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Are environmentalists and animal defenders anti-human, radical, irrational, and fanatical? The Over-reaction of Human Exceptionalists

Dr. Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle who directs a newsletter site called “The Human Exceptionalist” (see http://support.discovery.org/site/MessageViewer?em_id=4143.0&dl...). Smith and his colleagues—understandably—are concerned about “increasing attacks on free will” and the consequent erosion of human dignity and responsibility that would seem to follow from it. Smith has recently authored a book called A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy, whose title is taken (out of context) from an assertion by PETA Director Ingrid Newkirk.

In a “Secondhand Smoke” blog post by Wesley J. Smith, Smith quotes from a Washington Times interview with Patrick Moore—whom he identifies as “an early mover and shaker at Greenpeace before disassociating himself with the radicals.” (see First Things e-letter, http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/secondhandsmoke/ dated Friday, August 10, 2012)

Moore calls members of the contemporary environmentalist movement “anti-establishment lifers” who, contrary to society’s “reasonable demands,” found it necessary “to adopt ever more extreme positions, eventually abandoning science and logic altogether in zero-tolerance policies.” According to Moore, “The ‘green’ movement has not only become more hard line, they have also become irrational and fanatical.”

But wait a minute. Does Moore really expect us to believe that “left-wing” remnants of the Peace Movement are “essentially anti-American”, or that ONLY members of the green movement (formerly left-wing peaceniks) are “irrational and fanatical”? That is a stretch, to say the least.

So, according to Patrick Moore and Wesley Smith, if you’re part of the contemporary Green movement, you are anti-human, radical, irrational, and fanatical. It seems that Christian scholarship or journalism of Moore & Smith’s ilk has become unduly ad hominem

Smith shows his own irrationality when he falsely equates the moral significance of animal sentiency with the denial of human free will, which is commonly understood to be the prerequisite of moral agency. He erroneously suggests that to defend animal “rights” is to deny “human exceptionalism” (which is equivalent to human free will). That is a blatant non-sequitor. Smith correctly asserts, “If humans have no free will, we are not really moral agents.” However, from that it does not follow that “If nonhuman animals lack free will, they are not moral patients.” 

Despite the fact that most animal advocates do not deny human will or agency, Smith misses the crucial point: Opposing animal cruelty and abuse does not require that we affirm the (equal) moral agency of all animals. Respect for the moral patienthood of a potential victim does not require that the individual in question be a moral agent. If it did, then children and other incompetents would not qualify (the argument from marginal cases). So, while sentience (or the ability to suffer) is not sufficient to establish moral agency, it is sufficient to warrant moral respect. That is precisely why Ingrid Newkirk’s dictum, when properly quoted in its context, is valid: “When it comes to feelings like pain, hunger and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Smith and other pro-life advocates take the latter clause out of context and use it as a basis for their critique.

Hence, Smith’s concern that animal advocates want to treat humans as “just another animal in the forest” is either unfounded or misdirected, because no animal advocate (least of all a Christian advocate for animals) wants to deny the value of human life or the legitimacy of “human rights.” Advocates of human exceptionalism, on the other hand, seem bent on denying the value of nonhuman life—a move which seems clearly unbiblical and contrary to God’s declaration that all of creation is ‘good.’

A more sensible theological view was that of the apologist C. S. Lewis. In a little-known speech given to the British Antivivisection Society, Lewis suggested that the naturalistic reduction of humans to the status of “mere beasts” makes them vulnerable to the same utilitarian abuse that humans practice on animals (for reasons of our superior power or survival advantage).1 Elsewhere, Lewis affirmed that our moral agency is precisely the “total difference in kind between man and beast” that enables and obliges us to be merciful to them.2 Lewis wrote, “We ought to prove ourselves better than the beasts precisely by the fact of acknowledging duties to them which they do not acknowledge to us.”3 In referring to a “total difference in kind between man and beast,” Lewis was not denying the obvious sentience we have in common with animals. Rather, he was arguing that the moral freedom that is unique to humanity is the very reason we ought to be benevolent and merciful toward them.

__________________________

1.  C. S. Lewis, “Vivisection” in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bles, 1954), 183; First and Second Things (Fount, 1985), p. 82.

2.  C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Fontana Books, 1967), p. 66.

3.  C. S. Lewis, First and Second Things (Fount, 1985), p. 81.

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Comment by Paul Hansen on August 20, 2012 at 7:04

Thanks, Matt.  I think your observations are right on.

Comment by MattZCohen on August 18, 2012 at 21:33

Wonderful essay Paul! 

It seems strange that when some humans are presented with the arguments put forth to defend the moral considerability of animals, that they take this to mean that acknowledging their moral worth equates to lowering every humans moral worth to the level people like Smith grant to animals, which isn't much.  As if we were to treat animals interests with respect, that tomorrow every human would be treated with the same disregard the majority of humans show to animals.

Historically, as far as I can tell, when the moral circle including those whose interests are morally considerable has widened to include others, the result has been to confer greater respect for the interests of those who have most recently been included within that circle, not to grant less moral respect for those beings already contained within the circle.

 

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