On Jan. 11 and 21 The Post carried a number of letters objecting strenuously to my criticism of the "animal rights" position (op-ed, Jan. 5).

Michael W. Fox, the scientific director of the Humane Society of the United States, thinks I tread on "thin ice" when I point out that the Bible teaches that men, not mice, are created in God's image. But his evidence for this objection is self-contradictory. On the one hand, he cites theologians (unnamed) who hold that the Bible's point is that man stands to animals as God stands to man. Whatever this may mean exactly, it certainly implies that man is vastly superior to animals. Yet Fox then adds that men and beasts are ethically equal "in God's eye," so denying that man is superior at all to the brutes. This nicely illustrates the fundamental confusion about human nature that plagues animal rights activists, as well as the extreme difficulty they experience in reconciling their view of human nature with that of several major religions.

Fox's reply culminates in an approving reference to Albert Schweitzer's "ethic of reverence." But Schweitzer was not a vegetarian and did not oppose all animal research. The point is that it is possible to be a compassionate and religious person and still recognize the ethically relevant differences between humans and animals.

Gary Benson's objection relies in part on a specious analogy beloved of animal rights activists. He asks whether I would have supported slavery just because "the prominent theory of the day" held that blacks were inferior to whites. Benson asks this question because he wants to suggest that man's use of animals is analogous to man's enslavement of man. Of course the reason that the "prominent theory of the day" was wrong is that all men share a unique ethical status that forbids one man from owning another and yet permits a man to own a work horse. That is why man's use of animals is not analogous to man's enslavement of man.

Herein lies much of the demagoguery of Ingrid Newkirk's letter (she is director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as well: as bizarre as it may seem, she and her colleagues argue that if you believe that you are, as a human being, ethically superior to a chicken, then you're the sort of person given to "supremacist" racism and sexism.

This is dangerous nonsense. Indeed, if they were right in saying that owning an animal is like owning a human being, then slavery might be perfectly just. In assuming that a man and an ox are ethically indistinguishable, Newkirk and friends are in fact making the very assumption that underlies the old pro-slavery view. If you can yoke an ox (as just about everyone agrees), and if there is no ethical difference between an ox and a man, then you can yoke a man. They will respond that oxen, chickens, lobsters and worms should be treated with the same respect due to men. If that doesn't strike you as absurd, consider one of its consequences: if there is no ethical difference between animals and humans, it follows that one cannot justify sacrificing an animal's life in the course of medical research even though doing so might save a baby's life.

The thesis that we humans possess a capacity for acting nobly and wisely that the animals lack in no way permits us to extinguish every living thing, treat animals cruelly, ruin the environment or anything else of the sort. I agree that many facets of our use of animals could stand improvement. But the fundamental issue, in my opinion, concerns our understanding of the nature of man, and the practical consequences of that understanding.

While human history may resemble a slaughterhouse, as Hegel said, the 20th century is unmatched for the sheer enormity of man's cruelty to man. This sorry fact is related to the debasement of the human to the level of the subhuman (whether it be that of animals or of machines) so characteristic of our age. The animal rights position as it is understood by activists such as Newkirk perpetuates -- no doubt unconsciously -- this destruction of the distinctively human. Since defective theory and defective practice are intimately related, I fear that the well-intentioned animal rights movement will actually promote the inhumanity it wishes to oppose.