Animal Rights and Wrongs

Norah Vincent is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City

Animal rights activism isn't just for tree huggers and eco-terrorists anymore. Nor is it merely the foolish consistency of Seattle-style demonstrators who--or so an insider told me--once complained to their fellow complainants that dressing up in shark costumes to protest usury at the World Bank was speciesist.

Yep. Times have changed. Ethical treatment of animals is no longer simply the rank hypocrisy of pious vegan pro-choicers who believe that killing human fetuses at any stage of development is a woman's constitutional right, but having a rabbit for dinner is unconscionable. Such silliness is all in the past. Empowering the rest of the food chain has gone legit. And it's a good thing, too, because Lassie and Moby Dick and, heck, even Bigfoot deserve better lawyers.

As it turns out, that may be just what they've found. Recently, in a ponderous exchange published on Slate.com , federal Judge Richard A. Posner, one of our country's most prolific and fair-minded public intellectuals, took on Peter Singer, the infamous Princeton University ethicist and animal rights advocate. Both Posner and Singer agreed that, whenever possible, we as a society should be doing more to alleviate animal suffering, especially in laboratories and factory farms.

True enough. We should all be more willing to do without the latest antibacterial swab or the cheapest chicken breast rather than torture an innocent beast with toxic chemicals or miserable living and dying conditions. So far, so good.

But what about when it comes to testing treatments and drugs for human diseases like Alzheimer's, cancer and AIDS. Without animals, such research would be sunk. Yet should animals suffer simply so that we won't have to? Arguing for animal testing under these circumstances begins to sound like the classic Dostoevskyan moral dilemma: If you could end all human suffering forever on the condition that you torture one small child to death, would you do it? Most of us wouldn't. So is torturing animals to treat and/or cure human diseases any more defensible than torturing any other sentient, if less advanced, being--say a child or a retarded person? Not really.

Humans may indeed outrank other animals because they alone have souls, but that doesn't justify cruelty. If anything, it forbids it, for it is our souls that make us accountable for our actions. If we are indeed moral animals, then it is incumbent upon us to behave morally, which means treating all creatures as we ourselves would be treated. Sadly, Posner fudges this bit, saying, in effect, that we're more important than animals because, well, we just are.

Finally, there's the question of eating animals. Now, if you agree with everything I've just said, it follows that meat is probably murder. So just don't eat it. Well, I thought that, too, until I met the owner of my local vegetarian restaurant. Much to my surprise, I learned that she eats meat. Why? Because about 10 years ago, while she was still a vegetarian, she went to her doctor complaining that she'd been suffering from unflagging fatigue for months. After doing a complete physical and blood work-up, the doctor identified the problem. She didn't have any protein in her blood. The doc told her that some people's bodies can't synthesize a complete protein out of vegetable matter; they need direct animal protein. So he urged her to start eating red meat. She did, and much to her chagrin, she felt better almost instantly. She's been eating burgers ever since. So, we're back where we started.

Should animals suffer and die so that we can thrive? Not if you're being morally consistent. But here Posner's earlier sophistry applies. When it comes down to a choice between us and them, we'll always choose us. It's not, strictly speaking, right, but hey, that's the beauty of a rationalization.

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