Philosophy - Index > General AR Philosophy
Our Need to Speak for Animals

[Age - opinion]

To any thinking person, it must be obvious that there is something badly wrong in relations between human beings and the animals that human beings rely on for food; and that in the past 100 or 150 years whatever is wrong has become wrong on a huge scale, as traditional animal husbandry has been turned into an industry using industrial methods of production.

There are many other ways in which our relations to animals are wrong (to name two: the fur trade, experimentation on animals in laboratories), but the food industry, which turns living animals into what it euphemistically calls animal products - animal products and animal byproducts - dwarfs all others in the number of individual animal lives it affects.
The efforts of the animal-rights movement, the broad movement that situates itself on the spectrum somewhere between the meliorism of the animal welfare bodies and the radicalism of animal liberation, are rightly directed at decent people who both know and don't know that there is something going on that stinks to high heaven - people who will say: "Yes, it's terrible what lives brood sows live, it's terrible what lives veal calves live", but who will then add, with a helpless shrug of the shoulders - "What can I do about it?"
The activities of animals-rights organisations have shifted the onus onto the industry to justify its practices; and because its practices are indefensible and unjustifiable except on the most narrowly economistic grounds ("Do you want to pay $1.50 more for a dozen eggs?") the industry is battening down its hatches and hoping the storm will blow itself out. Insofar as there was a public relations war, the industry has already lost that war.

A final note. The campaign of human beings for animal rights is curious in one respect: that the creatures on whose behalf human beings are acting are unaware of what their benefactors are up to and, if they succeed, are unlikely to thank them. There is even a sense in which animals do not know what is wrong.

They do certainly not know what is wrong in the same way that we human beings know what is wrong. Thus, however close the well-meaning benefactor may feel to his or her fellow animals, the animal-rights campaign remains a human project from beginning to end.

J. M. Coetzee was the 2003 Nobel Prize laureate for literature. This is an edited extract of a speech to be delivered in Sydney tonight.

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