A Conservative Case for Animal Rights

Last night my son watched Whale Wars on Animal Planet as I stepped into the back bedroom. “Hello children,” I said in my best South Park imitation of Issac Hayes’s Chef’s voice. Suddenly from under the book case appeared four little mewing kittens who leapt onto my lap as I sat on the floor.

I’ve lived my entire life with animals, and while my political labels have changed over the years my interest and care for them has never abated. Now as I push the envelope into libertarianism I find myself comparing the evolution of my political beliefs with my innate ones as a kind of reality. If I find myself espousing causes that conflict with these ideals, I know that it’s time to back-off and reassess the situation. Doing this I’ve successfully steered myself away from extremes on both the left and right, pursuing a middle path that in retrospect is uniquely my own.

Whale Wars chronicles the attempts of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to shut down the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica using “direct action” – actively intervening to stop the whaling ships using tactics that push the legal line. Reviews of the show tend to fall along typical political lines with the New York Times and other liberal media outlets praising the show and the right-leaning Wall Street Journal criticizing it.

Most of the large scale whaling that is still conducted in the world is done by the Japanese. Japan’s whaling is based on a cultural argument that whaling is essential to Japanese culture. “Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chips.”

As Greenpeace Japan notes, this is a load of whale crap. Whale meat played a minor role in the Japanese diet until after World War 2 when it overtook all other protein sources, its consumption peaking in 1962. This was by necessity since Japan could not afford to import other protein sources and lacked a domestic meat industry that could supply its booming population. Since then Japan has developed internal poultry and pork industries and secured beef imports from the US, Australia and South American.

As a result whale meat has been in decline, even after a concerted effort by the Japanese government to encourage its consumption. The Japanese government has a poor record of encouraging the public to eat what it doesn’t want to eat. In the 1990’s the Japanese government, under pressure from trading partners, allowed the import of rice which the Japanese shunned. The Japanese consumers viewed domestically produced rice as much more fundamental to their culture than whale meat and avoided it, leading the Japanese government to give away the imported rice to North Korea and other nations as food aid.

In short Japan’s population doesn’t need to eat whale meat today because there are cheaper and more sustainable alternatives. In fact surveys show that the Japanese public does not want to eat whale meat no matter how much its government promotes it. Without the support of the Japanese government Japanese whaling companies would go bankrupt. In the end a free market would end a practice faster than shipfuls of pissed off “whale lovers” throwing urine bombs. But given continued government sponsorship of whaling, the actions by those “whale lovers”can be justifiably condoned.

Yet the argument that whaling is uneconomic without government support is a weak one. All it would take is a whale meat fad to sweep Japan and the whaling ships would take to the oceans again. Karl Marx believed that all human activity could be explained by economic theory – particularly his own version of economic history, so it’s important for conservatives to avoid making the same mistakes Marx made when justifying our beliefs.

In his book “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,” Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush makes the conservative case for animal rights. The basis for Scully’s case is stewardship, that we have a moral duty towards animals to treat them with respect and as humanely as possible. This perspective differs from the “animal rights” groups which view the rights of animals as intrinsic to animals. “What the PETA crowd doesn’t understand,” Jonah Goldberg wrote, “or what it deliberately confuses, is that human compassion toward animals is an obligation of humans, not an entitlement for animals.”

The idea that animal stewardship derives from humans rankles animal rights groups on one hand, but on the other hand threatens the industries built on animal exploitation. America’s animal shelters are overrun with unwanted dogs and cats, yet there is an entire industry devoted to breeding these animals. The annual celebration of this industry, the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship is even hosted on Animal Planet.

Animal Stewardship does not make one a vegan. Apes have evolved an omnivorous diet over tens of millions of years. We can’t deny our own biological heritage just because it’s inconvenient to our ideals, but some will try. They may choose to attempt to pursue a vegan lifestyle; personally I have no problem with tearing into a steak. But I want to see the animal that I eat treated well and killed mercifully. This puts me at odds with the beef, pork and poultry industries in the USA that cram chickens and cows into cages just as much as it disgusts the vegans who throw paint on people wearing fur or torch mountain resorts.

I have no problems with hunters who eat what they kill. I do have a problem with men who shoot up the countryside on a weekend bender – drunks with guns. Life is precious and should be treated as such, and I have no respect for a man who shoots something for “sport” and leaves it to rot. If conservatives don’t conserve life, what do we conserve?

So I find myself to the right of PETA and to the left of BeefUSA thanks to my inner compass and my kittens. In case you are wondering their mother has an appointment to be spayed after they are weaned. In the meantime their litterboxes get cleaned, they are fed twice daily and treated with the care that my responsibility for them demands.

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  1. Valley Nature Center renovations to benefit wildlife at challenger accident:

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  2. ivorydog:

    “ut I want to see the animal that I eat treated well and killed mercifully. This puts me at odds with the beef, pork and poultry industries in the USA that cram chickens and cows into cages”

    Although I will not deny that cruelty exists within the US livestock sector it is by no means the norm. Please do not assume that because animals are kept in large numbers on modern farms that this prevents the animals being treated humanely and compassionately.

    Many people who live in urban settings have the idea that “small family farms” are somehow nicer, more humane than their larger cousins. This is far from reality.

    It is not the system that determines whether an animal is treated humanely, but the stockman. A good stockman who has 10,000 pigs or 100,000 chickens to care for will treat his animals well, not because it is the most economically viable option but because it is not in his nature to do otherwise. A poor stockman’s animals will suffer whether he has 10 or 100,000.

    Animal rights supporters who criticize the use of animals for food on the grounds of “cruelty” and “torture” do so not out of compassion for the animals, but because their own sensibilities are offended, and their ubiquitous desire to equate animals to humans.

    In the animal activists world “compassion” means to treat an animal as if it were human, yet what is appropriate for a human is not necessarily appropriate for a pig, cow or chicken. Therefore, the most humane way to treat an animal is to know its wants and needs and to treat it accordingly.

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  4. Scott Kirwin:

    There has always been a tendency to romanticize Nature – probably since we started conquering it with civilization 10,000 years ago. Animal researchers are taught early-on the pitfalls of anthropomorphizm, but PETA and the most extreme animal rights organizations evidently aren’t familiar with the concept in the least.

    You’ve raised some good points; what’s appropriate for a chicken isn’t necessarily what we think it is. It reminds me of when we were flying our cats from Japan to the USA. The Wife wanted to put each into the largest pet carrier we could find. A vet explained to us that cats feel more secure in small spaces and recommended small carriers. It turns out the Wife was projecting her own feelings of claustrophobia on the cats.

  5. mijnheer:

    All sentient beings (those who are conscious and can experience pleasure and pain) who are at least reasonably healthy wish to keep on living. That is the nature of life. There is no “anthropomorphism” in that claim. As biological omnivores, we humans can choose to eat either meat or plants. The fact that we can survive and flourish on a vegetarian diet means that saying it’s “natural” to eat meat does not solve the ethical issue. As the ancient-Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote, “But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh, we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that portion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.”

  6. Bea Elliott:

    I have to agree with mijnheer that the killing and eating of animals is totally unnecessary – Therefore it is a perfect opportunity to extend compassion to sentient life. I don’t believe that compassion is “treating animals as humans” – but I do think it is the ability to do the minimum harm to innocent creatures. Surely killing them without “necessity” would fall in that standard. There are over 50,000 food items that do not include animal suffering – With that in mind it is difficult (if not impossible) to justify killing cows, pigs and chickens. If one chooses to do such the “compassion” they show is in word only – not in deed and action. go vegan 🙂

  7. Scott Kirwin:

    The Jainists were 2000 years ahead of Plutarch when it comes to avoid harming living things. Buddha himself was greatly influenced by their traditions but disagreed with their extreme ascetism.

    What is the definition of sentient life – and who gives you the right to define it that way? What about plants? Aren’t they alive and possibly sentient? If there is a line that separates animals, which should not be harmed, and plants which are fair game, who draws it? Obviously a line must be drawn otherwise our bodies suffer because we need to eat – and causing suffering even to our own bodies is still causing suffering. That’s a contradiction that Buddha himself realized after his own experiment with ascetism.

    Speaking of the Buddha, whether or not he ate meat is a controversial question. According to various scriptural sources, he did eat meat as long as it met conditions including avoidance of meat from the following animals: humans, elephants and horses (considered royal animals at the time), dogs (considered disgusting by ordinary people), and snakes, lions, tigers, panthers, bears and hyenas (because the smell of the flesh would invite revenge by members of their species. Source: http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/ebud/ebsut034.htm

    Source: http://fwbo.org/articles/eat_meat.html

    Buddha and his followers did eat meat so long as certain conditions were met. These conditions were that a monk should not have seen, heard, nor have any reason to suspect, that the meat was from an animal killed specifically for him. If these three conditions were met then the meat was said to be ‘blameless’.

    What’s interesting is that according to these conditions, the Buddha could barbecue a steak from the grocery store because the cow was not killed specifically for him!

    If you are comfortable pursuing a vegan lifestyle, more power to you. You have the liberty to not eat meat. Where the conflict between conservatives and vegans comes in is when the vegan lifestyle is forced upon non-vegans. As Buddha’s experience shows, meat eating is an issue with a long philosophical pedigree that bumpersticker slogans like “Meat is Murder” do not do justice.

  8. mijnheer:

    Scott Kirwin: According to the dictionary (OED in particular), to be sentient is to have the power of perception by means of the senses—in other words, to have sensory subjective awareness. That typically implies having enough consciousness to be able to experience pain and/or pleasure, and that’s how the word is commonly used by philosophers. There is very good scientific evidence to believe that mammals and birds are sentient, and indeed probably all vertebrates. There is good reason to believe that octopuses and squid are sentient, but the evidence is less clear for other invertebrates. There is good scientific reason to believe that plants are not sentient. So the “rocket science” is basically in line with ordinary common sense. A dog or a cow is a “someone”; a cabbage or a geranium is no one.

    Even if the Buddha would say that every one of us is, strictly speaking, “no one”, he would agree that we sentient human and non-human animals can suffer. Plants cannot suffer. If you doubt that, take it up with scientists and philosophers. I think the Buddha was a wise and inspiring teacher, but he was not omniscient, and I wouldn’t blindly take his word about anything (nor would he want anyone to). A good place to start looking for the intersection of science and morality here might be the book Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, by James Rachels. And you might find this book on the philosophical debate about the moral status of animals to be of interest too:

  9. Scott Kirwin:

    Whether or not plants are sentient, the avoidance of suffering cannot be your only criteria for selecting what you can or cannot eat. First it implies that suffering is always something that must be avoided, yet women bear children and choose to endure some of the greatest suffering imaginable. Second it implies that suffering can always be avoided – yet life is full of no-win situation where any decision or choice results in suffering (abortion comes quickest to mind). Finally it would allow you to eat roadkill or animals who died from natural causes since their suffering was not caused by the butcher. Yet I have yet to see such scavenged meat marketed towards vegans.

    The basis of veganism is philosophy – a philosophy that believes it is possible to thrive without causing suffering to any sentient being, so you cannot so easily brush aside the philosophical aspect of your lifestyle.

    One more thing; the Buddha was not omniscient but he came pretty close – at least to those of us who profess his faith. Can he be wrong? Yes. Is it likely? No.

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  11. Sherry Johnson:

    Anywhere animals are killed or used as sport or business, you’ll see sociopathic tendencies. Assembly line killing/factory farming attracts a certain type of worker, and it’s business. That’s why it’s so easy for the Humane Society or other animal protection groups to gather video evidence of wretches abusing animals. I’m a vegan and to the right on many issues.

  12. hohi:

    i do love the way you have framed this specific matter.

  13. Ellie D.:

    Thank you so much for creating this blog! I am doing a school project on animal cruelty and this helped a lot!

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