AR Philosophy >
Why Talking About Animal Rights to a Skeptic
May be a Waste of Time
I'm strongly in favor of animal rights. I believe that sentient beings with profound interests and the capacity for suffering deserve protection. I believe that these fundamental aspects of sentience are the basis of rights. Species is just DNA arrangement. We enact rights and laws because the beneficiaries of those rights and laws have a sense of quality of life. The animals share with us a deep fear of suffering because prolonged misery is a ruinous, unbearable state. If that doesn't merit obligations on our part, I don't know what does. We know how horrible it is to experience excruciating physical pain or severe denial of the most basic desires in life. From all scientific and common-sense evidence, those feelings are no less intense in animals — at least mammals and birds, and probably fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
But I don't think I have ever or will ever influence someone else's behavior toward animals by arguing rights. In fact, I may just put him off. Rights are legalistic, almost mathematical. You can get into endless discussions about theory and philosophy. You can even "win" the argument hands down. Your opponent may just go home and decide how he'll better refute your conclusions next time.
Animal rights makes for an interesting debate. You could easily use up an evening — or several evenings — at the local tavern arguing the pros and cons and fine points of various rights theories.
But what moves us? What compels us to action, to change our ways? What is it that makes us go from exploiting animals to treating them with kindness? Looking in their eyes. Knowing them. Considering the world from their point of view. Having sympathy for them. Developing a sense of service, not entitlement. Wanting to share and be generous.
Rights speak to none of this. In fact, the desire to enact rights comes from these basic emotions. Empathy for others, not some calculated formula, is why we demand and pass animal cruelty laws.
When someone challenges me on animal rights theory, I can go toe-to-toe with him. I've been doing this for the last few years. I can make points and counterpoints and identify flaws in my opponent's arguments and support my line of thinking and so forth. The other party may or may not agree that I've made a strong case. At the end of the day, I doubt that it makes much difference in his real-life attitudes toward animals.
All I can do is try to open up his heart. To get him to care. To get him to feel just a little bit of the pain animals feel when we lock them up and deprive them of everything that gives their life meaning. To let him see that animals may suffer terribly when we are cruel to them but thrive and dazzle us with their beauty when we are kind to them.
I can only try to cultivate empathy for all the wonderful creatures with whom we share the earth. Empathy, a feeling inside that we are all related, that we share the deepest desires and fears, that — if you are a believer in God — we all derive from the same merciful Source; I believe that is the key to peace.