Animal Rights versus “End Cruelty”

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

Thoughts inspired by “Foul-Mouthed Veganism,” an essay by Roger Yates, published by All-Creatures.org in May.

“All I hear now are foul-mouthed vegans using the dread c-word. Cruelty this, cruelty that, cruelty the other. I’m heartily sick of the damn word! This welfarist language is now largely dominant in the vegan movement.” – Roger Yates

Harry Bliss comic. Hen says to other hens: Best I can figure, 'free range' just means the stove they cook us on.

Roger Yates makes good points, as when he says: “The dominant view about eating other animals, for example, is that, while consuming them is not a moral issue, being cruel to them is.”

This statement sums up his argument and the dire situation very well.

I totally support the philosophy of Animal Rights, morally and legally. To me “rights” means that others have moral claims on us, based on their nature and evolution as sentient beings. As Matthew Scully writes in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy , on p. 310, “the moral claims of other creatures are facts about those creatures, regardless of when or where or whether it pleases us to recognize them.” Yet a problem with the idea of “rights,” for those who question it, is a lack of foundation in the natural world. Western societies since the 18th-century Enlightenment have maintained that we as individuals have “rights,” but on what foundation do these human “rights” stand?

Belief in human “rights” appears to rest on the bare fact that we are human. It is not about sentience, but about the fact that we are we, and suppose ourselves superior to all else. This is an arbitrary conceit since Nature does not regard humans as having “rights” any more that it regards lizards and chickens as having them. We simply define ourselves as beings with “rights,” although not all societies subscribe to the idea of individual “rights” for ordinary citizens.

Regarding nonhuman animals, I think it will be almost impossible to persuade most people that other species have a “right” not to be exploited by us. Some people point to Nature, where prey animals do not have the “right” to be spared being hunted and eaten by predators. I think it most likely that the only argument that could possibly resonate with most people is that once we have inexpensive, comparable, readily accessible substitutes for animal products and exploitation, we no longer have an excuse to use animals.

Matthew Scully in Dominion writes that “When we call something a ‘necessary evil,’ something requiring the suffering or death of a fellow creature, the evil is real and it had better be necessary” (p, 310). Once we no longer “need,” and understand that we do not need, to use animals for our benefit, but choose to harm them anyway, “necessary” evil becomes just Evil.

That said, I do not agree that the call for mercy and compassion and ending cruelty are wrong, whatsoever. It is when, as Yates indicates, “ending cruelty,” “showing mercy” and the like are preferred as a substitute for according respect to other animals in the form of enforceable legal rights, that the rhetoric of “cruelty” and “mercy” can sound hollow. This rhetoric, devoid of a commitment to animal rights, is very patronizing toward our animal victims. At the same time, legal rights for animals that do not include genuine empathy for them can be easily set aside.

Finally I want to say that mercy, as a feeling, an attitude, and a principle is in my view indispensable to an ethical human life. What is worse than a merciless person, a person with no mercy? If the quality of mercy were honestly valued and practiced, then we might not need to codify our Rights. But since this is not the case, the argument made by some, for example, that an Ethic of Care rather than Animal Rights should be the preferred philosophy toward nonhuman animals, is deficient. How many of us are ready to surrender our legal rights for reliance solely on human kindness and care? Although our legally guaranteed rights can be violated or turned into something destructive, we need legal rights to protect ourselves against the whims and prejudices of those from whom “care” cannot be depended upon.

I certainly do not want to be at the mercy of “care” without a backup of legal rights. The evidence for the need for legal backup is shown by how badly our species treats nonhuman animals, and how humans with power mistreat vulnerable people when they can get away with it. There is no reason for the issue to be Rights versus Care/Mercy/Compassion. All are needed and are compatible, not opposed to one another. But a legal mandate is more reliable than a person’s fluid emotions, and a legal mandate, if it cannot prevent prejudice (an attitude), can prevent discrimination (a behavior). In addition, once an ethical idea is encoded into law, it can alter both attitude and behavior. – Karen Davis