Animal Rights Agnosticism Revisited

June 26th, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

I find myself returning to central themes repeatedly and that leads to a return of things I’ve already beaten to death in this blog.  Occasionally, I come across one I still like.  Right now I’m muddling through a blog on when organizational inaction becomes immoral and it reminded me of a speech I gave to a group five years ago.  I didn’t realize at the time I was invited to speak that they weren’t a kitty and doggy group and in a fit of introspection threw out my prepared remarks for the ones below.  I still believe them.  If you get though this one, take a moment to read about the reception I got and something notable that happened later in the night that put a fine point on it here (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Home From the Humane League).

My profound and insightful comments [with a few notes thrown in]:

I get more chuckles than Zero Mostel

I get more chuckles than Zero Mostel

I’d like to offer a four part apology in advance: 1st:  It’s a bit longer than my time but I speak really fast [Note: I wasn’t kidding, I ran really long], 2nd: I haven’t given this sermon before and have not even done a run through so it may be more a reading, 3rd:it’s entirely self absorbed in my current high horse and 4th: I fear it may be viewed by some as an Bill Cosby style admonishment of my gracious hosts.  I’ll try my best to avoid that and you can check your email if I get annoying.

I may have been invited to speak under false pretenses.  Unlike most of you and my fellow speakers tonight, I do nothing for animals. Let me rephrase that.  Nothing I do is specifically for animals. [Another note: Making a rhetorical point here and giving a speech, not testifying under oath.  Cut me some slack]

I don’t even try to do things for animals.  In fact, my organization, the Humane Society of Berks County, explicitly avoids “doing things for animals”.  That is not to say that what we do doesn’t help animals.  It does and I think that we actually help more animals and do more good for specific animals and animals in general than most.  But while that is our goal, it is consciously not our tactic.

I am no doubt in a room with some True Believers.  People who truly, devoutly, perhaps even religiously believe in the welfare- even rights?- of animals and whose efforts to help them are defined by those beliefs.

I am, however, an Animal Rights Agnostic.  So you invited an agnostic to preach at your church tonight.  Don’t worry, I’m one of the good ones.

What do I mean by that and why do I think you should bear this phrase in mind as you go out into the world proselytizing your beliefs?

Like a religious agnostic (I’m one of those, too) it means I am without knowledge or belief in the higher nature of animals.  I am a natural scientist so in both cases I can appreciate the arguments made and can craft intellectual architecture to support both.  But in a broad sense, I have been provided no proof in one of divinity or in the other of- what do we even call it for animals? A soul?  An inherency of rights?

Before you start checking email, let say I am not a denying of these things.  I am not an Animal Rights Atheist.  At the risk of offending the atheists in the crowd, I believe that denying the undisprovable is as religious in nature as affirming the unprovable.

I know that animals feel pain.  I know they suffer.  I know some use tools, and learn and communicate.  I think there is the slightest chance that at some point in the future some ape, somewhere will open the name book and select “Caesar”, and as they cart me away to the human work camps I’ll think, “Well, I’ll be damned, they do have a soul.”

But chimps aren’t parrots and parrots aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t chickens and chickens aren’t yeast.  No more than I can tell you what the one true religion is, I cannot tell you what version of the animal rights religion is right.  Vegan, vegetarian, animals aren’t property, only eat the ones without eyelids?  Where on the continuum does the hammer fall?

And most people are in my camp.  They just don’t know it.

But like with religion, there are true believers who are certain they know and insist that there is one true way- their way- and that we must all follow their lead.  They loath non-believers but they maintain a special hatred for those who believe the wrong way or are open to other ways.  They are fundamentalists.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed that many of the “Animal” people corresponding with me by email had a common quote attached. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”*

I began to notice that often the people who attached these quotes were the least sympathetic, least agreeable, least kind human beings when it came to people but were absolutely strident when it came to their beliefs about our oppressed non-human brethren.  [One more note: If you have this quote on your email, I’m not talking about you.] All of the qualities they found so delightful and compelling in animals, they themselves lacked utterly when applied to people.  And that stridency  utterly alienated any human being they came in contact with in their supposed effort to make other people as “humane” as they are.

But Gandhi was not promoting equal animal rights.  He believed that decreasing suffering was a part and parcel of a process of changing ourselves and our human race.  His struggle was not merely about forcing the end to oppression, it was about changing the oppressors themselves so that they would choose to stop oppressing.  When oppression is ended forcibly and not by choice, it waits to return.

But the strident true believers use this quotes as a beard to pretend that they are empathetic to all.  They are, in effect, true believers in a religion of their own making.  For them every discussion is an argument and every position is a purity test which none but themselves could pass.

No animal I had ever helped had demanded that help.  No animal I had ever helped had in turn helped another animal.  No animal had protested a lack of aid.  Of course, the same could be said of an infant child.

But I have seen that when I helped an animal’s person- caretaker, owner, whatever- not only did that animal benefit, but so did every animal associated with that person in the future.  That person became more likely to do right by animals in the future.  That person protested in the future when others did not do for their animals.  By engaging the human part of the animal equation there was real change for the animal and that change was sustained.   Like the infant child in distress, the preferred assistance was strengthening the family.

That is why my efforts and the efforts of the HSBC are to help animals by effectively helping people. It is what we do best.  For the Jim Collins fans out there it is our hedgehog.  We believe that most people can be moved to do better, to perform good works- but not all can be converted.  This is not the Spanish Inquisition.  Conversion or death is not an option.  Yet many of us in the animal field treat our interaction with humans that way.

I think we need to decide what our goal actually is.  Is it to demand a world today we will not obtain but feel the self satisfaction of the purity and blindness of our dogma?  If so our lives will be frustrated and we will find our animal rights heaven very empty.  Or do we envision a world we want, recognize that we will only get there in time and by small steps and begin moving in that direction?  Moving the suffering scale for animals by degrees may seem less satisfying than a Holy Roller conversion, but isn’t the impact greater?

If we have people who on the living cruelty scale are a ten and we go with the convert or die – or ignore they may opt- we might get one convert who we can take to zero and nine ignore us and stay at ten.  We go from 100 cruelty points to 90. But what if we give options and don’t demand the conversion?  What if then we get one convert to zero points a few to seven points a couple to five, maybe a three pointer, and a few who stay at ten.  Maybe we end up at 81 cruelty points.  Except we have moved several in the right direction and inertia will help keep them moving.

I will use meat consumption as an example since it tends to be one of the screechier arguments [Note 4: Boy, was that a mistake.].  Most people who eat meat will not stop eating meat entirely.  If the choice they are given is meat or no meat by someone with a poster of slaughtered animals preaching at them, almost all will choose to ignore you.

But if you offer reasons and alternatives that do not rely solely on making a case for abstinence in the name of the divinity of your belief, many will change.  For some it may be that they would prefer to eat less cruelly harvested meat.  Others may respond to the economic and ecological impact of modern meat production.  For some it may be health.  Alternatives work for most people in a way that abstinence does not.  Just ask Bristol Palin. [Note 5: I’m sorry, Bristol.  That was funny but totally uncalled for.]

I now eat drastically less meat than I may have in the past, maybe half [Note 6: I think I exaggerated, probably more like 3/4]. For a true believer, that’s half [Note 6.1: 3/4] too much.  But if we could frame arguments that would help people eat half as much meat, be twice the caretakers they are now, to be twice as aware, even if that’s not perfect, the cumulative effect would be staggering.  And we should embrace those who make these small changes with open arms.

That is what religious charities do, or at least good ones.  They do their good works because of a devout belief.  But they accept the help of anyone who wishes to see the benefits of the good works realized.  Most are not true believers and need to have a case made that that work.  Churches and charities who operate this way don’t ask if you are of another faith or if your donation is strictly for a tax write off or if you are pure of heart.  And neither should we.

We should hope to engage the community, make the changes we can make, and hope to make more as we get our hooks into their psyches.  The most effective of us do exactly that, although not without stones hurled by the puritans.  I’ll single out HSUS as being particularly effective at this.

In case after case, they are faulted for cutting the pie in half for everything from puppy mill legislation to humane meat standards.  And time after time they get half a pie, not the whole one.  But the next time that issue comes up they manage to cut the now half pie in half again, and again.  It is effective and has moved the issues important to them forward faster and farther than any all or nothing approach would have.

I have no doubt that HSUS is chock full of true believers.  But they have moderated their tone and approach not because they are selling out but because they know they can sell more of their beliefs and agendas by not being wild eyed lunatics.  At the HSBC we have done the same and the success of our organizations compared to the success of others makes me believe it is the right approach.

So I make the case for embracing the large percentage of Animal Rights Agnostics out there on their own terms and not on yours a little selfishly because it is how I’d like to be approached.  However, I will say that I think most Agnostics, religious of otherwise, would kind of like to have the conversion experience or at least aren’t opposed to it.  I think my wife might hold out hope that the fact that I will go to church with her, know more about the bible than most there, and genuinely find value in much of the Judeo-Christian philosophy means that I’m just in the closet and will tell her I was kidding about that whole agnosticism thing [Note 7: I’m pretty sure I did “jazz hands” here.  I’m not proud of it.].

I think a few of my Animal Rights True Believers friends feel the same when it comes to me and animals.  While I won’t tell them to hold their breath, I also won’t say it’s not in the realm of possibility given the shifts in belief I’ve undergone in my first forty years.  But if they were ever to tell me that I am bad, condemned, evil or corrupt for not bowing down next to them at the altar of their choice, they would not be friends for long, even with the well of sympathy I have for them and their cause.

That is why I, as one of the many Animal Rights Agnostics out there, encourage you all to lead others gently into your faith.

[Final note:  This is where I thanked them for having me, apologized, experienced the definition of “smattering of applause, and slunk off the stage.  But I am accepting bookings for the continuation of my “Talking Smack About Things Your Audience Truly Believes In” tour!  Coming to a town near you!]

* And a final not:  I have subsequently learned that the Gandhi quote is fake.  So, that’s kind of funny.

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