August 09, 2005

PETA's Cognitive Dissonance

Much like the women's rights movement, the animal rights movement is a reasonable idea gone bad. Front groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have become increasingly radical in their methods and ideology. But this is no wonder for a group that finds its philosophical justification in the work of atheist Peter Singer, and who truly believe that eating meat and wearing leather are equivalent to the worst crimes of the Holocaust. PETA may like to think of itself as being a rationally grounded cause, but there are at least two fatal flaws in their thinking that I can discern.

1) Their position is based on the idea that there is no moral or value distinction between a human and an animal. Man is not special or "above" the other creatures in any qualitative sense. But in reality, they do make a distinction between humans and animals – a distinction that is moral in nature.

They don't think wolves and lions killing their prey are wrong. I've not yet seen them campaign to stop male lions from eating the offspring of their competing breeders or to stop killer whales from tormenting seals before they eat them. They believe that these acts are just animals doing what animals naturally do, i.e., they are morally neutral behaviors. However, they seem to believe that humans are unique moral agents that can overstep the boundaries of right and wrong. When we exploit animals it is not just humans doing what humans do, we are actually practicing genocide, oppression, and exploitation. We should know better; we "ought" to not do such things. When we butcher a cow for food it is the moral equivalent of Auschwitz, but when a dog mauls a human it is just a "good dog having a bad day" (according to Steven Wise of Harvard).

Why are human activities wrong, but animal behaviors just natural? It is because we are moral agents and animals are not. We are not just different from the animals in our shape, posture, and central nervous systems; we are different in that we have obligations to uphold and justice to administer, and we are violating some abstract law in failing to do so. It is a profound distinction. Indeed, it is a distinction with metaphysical overtones. But it is a distinction that can only be made if we are indeed distinct from the world of animals, and that is an idea that PETA denies.

2) Animal rights extremists tend to be moral relativists (i.e., there are no absolute "rights" and "wrongs" – morality is individually or culturally defined). I say this confidently because of the kinds of people that they look to as their ideological champions (e.g., Peter Singer, Steven Wise) who have well known ethical positions, and because of quotes like these: "Many animal rights advocates (including myself) believe that morality is relative." (John Harrington, But if there are no moral absolutes, then there are no absolute moral imperatives relating to our duties toward other species. Why, then, ought we to care about the "suffering" and "injustices" inflicted upon cattle, whales, or chickens?

According to their philosophical presuppositions, there is no higher ethical code to which we must adhere on this matter. Perhaps it is merely a practical issue in that we ought to be concerned, for our children's sake, to preserve our animal resources. But livestock ranchers are doing this. They are not exhausting their herds like the buffalo hunters of the old west. Even so, whatever practical or relativistic criteria of concern the activists may come up with, I can still respond by asking, "Why should I be obligated to conform to your personal ethical standards toward animals?"

In the end, their agenda is merely a preference issue. They prefer not to eat meat or use animal byproducts (or, for some, kill insects), but others enjoy such things. Perhaps in reality they understand that they do not have any bullion to back their ethical pleas, and this is why they resort to power plays. Moral relativism is equivalent to reducing ethical positions to flavors of ice cream. I like vanilla, you like chocolate – it's all good. Imagine the task of trying to get the world to eat only your preferred flavor. Animal rights extremists (which PETA has increasingly become) are in the business of bullying the ice cream vendors into offering just their flavor of choice. PETA is certainly free to advocate for its pet cause, but they have no justification for thinking that they are champions of justice in any real or higher sense than their own personal preferences.

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At 8/14/2005 4:46 PM, Blogger Vman said...

I agree. PETA's no longer relevant. They're saying we can't eat fish now. What's up with that.


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