You Beast! (Animal Rights & Wrongs)

An Interview with Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith

Back in Salvo 9, we featured an interview with the always-intriguing Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. Since then, this self-identifying “human exceptionalist” has published a new book on the animal-rights movement, called A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy, and we just had to check back in with Smith to find out what this provocatively titled tome is all about.

Where does the title of your new book come from?

I actually stole the phrase from Ingrid Newkirk, who is the head of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), probably the most famous animal-rights organization in the world. In 1989, Newkirk told Vogue magazine that “animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” I thought this would make a great title for my book because it very accurately depicts what animal-rights ideology and dogma hold. Many people think that they believe in animal rights because they want animals to be treated humanely, but animal rights is not the same as animal welfare. Animal-rights activists believe that animals should not be used for any domestic purpose whatsoever; they have created a moral equivalency between the value of human lives and the value of animal lives.

What do you mean by “a moral equivalency”?

Well, those who believe in animal rights believe that it is speciesism—or discrimination against animals—to assert that being human has special value. What confers value on an organism, from their perspective, is the ability to feel pain or experience suffering. It was Richard Ryder who coined the term “speciesism.” He also coined the term “painient,” writing that “painience is the only convincing basis for attributing rights or indeed interests to others.” According to this scheme, that a cow can feel pain means that cattle ranching is as evil as human slavery. Using lab rats to try to find a cure for cancer is the equivalent of Mengele and the Nazi death camps. Such thinking moves us toward a very dark nihilism.

So we’re not talking here about traditional animal-welfare organizations such as the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), correct?

Yes, the SPCA, your local pet shelters, and people who volunteer to neuter excess animals are engaged in animal welfare, not animal rights. Animal rights is an ideology that is completely distinct from such organizations. People who believe in animal welfare accept human exceptionalism. They accept that human beings are of greater value than animals. But they also argue—and I totally agree with them—that we have duties to animals. We are under an obligation to treat them humanely and properly, but we also have a right to benefit from animals. Animal-rights activists, on the other hand, believe that there should be no domesticated animals of any kind. Some even say that we shouldn’t have dogs and cats as pets.

What are the basic beliefs that unite the various animal-rights and animal-liberation groups?

First, they are anti-human exceptionalism; that is, they do not believe that being human carries with it a special status in this world. Second, they believe that there should be no domestication of animals. We should not have animal research. No one should be able to eat meat. There should be no horseback riding. There should be no salmon fleets. There shouldn’t be a wool industry because keeping sheep is immoral and shearing constitutes abuse. PETA has even gone so far as to say that there shouldn’t be a domestic honey industry because the insemination of queen bees puts them on “rape racks.” That’s the term these people use.

Another aspect that unites most animal liberationists is a disgust with the human race. Ingrid Newkirk has said that she wishes that human beings had never appeared on the planet. There’s this hyper-romanticizing of the natural world, and many believe that if we could just get rid of the humans, the earth would be pristine and Edenic, which is just not true.

What is the philosophical basis for these beliefs?

The modern animal-rights movement got its jumpstart from Peter Singer, a utilitarian bioethicist at Princeton University. Singer is not technically an animal-rights believer, but he does think that whatever maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering constitutes morality. In other words, he does not believe in firm principles of right and wrong. Now utilitarians have been around for a long time. What Singer did, however, was to argue that we should include animals in making utilitarian and moral analyses. In his book Animal Liberation, he wrote that animals should be given “equal consideration” in discussions of morality.

He also wrote, and this is where he was very influential, that human beings have no more inherent worth than animals. He basically popularized speciesism, contending that the creature with the greatest quality of life, which in his view is based on cognitive capacities, should prevail in the event of a conflict. Thus, Singer has no problem with the Parkinson’s researcher who experiments on monkeys because he believes that Parkinson’s patients have a higher quality of life than monkeys. That said, he has also argued that we should use vegetative patients over chimpanzees in the development of Hepatitis vaccines because, in this case, monkeys have the higher quality of life.

Basically, the animal-rights activists adopted these ideas and then surpassed Singer himself in their zeal, insisting that humans and animals are morally equal, which, of course, reduces us to the level of animals. My fear is that if we come to self-identify as mere animals, that’s precisely how we’ll act.

This view that human beings do not have the highest moral value is pretty scary.

What’s even scarier is that this belief has spread across a broad array of fields and philosophies. You see it now in everything from bioethics to personhood theory. Gary Francione, another animal-rights leader, says that “mere sentience gives the individual the right not to be property,” and radical environmentalists say that not only are human beings unexceptional, but they are also the enemies of the planet. We are the AIDS afflicting the living Gaia. There’s so much of this talk going around, and I’m afraid it is being taught to our children as well.

Wasn’t this the message of the movie Avatar—that human beings are evil?

Yes, and have you seen the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still? In the original with Michael Rennie, the alien came down to earth with the big robot in order to save humanity from itself. In the new version with Keanu Reeves, however, the alien comes down to earth with the robot in order to obliterate every man, woman, and child on the planet. There’s a “Noah’s ark” situation in the movie where the animals are taken two by two up into space so that the earth can be repopulated after the great obliteration occurs. Even in popular culture there is a strong push against the sanctity and exceptional nature of human life.

You write in your book that “human beings stand uniquely at the pinnacle of moral worth.” Can your argument for human exceptionalism be made without the use of religion?

I think the whole thing comes down to the fact that we’re the only species that was ever created, designed, or evolved—take your pick—to be moral agents. There is no animal on the face of the earth that’s a moral agent, and there’s no known species in the wider universe that is a moral agent.

A lot of people say, “Human exceptionalism is arrogant. It’s hubristic. It means that you can do anything you want to animals and the environment.” This is absolutely not the case. Human exceptionalism has two sides to it, and they’re part of the same coin. On one side, we’re the only species with rights. We’re the only species that can understand the concept of rights. On the other side, however, we are also a duty-bearing species. We have duties to each other. We have duties to animals. We have duties to the environment. We have duties that can be enforced through law or moral persuasion. This is uniquely true of human beings.

Some will say, “Look at the elephant. It has an exceptional trunk.” Yes, that’s true, but a trunk is not a moral attribute. It’s merely a physical capacity. You may have better vision than I do, but that doesn’t mean that you have greater value than I do. Morality, moral agency, and free will, on the other hand, are exceptional attributes, both in terms of our status and our obligations.

What I’m really asking, though, is whether it’s possible to even refer to moral agency without likewise appealing to some higher authority.

If you take a look at the entire history of the human race, you will not find a society that did not believe in some sort of morality. Of course, different societies came up with different moral values, but it’s clear that we are hardwired, whether through God or evolution, to have morality.

Even Richard Dawkins, who is the most prominent proselytizer for atheism, pushes a morality. For example, he supports the Great Ape Project, which seeks to create “a moral community of equals” among human beings, orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees. Dawkins believes, in other words, that the great apes have a right to life, liberty, and freedom from torture.

And why does he believe this? Well, he has written that he wants to destroy the Judeo-Christian moral view that human beings are the center of society. He has even said that he yearns for a hybrid species between chimps and humans that could procreate with humans because that would knock humanity from its pedestal. Now that is not a scientific analysis; it’s a moral analysis. You simply cannot be human without also being a moral agent. It is part of what separates us from the animal world.

I suspect that if anyone were caught aborting animal fetuses for the purpose of food, medical research, or profit, these animal-rights groups would go absolutely berserk. However, you don’t hear a whimper from these groups about human abortion.

In my view, this is because these animal-rights groups essentially comprise an anti-human movement. There are some animal-rights activists who are pro-life, but for the most part you are absolutely correct. The caring for humankind just isn’t there. There was once a terrorist attack in the Middle East where explosives had been placed on a donkey. In response, PETA wrote a letter to Yasser Arafat complaining that the donkey had been killed, without also mentioning the many human lives that had been lost in the bombing. These groups are very closely associated with anarchists, who tear down instead of building up, and it seems to me that the heart and soul of the animal-rights philosophy is a hatred of humanity.

That position seems so inconsistent.

The root of the problem, I think, is a projection of romanticism and innocence onto the natural world. I think we do a lot of anthropomorphizing of animals, projecting thoughts into their being—thoughts that they either don’t have or are incapable of having. We look around at the problems in human society—and they are of course very real and very terrible—and we assume that the natural world is pure in comparison. But this ignores the brutality of animals. When hyenas take down prey, for instance, they don’t wait for that prey to die before feasting.

Now this is just hyenas being hyenas. These animals are not moral agents, and their actions are not cruel because cruelty implies a moral system of proper care. If you or I did the same, it would be considered a monstrous activity, but that’s the difference between humans and animals. We have free will, rationality, creativity, and language, and animals simply do not.

What’s amazing is that I have to spell this out for people. I am forever astonished that there is a need for my new book, which essentially defends the intrinsic value of human life. •

This is an excerpt from a longer interview. To hear an audio version of the entire conversation, please visit

From Salvo 13 (Summer 2010)
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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #13, Summer 2010 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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