Friday, March 29, 2013


By Tom Kando

Madeleine is to be commended for her eloquent plea for animal rights. I am also for animal rights. I appreciate vegetarianism, I love my cats, I would never dream of hurting animals, I oppose unnecessary animal research (e.g. for beauty products), I feel that poachers and others who kill animals for their pelts, ivory or other parts should be punished severely, I find hunting and fishing cruel.

I do not disagree per se with anything Madeleine says, and I wouldn't want to set up this conversation as a polemic between us, or see my earlier post on abortion being used as a straw man (see For example, I didn’t write that the mentally disabled are less sentient and are therefore more expendable. I didn’t write that rationality should be the criterion for expendability. SENTIENCE, yes. And this puts Madeleine and me in agreement, since sentience and her criterion - the capacity to suffer - are synonymous.

I always admire Madeleine's efforts, especially because she is an auto-didact. But quoting Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, or Jeremy Bentham here and there is risky. So is dismissing Aristotle in one fell swoop. The history of ideas is very complicated. It is difficult to do justice to ideas formulated hundreds or even thousands of years ago, in different cultures, sometimes at the dawn of history. I just Googled "Speciesism." The Wikipedia entry is utterly inadequate and superficial.

There is no conflict or contradiction between my position and Madeleine's. There is DIFFERENCE. Just as there is a difference, but no contradiction, between the Hungarian language and the English language.

I am by training a sociologist. I study PEOPLE, not other species. As a sociologist, I am a Humanist. This means that I identify and study what makes humans unique.

For some reason, such a pre-occupation is currently politically incorrect. It is scathingly called Speciesism - analogous to racism and sexism. Many people nowadays feel that the study of uniquely human characteristics is inappropriate. In the spirit of inclusiveness, "progressive" people feel that it is much better to see what humans and other species have IN COMMON. Well, that is also a fine topic, but it is what biologists do, not what sociologists do. As to the alleged similarities between racism, sexism and speciesism, it is absurd to equate these movements.

It is important to identify both the similarities AND the differences between humans and animals. We have many things in common, and in many ways we are unique. Animal rights doesn’t mean that humans and animals must be treated the same way.

Whether we like it or not, we humans are the stewards of the planet. It is our responsibility to manage and to save the planet. We are the parents. Animals are the children, whom we must save and protect.

The question as to whether it is worse to harm/kill a human or an animal can lead to such responses as: It depends. Surely Hitler deserves to be killed ahead of an innocent and beloved dog, right? Let's not go there.

However, the question as to what criterion to use remains relevant. Take the case of abortion: If the level of consciousness (and human-ness) were NOT the criterion, then pro-choice people could not argue that the life of the mother takes precedence over that of the embryo. We feel that the embryo is more expendable because it is much less human, less conscious. Therefore, those who oppose this criterion must logically oppose any abortion, even one which would save the life of a pregnant woman.

There are many other considerations: Medical research will have to continue to use laboratory animals, whether animal rights activists like it or not.

Animals sometimes have to be culled for their own good, so as to reduce populations to sustainable levels. To do this with humans would be barbaric.

Of course, "including animals" as the next moral step forward is great. But the humane treatment of animals does not mean that animals and people should be treated the same way. Animals will never vote, never write symphonies, never create universities and libraries, never develop computer programs or build electronic and other machines. Humankind has a special responsibility on earth.

According to Karl Popper's disciple David Deutsch, people are creators of universal explanations and knowledge (= science). We, humans, have made the jump to universality. In this sense, we are the center of the universe. We have produced good explanations, i.e. explanations which can account for the same phenomenon whether it be here or on Sirius, even though we can never observe it empirically on that star, nine light years away from us. Humans have a chance to progress through an infinite increase in true knowledge.

The Enlightenment replaced religion with science as the ultimate source of truth, and it replaced a God-centered universe with a man-centered one. Then came modernity, with its attendant problems. Some people, for example the philosopher Ken Wilber, speak of the "catastrophe of modernity." Because science is associated with modernity, there is today a backlash against science. But a rejection of science is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. In fact, science is humanity's only hope.

Of course many other species have incredible capabilities of which humans cannot even dream: Birds, dolphins, ants, bees, felines and other species have built-in systems of communication, direction, sensory perception, gyroscopy, etc. vastly superior to ours. It is also true that many other species are more resilient than we are. There is no guarantee that humans will survive. Cockroaches have been around for 300 million years and we have only been around for a couple of million. It's quite possible that cockroaches (or something else) will inherit the earth. But for now, it's up to us.

You see, humans experience life in a manner that is fundamentally different from that of other species: At some point during the evolution of life, we developed language, culture, technology, art and science. Only humans are capable of meaning, of complex and abstract symbolization. These capabilities emancipate humans from the bonds of biological nature.

The degree to which humans developed these capabilities became so vast that it became a qualitative difference, a quantum leap. In evolution, there is such a thing as emergence: Out of inorganic matter, life emerged. Out of plant life, animal life emerged. Then there was the emergence of thought/consciousness. Finally humans emerged. Each of these transitions was a quantum leap forward.

Today's biological reductionists remind me of Social Darwinists: they see the jungle as a valid model for human society. But humans began to walk away from nature the moment they crawled out of caves and began to build culture, laws, science and art. Humans experience life meaningfully, not automatically. Humans interpret what happens. They choose to do what they do. They are free - to do good or to do evil. We may yet destroy ourselves, leaving the earth to other species. But if so, it will have been our decision to do so. B.F. Skinner said, famously, that human freedom is an illusion, that we are not basically different from Pavlov's dogs. This is nonsense. In life almost everything is a matter of degree. Human freedom is incomparably greater than that of any other organism. A human being is psychologically and sociologically the most complex known form of life. leave comment here