[IMAGE (left) English jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 –1832). An early prodigy and a radical in his time, he is best known as the “father of utilitarianism.”]
In its most distilled form, Cicero had it right: philosophy is the love of wisdom. Although every social justice movement relies on sound philosophical underpinnings for its moral foundation, the great ontological and epistemological issues cannot be proven or disproven in the categorical sense. Morality defies proof, and although seeking answers to the unanswerable is among the most noble of pursuits, beware of those who claim success.
Were Kant and Bentham still with us, it’s doubtful that Bentham would significantly alter his hedonic view of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for the greater good. Kant would be equally adamant, still espousing his deontological ethos that moral rightness emanates from duty—with intent of greater import than consequence. A good deed may inadvertently do harm, but motive (“good-in-itself”) would likely remain Kant’s principal determinative of morality.
The animal rights movement largely adheres to the “greater good” utilitarian position, arguing that sentience, not species, should be the governing principle—thereby raising the ethical bar to equal consideration. Others reject a utilitarian approach as too “soft,” positing that sentient beings are “subjects of a life,” entitling them to the inherent value that Kant assigned solely to his definition of “rational” beings. Still others hold more radical viewpoints, justifying liberation through virtually any means. Bentham is widely recognised as one of the earliest proponents of animal rights. He argued that the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason, should be the benchmark, or what he called the “insuperable line.” If reason alone were the criterion by which we judge who ought to have rights, human infants and adults with certain forms of disability might fall short, too. He also fought for the decriminalization of homosexual acts, equal rights for women, divorce, and the separation of church and state.
The difficulty with any philosophy formulated toward other beings is that the lexicon, always open to ambiguities, becomes infinitely less precise when applied to nonhumans. When, for example, it’s postulated that a primate experiences a more meaningful life than an insensate human with irreversible brain damage, egocentric biases enter the equation. This problem is further compounded with “rights,” amorphous even when applied to humans.
Another limitation is that although philosophical arguments attract the attention of academicians and activists, they seldom stir strong emotions among the populace unless it personally affects them. Few workers grasped all the nuances of Marx’s dialectic, but when he wrote, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” those simple words awakened dormant passions in the oppressed. The further removed from personal interests, the more difficult to evoke intense emotions.
This is not to diminish the role of philosophy in elevating the moral standing of nonhumans, but such endeavors are replete with obstacles when crossing the species line. More on that shortly, but it’s also revealing to observe the present state of animal rights organizations. We are seeing a striking concentration of power in one organization, the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), which has dramatically transformed its modus operandi for the better. Since their voice dominates the public stage, it’s instructive to examine their tactical vision.
We reside in a nation that gives new meaning to moral bankruptcy, embodied by the dearth of integrity in our opprobrious Congress. Our esteemed representatives have been bought so often that they make the “oldest profession” appear virginal by contrast. Just as the NRA, AMA, and others play the power game, HSUS is now flexing its muscle–having already registered some impressive legislative gains. The HSUS believes that as its numbers grow, it will increasingly be heard by state legislators and Congress.
Whereas PETA transformed animal rights from a joke to a household name, HSUS is a well-oiled machine capable of conducting far-reaching campaigns. This is clearly beneficial, assuming core principles are not mortgaged in the process. Through state-of-the-art marketing, HSUS has successfully capitalized on the public’s widespread opposition to “unnecessary suffering”…an ill-defined phrase at best. That said, HSUS’ largely linear approach is not a formula for fundamental change. It laudably ameliorates suffering, but lacks the systemic emphasis to reach the roots of speciesism.
Compared to standards of the “developed” world, our coarse culture fails to even render compassionate treatment to its own citizenry. In such a climate, regulating the degree of nonhuman suffering produces more humane conditions, but not foundational change. Most of what is called “progress” is illusory, as regulating cruelty simultaneously institutionalizes it. This is a nation in which profit is the primary religion and greed the most conspicuous practice. To believe that the present course will result in fundamental change, with nonhumans ceasing to be used for material gain and frivolity, defies both history and common sense.
I believe we must vastly enlarge the landscape through accenting the interdependency among all life forms, succinctly stated over a half-century ago by Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Consciousness of the correlation between our planet’s health and human well-being has grown exponentially in recent years, allowing for a new ethos to take hold based on sustainability and enlightened self-interest.
It is axiomatic that such an ethic can no longer be anthropocentric, as humankind merits indictment as ecological felons. We need a biocentric view of our “home,” in which the larger biotic community takes precedence over human-centered appetites…if only for survival imperatives. Few organizations have seized this opportunity to portray our fellow beings in broader light, integral threads of an interwoven tapestry serving humans and nonhumans alike. If meaningful change is ever to occur, it won’t be from treating the manifestations of anthropocentrism, but the disease itself.
These thoughts aren’t offered with pretensions of sagacity, but a profound belief in the lessons to be derived from the natural world. There are no ideal pathways to guide us through the caverns of a tortured and confused world, but nothing is more revealing than the rhythms of Nature’s dance…a dance not always in perfect harmony, but which elevates us to a richer vantage point of humility.
Everything we know, and infinitely more, is contained within the dynamic interactions that reveal Nature’s balance and beauty…Spinoza’s “god,” if you will. Her wisdom is often elusive, and the glimpses we see of her—replete with seeming contradictions—only add to her mystery. What we do know, however, is that she gave birth to us and all the splendorous life forms, and to needlessly injure any of her creations is not only the ultimate in hubris, but a wanton act bereft of reason and character.
Until a compelling message is articulated that we’re senselessly treading on Nature’s symmetry, and in so doing destroying ourselves, the sheer madness will continue unabated. We cannot treat speciesism and other pathologies in a vacuum, but only as part of a broader and intricate mosaic. History tells us that radical transformation is predominantly fueled by peril and self-regard, not moral suasion. We don’t need hysterical cries of Armageddon, but an understanding that in defacing Nature’s bounty, we are violating family and mindlessly marching to collective suicide.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ED DUVIN serves as Cyrano’s Journal’s and The Greanville Post’s Editor-at-Large and head of their editorial sections. His writing and example—often controversial—in politics, philosophy, civil rights, and questions relating to the morality of human interactions with animals and nature have inspired generations of activists in the US and abroad. His contributions to the humane movement, in particular, are simply enormous. In 1989, Ed wrote a landmark article that ignited the “no-kill” movement among humane societies. Until then, most shelters gave animals only a few days’ reprieve for adoption prior to being euthanized. Today, many shelters and humane societies—not just in the US and developed nations—have banned automatic euthanasia from their normal practices.