The Left is not progressive when it comes to non-humans
- Published: 16 January 2010
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The political Left may be principled when it comes to racism, sexism and other forms of oppression but when it comes to non-humans, they have a profound blindspot, writes Alex Melonas.
I recently had a conversation about Ethics and nonhuman animals with someone from a large Leftist organization. We had our disagreements, but oppression and equality emerged as fundamental moral concerns. These concerns are usually simplified under the heading, “violations of human rights.”
As a practical tool, anthropocentrism, or roughly the belief that humans are, or ought to be considered, the center of, and above any other aspect of, reality can be a useful idea.
Realizing human rights, for example, is an ideal. This concept is predicated on one essential characteristic: there is something special about being human. It is a universal claim, encompassing all members of our species.
By definition, then, if these rights are distributed unequally among different groups of humans, then this can be accounted for by mere prejudice. It is irrational to exclude women from the net of human rights because they have the one necessary and sufficient characteristic – women are human.
In this human-centric paradigm, however, some necessary exclusions follow, namely, nonhuman animals. Responses of the following kind are common in my discussions about animal rights: “Animals aren’t people; they don’t have rights.”
This means that rights are to be understood within the framework of human rights as described above. Therefore, nonhuman animals, definitionally, cannot have rights.
But here’s my question (and it should be yours, too): What are human rights? David Hume sought to “throw light upon ideas and render them precise.” Let’s render oppression and equality precise to expose the Left’s blind-spot on the animal rights issue.
Minority groups have recourse to human rights discourses because as we’ve seen there isn’t a justification for their exclusion from these moral and legal protections. Anti-oppression, equality (and “human dignity”), then, are disembodied, ethereal phrases that nicely fit into this schema.
Like anthropocentrism itself, these concepts don’t need to be connected to anything material or actual. They are conceptual tools used to establish the specialness of all humans regardless of other characteristics.
But let’s concretize anti-oppression and equality. I think the common thread is that ignoring or discounting someone’s interests for morally irrelevant reasons like race, or sex is wrong.
And when we talk about interests, in the moral sense, my interest in not being harmed (or conversely being happy) seems to be the fundamental issue.
- Our primary response to oppression must concern itself with the harm experienced by the oppressed. (The same is true with tyranny.)
- What would it look like to respect someone’s dignity if not, most importantly, treating them as an equal (moral) person – your interests are of equal moral worth to mine.
- Equality? Surely we are not naïve enough to believe that equality is meant in the literal sense. Whatever characteristic we appeal to – reason, intelligence, etc. – inequality within our own species is clear. Equality is intended as a moral concept. The equal moral worth of interests is a good candidate.
Consider slavery. What a clear example of oppression and inequality. Isn’t the primary wrong of this institution all the harm that occurs when humans are treated like property? That’s what we mean by oppression, the loss of dignity, and the like.
Erecting strong moral barriers against causing me pain for pleasure, or convenience, or tradition is the implication of Leftist discourses. Indeed, it is of paramount importance.
Now, animals, other than human, can be harmed emotionally and physically. That is a factual assertion, akin to the following statement: My three year old niece can suffer.
Human rights, then, which take anti-oppression and equality as governing prescriptions, does not seem to hold together (as the Left understands it) because the primary concern, or principle – that is, the badness of harm – extends beyond our species.
Since the Left must fundamentally be concerned with harm, nonhuman animals should necessarily be included, as a matter of principle, because they can be harmed.
In other words, the operative principle is not anthropocentrism. That is just a practical tool. When someone argues, “Don’t treat me like an animal,” it is a rhetorical device meaning treating me like an object, a thing, whose interests are of little to no moral concern is just plain wrong.
But the principle that the Lefts primary moral concern is predicated on – why it is “just plain wrong” – extends to nonhuman animals.
What I am suggesting, then, is that liberals cannot find a rational way to defend their prejudice (i.e., anthropocentrism) against nonhuman animals. And it is, make no mistake, a prejudice, like racism, like sexism. There isn’t a moral justification for refusing to extend the challenge to oppression and defense of equality to all animals.
How do we justify qualifying the principle as follows: Causing harm is horrible, accept to cows, pigs, chickens, fish, etc.? We cannot, because species membership is no more morally relevant than sex, or any other biological group distinction.
This is to say, the Left is not principled.
The argument for animal rights is perfectly rational because harm is harm and therefore oppression is oppression, but groups on the Left just cannot admit it.
Where, then, are the so-called intellectually honest liberals and progressives when billions of nonhuman animals are suffering and dying annually for such trivial reasons as “taste” or “because I’ve always done it”? Where are their principles?
Alex Melonas is a first-year Ph.D. student in political theory at Temple University. He occasionally writes about animal rights at That Vegan Girl.