The Post carried an intriguing story (Dec. 27) about Jews and Moslems in Britain joining forces to defend the practice of ritual slaughter of animals against that country's powerful animal rights lobby. The Jews and Moslems in question view their respective rituals as a matter of sacred law, and their practice of these rituals as a matter of religious freedom. The animal rights lobby believes it has a compelling moral argument that overrides both sacred law and religious freedom.
As I recently learned when I interviewed the director of a fast growing American animal rights group, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (the interview was published in Washington's City Paper on Dec. 20), the violation of secular laws is also morally justifiable in the name of animal rights. Organizations such as the Animal Liberation Front have by their own account repeatedly broken the law and destroyed millions of dollars worth of scientific equipment.
The animal rights position leads to an extraordinarily comprehensive series of proposals for revising every aspect of our relationship to animals. For example, we would have to change the way we eat (strict vegetarianism turns out to be the only moral way to nourish oneself), clothe ourselves, do science, farm, learn medicine and even the way we refer to animals (you may not use the demeaning word "pet"). All use of animals for scientific research of every sort is to stop immediately. You may also be surprised to learn that the way in which Americans celebrate holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas is utterly immoral in that it causes a "holocaust" among animals.
What is the fundamental premise that sustains the animal rights activists? So far as I can tell, it is that animals and human beings share the same fundamental set of natural rights. Thus, there is no difference from an ethical standpoint between you and, say, a baboon, which is why the animal rights lobby objected strenuously to the recent transplantation at Loma Linda University Medical Center of a baboon's heart into a human body.
If the principle here extends, as it must, to the killing of an animal for any purpose (except self-defense), it would be wrong to damage the animal's body in any way. It would also be unethical to steal the wool from a sheep or the milk from a cow; for these are parts of their bodies to which they would have a right. And if an animal is ethically your equal, you have no right to own it as property or use its labor without its consent. Obviously the "animal rights" position, if carried through to its absurd conclusions, would have enormous and damaging consequences for human life. Would it not be unethical to advocate such consequences?
No sensible person would deny that we shouldn't sacrifice animals on the altar of science without some reasonable expectation that the sacrifice will further our scientific knowledge and so benefit human beings. Furthermore, just about everybody agrees that animals should not be tortured or needlessly made to suffer. None of these judgments commits you to holding that animals have rights.
The absurdity of the "animal rights" position stems from its assumption that animals enjoy an ethical status equal to humans. If men and beasts possess the same fundamental rights, it is because men and beasts are equal in the essential respects. This argument is to be rejected because it ignores the ethical consequences of the manifest and decisive differences between us and the animals, particularly our capacity for discourse, reason and free will.
Sincere advocates of animal rights may be motivated to overlook the speciousness of their position by an overwhelming sympathy for the cuddly pets we all know and love. One wonders whether they feel the same fondness for rats, tapeworms and other illustrious creatures. And what about microscopic organisms or plants? Just because you can't see it or because it doesn't purr doesn't mean it lacks rights.
It would be simple to demonstrate the basic difference between us and the other species theologically. You might draw upon the Bible and point out that men, not mice, are created in God's image. It follows that only men have "rights" in the relevant sense. So far as I can tell, Christianity and the basic thesis of the "animal rights" movement are incompatible. Since philosophy, too, can show the falsity of the "animal rights" premise, though, you need not rely solely on an appeal to theology.
The animal rights movement illustrates the incoherent nature of a moral passion become immoral by virtue of its extremism. In the name of the laudable quality of humaneness, the use of animals for food, clothing and medical experimentation is prohibited. Research that could save your child's life, or save you from an excruciating disease, is declared unethical. The result is inhumanity toward man.