Are Animal Rights and Human Rights in Tension?

Posted in: Human Rights

This past weekend, I participated in a conference at Bucknell University entitled “Perspectives on Animal Exploitation.” Michael Dorf published a blog post about the topic on which he and I presented. In the briefest terms, we talked about the non-identity problem and how it bears on a commitment to the abolition of animal exploitation through ethical veganism. It was during the conference’s opening presentation by Presidential Professor of Philosophy Gary Steiner that I thought of the question that I consider here: Does the progress of movements to recognize human rights hinder the goal of freeing nonhuman animals from human violence (or vice versa)? In other words, is there any tension between the rights of humans and the rights of animals, such that recognizing one might impede the other? I cannot definitively answer the question, which is at least in part empirical, but I will here examine why one might believe there is a tension and whether that belief stands up to critical analysis.

I. A Zero Sum Game

There are at least four ways in which human rights successes might appear to impede the progress of animal rights, and vice versa. One could suggest, as some critics of animal rights do, that these are competitive enterprises, that an hour spent promoting animal rights is an hour spent not promoting human rights.

On this theory, because time is scarce, an animal advocate is positively frustrating human rights by “wasting” energy pressing for the rights of nonhuman animals. And logically, the flip side of this claim would be that if one spends as much of one’s time as possible advocating for human rights, it necessarily follows that one will not be advocating for animal rights. It is all a zero sum game, on this theory, and if humans are to win, then animals must lose.

This first theory of tension between the two movements is flawed. Among other things, it fails to account for what animal advocacy means in today’s world, and it ignores the baselines according to which we generally judge “impediments” to various movements.

Animal rights advocacy need not take an enormous amount of time. We are now living in an era in which almost everyone around us is actively participating in animal exploitation virtually every day. Most people are consuming the flesh and bodily secretions of sentient beings, thereby creating demand for the suffering and slaughter that farmed animals endure on their way to becoming someone’s food.

Ethical vegans are therefore animal rights activists for consciously withdrawing support from the violent system in which animals such as layer hens, dairy cows, and broiler chickens, all named for how people exploit and hurt them, suffer and die at human hands. By the simple act of consuming fruits, vegetables, grains, greens, nuts, seeds, and the countless foods created by combining these ingredients, vegans protest animal cruelty. And vegans purchase shoes, wallets, pocketbooks, coats, and other items that are free from any animal’s skin, fleece, feathers, and fur, each a product of misery.

Ethical veganism is, after a brief initial startup, no more time-consuming than eating what I have come to call “slaughterhouse fruit.” I use this phrase because the animals involved in farming are all eventually slaughtered, long before their lifespans are complete. That includes the cows from whom milk is stolen, even as many believe, mistakenly, that nursing mother cows voluntarily surrender their infants’ breast milk to humans. Because we have so far to go in trying to protect animals’ rights to the most basic freedoms—from imprisonment, from torture, from murder—one can be an animal activist simply by opting out of the overwhelming majority’s system of abusing helpless, innocent, feeling beings for optional products.

All of the time that one would have had to advocate for human rights while consuming slaughterhouse fruit is consequently just as available to the person who conscientiously opts out of the slaughterhouse when consuming food, clothing, and other items. A human rights worker who chooses to eat the muscle tissue of tortured and slaughtered mammals, birds, and fishes, along with eggs and the breast milk of a cow or a goat is therefore making that choice not to help humans but because he prefers such food to the many non-violent alternatives.

One may, of course, wish to do more for animal rights than just live as an ethical vegan, by educating others about why it is a moral wrong to consume slaughterhouse fruit and why buying dairy and eggs supports violence and cruelty just as much as buying flesh does. But such a person cannot be said to hinder human rights, so long as she respects the rights of other humans of all the different groups that we comprise. If she votes and behaves accordingly and otherwise expresses human-rights-regarding sentiments, then one can no more accuse her of hindering the quest for human rights than one can accuse a massage therapist or a novelist of undermining human rights by not instead dedicating their time to the cause. Likewise, no animal rights activist would accuse a human rights worker of undermining animal rights by working for humans, so long as the human rights worker is also an ethical vegan.

II. Tension Between Objectives of Human and Animal Rights?

A second reason that one might suggest an inverse relationship between dedication, respectively, to human rights and to animal rights, is a bit different from the first. Rather than focusing on the relative time spent on the two issues, this claim amounts to a suggestion that animal rights as an objective is inconsistent with human rights. On this theory, believing that animals are entitled to be free of human violence is affirmatively harmful to humans who regularly endure violations of their rights. Let us consider that claim.

In some human communities, in the United States and around the world, people have little choice regarding what they will eat. They perhaps feel good about the occasional opportunity to eat beef or fish in a life that is otherwise difficult and lacking in joy and pleasure. One might assume that ethical vegans wish either to take away what such people are eating or to judge people, including indigenous populations, for eating the animal foods that may be part of their culture. In a sense, by granting animals rights, within this frame, ethical vegans seem to be trying to deny some humans their right to benefit from animal exploitation.

This argument calls for a few responses. First, as to the person who truly has no choice about what to eat and must consume animal products or else starve, I do not know any vegans who would either judge such people for eating the animal products or try to take away these products and starve the people. In circumstances of necessity, morality can become a luxury, and ethical vegans understand that at least as well as the rest of the population. Vegans direct their energy toward people who have plenty of options yet choose to support violence.

Second, for many of those who eat animal products, a switch to a plant-based diet would actually bring about a drastic improvement in their health, not starvation, and they would discover that plant-based food can be as delicious as the animal-based foods that everyone following the pack has been brainwashed into thinking they must have. Both heart disease and type 2 diabetes have abated in response to a whole foods, plant based diet. Moreover, no humans, including wealthy, white, male, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied humans, have a right to exploit animals, and opposition to that exploitation is not directed specifically at downtrodden populations. Furthermore, animal-based food is highly inefficient and wasteful because it takes so many calories of plant protein, which people could eat directly, to create one calorie of animal protein. Cultivating plant foods instead of slaughterhouse foods would allow many more hungry people on this planet to eat.

At the beginning of each year, I and my family participate with other Cornellians in packing meals for Feed My Starving Children. I feel good about this charity in no small part because the food it sends to starving children is plant-based, and the children far away who eat it can enjoy its flavor and texture, as they benefit from its nutritional value. It also costs pennies per meal to create. Vegan food need not be expensive.

As for indigenous peoples who use animals for food and clothing, the indigenous are actually in this respect like colonial peoples whose cultures embrace (perhaps different) animal foods. Like violence against women, which we can find in almost every culture, rich and poor, violence against animals is not unique to a particular group of people; it is everywhere. And wealthy countries are typically the most highly implicated.

Those who argue that people of all groups must stop participating in the injustice and violence that is animal exploitation do not seek to impose special burdens on particular groups. The wealthiest countries may consume the most animal products, because in other places, people regard meat as a “luxury” food. Whether a luxury or an everyday indulgence, though, when a cultural practice requires the infliction of physical and emotional misery followed by a terrifying death at human hands, that luxury or indulgence is unjust.

Recognizing that this is so and living in accordance with that recognition denies us nothing that we were ever entitled to have, just as protecting women from sexual violence by any man, including men who are oppressed themselves, deprives no man of a privilege that ever rightly belonged to him.

Eating Animal Products and Violating Human Rights

While on the subject of whether vegans would deny people their putative human right to consume slaughterhouse products, it is worth pausing to consider the human rights impact of consuming from the slaughterhouse, including by those who want to promote human rights. Slaughterhouses or “processing plants,” as they are euphemistically called, have long been horrible places to work where human rights abuses are common. Workers are often in no position to complain, moreover, because they may be undocumented or otherwise vulnerable. The racial and ethnic composition of the workplace is not representative of the population. And in some cases, slaughterhouses employ prisoners with little choice about whether to see and also be the victims of nearly everyone else’s food choices, existing in stench and squalor, their own mental and physical health be damned. Even ovo-lacto vegetarians contribute to this misery, because slaughter awaits dairy cattle and laying birds as well.

No discussion of the human rights abuses embedded in animal-based consumption would be complete without a mention of leather. Many use leather products without any consciousness of a tension between what they are doing and human rights abuses. Here is an article about the terrible impact of Western demand for leather on the health and safety of third-world people who work in the toxic tanneries, turning the skins of slaughtered beings into material ready to be made into wallets, shoes, and other such products. Consuming from the slaughterhouse inflicts violence on human and nonhuman alike. And there are excellent alternatives for everything.

III. Are Animal Rights Activists Indifferent to Human Rights?

There is a third reason that one might propose that animal rights and human rights are in tension. One might think that ethical vegans are indifferent to the injustices that so many humans endure every day. If this is the concern, it is worth noting that many ethical vegans (and all the vegans I know) are progressive on issues that go well beyond human violence against nonhuman animals. There are some vegans, to be sure, who never got the memo about male supremacy, and I would not deny that some vegans are clueless about racism, homophobia, ableism, and other matters of grave concern to proponents of human rights and to people more generally.

But the vegans I know support women’s rights, African Americans’ rights, Muslims’ rights, Latinos’ and Latinas’ rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ rights, poor people’s rights, disabled people’s rights, and the list goes on. To the extent that the Trump agenda more or less captures threats to the human rights of all of the groups mentioned above (and others that I may have omitted), I would be surprised if more than a small minority of vegans were Trump supporters.

Vegans, I suspect, are at least as likely as, and perhaps more likely than, non-vegans to both support and actively promote the rights of other humans. Humans are animals, after all, despite the frustratingly ubiquitous claims to the contrary. One accordingly cannot credibly promote the rights of nonhuman animals while violating the rights of human animals. And just as no one would accept the claim that “I cannot respect the rights of African Americans because I am fighting for the rights of LGBTQ Americans,” no one should be persuaded by the argument that “I get a pass on avoiding sexual violence against humans because I am fighting violence against animals.”

Supporting nonviolence and every sentient being’s freedom from exploitation encompasses both human and animal rights. The two are thus very linked to each other. I am accordingly especially disappointed when I encounter people who fight for human rights—specifically, rights not to be imprisoned, tortured, enslaved, or murdered—but have no interest in terminating their own complicity in the imprisonment, torture, enslavement, and murder of nonhuman animals. It is a complicity that we have seen implicates them in human rights abuses as well, at the slaughterhouse and at the tannery. That is a significant blind spot, not an inevitable tension between the two movements.

Unlike the right to go to school or to be hired for a job, there is no cognitive skill, no uniquely anthropoid capacity, that a human must have to “qualify” for the rights against imprisonment, torture, enslavement, and murder. A human need only be capable of experiencing the harm of these forms of violence to be entitled to be free of them, and no more should be required of the sentient beings we exploit every day for food and clothing that we could easily replace with nonviolent alternatives. The most basic fundamental rights that people grant to humans—misnamed as exclusively “human” rights—should extend as plainly to the nonhumans whose corpses collect, unmourned, at the slaughterhouse.

IV. The Prestige of Being Human

There is one additional, fourth, way in which one might expect the advance of human rights to hurt animals’ prospects, and it is this. As humans have fought for the rights that never should have been denied them, they have sometimes used phrases like “I am a human being” or “I am not an animal” in making their point. They have also spoken of having been “dehumanized,” with the implication that it is one’s membership in the human “race” that gives rise to obligations of nonviolence, respect, and decency.

Atrocities to humans somehow become innocuous when aimed instead at someone whose species is not homo sapiens. People appear to be deriving self-esteem from their species, a self-esteem that may rest for its potency on the degradation of those whose species is something other than human.

The “I am not an animal” trope is likely a product of the fact that dominant groups putting down other groups have used metaphors and similes connected to nonhuman animals as insults. Racists, misogynists, and bigots of all stripes have compared the despised humans to female dogs, cows, apes, monkeys, pigs, “vermin” (rats or mice), and other nonhuman animals. Emerging from persecution, it is accordingly understandable that groups marked by such comparisons to animals (premised on the assumption that animals are morally inferior to humans) would feel the need to assert their supremacy over the very same animals, as a means of declaring their equality to other people.

If “human” rights are to be identified in opposition to the presumed absence of rights for nonhumans, then part of fighting for human rights might seem like it has to include the persecution of nonhuman animals, an affirmation that “they” are beneath “us” and thus proper targets for our exploitation and slaughter. In that way, all of the humans gaining their rights might feel pride about being able to participate in the exclusion of nonhuman animals from the class of those who matter, imitating the exclusionary practices of their oppressors.

If this is going on, and based on my own observations, I believe it is, then that is very unfortunate and unnecessary. A right that rests on a wrong is not as stable as one that rests on a foundation of justice. If we support violence against animals on farms, tanneries, and elsewhere, then there is blood on our hands when we demand nonviolence for our human sisters and brothers. Far from being a distraction or a force for undermining human entitlements, the movement for animal rights embraces the fundamental truth that violence against the innocent is wrong and that every living sentient being is entitled to respect and empathy, no matter into which category we, the powerful, have forced her.

Understanding that humans, all humans, are animals, that the phrase “I am not an animal” is inherently false, no matter who utters it, is the beginning of our way out of the denial in which most of us currently dwell. We deny that we are flesh and blood animals, just like a cow or a pig or a fish, and we deny that our experience of pain is no greater for our celebrated big brain than theirs is. Only a bully needs to exclude others to feel like he counts, and champions of human rights must not be bullies. To become an ethical vegan is to renounce bullying in all its forms. Those who believe that humans must not inflict suffering unnecessarily know, at some level, that they have a moral obligation to become vegan. When they decide to conform their conduct to this obligation, moreover, they generally feel good about doing so, even and especially if they are committed to ensuring the protection of human rights. A commitment to human rights is perfectly consistent with an embrace of animal rights; indeed, one without the other turns out to be incoherent.