Animal Welfare Versus Animal Rights
A reply to Matthew Scully


The ideal I wish to advance — indeed, to conserve — is “human exceptionalism,” that is, the unique moral status of human life. It is remarkable that our exceptional natures require defense. After all, what other species in the known history of life has attained the wondrous capacities of human beings? What other species has transcended the tooth-and-claw world of naked natural selection to the point that, at least to some degree, we now control nature instead of being controlled by it? What other species builds civilizations, records history, creates art, makes music, thinks abstractly, envisions and fabricates machinery, improves life through science and engineering, or explores the deeper truths found in philosophy and religion? What other species rescues injured animals instead of ignoring or eating them? What other species has true freedom? Perhaps most crucially, what other species can be held to moral account?

Human exceptionalism increasingly is criticized as arrogant and hubristic, spurring us to mistreat animals and despoil the planet. I believe the contrary is true. Indeed, if being human isn’t what gives us the duty to treat animals properly, what in the world does?

I conclude my book responding to the charge that animal domestication is an evil:

Human slavery was (and is) pure evil. Keeping elephants and zebras in properly designed and maintained zoos and animal parks is not. The Rwandan and Cambodian genocides were acts of pure evil. Humanely slaughtering millions of animals to provide the multitudes with nourishing and good-tasting food and durable clothing is not. Mengele’s lethal experimentation on identical twins at Auschwitz was truly heinous. Testing new drugs or surgical procedures on animals to save children’s lives and improve human (and animal) thriving is both morally beneficent and ethically justified. 

As Washington Post writer Michael Gerson once put it, “I remain convinced that equating animal rights and human rights does nothing to serve either cause.” I don’t see any other way to look at it. Properly directed, our love for animals is a healthy expression of empathy, as well as a potent measure of our success as a society. But this devotion must not include viewing animals as if they were people. After years of research into this field, I am convinced that if we ever come to think of ourselves as merely another animal in the forest, that is precisely how we will act.

*   *   *

Matthew Scully replies: Even as he responds to the charge of resorting to euphemism to excuse cruel and tawdry things, Wesley Smith gives us yet another one in the case of those elephants he mentions: We’re not to think of these creatures as being shot and killed by trophy hunters, but merely as being “taken in the parks.”

The experiment Smith has “never heard of” is described on pages 74 and 75 of his own book, and his words are just as I quoted them in my review. The chimpanzees were strapped down (“held motionless,” as he puts it), and as experimenters prepared to slice their limbs and sever their nerves, Smith insists that they were still “seated quietly, not struggling.” The violence of the scene, until the primates were finally killed and discarded, is quickly passed over, with Smith’s usual assurances that humanity was served and the details are no concern of ours.

As for the rest of his piece, it is enough to say that after his initial disappointment Smith managed to get the rave review he was expecting in NR — by writing it himself, complete with extended quotes and compliments on the “judicious” tone of the work. Instead of engaging, much less rebutting, a single conservative challenge to his defense of factory farming, fur trapping, and other abuses, he simply reassembles his straw men, assailing nonsense theories like “speciesism,” holding forth on his theme of “exceptionalism,” and professing concern for animal welfare while declining once again to specify a single reform he would support.

One interesting admission is that Smith considers his writings a “forum” for animal-use industries. Perhaps this explains why he never dares to criticize any industry or trade group, and why in his book they are singled out only to be thanked for so “selflessly” assisting with the project.

– Mr. Smith is a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute, and the author of the just-published A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement.

March 22, 2010    |     Volume LXII, No. 5

  • The political difference between Reagan and Obama is that the former gave the public what it wanted.
  • For employers who want to test job applicants, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
  • In Montana, medical-marijuana regulation threatens to shut down the most legitimate tier of operators.
  • A Cuban prisoner of conscience and an extreme method.
Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .