America has no law prohibiting the killing of dogs for food, probably because most Americans do not regard dogs as food. But dogs are regularly consumed in parts of China, Korea and the Philippines. Likewise few Americans regard horses as food. But many people in countries like France, Belgium and Japan eat horses. Export of American horse flesh to these foreign markets, and the killing of some 90,000 horses in the U.S. every year, was prohibited in 2007 under the Horse Slaughter Protection Act. On the surface this meant that the horse has won the right in America not to be treated as a consumable commodity. But should not all animals be accorded this right? Those who have bonded with companion pigs, sheep, goats, calves, cows, oxen, rabbits, chickens, ducks and geese, and even pet fish, that are slaughtered by the billion, might well call for a similar right for their own favored species.
But in spite of the best intentions of this Act, the consequences were horrendous for the horses, thousands being transported across the border to be slaughtered and processed in Mexico.
Clearly the rights of animals, beyond our duty of humane care and consideration, mandated under Federal and State animal protection and anti-cruelty laws, are arbitrarily determined as much by human sentimentality, custom and religious tradition (with beef for high caste Hindus, and pork for Muslims and Jews, being taboo), as by the profit motive. Animal rights advocates today challenge the logic and ethics of not according animals equal rights, animals used as companions having infinitely more rights than animals used as commodities. This call for equal rights means that all domesticated and captive wild animals should be kept under conditions appropriate to their natures, conducive to their physical health and mental well being because their basic physiological and psychological needs are provided for. The ethics of responsible care amount to a humane covenant between the human and the non-human that becomes the duty of all who benefit from animals in various ways to honor at all times.
Those who profit financially from exploiting animals as commodities dismiss animal rights as a vegetarian conspiracy, which it is not. Many echo the belief of veterinarian Dr. B. Taylor Bennet, associate Vice Chancellor for Research Resources, University of Illinois, Chicago, Ill., that “animals have neither legal nor moral rights because they cannot make a claim or be held responsible for their actions,” which is absurd because neither can human infants, nor brain damaged adults, yet they have rights.
The main political opposition to equal treatment and rights for all animals comes from the commercial sector of those animal industries that see any change in the status quo as an economic threat.
The social, economic, and legal ramifications of a growing public acceptance of animals having rights, puts all those with vested interests in exploiting animals for
various purposes at odds with a rising consensus that is now questioning the belief that non-human beings can be used as a means to satisfy exclusively human ends, rather than being an end in themselves with rights and entitlements.
Because more and more Americans care about the fate of all institutionally exploited animals, those who continue to profit by them will be under increasing scrutiny. This rising sentiment is perceived as such a threat to the status quo that the Bush administration has included under its National Homeland Security Act, provision for the immediate arrest and incarceration of any animal or environmental rights activist as a terrorist if caught interfering with any business activity that contributes to the good of the economy, like killing pigs and felling forests, and thus to national security.
This kind of conflict is not new. There was a similar conflict, not completely resolved world-wide today, over the exploitation of humans as slaves and chattel, and as a means to satisfy the ends of those in power. The denial of personhood, of rights, of citizenship, goes back to the times of the Roman Empire, where wives, children and slaves were non-persons, and had no rights. Western attitudes toward animals are profoundly influenced by the world view of the Roman imperialists that influenced early Greek philosophy and the rising Catholic Christian Empire; namely animals were created for mans’ use. But utilitarianism is a slippery slope that can lead to the justification of animal cruelty and suffering, and similar treatment of human beings ‘for the greater good’.
The denial of basic rights persists in the criminalization of often innocent persons under the totalitarian utilitarianism of modern day China, some 2,00-10,000 of whom are executed every year, and who are now, according to BBC News (Oct 5th, 2006) the basis for a lucrative organ donor industry. Similarly in India, the personhood of members of the lowest caste, long regarded as sub-human, continues to be denied. These people, the dalits or untouchables, the late Mahatma Gandhi called the Harajans or ‘children of god’, yet opposed the British colonial initiative to abolish the caste system that treated the dalits as non-persons on the grounds that it would destroy Hinduism. The greater good would therefore be sacrificed in the abolition of the caste system.
Gandhi and his cohorts were as fearful of the economic demise of their motherland if the caste system were to be replaced by an egalitarian and fully functional democracy throughout India’s 60 million impoverished villages, as were the Greek, Roman, and subsequent American, European, and other slave-owners of the past few centuries. Yet as history informs, the abolition of slavery, and of South
Africa’s apartheid did not result in economic ruin. On the contrary, human progress in ethics means progress in the development of civilization and for the founding of a just, egalitarian society. To regard some people as non-persons, or as being sub-human, is becoming something of the past as the sanctity and dignity of personhood is extended to all people.
The issue of racism raises a parallel concern that has been termed specieism, where, for reasons such as custom or sentimentality, some animals are treated preferentially over others of the same or different species, and yet in essence are similar in terms of their sentience and capacity to suffer. Under the democratic spirit of a rising civil society world wide, the divisiveness and injustices of racism, tribalism, caste/class-ism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are being more effectively addressed and eradicated. Our chauvinistic attitude toward other animals, aptly termed speciesism, will eventually become a thing of the past as we give equal and fair consideration to all species and individuals, human and non-human alike. One reason to do so is actually economic, because a healthy society depends upon a healthy animal population, as it does upon a healthy environment.
In conclusion, animal rights is now on the social agenda of civil society, and all who care more about the quality of life of fellow creatures than for their value as a means to exclusively human ends are the harbingers of what I see as a Golden Age to come, where the Golden Rule —of treating all living beings as we would have them treat us—usurps the rule of gold.