I have previously written about my decision to become a vegan, and my change of position regarding the topic of animal rights. I am not, however, satisfied with how I articulated and justified my belief that animals do have rights. Perhaps my inspiration for writing this article comes from my recent reading of Plato’s The Republic, but I would like to try to better defend animal’s possession of rights.
I start with a question: why is it fine to eat animals, but not (fine) to have intercourse with them? I asked this to a colleague of mine at the university about a week ago; I had time to spare, and the topic of animal rights was brought up when different diets were being discussed. So I could not resist directing the conversation towards the topic of animal rights. My colleague could not answer, and I had an idea why. The answer that she had in mind was that animals could not consent, therefore any act of intercourse would be considered rape. Rape can only be applied to beings that can consent, so humans fit the bill. By rejecting bestiality on the basis of consent, then one must accept that animals are beings that can consent and therefore are equitable to humans. This is not the conclusion that those who eat meat would like to accept. The question I asked is not a novel one, indeed it is one of the most common Socratic question that vegans and vegetarians have in their arsenal; and for good reason. This question illustrates the hypocrisy of many who look down upon bestiality, but support eating animals, are guilty of. With this short pause, the discussion took off.
My colleague, after the short pause, then made their response. “It’s not decent, why would you want to sex with an animal to begin with?” I returned with another question: why is it not decent? “Because it’s an animal, it’s not a human," I asked her to explain the significance of humans; what is so great about humans? I had gotten the discussion I was waiting for. “They can consent." “Not always, can the unconscious consent?” “No, but they can wake up.” “What about children, can they consent?” “No they can’t, but when they get older they can.” “What about people with profound mental retardation? Do they have rights as well?” “Yes they do.” It was here that I was able to move forward into the topic IQ and human superiority.
“Why do people with profound mental retardation who cannot consent, still have rights? They cannot ‘grow up’ nor can they 'become conscious.' I could sense that she was at the end of her rope, partly because of her new position to justify her lifestyle: human superiority. It is important to note, that the concept of superiority -- whether it be in race, nationality, religion, or the like -- is a “last resort” argument. The idea is that it is supposed to end the debate or discussion at hand because it is, in essence, an opinion. “I think blue is better than green, apples are better than oranges, and pie is better than cake” are all opinions that declare an individual’s favoritism of one over the other. I cannot logically lead you to the conclusion that green is better than blue, or that cake is better than pie, because there is no right answer. It is all an opinion, so when someone does resort to that type of argument they intend to end the discussion as it is “only a matter of opinion and that both opposing positions are correct.” Of course this falls apart when you provoke the individual using this argument to explain their reasoning; which is exactly what I did. “Humans are smarter, they have higher IQs and build things. Animals don’t.” “Not all humans build and create things. Humans can only build and create things when they have time and resources. Not all humans have high IQs and not all animals have low IQs, dolphins and crows are intelligent animals for example.” “Okay so we don’t eat or kill those animals, where’s the issue?” “Is intelligence really a measure of worth? Do you think all humans are equal, despite their intelligence and that all deserve the same rights?” “Yes.” “So why use intelligence as a marker of worth if you believe that all humans, despite intelligence, deserve equal rights? Even the most humble human deserves just as many rights as the most knowledgeable, so what is the significance of intelligence then?” The discussion came to an end before we could continue, and my colleague was about to respond before being interrupted by a phone call. This was our debate, through this dialogue I hope that I have illustrated the validity of the rights of animals. I hope that I can continue this conversation with her again, or even with another, as I believe I may have at least swayed her opinion and perhaps you.