Dehumanising?

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2006 - 1:11

In Solidarity 3/89 David Broder started a discussion on animal testing and the broader issue of “animal rights”. Here Clive Bradley and Janine Booth take issue with David. His reply and other debate can be found at: www.workersliberty.org/node/5802

I am not going to argue that medical testing on animals should be halted. I am an insulin-dependent diabetic, and — actually I’m hazy on the precise history of what's called “human insulin”, but it's likely it involved animal testing, without which I would be dead. But there are aspects to the argument David puts — which is pretty typical of a certain kind of Marxist argument — which do not convince me. Three points.

1. “Animals are not a historically oppressed group which can liberate itself, or to which we can give solidarity.” The claim seems to be that only those who are a. oppressed, and b. able to organise themselves, have “rights” properly understood. This would obviously disqualify babies, people in comas or with severe mental defects, and so on. I don’t care especially about the word “rights”; but entitlements in a broader sense are surely not dependent on being oppressed and being able to organise.

2. Animals’ “well-being depends entirely on human compassion”; “We condemn hurting animals for cheap thrills. We condemn them not because animals have rights, but because humans should not be so uncaring and violent.” The train of thought seems to be that unnecessary cruelty is wrong only because of the brutalisation is causes to the person being cruel. But this doesn’t seem to me to make sense.

If it is wrong, and brutalising, to be cruel, this is surely because of the suffering caused to the creature which suffers. Again, if you don't like the phrase 'animal rights', I don't care. But there must be some entitlement of the animal itself, in so far as it experiences pain, not to be caused such pain, for the stricture against 'hurting animals' to apply.

3. I think the distinctions David and others want to make between human beings and other animals are blurrier than they think. David says: “In evolutionary terms, humans, who have the potential to change the world, are light years ahead of orangutans or chimpanzees.” Well I don’t want to be pedantic, but humans and chimpanzees are a few million years apart, not light years: we have a common ancestor who lived maybe five or six million years ago (our common ancestor with orangutans lived a bit longer ago).

Consider this account of chimpanzee behaviour. (You can find it in several books, but the best account is by Frans de Waal, the primatologist who observed it, in his book Our Inner Ape.). In a zoo in Holland, there was, among the chimps, an alpha male, Yeroen (i.e. he was dominant, had control over food and females, other chimps were afraid of him). One day Yeroen was deposed by a younger male, Luit. Luit’s reign was brief, because Yeroen allied with another young male, Nikkie. Luit could handle either of them independently, but not both together. Nikkie became alpha male, but his dominance was highly dependent on Yeroen’s support.

Then Nikkie and Yeroen fell out. Immediately, Luit reinstalled himself as alpha. Later, when the males and females were separated, Yeroen and Nikkie launched a joint attack on Luit (it seems Yeroen held him down while Nikkie very brutally assaulted him). As a result, Luit died. That morning, for the first time, the troop of chimps ate in silence. One of the females flew into a rage with Nikkie and chased him up a tree.

Some time later, when Yeroen moved his support to another male, deposing Nikkie, Nikkie was forced to flee, and drowned in the moat which surrounds the colony.

This is extremely intelligent behaviour. Chimps, and other apes, have been observed to have very sophisticated emotional responses. Some have mastered simple linguistic and mathematical tasks.

They are not, of course, human. But I don't think it’s helpful to lump them in with cockroaches.

Human beings are, of course, only a species of animal, too. Moreover, although they no longer exist, there have been, in the five million years since our common ancestor with chimps, a large number of human species (including Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalis, Homoe florensiensis. Maybe others). Maybe they didn’t have the capacity to change the world — though many of them were pretty sophisticated tool makers, could make fire, etc. Of course they no longer exist; but as a thought experiment: would they have rights?

I am not a vegetarian. I am not arguing for an end to animal testing, the wearing of leather, or whatever. But there is something in the insistence that in no sense do any animals have rights — even what might be called partial rights, or rights which can under certain circumstances be superceded by human rights; that bugs me.

Clive Bradley

animal welfare

To Clive’s point two, I would add the following: we see a difference in people getting thrills from “virtual” cruelty to animals — and humans — in video games, and dishing out actual cruelty to actual animals. This suggests to me that our objection is not just to “brutalisation” or “getting thrills”, but to the suffering experienced by the animal.

Like Clive, I am not too hung up on the term “rights”, but I am quite disturbed by the determination of many socialists to totally dismiss the concept of animals having rights. It sometimes comes across that we define socialist politics on this issue as “Socialists? We’re the people who oppose animals having rights”.

The “nicer” version of this argument is that we support “animal welfare” rather than “animal rights”. Maybe that is a better term the AWL has published very few articles on this issue. In fact it has come up as an issue only in the context of defending vivisection and opposing animal rights activists. I agree that we should defend the use of animals in experimentation where it can benefit human health, but if we really support animal welfare, we should have more to say about it, and more to say against the many abuses of animals.

I’m also uncomfortable with David’s description of humanism: “Marxists are humanists — the lives of humans are more worthy than those of even the most developed mammals.” OK, so this probably isn’t an attempt at a definition, but humanism is surely defined by concern for humans rather than by commitment to human superiority. There are many right-wingers who would agree with the statement that “the lives of humans are more worthy than those of even the most developed mammals”, but who are very far from being humanists. It is better, and logical, to argue instead that “Marxists are humanists — and part of our humanism is to promote decent treatment of animals by humans”.

Janine Booth