AR Philosophy > Debating AR

Animal Rights Commentary
February 29, 1996
Nazis and Animal Rights

An ad hominem argument is one in which we attack someone in a personal or abusive way as a means of discrediting her substantive position. For example, former Beatle John Lennon was often criticized for endorsing utopian socialism at the same time that he had amassed great wealth. This is an ad hominem argument, and it is a logical fallacy. The amount of money that John Lennon had was absolutely irrelevant to the truth or falsity of what he had to say about world peace or socialism. The fact that Lennon had money is used to show that his position on socialism was wrong. But whether Lennon had a lot of money is absolutely irrelevant to the desirability of socialism as a social, political, and economic system. The worst that one could say about Lennon in this regard is that he may have been hypocritical in that he preached a doctrine that he may not have followed in his personal life. So what? Lennon's personal behavior is absolutely irrelevant to the merits or lack of merits of socialism.

There is another ad hominem argument that is often used in connection with those who subscribe to the view that nonhumans ought to be accorded certain fundamental rights. The argument goes as follows: during the 1930s, the Nazis passed a number of laws that restricted the use of live animals in biomedical experiments, or "vivisection" as the practice is known. It is also said that some Nazis, including Hitler, were vegetarians, but the historical evidence for this assertion, especially as it relates to Hitler, is questionable. But let us assume that it is not. Let us assume for a moment that Hitler was a vegetarian. The Nazi laws against vivisection, and Hitler's supposed vegetarianism, are offered to show that the animal rights position is wrong. This is a perfect example of the ad hominem fallacy. And it does not work. Let us consider the various contexts in which this argument has been raised.

The most common context involves the argument that since Hitler was supposedly a vegetarian, and since the Nazis restricted vivisection, this somehow shows that people who believe in animal rights are somehow like Nazis. The argument goes like this: the Nazis believed that animals had certain rights but maintained a policy of genocide against certain people. Therefore, those who subscribe to animal rights are similarly morally tainted. They are like Nazis.

This argument is obviously absurd. Consider the following argument. Stalin ate meat. Stalin killed over 6 million peasants in his effort to collective Russia in the 1930s. Therefore, those who eat meat are similarly morally tainted. But that argument simply does not work. Just because someone eats meat does not mean that they would endorse the killing of people. They might do so; they might not. But their eating meat is irrelevant to whether they would endorse the killing of people. Similarly, the fact that Nazis may have liked animals but hated humans does not mean that those who subscribe to animal rights also believe that the killing of Jews or gypsies, or non-Aryans generally, is OK.

The second context in which this argument is made involves a matter of historical interest. During the 1930s, the Nazis certainly did show some interest in protecting animals. It is, of course, rather difficult to argue that a military force that was destroying half of Europe, including its animal population, really cared about animals, but I do not dispute that Nazis did pass fairly progressive measures against vivisection. At the same time that they were legislating to help animals, however, the Nazis were engineering the killing of millions of humans. The argument goes: there is something pathological about a society that cares about animals but not about humans, and even seeks to impose enormous suffering on at least some humans. Therefore, concern about animals must be judged against the prevailing treatment of humans, and if the latter is lesser by comparison, any concern for animal suffering is pathological.

Again, this argument does not work. The fact that some people may favor nonhumans greater than they do some group of human beings is not peculiar to Nazi Germany. During the 18th century, many American states passed all sorts of anticruelty laws involving animals while at the same time human slavery was legal. It is simply too easy to regard the pathology of Nazi Germany as unique in this respect. Moreover, in 1996, some people think that even more tax breaks for the rich should get greater priority than providing the minimal requirements for a decent and dignified life to disempowered and dispossessed humans. The sad fact is that humans often favor some other group of humans or animals more than they do some other human beings. But that says absolutely nothing about whether animals should have rights; it does say a lot about some people, however.

The third form of this argument is that by regarding animals as having rights, we "blur" the line between human and non-human, and thus facilitate the exploitation of humans who become "devalued" in this process. The argument goes: the Nazis blurred the line between human and nonhuman, and then started exploiting humans as though they were animals. Again, this argument does not make sense. When we "blur" the line between human and nonhuman for the purpose of arguing that animals, like humans, should be regarded as rightholders, we are seeking to elevate the status of animals so that the mindless violence and death that we inflict on them will no longer be regarded as morally justified. We are not using this argument to justify the devaluation of humans, but rather to increase the moral status of animals. The Nazis may have "blurred" the human/non-human line for the purpose of promoting violence; Gandhi and others who advocate vegetarianism as a means of reducing overall violence "blurred" the human/non-human line as a means of promoting peace. The use that one makes out of "blurring" the human/non-human line depends on the political motivation and morality of the person doing the "blurring," but there is nothing inherent in this enterprise that would necessarily support a violent use over a peaceful use.

Ad hominem arguments abound in modern discourse. Whether Pat Buchanan owns a foreign car has nothing to do with the truth or falsity or other virtues of Buchanan's trade policies. If Buchanan's trade policies are sound, then his ownership of a foreign car might allow us to call him a hypocrite, but this personal observation about Buchanan is completely unrelated to the merits or lack of merits of his position on trade. Similarly, if Clarence Thomas opposes affirmative action, we might well call him a hypocrite as he is a beneficiary of that doctrine. But Thomas's views on affirmative action must stand or fall on their own merits, and are not determined by whether Clarence Thomas is consistent in his views. Whether animals have rights is a matter that must stand or fall on its own merits. The most that we can conclude from any observations about the Nazis is that people who seem to like animals somewhat can be really terrible to human beings. So what? Many of those who eat meat and do not like animals may also act horribly to human beings. But the merits of the arguments in favor of animal rights are unrelated to the personal habits of those who espouse--or dispute--that animals have rights.