This is Be Kind to Animals Week (May 3-9), sponsored by American Humane.
To hear some leftists tell it, Republicans will celebrate by kicking a puppy while Democrats will adopt a stray. But reality is a little different.
The fact is, the loudest apologists for animal welfare tend to euthanize the greatest percentage of pets – PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which makes its home in Norfolk, killed 95% of all the animals they took in last year and they’ve quietly put down 21,000+ adoptable pets since 1998.
Meanwhile, more than a few meat-eating conservatives adopt dogs and cats that would otherwise be euthanized. We may butcher an animal for food, but we would never torture one. We believe that experiments on animals are ethical when they can be used to prevent human suffering but we hate senseless cruelty to animals. In short, we believe that human beings have a moral duty to be kind to animals and never to cause them needless suffering. While PETA’s behavior is inconsistent, ours is not.
William Wilberforce, whose life work was the abolition of the slave trade, was appalled by the way animals were treated in his society. He saw animal abuse as unworthy of our status as caretakers of our fellow creatures. He helped found the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and, as an MP, Wilberforce argued successfully for laws to protect animals from wanton cruelty.
Wilberforce exemplified the principle of human exceptionalism: that human beings, precisely because we are human, have moral duties not only to each other but to lesser creatures. As a conservative, I do not believe that animals have rights but I do believe that human beings ought – and should even be legally obligated – to treat animals in a humane way.
Conservatives, in general, are advocates for animal welfare, but not animal rights. The significance of this distinction is usually missed by the right and left alike.
You may recall that on a recent trip to Europe, President Obama was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism. He replied that he did – just as citizens of other nations believe in their own exceptionalism. While one can admire the humility for which Obama was striving with that statement, it is difficult to ignore that, with it, he effectively gutted the principle of American exceptionalism. In Pixar’s brilliant animated feature, The Incredibles, a frustrated Dash gets this point. When his mom tries to keep his powers under wraps, she urges, “Everyone’s special, Dash” and the young superhero complains, “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”
Likewise, the principle of human exceptionalism argues for animal welfare but against animal rights because in it, we recognize that we are special in a way that non-human creatures are not and that our unique moral nature obligates us to treat creatures and our natural environment decently. Yet, neither nature nor the creatures have any obligation to treat us or each other with consideration. As Lord Tennyson observed, “Nature, red in tooth and claw” does not have our moral sensibilities. In a fascinating piece, Wesley Smith argues this point, saying that if we cease to believe in human exceptionalism, the logical result is not to treat lower creatures more humanely – but less. He says:
How does “Be Kind to Animals Week” differ from the Great Ape Project and other animal rights advocacy? It supports human exceptionalism by encouraging us to fulfill our human duties to animals, without undermining our unique moral status by according “rights” to animals. And that is a distinction with a huge difference. After all, if being human—in and of itself—is not what gives us the sacred obligation to treat animals properly, what does?
Those who seek to knock us off the pedestal of exceptionalism believe that once we see ourselves merely as one of infinite parts of nature, we will improve our care for flora and fauna. But the truth is the mirror opposite. If we ever come to see ourselves as merely another animal in the forest, that is precisely how we will act—both to nature and toward each other. The ongoing objectification of vulnerable human life—also justified by its proponents by denying human exceptionalism—is a warning of this truth that we dare not ignore.
So, be kind to animals this week – and every week – because you are human.