Although it’s rarely stated so bluntly, many critics of the animal rights movement, and animal rights in general, view it as a form of wishy-washy sentimentalism; after all, with all the problems in the world – war, poverty, AIDS – doesn’t caring about pigs and cows and furry little creatures seem somewhat trivial? Unfortunately, the animal rights movement has often fed into this mindset with its focus on “charismatic fauna” (i.e., panda bears, dolphins, and baby seals).The enlisting of Hollywood celebrities hasn’t always helped the cause either. But animal rights is not trivial, or superfluous, even in the face of the immense human problems that plague us.
Animal rights begins with the basic premise that sentience and a sense of identity are the key factors which determine a being’s right to be free from pain and suffering. It is because humans have (an overall) greater capacity for these attributes that harming a human is worse than harming a spider; it is not simply because humans are better or somehow morally superior. Based on the criteria of sentience and identity, it is a scientific fact that there are some animals whose capacity for feeling is not far removed from a human’s capacity. For example, primates have extremely advanced nervous systems and can experience loneliness and loss. While millions of Americans take care of their dogs as if they were members of their family, pigs are actually smarter creatures.
There is no question that if one had to choose between ending the suffering for the people of Darfur, Sudan or saving the lives of an equivalent number of cows, the humans would win hands down. The same can be said for many similar comparisons. The problem with this logic is that it only looks at the benefits side, and not the costs. Obviously, if we had to choose between benefits, we would choose to relieve human suffering over animal suffering virtually 100% of the time. But this misses the key point: it is much easier to relieve animal suffering than human suffering, and it is not a zero-sum game; helping relieve animal suffering does not diminish our capacity to relieve our fellow humans (except perhaps in the realm of medical testing, which is a complicated issue that I will address in a later piece.)
Let’s take a couple of examples. The conflict in Sudan is genocide and stopping it should be a top priority. But how can individuals influence policy regarding Sudan? We can call our Congressman, write letters, and donate to human rights groups, but the chance of any individual influencing government policy regarding Sudan is miniscule. Or consider AIDs. While all of us can do similar things, the scope of the problem requires massive government coordination and funding, along with medical advances; the ability of individual citizens to relieve the suffering from this disease is relatively small.
Regarding animal suffering, however, the required actions (costs) are minor and have profound direct effects; the benefits-to-costs ratio is large and automatic. If people stop eating animal products, and stop buying leather clothes or fur, many animals will be saved from immense suffering and cruelty. In fact, there are no easier acts one can do that have as great an immediate impact on the level of suffering in the world. (In addition to fewer animals being mistreated and killed, the production of animals and fish for food is probably the single most environmentally damaging and ecologically wasteful activity in the world). It is precisely because what we have to give up is so trivial in comparison that the case for animal rights is so strong. Even though many people are accustomed to the taste of animals, it is a relatively easy thing to wean oneself of, especially in a society where vegetarian options continue to multiply. This can be done gradually over a period of months or years, or even simply with the movement towards vegetarianism without ever completely foregoing meat consumption. On the clothing side, fake leather and fur products last longer, are the same price or cheaper, and no one can tell the difference anymore so there’s simply no reason to go on wearing animals. (Here are links to a few places to buy them: here, here, and here.)
In summary, while human suffering is the worst kind, it is also the most difficult to prevent. Animal suffering, on the other hand, is largely due to consumer customs and habits that are amazingly easy to change. This is why the case for animal rights is so compelling. It is not a product of excessive sentimentality, but a rational response to a world in which we are learning that animals enjoy a much greater degree of sentience than we once believed, and their ability to live a life free of suffering is easier than ever to achieve; it’s as simple as what you buy at the store. I might even say that adjusting one’s behaviors in respect of animal rights should be the first step in promoting a “culture of life.”
P.S. Here’s an example of the dark side of animal right’s activism, which unfortunately, tarnishes the entire movement.