History of animal rights shows the way
The Vancouver Sun May 5, 2003

(not on the Vancouver Sun website)


By Peter McKnight

Page: A10


This week, I thought about boring you with a painstaking legal analysis of

the proposed amendments to the animal cruelty provisions of the Criminal Code.


But seeing as how a Senate committee is doing just that, and given that the

committee is becoming increasingly bogged down -- it's proposing amendments

to the proposed amendments -- I thought better.


Instead, since this year marks the 30th anniversary of the birth of the

modern animal rights movement, a quick look at the history of animal rights

is more profitable since it should convince the senate to quit stalling and

pass legislation that's sorely overdue.


Until recently, animals were utterly without legal or moral status. In the

theocratic state, the line between humans and animals was clear and

inviolable, because humans were part divine in that they possessed an

immortal soul.


As such, the Catholic philosophers of the Middle Ages taught that we have

no duties toward animals and hence anything goes, which is a hoot, since in

everything else they preached that nothing goes.


Surprisingly, the early Enlightenment failed to offer a more enlightened



Rene Descartes, the chief architect of the 17th-century intellectual

revolution, made the Catholic philosophers look like representatives of the

SPCA. Descartes regarded animals as mere machines, incapable of thinking or

feeling pain, which meant that every season was open season on our furry



But the Enlightenment also gave rise to the ascent of science and, as a

result, humanity's place in the universe changed dramatically. Science said

that man was just one more animal, a great ape whose only gift was his

ability to think of himself as the centre of the universe.


As such, it effectively erased the line between man and animal by knocking

man from the perch where he held dominion over the animals. And that second

fall of man led to the rise of animals.


That rise took some time, though, as the modern philosophy of animal rights

didn't begin until 1973 when Peter Singer, now professor of philosophy at

Princeton University and the doyen of the animal rights movement, published

an essay entitled Animal Liberation in the New York Review of Books.


Prof. Singer recognized that with the loss of the soul in a secular

society, there remains very little on which to peg a moral distinction

between humans and animals. As such, he introduced "speciesism" -- the

differential treatment of beings based on their species -- as an equivalent

to the twin evils of racism and sexism.


Some philosophers have argued that speciesism is defensible because human

beings possess attributes like rationality that other animals lack.


That argument fails for two reasons.


First, certain members of our own species -- infants and mentally disabled

people -- often possess lower levels of those attributes than do some

members of other species, such as the great apes.


That's not to say infants and the mentally disabled should be considered

lesser than other human beings -- though Prof. Singer has provoked outrage

by flirting with that idea -- but there remains no good reason to treat

other animals as lesser than humans.


Second, even if all and only human beings possess such attributes, our

possession of those attributes provides no justification for the

mistreatment of animals.


To see what attributes do matter, I suggest we head back to the

Enlightenment and to Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who

said the proper question to ask when considering the treatment of an animal

is not "Can it think?" but "Can it feel?"


The only attribute we need to consider when developing anti-cruelty

legislation is whether animals can suffer. Surely an ethical society would

consider inflicting suffering on animals an intrinsic evil.


Fortunately, the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code are headed in

that direction in that they criminalize causing animals unnecessary pain.


Unfortunately, with the Senate committee bickering about whether certain

species can feel pain, all animals will have to wait yet again for the

protection they've long deserved.