Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Is animal rights left?

The prestigious Nuffield Council on Bioethics has just issued their lengthy (downloadable) report, The Ethics of Research involving Animals. The report shows considerable familiarity with the philosophical debate of recent years concerning the moral status of animals, and is indicative of the way that the issue of the treatment of animals is becoming increasingly public.

A couple of years ago Matthew Scully published Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. The book is both passionate and dispassionate: an unflinching look at the ways humans exploit, torment, and kill non-human creatures for profit and for sport, and a call for an end to the abuse. Dominion has sold very well, and has made its author a leading voice in defence of the interests of animals. What may surprise some is that Matthew Scully is no left-wing, anti-establishment outsider, but a bona fide political conservative, in fact a former senior speechwriter for President George Dubya. Where, then, does that leave the animal-rights movement on the political spectrum? There is no simple answer. Different advocates of animal interests come from different philosophical and political positions. Scully, for example, is sharply, and I think unfairly, critical of the politically left-wing philosopher Peter Singer, whose book Animal Liberation was a trigger for the movement. (It should be noted that, while all those in the animal-rights movement desire radically better legal protection for animals, not all believe that the concept of moral rights is the best philosophical ground for the movement. Singer himself, as a utilitarian, does not advocate moral rights for either animals or humans.) Scully's compassionate conservatism has an affinity with the writings of animal-rights theologian Andrew Linzey, who emphasizes the human obligation to care for God's creatures. Meanwhile, many on the left see little connection between animal rights and progressive politics. The grizzly-bear hunt in B.C. is a case in point: not only did the NDP, during the recent election campaign, refuse to commit itself to reinstating the moratorium implemented by the old NDP government, but the issue, according to current leader Carole James, was one of sustainability, to be determined by science. There was no talk by her or the party of bears' having an intrinsic value as sentient individuals that would make it just plain wrong to hunt them.

But one thing can be said with confidence: animal rights/liberation is a radical movement, fundamentally at odds with society's dominant belief in human beings' right to exploit non-humans as simply resources. As such, it runs directly counter to the inherent tendency of capitalism to regard all elements of the natural and social world as material exploitable for profit. If it is compatible with compassionate conservatism, this must be a subversive form of conservatism, one ultimately at odds with an unfettered free market, and one that could make common cause with the left on many issues.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Surprise, surprise

Eight months before the invasion of Iraq, British PM Tony Blair and top members of his government met to review information from Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI-6, who had just returned from Washington. The so-called Downing Street Memo, secret until it was leaked during the recent UK election campaign, provides damning evidence that President Bush had already made up his mind to invade Iraq by the summer of 2002, in the absence of any evidence that Iraq was a threat to the US or even to its neighbours. Response in the US media to the revelation has been slow to build, but several score members of Congress have now called on Bush to explain the memo, whose accuracy has not been challenged.

The West is not conservative

A funny thing happened on the way to Gordon Campbell's second majority government in British Columbia. Not only did the NDP get 41% of the vote--a higher percentage than it got when it formed a majority government in 1996--but the combined NDP and Green vote topped 50%. That's an impressive total for what are generally considered to be the third and fourth parties in English Canada. Together with the popular-vote results in the western provinces from the 2004 federal election, it represents a striking repudiation of the idea that the West is painted conservative blue. Alberta is the odd man out, not the standard-bearer for the West. Admittedly, the NDP under Carole James is hardly a party of flaming Bolsheviks; the party's campaign was noticeable for its excruciating avoidance of taking any stand that might be controversial. The big word for James was "balanced", whatever that meant. (Perhaps if elected, the NDP intended to do some good things and then balance them off by doing some bad things?) The Greens under Adriane Carr ran on a much less wishy-washy progressive platform, but, thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system, failed once again to elect any members. The vote-split on the left kept the door open for Campbell's return. As the federal Tories are discovering, it's not good enough simply to run against the ruling party; you have to be for something positive as well. Now that they've returned from their near-death experience, it's time for the NDP to become a little less balanced. A good start would be reaching out to build bridges to the Greens.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Jeffrey Simpson misses the point

The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson, who often writes good sense, misses the point in his column today on electoral reform. He notes, probably correctly, that most of the 57% of voters who favoured STV in British Columbia's referendum were voting for change rather than from any great love or understanding of STV. He then goes on to suggest that the movement for electoral reform that is sweeping the country--P.E.I, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario are up next--is essentially a misconceived attempt to check executive authority: misconceived because minority and coalition governments are less effective than majority ones, and majority governments are the "virtue" of the current "first-past-the-post" system. Majority governments, says Simpson, "can get things done, even in the face of public opposition." If we must have PR, he says, let it be of the MMP (mixed-member, proportional) type, which is on the table in P.E.I and New Brunswick. MMP is likely to do less harm than STV or some other form of PR.

Simpson doesn't have much use for the claim that just about any reform would be for the better. I think he's wrong on that score. Just about any change would indeed be for the better, and that alone was reason enough for British Columbians to endorse STV, whether or not they understood the intricacies of vote-counting under the system. (By contrast, casting a vote under STV is easy as 1, 2, 3 and something that a six-year-old could understand.) In arguing, as many opponents of PR do, that--heaven forbid--we may wind up with more minority or coalition governments, Simpson forgets that this is supposed to be a democracy. If you want a government that "can get things done, even in the face of public opposition", let's have a one-party state, or something approaching that. Let's call in the Chinese government to reform our system. We'd wind up with strong government and, in all likelihood, strong economic growth. On the other hand, most proponents of PR object to the present system for the prime reason that it's hideously unfair--read, undemocratic. If no one party can command a majority, so be it: the people have spoken. MMP has much to recommend it, but not because it does "the least harm". It's the present system that does the harm; just about any conceivable form of PR would be a good.