By Eduardo Lamazon*
Life for most animals can hardly be described as such. That is, it early on ceases to be life in the greater sense of the term, quickly devolving into an intense pain that serves as punishment for going along with a human coexistence that is entirely out of their control.
These ‘non-human animals,’ as propriety should coerce us into calling them, are marvelous creatures whose tendency towards both aesthetic and mechanical perfection is commonplace, yet whose defenses against our species’ incorrigibly vitriolic means of predation sadly do not follow suit.
There are those who posit reason as the singular quality of distinction between humans and animals. However, for those so quick to call upon the comparatively larger frontal lobes we possess, the counter response should both flatter and offend such a narrow-minded sensibility: ‘How,’ we should ask, ‘do we come to use this more refined calculating potential, not solely in relation to our admitted inferiors, but also as regards our unscrupulous method of understanding our own everyday actions?’
One need dig no deeper in search of the motivations behind those who regard their claim to life as more valid than other beings – ignorance and confusion will do just fine. If we are indeed superior beings, then is there not a moral imperative implied in such a privileged position? The very fact of this disproportional advantage lends a grave tone to the relationship at large. In Hamlet, Shakespeare proved prophetic: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We – not our dogs – think; and it is through this thought that we acquire both the privilege and the burden of responsibility over this relationship.
Yet it is principally through degrading metaphor that our relationship with beasts exists: “You animal [ox, pig, turkey].” Why not, “you’re a foolish man!” or “you’re a selfish woman!”
“I am a miserable worm,” Nietzsche claimed as the syphilis slowly ravaged his body and his self-fashioning made the quiet turn from metaphysics to incest, mother and sister in suit. True, there is many a fault to be found in Nietzsche; but what fault, we might ask, is there in the worm?
The 20th century was generous and acquisitive, abating and lethal, rewarding for science, regressive for the coexistence of men. Towards its close, a glimmer of acknowledgment for animal rights in civilized societies belatedly came to shine. Only a glimmer, to be sure; nothing more – though admittedly more promising a sign than a shadow.
In ancient Greece, human rights were the rights of free male citizens. Women and slaves were as insignificant then as animals in soulless, primitive cultures are now. History knows of many another form of discrimination, equally abject and shameful. Burning the heretic on the pyre was once of the norm – until, that is, civilizing principles made shame of it.
It is all a matter of time. There will come a day when the irrational extermination of the non-human animals of our age, in nearly every society, will be the subject of museum exhibitions, to the surefire consternation and incredulity of visitors.
I have some bad news for the proud ‘superior beings’ that, in haplessly pejorative voice, call the beasts “beasts”: biomedical findings show, beyond any doubt, that our genetic patrimony is 97% identical to that of gorillas. And if this is not a humiliating enough discovery (for the gorillas, of course), it has also been found that the number of genes needed to create a man is only double that needed to create a worm.
Life is, even for science, the grandest of miracles – a truth largely ignored by most everyman whose contribution is more of a potpourri consisting of tree-chopping, species-eradicating, air and water-polluting, and disease-spreading. It is man, amongst all life forms, that has the gift of stubbornness.
Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian ethologist, the great genius of last century who in 1973 was awarded the Noble Prize in Medicine, said: “man has always been pretty stupid, but I have noticed a change recently … he’s worse.” This is the same gentle doctor who loved animals to the core and who also said: “when I think that my dog loves me more than I love him, I feel embarrassed.”
Lord Byron wrote the following as epitaph for his dog, Boatswain:
“Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices.”
Animals, be they wild or domestic, are, as any engagement with intelligence clearly demonstrates, our traveling companions. Their sacrifice or valueless suffering are acts of immorality and represent the most degrading of barbarisms for those who provoke them.
Why love them?
A simple philosophical maxim tells us that it is correct to prefer a state wherein things are better as opposed to one wherein they are worse.
Decoded, and applied in everyday terms, self-respect. Care for other forms of life, to be sure, retains an implicit self-improving quality. Because the expansive is primitive and inhibition is culture. For compassion, that it is a lofty and forgotten emotion. Because to kill or to make suffer is destruction. Because to build is to participate as an omnipotent God in the act of creation. Because he who is productive or good or civilized lives in accordance with certain values, and there are no values that justify cruelty. Because intelligence invites us to live in such a way that our actions benefit the happiness and not the pain in the world. Because offering life and not death can’t be out-of-date, unless everything is inevitably lost. Because I’m sure you understand the difference in sensibility between one who kills an animal for pleasure, and one who satisfies his pleasure-seeking by listening to Beethoven’s fifth.
A bull-fighting lover once told me that the bulls they use for the ‘fight’ would never even be born were it not for that primitive obscenity we call the carnival, “because they are bred specifically for a death in the plaza,” he argued; to which I responded that, using his criteria, we might well justify the breeding of babies for slaughter before some fifty-thousand paying customers.
Since Plato we know that to educate is to train through virtue. Mercy, compassion, love for all beings, respect for difference – all are achievements of moderate man, of propriety, and also of superiority. Superiority not in the sense of bettering oneself over others, but rather the capacity to improve oneself for one’s own sake, to evolve from that small, unpolished object of birth into something significant and unfettered.
Why, in relation to man, is it commonplace to think of animals as inferior species? Why is it that they do not possess some of man’s foremost virtues? A few come to mind: hate, wickedness, envy, vengeance, bitterness, deceit, treachery, arrogance.
All animals, human and non, die once the corporeal apparatuses driving them cease to function. Cruel people, however, die much sooner – even if they fail to notice.
Eduardo Lamazon is a Mexican writer and ecoanimal rights activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Translation from Spanish: Paul Moreno, to whom we are indebted.