditions, waiting for us to save him, and the choice will change again. I am not the first to point out this dare in a debate with Peter Singer.

We debate the ethics of using animals in medical science whole-heartedly and sincerely, but how many of us could completely divorce ourselves from the fruits of their sacrifice even if we wanted to? The overwhelming majority of the 7-billion-strong humanity is irrevocably complicit in the torture of animals just by being born into a society with access even to the most basic healthcare.

One answer to this line of thought can be a heart-breaking and radical, “No.” No, we cannot sacrifice animals for our own gain, no matter how important it seems, not even for medicine. Some things are bought at such a cost that they just have to be lived without. We don’t allow human experimentation, do we? Even though it would dramatically improve and speed up our drug trials and medical research. We even ban the use of results obtained with such methods – say, from Nazi experiments in the 30’s and 40’s – to discourage anyone from doing it again. If we can’t get a result without endangering human beings (as far as we can tell, of course), then we live without it.

This radical “No” would state unequivocally that every life is precious, human or not, and suffering is not measured on a pyramid. This is essentially Peter Singer’s position. And essentially, I want to agree with every word of it. The practical ethics of choosing a rabbit over your child notwithstanding, this gradation-free and interconnected view of the universal value of life is the one I more than hold – feel to the very bottom of my bottomless soul. And yet, it is this very view that tells me: we cannot be true to the logic of it and survive. It is not a realistic principle and must be mediated.

hands familyStay with me for a minute, and think about this: if we extend the position of equality of life to its logical conclusion, it will become absurd and impossible to live. Though all life – in fact, all things – may indeed be intrinsically immeasurable in worth, thus infinite in value and therefore equal in relation to the Universe – if you wish, before God – all cannot be equal to each. There is a reason we, individuals, have our places in the Universe within families, communities, species, planets, etc. It is a mind-bogglingly vast network of Creation, and we cannot hold it all in. We hold on to each other, to those who are near, and we do it in the world that works through change, death, suffering, and loss as much as it does through love, hope, and joy. There is a reason a bear won’t hesitate to tear you to shreds if she thinks you are messing with her young. Also if she is hungry. The life of this world eats each other, steps on each other, protects each other by the natural rules into which we are born, from virus to elephant. It’s all right because there is a big picture.

If we try to equalize all animal life in our eyes, we will fail. We simply cannot do it – because industrial meat production, zoos, and even medical experimentation is only a fraction of the ways in which we kill and hurt the living world. We do it accidentally, we do it breathing in and out, putting our feet down on the ground, driving, cleaning, tilling the soil. If we approach the suffering of animals the same way we do humans, what kind of precautions, what laws, what penalties can we possibly put in place against unpremeditated killings of creatures that happen by billions, every day? It will paralyze humanity.

It gets worse. If animal life and well-being, regardless of circumstances, warrants the same protection as human, what will we do about plants? With greater and greater depth and clarity, year after year, our scientists are discovering the complexity of plant life and – yes – behavior. It turns out that plants experience fear and joy. They communicate. I certainly know that my mother’s cactus withered pitifully every time she went on vacation and came back to bloom when she came back. Plants have affections, we know this now. They are certainly life – why are they undeserving of protection?

Humans have only two sources of food: animals and plants. If we begin to consider plant suffering on the par with animal and human, too, in our practical ethic, humanity will not be just paralyzed – it will be dead. We kill or we die. This is the order of things.

But listen, it’s all right. Because there is a big picture.

“All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.”

Swami Vivekananda

So here. I think you can see where I came from in this argument with myself and where I’ve gone. I don’t know that I am a consistent person in my own, personal ethic when it comes to plants and animals, because, much like Peter Singer, I don’t grade either life or suffering on a scale. And I feel acutely, in a sensory sort of way, the constant tugging of threads that tie me to the multi-specied life of this world, and it makes me consider them: spiders, frogs, grass blades, chickens, chestnut trees… I can often feel my passage through the universe leaving a painful trail of torn wounds and severed lives, it’s just that…such is our mutual passage. They, too, hurt me as they cross my path. Some of them. Bacteria, biting insects, poison ivy, thorny bushes, maybe a snake or a dog having a bad day. Someday, my body will serve as a meal to those who eat human flesh: maggots, vultures, fish – depends on how and where I die. This thought brings me a bit of peace in trying to formulate some sort of stand in my relationship to the non-human world.

making food

So, I think, for now, like this: We kill to eat and we die to feed. That’s the order of things. It’s all right because, in the big picture, we are more than our one passage from birth to death, all one in the flow of Love toward the Ultimate Creation. When we must choose between human and non-human animal, we will save a human life, naturally and with reason – because we are kin. That’s the order of things. All creatures do the same. But we are a vast, inseparable extended family with all things of Creation: animal, plant, even “inanimate.” All that is, is woven out of the fabric of Reality we call by different names but that makes us one. We understand and protect non-humans to a lesser degree than humans not because they are lesser, so we must understand and protect them to our greatest ability. We must not torture. By that I mean, we must minimize suffering whenever we can, to anything that feels. We must not kill gratuitously, carelessly, and never for pleasure. We must have laws to that effect.

It seems that, through this long and meandering exploration of animal rights, I have arrived at an old, unoriginal adage: Be kind. Back to the scriptural quotes with which I started. Back to Jesus, Krishna, the Dalai Lama, and nearly every true spiritual leader that’s ever lived. Compassion is the rule. Love is the essence. If we look at the world with the wonder and awe of our true, bottomless souls, then care for all that surrounds us will come naturally, I think. If we feel love, the rest will fall into place. I think.

camel rider

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