Should Humanism Extend to Animal Rights?

There’s a wonderful scene in the beginning of the film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in which a large group of apes ambushes a herd of elk. The result is enough food for the whole community. The rest of the elk run free. The balance of nature is maintained.

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In his 1992 novel Ishmael, author Daniel Quinn describes a world where balance is key. As food supply increases so does the population. As food becomes scarce the population decreases, maintaining a delicate balance: “The creatures who act as though they belong to the world follow the peace-keeping law, and because they follow that law, they give the creatures around them a chance to grow toward whatever it's possible for them to become.” When humans first arrived on the scene, by all accounts this was pretty much how things worked. Just like the apes, hunting parties would go out and find food for their tribes. Animals would eat other animals, still others would graze the abundant vegetation. There was enough balance for most; some died out while others thrived. But then things changed. As we humans continued to grow in both numbers and intelligence, we started to take over. We began to own other animals. We had ranches that bred cattle and other livestock. We started to change the balance. We needed more food and we were ready to get it any way we could. Not only did we breed an abundance of livestock but we discovered ways to make that livestock meatier. We have given them growth hormones and kept them in horrible conditions so that we could thrive and ultimately threaten the world with our overpopulation. How did humans rationalize this treatment of other species? We maintained that they had no sentience. We preached that animals were put on Earth for the use of humans. And, as this attitude took hold, we started using animals for more than food. We stuck them in laboratories and experimented on them in all sorts of ways for the benefit of humans. We would cure our sick by using them to find cures for diseases. We used them to test cosmetics. Before long our treatment of nonhuman animals became so devastatingly inhumane that one could argue we’ve had to simply stop seeing them as living creatures. Equally despicable is the practice of using animals solely for entertainment purposes. People flock to SeaWorld where simply in the name of “good fun” we torture highly sentient and intelligent creatures such as orcas and separate them from their loved ones abruptly and inconsolably. Let’s get back to food production. We have entered a vicious cycle of factory farming animals that has resulted in a world food shortage along with other devastating environmental effects. Not only do we raise animals in the worst conditions possible but then we have to feed those animals as well. As our population grows to untenable numbers, not only have we created a food shortage for us but for animals as well. Examining a 2013 study released by the University of Minnesota, the Daily Kos reports, “An additional 4 billion people in the world could be fed if land currently used to grow crops for livestock were given over to crops for human consumption.” Species are going extinct so that we can survive in greater and greater numbers. The food that we feed animals could be used to feed our human population if we simply stopped breeding such huge numbers of livestock. Humanists must see this as an important part of our worldview. There is no mention of vegetarianism or animal rights in Humanist Manifesto III, “Humanism and its Aspirations,” but I hope this will not be true for the next one, whenever that will be issued. Not only is it important for us as moral activists, but it is important for our survival as well. If we don’t get a handle on our food supply soon, we’ll wipe out even more species and create a world so stripped of diversity and beauty that it will no longer resemble the world we currently live in. We need to look at three areas going forward. The most important of these is food production. Once we can put forth legislation that protects animals from being abused for our food supply we need to look for alternative food supplies. I am told that our need for protein is not nearly as large as people think. In a 2012 article on the Huffington Post dietician Jessica Jones claimed: The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the average American male consumes 102 grams of protein per day, while the average female eats about 70 grams. That's almost twice the daily recommended intake established by the Food and Nutrition Board. For    most healthy individuals,  it's recommended that 10-15 percent of our daily calories come from protein (about 56 grams for men and 46 for women). This may sound like a lot, but it's easier to meet those needs than you think. Consider this: One cup of milk (8 grams), a 3-ounce piece of meat (21 grams), 1 cup of dry beans (16 grams) and an 8-ounce container of yogurt (11 grams) provide 56 grams of protein, according to the CDC. That didn't take much. Once we figure out what we really need to live, we should be focused on growing food rather than killing it. Farmers are paid huge subsidies to not grow produce and a huge amount of corn is grown to feed the livestock. We should be pushing for research and legislation that addresses these issues and figuring out how to find a better balance. According to Quinn, “In the natural community, whenever a population's food supply increases, that population increases. As that population increases, its food supply decreases, and as its food supply decreases, that population decreases. This interaction between food populations and feeder populations is what keeps everything in balance.” As soon as we are able to find a better balance and a moral attitude towards livestock and food production the way will be clear to examine our other animal abuses. We will no longer need to excuse our abominations in the name of survival. At that point it will be an easier sell to create legislation to protect animals in the other two areas: laboratories and entertainment. If we believe that our treatment of animals in food production has improved the lives of animals and humans, it will no longer be so easy to rationalize the use of animals in other areas. I’m an Ethical Culturist, and I’ve met others who will not call themselves humanists, arguing that humanism is too Homo sapiens-centered. To live an ethical life is to respect and honor all life. To rid ourselves of feelings of superiority to the rest of the natural world and rather to see our intellect and ability to manipulate our environment as a responsibility to respect and protect those that do not have our particular gifts—that is my idea of humanism.Tags: ,