Thursday, April 25, 2019

Why I am not an animalist

Bullfight in Benavente
in honor of Philip I.

Attributed to the Flemish painter
Jacob van Laethem
I have written two previous posts in this blog (this one and this one) attacking animalism in its inflamed form, which occasionally makes its way into the media. These two posts have given rise to many comments in their Spanish version, as some of my readers identify themselves rather with the animalistic position than with mine. In this post I’ll try to explain some of the reasons why I think as I do.
First, as my readers know (for it’s the subject of the most read post in this blog, about 35,000 visits), I don’t consider man as just another animal (as some, but not all, animalists think, and they use this argument to deny that man can have more rights than other animals, or to assert that animals should have the same rights as we do).
I believe that human beings, by reason of being human beings, have intrinsic rights that no one should deny, such as the right to life and others included in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have those rights, not because they have been given us by this or any other public declaration, but (as I said) by the fact of being human. On the other hand, I believe that animals don’t have any intrinsic rights, they just have those rights that we decide to grant them.
That said, I must add that I am against causing harm to any living being without just cause. For that reason, I try to avoid stepping on ants running in front of my feet, although I don’t feel obsessed, as the Jain monks (followers of Mahavira) who, when they move, sweep the ground to remove possible animals walking there. For the same reason, I do not like bullfights and other public shows that cause harm to an animal.
The fundamental question, where I usually differ from strict animalists, is what is meant by just cause. Let us look at a couple of cases:
The carnivorous diet. Against the incontrovertible fact that all Primates are omnivores (that is, we eat both meat and vegetables), a strict animalist argues that we should all become vegetarians and abstain from meat, because it involves the death of animals. The reasons put forward are very varied. In the religions of India and some Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras, the fundamental reason is the belief in reincarnation: the souls of animals would actually be souls of reincarnated human beings, who should share our rights. For those of us who do not believe in reincarnation, this argument obviously has no weight.
John Maxwell Coetzee
Some of the arguments used by animalists are rather more sentimental than rational. Let us look at one of those used by Elizabeth Costello, the main character in Coetzee’s book (The Lives of Animals), which I mentioned in my previous post on this subject:
Is it possible, I ask myself, that all [these people] are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living-room, and they were to say, ‘Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.’ And then I go to the bathroom and the soap-wrapper says, ‘Treblinka —100% human stearate.’ Am I dreaming, I say to myself?
In other words, she accuses those who are not animalists of behaving like the Nazis with the Jews. This is the answer given by another character in the novel (the poet Abraham Stern):
You took over for your own purposes the familiar comparison between the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle. The Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle die like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words which I will not accept. You misunderstand the nature of likenesses... If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews. The inversion insults the memory of the dead. It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way.
And this is the answer given by Dean Arendt, in a debate with Elizabeth:
I am prepared to accept that dietary taboos... [are underlined by] genuine moral concerns. But at the same time one must say that our whole superstructure of concern and belief is a closed book to animals themselves. You can’t explain to a steer that its life is going to be spared, any more than you can explain to a bug that you are not going to step on it. In the lives of animals, things, good or bad, just happen. So vegetarianism is a very odd transaction, when you come to think of it, with the beneficiaries unaware that they are being benefited. And with no hope of ever becoming aware. Because they live in a vacuum of consciousness.”
Another widely used argument is that of animal abuse. We should not eat −they say− products of animal origin (milk, eggs, etc.), because in modern farms animals are very badly treated. It is the typical argument: to avoid abuse, every use should be forbidden. A procedure that proved ineffective in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933, during the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Even opiates, which are extremely dangerous for society, have medical uses that are not forbidden. To avoid abuses we must correct them, not forbid the correct use.
I could write a lot on this. I could talk about animal experiments in medical research, a field where many controls have been imposed to prevent abuse. But I leave it for another time.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Politics and Economy: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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