Animal Rights and the New Enlightenment
Five million years ago, our ancestors branched off from ancient apes; within the next two million years, hominid lines of evolution underwent tremendous changes in the transition to evolve into a species that was not only bipedal, but also big-brained and in command of language and technology.
In the last hundred thousand years, human beings changed very little in their biology, but they evolved rapidly in their social and technological capacities. Unfortunately, our technological evolution has greatly outdistanced our moral evolution. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “We live in a world where misguided men use guided missiles.”
Human beings have made moral progress, but slowly. In Western culture, it took over two thousand years to dismantle the ignorance, prejudice, and biases informing the myths that legitimated inequality, hierarchy, and inferiority as rooted somehow in human nature or the natural scheme of things.
Western society has made rapid moral progress since the 1960s. The student, black, brown, feminist, and gay and lesbian movements advanced the universalization of rights process, overcame major barriers of prejudice, and deepened human freedom.
During this turbulent period of social strife, riots, mass demonstrations against the U.S. war in Vietnam, and worsening problems with poverty, homelessness, and class inequality, Martin Luther King formulated a vision of a “world house.” In this cosmopolitan utopia, all peoples around the globe would live in peace and harmony, with both their spiritual and material needs met by the fecundity of the modern world.
But to whatever degree this dream might be realized, King’s world house is still a damn slaughterhouse, because humanism doesn’t challenge the needless confinement, torture, and killing of billions of animals. The humanist non-violent utopia will always remain a hypocritical lie until so-called “enlightened” and “progressive” human beings extend nonviolence, equality, and rights to the animals with whom we share this planet.
The next logical step in human moral evolution is to embrace animal rights and accept its profound implications. Animal rights builds on the most progressive ethical and political advances human beings have made in the last two hundred years. Simply put, the argument for animal rights states that if humans have rights, animals have rights for the same reasons. Moral significance lies not in our differences as species but rather our commonalities as subjects of a life.
This is the challenge of animal rights: can human beings become truly enlightened and overcome one of the last remaining prejudices enshrined in democratic legal systems? Can they reorganize their economic systems, retool their technologies, and transform their cultural traditions? Above all, can they construct new sensibilities, values, worldviews, and identities?
The animal rights movement poses a fundamental evolutionary challenge to human beings in the midst of severe crises in the social and natural worlds. Can we recognize that the animal question is central to the human question? Can we grasp how the exploitation of animals is implicated in every aspect of the crisis in our relation to one another and the natural world?
Animal rights is an assault on human species identity. It smashes the compass of speciesism and calls into question the cosmological maps whereby humans define their place in the world. Animal rights demands that human beings give up their sense of superiority over other animals. It challenges people to realize that power demands responsibility, that might is not right, and that an enlarged neocortex is no excuse to rape and plunder the natural world.
These profound changes in worldview demand revolutionizing one’s daily life and recognizing just how personal the political is. I teach many radical philosophies, but only animal rights has the power to upset and transform daily rituals and social relations. “Radical” philosophies such as anarchism or Marxism uncritically reproduce speciesism. After the Marxist seminar, students can talk at the dinner table about revolution while dining on the bodies of murdered farmed animals. After the animal rights seminar, they often find themselves staring at their plates, questioning their most basic behaviors, and feeling alienated from their carping friends and family. The message rings true and stirs the soul.
Let’s be clear: we are fighting for a revolution, not for reforms, for the end of slavery, not for humane slavemasters. Animal rights advances the most radical idea to ever land on human ears: animals are not food, clothing, resources, or objects of entertainment.
Our goal is nothing less than to change entrenched attitudes, sedimented practices, and powerful institutions that profit from animal exploitation. Indeed, the state has demonized us as “eco-terrorists” and is criminalizing our fight for what is right.
Our task is especially difficult because we must transcend the comfortable boundaries of humanism and urge a qualitative leap in moral consideration. We are insisting that people not only change their views of one another within the species they share, but rather realize that species boundaries are as arbitrary as those of race and sex. Our task is to provoke humanity to move the moral bar from reason and language to sentience and subjectivity.
We must not only educate, we must become a social movement. The challenge of animal rights also is our challenge, for animal rights must not only be an idea but a social movement for the liberation of the world’s most oppressed beings, both in terms of numbers and in the severity of their pain. As with all revolutions, animals will not gain rights because oppressors suddenly see the light, but rather because enough people become enlightened and learn how rock the structures of power, to shake them until new social arrangements emerge.
Are we asking for too much? Justice requires only what is right, and is never excessive. Is the revolution remotely possible? In a thousand ways, the revolution is gaining ground. From the near nation-wide ban on cockfighting to making animal abuse a felony crime in 37 states, from eliminating the use of animals to train doctors in two thirds of U.S. medical schools to teaching animal rights and the law seminars at over two dozen universities, from increasing media coverage of animal welfare/rights issues to a 2003 Gallup Poll finding that 96% of Americans say that animals deserve some protection from abuse and 25% say that animals deserve “the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation” it is clear that human beings are beginning to change their views about other species.
Human beings simply will have to reinvent their identities and find ways to define humanity and culture apart from cruelty. Whether people realize it or not, this is not a burden but a liberation. One no longer has to live the lie of separation and the opening of the heart can bring a profound healing.
Animal rights is the next stage in the development of the highest values modern humanity has devised – those of equality, democracy, and rights. Our distorted conceptions of ourselves as demigods who command the planet must be replaced with the far more humble and holistic notion that we belong to and are dependent upon vast networks of living relationships. Dominionist and speciesist identities are steering us down the path of disaster. If humanity and the living world as a whole is to have a future, human beings must embrace a universal ethics that respects all life.
Growth is difficult and painful,and the human species is morally immature and psychologically crippled. Human beings need to learn that they are citizens in the biocommunity, and not conquerors; as citizens, they have distinct responsibilities to the entire biocommunity.
The meaning of Enlightenment is changing. In the eighteenth century it meant overcoming religious dogma and tyranny; in the late twentieth century, it demanded overcoming racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices; now, in the twenty-first century, it requires overcoming speciesism and embracing a universal ethics that honors all life.
We can change; we must. The message of nature is evolve or die.