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Theological Publications






The Hu-Man’s Burden


Quick: name two anti-humanist organizations! The ones that spring to mind for me, even before the Roman Catholic Church, are PETA and Earth First. As for Earth First, any group that views the human race as a disease the earth would be better off without is certainly anything but humanist. Let’s face it: the earth is in our mighty hands, and we cannot abdicate our rule, to which the size and skill of our brains destine us. Call it “the Hu-Man’s Burden.” PETA, too, undermines the centrality of the human race, with its unfortunate talk of “animal rights.” Animal Rights, ever since Peter Singer coined the term, has been a moral confusion beloved of those for whom sentiment usurps the role of conscience.

Do you want to see why it is absurd to attribute rights to animals? It is quite simple. Ask yourself if animals possess rights in their natural sphere, animal-to-animal relations. Obviously they do not. Does the antelope have a “right to life”? Are his survivors going to sue the lion who ate him for wrongful death? Even for murder? Somehow I don’t think so. And what do you expect the lion to do anyway? Start eating tofu? Animals have no “right” to be protected from their predators, which must eat them! Well, if animals have no rights in the only sphere in which it even might make sense to look for them, how can they have rights vis a vis a wholly different sphere; that of their relations to humans? Do you and I have a right not to be crushed by an avalanche? Do we have a right not to be killed by a volcano or a Tsunami? I shouldn’t think so.

To imagine animals have rights is a childish humanization of the beasts, like Disney’s Goofy, a dog walking upright, wearing clothes, and speaking.

Does this mean we may feel guiltlessly free to torment and abuse animals? Not at all. Animals do not have the right to be treated in any particular way by us, but we have the moral duty not to be cruel, whether to them or to our own kind. We ought to respect life. But not all of it to the same degree. There is a hierarchy. We ought never gratuitously to extinguish the wonderful spark of life. But that doesn’t amount to Jainism, the Indian faith which forbids the killing of any life-forms and which goes to what we should consider insane lengths to make sure we don’t. Jain monks carry whisk brooms to sweep even invisible microbes out of their paths. They wear surgical masks so as not to breathe the little devils in (though I imagine they’d love nothing better than to hop aboard!).

But I do want to borrow an element of the Jainist calculus. You see, they divide life-forms into different categories according to the number of “senses” each has. Basically this means that more complex organisms, if you kill them, will incur worse karma for you than simpler organisms. I think that is a good rule of thumb. Here’s how I begin to work it out. I think it is (slightly) wrong even to rip a leaf off a tree, or to rip up grass from the lawn as some bored morons do absent-mindedly. There is no reason to do so, and it is good to respect life. It is okay to cut the grass, though. That’s just like trimming back your cat’s claws occasionally.

Microbes? Who cares—they’re not sentient, and it’s not worth the trouble. Insects? Don’t squash them without reason. But it doesn’t take much of a reason. As far as I am concerned, mosquitoes and flies are the enemies of the human race, so it’s open season on them. On the chance the skeeter is going to bite you, a preemptive strike is morally justifiable. I will, however, admit I’d rather open the window and shoo the fly out than kill him. And if you find a cricket on the hearth, I think you ought to take the trouble of escorting him outside whole and in one piece. Ah, palmetto bugs? Bring out the heavy artillery. I just can’t co-exist with those brutes. So sue me.

Mice are cute, but unless you can toilet train them and get them to change their eating habits, again, to hell with them, cute though they are. You have the same right the American colonists did to defend their living space against aboriginal inhabitants, even if their names happen to be Mickey and Minnie. You have to draw the line against vermin, against infestation. Aren’t you an adult?

Wild animals are like alien races, extraterrestrials: you have no business messing with them. Try to avoid them on a camping trip. If they wind up mauling you, you can’t blame them, though you have every right to defend yourself. Livestock are animals that wouldn’t even exist if we weren’t raising them for our consumption. It’s almost like parents who produce a second child to use, just in case, as an organ bank for a first child with big medical problems. The difference is, obviously, the child is a human and has the right to say no. Bessie the bovine does not. I have always found it surprising that farmers and their children actually make pets of pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys—until doomsday dawns. But I guess that completes the analogy: we are like deities who created the creatures and have the responsibility not to be cruel to them even though they are not “immortals” like us.

The big ticket items would be the most intelligent animals: monkeys, chimps, dolphins. Tread lightly here. At least with the primates, these are our cousins. You better have a pretty darn good reason for wanting to kill them. Ever seen Planet of the Apes?

I think hunting animals for their meat and for their pelts is altogether justifiable. That’s the old struggle of humanity against nature. To think we have passed by the need for hunting is, I think, decadent, the luxury of hyper-scrupulosity. We are able to reproduce with artificial technology; does that mean it is better (as Augustine would have preferred it) not to have sex? We can get by eating vegetables, so should we swear off meat? Like hell. I admit, I wouldn’t want to be the one to kill and prepare the meat, but then I wouldn’t have the guts to perform surgery either.

I say we have a responsibility, if only to ourselves, not to be cruel to animals. It is degrading to our humanity. And that means it is evil, even more so since the cad who is cruel to animals is abusing an innocent creature and is thus a sadist. This should be, as it is, a punishable offense. Killing pets should probably count as some degree even of murder. It is a justifiable splitting of hairs to say that it is wrong to take innocent life without saying that that life has a “right” not to be taken.

So, according to yours truly, animals have no rights, but humans have a responsibility not to be cruel to them. That is the Hu-Man’s Burden.


 By Robert M. Price



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