Believing as I do in the priority of the human species among all other animal species probably makes me, ironically, a dinosaur. Happily, I’m not alone. Attorney, author, and activist Wesley J. Smith is also a proud speciesist. His latest book, A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, is not only a carefully documented analysis of a movement, it is a tacit defense of human exceptionalism.
It was Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, the father of the contemporary animal rights movement, who coined the term “speciesism” in his mid-1970s manifesto, Animal Liberation. Like the labels “racist” and “chauvinist,” a speciesist is a person who discriminates against another class of persons. In this case, someone who discriminates against animals by not giving them the same rights as people. I confess, I’m a speciesist then.
As Smith chronicles, the mission of the animal rights movement is to eradicate the notion of human exceptionalism. As Ingrid Newkirk, president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in Washingtonian magazine: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all mammals.” What Ms. Newkirk meant by that, however, is entirely different from what most of us understand about our common mammalian identity. Newkirk later told a New Yorker reporter that “the world would be better without humans in it.” Using the language of the early abolitionists, some in the movement even argue that we should “liberate” all the animals from zoos, stop using dogs as guides for the blind, and give animals “equal consideration” as people.
Smith’s carefully researched, accessibly written, and copiously footnoted volume shows the toll the animal rights moment has taken on humanity. Far from peace, love, and understanding, the animal rights movement not only propagates human self-loathing, but often promotes violence against humans, incongruously, for the sake of loving animals. For instance, one popular animal liberation instruction manual is called, A Declaration of War: Killing People to Save the Animals and the Environment.
To be fair, most animal rights activists are not violent, but many have drunk the PETA cool-aid and find being human a liability rather than a gift. Although decent people clearly differ on whether or not we should use animals for food or for research purposes, almost no one thinks we should treat animals inhumanely. And where true violations of animal welfare occur, authorities are usually quick to prosecute.
Why, then, has the animal rights movement gained so much momentum in the United States and Europe? Largely because of the erosion of the West’s belief in “intrinsic human dignity,” says Smith. Where humans are devalued, animals are supervalued.
In a New Republic essay, “The Stupidity of Human Dignity,” atheist scientist Stephen Pinker argued that appeals to human dignity are really a way to sneak in new religious values. So I say, let’s not sneak anything in, let’s be quite candid. At the end of the day, human dignity is grounded in the Judeo-Christian affirmation that every human being is made in the image of God, the imago Dei. One doesn’t have to be a Jew or a Christian to believe that that’s the case, but we should be honest that the notion owes its origins to the revelation of God, not to the canons of science.
And what has that legacy bequeathed to us? It would take more space than we have here even to begin to outline that inheritance, but suffice it to say that belief in human exceptionalism has been the bedrock of human medicine, democracy, international human rights, religious liberty, the rise of hospitals, abolition, civil rights, and a host of institutions we take as evidence of a civilized society.
A society devoid of the concept of human exceptionalism is too ghastly to imagine. It would be a world like that of Hobbes’ Leviathan, red in tooth and claw. For while humans may contemplate animals rights, animals do not consider human rights at all. Which world is more conducive to human flourishing? The one where human exceptionalism is protected or the one where animals are given human rights? The one where human slavery is evil and keeping Koala bears and sheep in comfortable habitats is not? The one where the sanctity of the great apes is respected and humans—especially the unborn, disabled, and elderly—are loathed and killed?
–C. Ben Mitchell (Union University) for BibleMesh