[Editor's note: Obama administration “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein hit turbulence during his 2009 confirmation hearings when critics charged that he was a “radical animal rights activist.” It emerged that Sunstein had supported banning hunting; that he had urged eliminating meat eating; and that he had even championed giving animals the right to sue. Sunstein’s views were decidedly out of the political mainstream, but they were typical of a movement that author Wesley Smith, a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute, analyzes in his new book, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement. Smith joined Front Page to discuss what animal right activists believe, why their agenda is anti-human, and why vegetarians are no more moral than meat eaters.]
FPM: Most people would say they support animal welfare and that they are in favor of the ethical treatment of animals. But you argue in your book that the animal rights movement has a broader – and more insidious – agenda. What do animal rights activists believe?
Smith: The problem is that the media uses the terms animal welfare and animal rights as if they were interchangeable. They are not. Animal rightists believe that humans have no more value than animals – they consider that “speciest” – and that humans do not have the right to profit even from the proper and humane use of animals. Animal rightists draw a moral equivalency between humans and animals. There is quote from PETA’s president and co-founder, Ingrid Newkirk, that captures it well. She said:
“Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals.”
That is why some animal rightists are opposed to the domestication of any animals at all. They believe with a furor – many of their beliefs are entirely emotional – that what gives something value is the ability to feel to pain and to suffer, and so they believe, for instance, that cattle ranching is as odious as slavery and that research on lab rats is an equivalent evil to Joseph Mengele’s experiments during the Holocaust.
FPM: You argue that animal rightists are essentially against Western civilization. Can you explain your reasoning?
Smith: The West is founded on a Judeo-Christian moral ethic, which holds that human welfare is central and that humans and animals are not of equal worth. The animal rights movement tears at the heart of that. It’s a movement that is not based on rationality; there is a very strong anti-human element. For animal rightists, being human is not special. They don’t believe in human exceptionalism. They see us as an evil species, as killers and the causers of suffering. The misanthrope is so thick you could cut it with a knife.
This actually quite odd. We are the only species that tries to mitigate the suffering of other animals. No other animals, not even dogs, have emotional empathy to the same extent that we do. A hyena in the wild is not going to have empathy if it encounters an injured animal. It’s going to eat it. Only the human species is actively trying to mitigate animal suffering.
One of the more dismaying things about the animal rights movement is that Western universities have provided a forum to its more extreme voices. In 2007, Hampshire College in Massachusetts permitted animal rights terrorists to speak. Their slogan was “Smash the State, Crush the Cage!” Universities allow these radicals to appear on campus, and yet they prevent people like David Horowitz from speaking.
FPM: In your book, you defend using animals to promote human welfare, for instance through animal testing. Can you give us an overview of that argument?
Smith: Human beings derive incredible benefits from proper and humane testing on animals. One critic of my book, Matthew Scully, has claimed that I support experiments in which chimpanzees have their arms broken, but that is erroneous: There is no such case discussed in my book. On the other hand, medical research would grind to a halt without animal testing. There would be no way to test new drugs. Ultimately there is no way to go around animal testing – unless you were willing to use human test subjects. Animal testing makes life-saving research possible.
Let me give you an example. There is a class of anti-AIDS drugs called protein inhibitors that are used to stifle infections. In the first iteration of these drugs, the researchers tested them on animals, and they ended up destroying their livers. So the researchers went back to the drawing board and came up with a new, safer, and more effective drug that has yielded great benefit to humans. But imagine if the animal rightists had their way and the drug could not have been tested on animals. Let’s say that they had tested it on humans, and found that the drug causes liver damage. At that point, there would be a huge scandal, lawsuits, and the research would be suspended. That means that thousands of people would have been dead because there would not have been no new and improved drug for them to take.
And animal rightists would go further than abolishing animal testing. Gary Francione of Rutgers University has called for human society to get rid of all domesticated animals within a single generation. Francione has said that dogs are “refugees in a world in which they don’t belong.” Think of a society that has no meat, no seeing-eye dogs, no pets of any kind. It’s impossible to quantify the consequences to our society if all animals were suddenly off limits. But that’s the goal of the animal rights movement.
FPM: I was intrigued by your observation that the recent tragedy in Orlando, Fla., where a killer whale drowned his female trainer, serves as a refutation of the animal rights movement, at least in so far as it illustrates the moral distinctions between humans and animals that they deny. How exactly did that illustrate the point?
Smith: This was a terrible tragedy, but what the whale did was not wrong in the moral sense: no one called for the whale to be arrested, tried, or punished. It was accepted that a killer whale was just being a killer whale. If I had done that to a woman, that would be murder. But animals don’t have moral agency and so we don’t call for them to be held to account in a way that humans can – and should – be held to account. This is a crucial distinction between humans and animals. We have moral capacities, the ability to reason, etc., that make us unique. That is part of human exceptionalism.
FPM: Although your book is primarily critical of the animal rights movement for it’s too-extreme definition of animal welfare, you’ve also been critical of those on the other extreme who suggest too narrow a view of animal rights. As you’ve noted, some have defended using animals as property; one writer, though not approving of his treatment of dogs, nonetheless defended Michael Vick’s right to treat them as his property. The majority of us would instinctively recoil at that argument, but can you explain why it is wrong?
Smith: The philosopher Descartes said that animals were automatons, and so it didn’t matter what we did to them. But today we understand that animals have feelings: they feel pain and they can experience fear. They are not inanimate objects, like a book that you can tear, trample on and burn. And they are not plants, which don’t experience emotional pain. Because we understand that animals feel pain, we are morally bound by a duty to animals to treat them properly, and not to cause them gratuitous suffering. This is our moral duty as humans. When Vick abused and tortured his dogs, he denigrated his own humanity.
It is because we have moral agency that we should seek ways to reduce the suffering of animals, whether it is cattle or pigs raised on factory farms. In my book, I have a chapter on Dr. Temple Grandin. Grandin is autistic, so she sees the world visually, like an animal would, as opposed to intellectually. And because she understood how animals see the world, she was able to design improved methods for slaughter that reduce animal suffering. The greater our ability to reduce animal suffering the more we should pursue it.
FPM: Are there any particular practices or treatments of animals in use today that you find especially objectionable?
Smith: Bull fights. They are remnants of a Roman, coliseum-like culture. It’s deeply distressing for the animal. You have a bull being baited, tortured, taunted and stabbed, until it tires long enough for the matador to run a sword through its heart. Someone may then eat the meat. There should always be some consideration of the benefit to humanity versus the suffering caused to the animal. I think bull fights would fail that test.
I would also oppose things like internet hunting, where you have people killing animals with remote controlled guns using webcams. This is killing for the sake of killing. But I am not opposed to hunting for food, and not even necessarily to hunting for sport. In Africa, sport hunting supports their ability to cull animal herds and maintain wildlife parks.
FPM: Finally, I would be curious to get your view on the vegetarian question. Are vegetarians inherently more moral than meat eaters?
Smith: Not at all. Humans are biologically omnivorous, and meat is a natural, nutritious food source. I respect those who don’t eat meat for ethical reasons, who refuse to eat anything with a face. But I see it as akin to monasticism. A monk is not more moral than a married couple that has normal sexual relations. The fact that some people choose not to eat meat doesn’t make those who do any less moral.
FPM: Wesley Smith, thanks very much for your time.