Rights, Animal and Human

David R. Carlin

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 105 (August/September 2000): 16-17.

Last year Harvard Law School offered its first–ever course on animal rights. This is good news for animal rights advocates, since Harvard is one of the two or three top law schools in the nation. If Harvard is on board for animal rights, can the Supreme Court be far behind?

Currently, American law gives animals protection in a wide variety of circumstances, but it affords them no rights. The prevailing legal principle is that only persons can be bearers of rights. So, before animals can have rights, either that principle will have to be changed, or it will have to be shown that animals (at least some of them) are persons.

The animal rights movement (of which Peter Singer, the controversial Princeton professor, is the philosophical guru) contends that there should be only a relatively narrow legal gap between humans and animals. Biologically speaking, of course, there is only a narrow gap between humans and the highest of the animals. But this raises the question: Is a strictly biological account of human nature adequate? The animal rights movement would answer this question in the affirmative; Christianity, by contrast, has always answered it in the negative. At first glance, the animal rights movement seems to be aiming at the elevation of animals. In fact, however, it is but the latest episode in a long history of attempts to degrade humans.

Many individual members of the animal rights movement, I willingly concede, are kindhearted folks who are revolted at cruelty to animals and wish to minimize it; they have no desire to degrade humanity. But historical movements often have objective tendencies that contradict the wishes of their proponents. (Witness communism, which, despite its objective tendency to tyranny and mass murder, had many followers who were humane and philanthropic in intention.) Underlying the push for narrowing the legal gap between humans and animals is the philosophical premise that there is no more than a narrow ontological gap between humans and animals. But the animal rights people are not the first to embrace this premise. Far from it.

In the sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne, the great French essayist and skeptic, argued that the gap between humans and animals was narrower than most people imagined. He devoted much of his writing to showing that humans are not nearly as rational as we, in our pride, suppose ourselves to be, while occasionally pointing out how surprisingly rational the lower animals could sometimes be. In his most comprehensive and influential essay, “An Apology for Raimond Sebond,” Montaigne cited the case of a logical dog, a case reported by an ancient philosopher. The dog was following a scent along a path. Suddenly the single path divided into three. The dog hesitated: Which way to go? He sniffed at one path; no scent. He sniffed at a second; no scent there either. And then, without bothering to give an investigatory sniff at the one remaining, he set off on this third path. Clearly the dog had performed a disjunctive syllogism, saying to himself: “The scent I’m following will be found either on path A, B, or C; it is not found on A or B; it follows, therefore, that it must be on C.”

And since, according to the dominant philosophical tradition of Montaigne’s day—a tradition that reached back to Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics—rationality (or a capacity for logical thinking) is the distinctive characteristic of human beings, it was no small thing to show that dogs as well as humans can be logical. In the world of philosophy, it had always been rationality that established the almost infinite ontological gap between humans and animals. Show that rationality is a characteristic shared by both, and humanity’s ancient claim to dominance is destroyed.

Near the middle of the eighteenth century, during the robust early stages of the Enlightenment, a minor French philosophe, Julien Offray de la Mettrie, wrote a book titled L’Homme Machine. If humans are nothing more than machines, he argued, albeit very refined and complex ones, then there is certainly no great ontological gap between humans and the lower animals, for they are also machines, though less refined and complex. La Mettrie suggested, for instance, that the reason apes cannot speak is not because of any inferiority in rationality to human beings but because of “some defect in the organs of speech.” He believed a young ape could be taught the use of language if we were to instruct it using the (then newly invented) methods used to teach deaf–mutes to “speak.” In other words, given the right teacher, apes could be taught sign language.

But to date, the greatest of all attempts to narrow the gap between humans and the lower animals has been Darwinism. Perhaps this should not be said of the Darwinism of Darwin himself, who had little wish, at least in public, to extrapolate his biological findings into the realm of ontology. But it can certainly be said of many of Darwin’s epigones, who viewed humans as purely biological entities and thus regarded biology as competent to pronounce the last word on the ontological rank of human nature. Since humans have the same remote ancestry as the rest of the animal kingdom, since we have the same relatively proximate ancestry as the great apes, and since anatomically we bear a strong resemblance to these our “cousins,” then it follows (they reasoned) that humans are ontologically only a little bit superior to the lower animals. And if we measure superiority and inferiority in terms of capacity to survive (which is perhaps the true Darwinian way of measuring these things), then we are not superior at all; for it is obvious that all surviving animal species have equally met that test. By that measure, our superiority, if we are indeed superior, will not be shown until we outlast all other animal species; but that is almost certainly impossible, since it is difficult to imagine how humans could survive on earth without the assistance of other simultaneously existing animal species.

Our contemporary animal rights movement is heir to this long tradition of trying to narrow the gap between humans and lower animals. But what motive lies behind this tradition? The answer seems obvious enough. Specifically, the motive is anti–Christian; more generally, it is a strong animosity toward the view of human nature taken both by biblical religions and by the great classical schools of philosophy, especially Platonism and Stoicism. That man is “made in the image and likeness of God” is an expression found in the Bible, but it is a formula that well expresses the anthropology of Plato and the Stoics as well. To reduce human nature to nothing more than its biological status is to attack this ancient and exalted conception of human nature.

In defense of the attackers—from Montaigne, through the philosophes and the Darwinians, to Peter Singer (who once wrote a book titled Animal Liberation) and the Harvard Law School—it might be said that their intentions have often been humane. The Stoic–Christian theory of human nature, in their opinion, has been dangerously unrealistic, the product not of empirical observation but of fantastic imagination. By encouraging men and women to believe that their true home is not in this world, the world of nature—that we are potentially divine beings living in temporary exile—this fantastic theory has rendered humans unable to achieve such limited happiness as we might have achieved. Demoting human nature from heaven to earth will, by making us more realistic, render us more successful. Better (in Macaulay’s phrase) to own an acre in Middlesex than a county in Utopia.

This defense (“they had good intentions”) might have been acceptable prior to the twentieth century. But in the course of that century we had some unpleasant experiences with persons who entertained the purely biological conception of human nature. Hitler was a great believer in this purely biological conception (sometimes with a confused overlay of pagan romanticism). In his way, he can be counted as one of Darwin’s epigones. Now, of course, you cannot prove that an idea is wrong simply because Hitler embraced it; for instance, that Hitler favored the production of Volkswagens doesn’t prove that they are bad automobiles. But when there is a direct link between one of his major ideas and the Holocaust, as there is in the case of his conception of human nature, this is at least enough to give us pause. At present I cannot prove that the idea of animal rights is extraordinarily dangerous and inhumane; to get proof of this, we’ll have to wait until the disastrous consequences of the idea reveal themselves over the next century or so. But I strongly suspect that it’s a dangerous idea, and accordingly I suspect that the promoters of this idea, whatever their intentions, are enemies of the human race.

David R. Carlin is Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island, as well as chairman of the Democratic Party in Newport, Rhode Island.