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Human Rights are Animal Rights ( Yes, you read it right! )


Since we homo sapiens are an animal species, it is surely obvious that human rights are a form of animal rights and that animal rights include – or should include – the human species.

Sadly, not everyone sees it this way. Many individuals view humans and other animals as totally discrete, and draw a clear, sharp line between humans and other animal species and therefore between animal rights and human rights. I beg to differ. In the past, the justification for human primacy over animals came from religions that stated that humans are superior to animals because they have an immortal soul, and that God commanded humans to rule over animals. This is crap. Consciousness is the bond that unites all animal species, human and non-human. I accept our shared animalism and advocate our shared claim be spared suffering and accorded absolute rights. It is true that other animals are less intelligent than humans and lack mental-physical skills[1] and our capacity for culture and conscience. But this is no justification for abusing them, any more than we would sanction the abuse of humans – such as babies and people with mental disabilities – who lack these highly developed capacities. We acknowledge that we have a special responsibility to protect weaker, more vulnerable humans. Definitely, the same reasoning applies to other weaker, more vulnerable thinking, feeling creatures?

If having superior intelligence does not entitle one human to abuse another human for his or her purposes, why should it entitle humans to abuse nonhumans?

There are animals who are unquestionably more intelligent, creative, aware, communicative, and able to use language than some humans, as in the case of a chimpanzee compared to a human infant or a person with a severe developmental disability, for example. Should the more intelligent animals have rights and the less intelligent humans be denied rights? Nineteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?” The measure of who deserves protection is not intelligence, it is the capacity to feel pain.

There is, in my moral universe, no great ethical difference between the abuse of human and non-human animals, or between our duty of compassion towards other humans and other animal species. Indeed, I see a link between the oppression of non-human animals and the oppression of human beings. There are common threads between the oppression of other animals and the oppression of humans because of their nationality, race, gender, faith or non-faith, political beliefs, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. The different forms of human and other animal oppression are interconnected, based on a similar abuse of power and a similar infliction of harm and suffering. They cannot be fully understood separately from one another. How we mistreat animals parallels how we mistreat people. Cruelty is barbarism, whether it is inflicted on humans or on other species. The campaigns for animal rights and human rights share the same fundamental aim: a world without oppression and suffering, based on love, kindness and compassion. Speciesism[2], in contrast, is the belief and practice of human supremacism and the consequent abuse of other animal species. It involves prejudice, discrimination and violence in favour of human beings, and exploitation, incarceration, mistreatment or killing of other animals by humans.

Most people, faced with a difficult choice between a human and an animal, would probably react in a speciesist (or 'homocentric') way.

Consider this example:

A child and a dog are trapped in a fire. You can only save one of them. Which will you save?

Most people don't have to think about this for even one second.

Most people don't consider the relative moral status of the dog and the child relevant to their choice.

Society would condemn anyone who delayed in order to consider the correct moral choice.

This humans-first ideology of speciesism is analogous to homophobia, racism and misogyny. A form of domination and oppression, it is incompatible with a humane, civilized society. We, humans, are an animal species. We know about pain and suffering. So why do most people have such intolerant attitudes towards other animals and accept their abuse in medical laboratories, farms, zoos, circuses and sports events?

It does not follow that our highly sophisticated intelligence and material development give us the right to lord it over other species. Just because we have the capacity to do so, that does not mean that we should. On the contrary: our brainpower, education and conscience give us a special responsibility of stewardship over the Earth and all its beings. We need to expand our moral horizons beyond our own species and is thereby a major evolution in ethics.

Over the course of human history, our notion of rights has progressively broadened. Initially, rights were confined to the immediate family, tribe, and clan. Then they were widened to larger religious and political communities. Later, rights were expanded again to cover entire nations and, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948[3], to protect the whole of humankind. The next logical step is to extend rights to other sentient beings. The abuse of animals is rooted in a form of human chauvinism that views non-human sentient beings as ‘other’. This mindset allows us the ‘excuse’ to look down on and mistreat them, including insulting, exploiting, abusing, dominating or even killing those ‘other’ beings. We stop seeing them as living, thinking, feeling creatures. Species difference and inferiority become a rationale for the infliction of suffering.

Let’s talk about emotions, mammals, birds and some other animals have a set of six basic emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, joy, sadness, and surprise. However, we humans are able to feel many other emotions that regulate our social behavior and the way we view the world: guilt, shame, pride, honor, awe, interest, envy, nostalgia, hope, despair, contempt and many others. While emotions like love and loyalty may be present in mammals that live in hierarchical societies, emotions like guilt, shame, and their counterparts pride and honor seem to be uniquely human. You (humans) are lucky to have these emotions, don’t stay in a bubble that you’re superior to non-humans. That’s not a desirable human characteristic. At least, not for me.

Anti-animal prejudice runs deep. We even hear it in everyday conversation. Bigots often disparage other people with speciesist epithets. They accuse them of acting like a beast or behaving worse than an animal. This bigotry echoes the vile insults that black people are savages, women are bitches, and LGBT people are perverts. Although it is a controversial and uncomfortable comparison, there are parallels between human and animal slavery. Both involve similar ownership of other beings, and their confinement and exploitation. The images of Africans tethered in slave ships are not that different from those of farm animals imprisoned in pens and cages. The instruments of restraint used on animals in medical laboratories echo those used on Indian slaves in Britain prior to the 18th century.

Before we can liberate the millions of oppressed humans and billions of exploited animals we need to free our minds and start thinking in a new way: to consciously eliminate the mentality of subjugation and entitlement that allows us to passively acquiesce with or, even worse, actively participate in the cycle of abuse against other sentient beings – human and non-human. Animal liberation is in the same ethical tradition as women’s, black, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender liberation. It is about ending the suffering that flows from a supremacist mindset and power relations of domination. Surely, in the 21st century, the time has come to emancipate non-human animals, just like we previously emancipated humans through abolishing slavery, male-only suffrage, and anti-LGBT laws?

Animal liberation is a moral duty. Just because other animal species look different from us and have a lesser intellect, that is no justification to harm them for our own self-gratification. After all, many vertebrates aren’t really that different from us humans. They share much of our DNA and our capacity for thought, feelings, emotions, memory, sociability, language, altruism, empathy, and, very importantly, pleasure and pain. We need to recognise and embrace our animal nature and identity. If we did that, the excuses and rationalisations for treating other species badly would fall away. We’d realise that it’s time for both human and other animal liberation.

When I see someone demonstrate casual cruelty to animals – taunting a dog tied up outside a shop, throwing stones at pigeons in the park, holding a fish out of water long enough for its gills to flap with anxiety and suffocation – I wonder how they treat the people in their lives. I wonder if this lack of empathy for the suffering of another living creature spills into their relationships, into their connections with their lovers, their families, their friends. It might seem unrelated, but a predisposition to “othering” animals to the point where their pain doesn’t touch you, is not far removed from being able to “other” refugees, or people with diverse sexual identities, or people with disability, or different cultures, to the point where their rights are not seen as reflective of your own.

The fact that they may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our 'intelligences' are at different levels, they are just of different kinds. When a foreigner tries to communicate with us using an imperfect, broken, version of our language, our impression is that they are not very intelligent. But the reality is quite different. You need to behave like humans, you’re not entitled to kill or abuse an animal. Teach, acknowledge, aware, set an example, and fight for their rights. The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration.

All animals have the ability to suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. They feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness, and motherly love. Whenever we consider doing something that would interfere with their needs, we are morally obligated to take them into account.

PETA Volunteering taught me, only prejudice allows us to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves. Whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or species, prejudice is morally unacceptable. If you wouldn’t eat a dog, why eat a pig? Dogs and pigs have the same capacity to feel pain, but it is prejudice based on species that allows us to think of one animal as a companion and the other as dinner.

[1] https://www.peta.org/about-peta/faq/animals-are-not-as-intelligent-or-advanced-as-humans/ [2] 'Speciesism' is the idea that being human is a good enough reason for human animals to have greater moral rights than non-human animals. [3] https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

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