The coronavirus might have been invisible but that there would be a pandemic was not unforeseen. The simple narrative that the virus emerged in animals and jumped the species barrier to reach humans, helps sidestep the realm of human responsibility. At the center of this outbreak is not just the animal, but the human-animal relationship. The pandemic has revealed that there is surely something unhealthy in our relationship with the animals, especially those that we eat. Zoonotic spillover is the result of animal abuse in industrial animal farming and wet markets, the cramped conditions of which provide the perfect breeding grounds for zoonoses. While experts have warned that these spaces, conditions and practices risk more pandemics, animal right activists have taken to the fore and made a compelling case for denouncing meat products and extending rights to animals.
There is no denying that there is a nexus between animal cruelty and infectious diseases in our food supply; and that there is something unhealthy, both literally and morally, in our ‘normal’ relations with these animals. The way we treat animals and the broader domain of animal welfare have to be taken up seriously as a part of global conversation about the pandemic. My point of departure, however, is the way animal right activists think about animal welfare. I believe that the flaming passion of animal rights activists towards animal matters is compelling, but their philosophical formulations much less so. We have an ethical obligation to avoid making others suffer but in case of suffering, laws and rights are never enough. In this article, I will present the problems associated with the animal rights discourse. But before that, it is important that we understand the foundations of animal rights.
The Equality Argument
Animal Rights arguments are largely based on the similarities between humans and animals. For instance, Peter Singer, one of the proponents of Animal Liberation, argues that all animals are equal. And because animals have pain, pleasure and interests like humans, “the ethical principle on which human equality rests requires us to extend equal considerations to animals”(Singer, 1975). His animal liberation arguments use analogies of women’s liberation and civil rights movement. Just like African-American women were discriminated based on their sex and colour, animals are discriminated based on their species. If we are not using the humanist list of capacities (like reason, language etc.) to decide the matters of ethical consideration, we are indulging in ‘speciesism’, which like its associates – racism and sexism- discriminates solely on the basis of species and not on the basis of their capacities and qualities. For Singer, beings who have a ‘capacity to suffer’ (which includes not just physical pain but also psychological pain and anticipatory duress) have a demonstrable interest in avoiding suffering. Those beings, he argues, have a right to have their interests protected, to be regarded morally as ends in themselves. In this light, it’s easy to see how Singer imagines animals as a marginalised group within the human society.
Tom Regan, the proponent of Animal Rights discourse, insists that we look at the “really crucial, basic similarity” between humans and animals, which is delineated in terms of experiences, subjectivity, beliefs, consciousness, memory and feelings. By doing that, he broadens the concept of what he calls “inherent value” beyond the emphasis on suffering alone. He argues that all animals which have ‘inherent value’ – and which might not be all creatures – are a “subject of a life” and insofar they have those qualities and interests, they are like us and hence deserve protection, respect and rights like us.
One might ask, which animals are more like us? Which animals have interests and thus inherent value and which do not? Which animals should we consider subjects and which animals non-subjects? Although Regan has provided some suggestions, but where do we draw the line is ultimately unclear. This kind of line drawing is also where the problems with animal rights discourse begin to emerge as I’ll demonstrate in the following section.
What’s Wrong with Animal Rights?
Drawing lines between subjects and non-subjects creates two sides: those who have what it takes to be inherently valuable and those who do not. Conceptually, this is the same kind of exclusionary thinking inherent in human-animal dichotomy. If human-animal dichotomy is part and parcel of the animal rights discourse, then how can we use the same discourse to overcome that binary? (Oliver, 2008)
If we start from the presumption that it is only our similarities that matter and not our differences – differences that are essential in considering the specific interests of individual animals or species – how can we think of any ethics that looks at animals in terms of their own interest as they experience them? By discounting differences, rights discourse ascertains that animals which are less similar to us receive lesser consideration. This is particularly true in case of vermins, insects and viruses, which not only may have different interests/value but which may also be killable. In other words, it is only in their ‘humanity’ that animals can be liberated, in their ‘animality’ they are still subordinated.
Another problem with Singer’s and Regan’s argument is that “it holds an ‘essentialist’ view of the moral worths of both humans and animals”. That is, it proposes a single capacity as the foundation for ethical consideration. This single capacity, namely ‘possession of interests’ (or Singer’s ‘suffering’/ Regan’s ‘inherent value’) is also something humans possess in large degrees. In this light, as Wolfe (1997) argues, “the problem with animal rights philosophy is not that it is anti-humanist but rather that it is too humanist.” Just like feminists have critiqued that women don’t have to be like men in order to be equal, one can critique that animals don’t have to be like humans in order to be inherently valuable.
The exclusionary nature of single capacity criteria for ethical consideration creates a paradox. Either the working definition of animals is so ambiguous that it includes everything from viruses to giraffes, without accounting for the differences between them, or it uses the differences between them to continue excluding and exploiting most (Oliver, 2008). In this regard, the premise of animal rights discourse that all animals are equal is flawed. The exclusionary nature of identity claims, creates a power structure where rights and equality become entitlements of an elite group while interests of others are excluded.
Feminist Critiques of Animal Rights Discourse
Feminist studies have problematized the ‘meaning of consent’ and ‘speaking for others’, issues which become even more apparent in case of animals. The meaning of consent is a vexed issue in case of animals especially because, given a lack of common language, we can never be sure what the animal wants. For instance, how do we know that the animals we call pets freely consent to our love and attention?
Feminists have also argued that speaking for others can be a way of silencing them. Moreover, the powerful speaking for the powerless only replicates the power structure instead of changing it.
Calculating the Incalculable
Derrida’s take on this matter is rather interesting. In his book “The Animal That Therefore I Am”, he argues that calculating rights and interests risks replacing ethical responsibility with equations and legalism. Delineating rights, weighing the value of one life against another are the antithesis of ethics. For him the problem is imagining that we can calculate the incalculable, that we can know for sure what’s equal, fair and right. Laws, Derrida says “make man the measure of all things – he is the measurer and the yardstick”. Haraway (2008) portrays this excessive humanism in rights discourse brilliantly. For her, the categories for subject are a part of the problem. She argues that the categories used by animal rights discourse end up making the animals “permanent dependents (lesser humans), utterly natural (nonhumans) or entirely the same (humans in fur suits).”
Laws and rights might be important in our civil society, but they are never enough when it comes to suffering. The case of animal welfare is a matter of infinite responsibility. It is time we move away from the rights discourse and think about animal welfare in terms of response and relationship rather than capacity and identity. The question then is not whether Animals can suffer but “How do we respond to the suffering of others?” Like Haraway, I’m convinced that “multispecies coflourishing requires simultaneous, contradictory truths… that we should face nurturing and killing as an inescapable part of mortal companion species entanglements.” This isn’t to say that the category of killing is innocent; killing animals is killing someone and knowing this is not the end but the beginning of serious accountability inside multispecies worldings.
Derrida A, J., & Wills, D. (2008). The Animal That Therefore I Am (Mallet M., Ed.). New York: Fordham University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt13x09fn
Haraway, D. J. (2008). When species meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Oliver, K. (2008). What Is Wrong with (Animal) Rights? The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 22(3), new series, 214-224. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/25670714
Wolfe, C. (1998). Old Orders for New: Ecology, Animal rights, and the Poverty of Humanism. Diacritics 28 (2):21-40.