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.

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