Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters
History of animal rights shows the way
Peter McKnight The Vancouver Sun May 5, 2003
This week, I thought about boring you with a painstaking legal analysis of the proposed amendments to the animal cruelty provisions of the Criminal Code.
But seeing as how a Senate committee is doing just that, and given that the committee is becoming increasingly bogged down – it’s proposing amendments to the proposed amendments – I thought better.
Instead, since this year marks the 30th anniversary of the birth of the modern animal rights movement, a quick look at the history of animal rights is more profitable since it should convince the senate to quit stalling and pass legislation that’s sorely overdue.
Until recently, animals were utterly without legal or moral status. In the theocratic state, the line between humans and animals was clear and inviolable, because humans were part divine in that they possessed an immortal soul. As such, the Catholic philosophers of the Middle Ages taught that we have no duties toward animals and hence anything goes, which is a hoot, since in everything else they preached that nothing goes.
Surprisingly, the early Enlightenment failed to offer a more enlightened attitude.
Rene Descartes, the chief architect of the 17th – century intellectual revolution, made the Catholic philosophers look like representatives of the SPCA. Descartes regarded animals as mere machines, incapable of thinking or feeling pain, which meant that every season was open season on our furry friends.
But the Enlightenment also gave rise to the ascent of science and, as a result, humanity’s place in the universe changed dramatically. Science said that man was just one more animal, a great ape whose only gift was his ability to think of himself as the centre of the universe.
As such, it effectively erased the line between man and animal by knocking man from the perch where he held dominion over the animals. And that second fall of man led to the rise of animals.
That rise took some time, though as the modern philosophy of animal rights didn’t begin until 1973 when Peter Singer, now professor of philosophy at Princeton University and the doyen of the animal rights movement, published an essay entitled Animal Liberation in the New York Review of Books.
Prof. Singer recognized that with the loss of the soul in a secular society, there remains very little on which to peg a moral distinction between humans and animals. As such, he introduced “speciesism” – the differential treatment of beings based on their species – as an equivalent to the twin evils of racism and sexism.
Some philosophers have argued that speciesism is defensible because human beings possess attributes like rationality that other animals lack. That argument fails for two reasons.
First, certain members of our own species – infants and mentally disabled people – often possess lower levels of those attributes than do some members of other species, such as the great apes.
That’s not to say infants and the mentally disabled should be considered lesser than other human beings – though Prof. Singer has provoked outrage by flirting with that idea – but there remains no good reason to treat other animals as lesser than humans.
Second, even if all and only human beings possess such attributes, our possession of those attributes provides no justification for the mistreatment of animals.
To see what attributes do matter, I suggest we head back to the Enlightenment and to Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, who said the proper question to ask when considering the treatment of an animal is not “Can it think?” but “Can it feel?”
The only attribute we need to consider when developing anti–cruelty legislation is whether animals can suffer. Surely an ethical society would consider inflicting suffering on animals an intrinsic evil.
Fortunately, the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code are headed in that direction in that they criminalize causing an animal unnecessary pain. Unfortunately, with the Senate committee bickering about whether certain species can feel pain, all animals will have to wait yet again for the protection they’ve long deserved.
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