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PETA's Sinister Interpretation of Animal "Rights"

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Animals will never have the right to euthanize PETA's founder, Ingrid Newkirk. This, arguably, is the intellectual flaw at the core of her special interpretation of animal rights. For PETA, it is a political movement primarily focused on the right to determine when and how an animal should die. The decision is never reciprocal, however: Newkirk has the right to kill -- and PETA has killed tens of thousands of pets -- but her own life is protected by law.

People naturally assume that the animal rights movement is simply an extension of the human rights movement, and that it was developed by analogy. PETA's variant certainly employs some of the same language: they often refer to animal "slavery," and in fact recently attempted to use the 13th Amendment in a legal effort to free five orcas from SeaWorld.

The lawsuit was ridiculed on The Daily Show, and died a swift and sorry death in the courtroom, but shows that PETA does sometimes adhere to Newkirk's famous equation: "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

In practice, however, PETA's version of animal rights tends to differ from the human-rights approach of the American abolitionists. If the men and woman who fought to end black slavery had embraced Ingrid Newkirk's methods, for instance, they would have taken great pride in killing slaves.

More: they would have spent a lot of time fighting bitterly for their right to kill slaves. Slavery, they would have argued, is cruel. (Decent people agree.) Hence, the enslaved are better off dead. (Decent people part ways here.)

This is precisely Newkirk's argument when it comes to the rights of animal "slaves." You may find it hard to believe, but animals -- according to the dominant stream of animal rights activism, promoted by Newkirk -- do not have the right to life.

Those who donate to PETA are almost never aware of this, but Ingrid Newkirk has said as much, in a postcard to Nathan Winograd, who leads the No Kill movement: "We do not advocate 'right to life' for animals." And she has followed up her words with a deft hypodermic: PETA has slaughtered over 27,000 pets.

When her organization was found dumping the corpses of dogs and cats -- some of them perfectly healthy and adoptable before being killed -- Newkirk stood her ground at a press conference: "PETA believes euthanasia is the kindest gift to a dog or cat unwanted and unloved."

Newkirk's thinking derives from the work of Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher who first addressed the concept of animal liberation. Improbably enough, his political theory is also careful to deny animals the right to life.

Peter Singer is distressingly consistent: He denies this right to humans as well. "The fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life."

Ingrid Newkirk's intellectual mentor uses the terms "we" and "normal" in ways I find difficult to embrace. Here the word "we" certainly does not include me, for instance: "If we had to choose to save the life of the normal human being or a mentally defective human being, we would probably choose to save the life of the normal one."

It is hardly surprising that Peter Singer is reviled by advocates for the mentally and physically disabled. His theory of euthanasia generously extends to the disabled at birth: "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all."

These days, arguments over the right to life are generally focused on abortion, but make no mistake: here we are unambiguously discussing infanticide.

Singer insists that this reasoning be taken in context; in particular you must know what he means by a "person." Feel free to examine that definition, and determine whether he is suggesting anything less repulsive.

Suffice it to say that mainstream political philosophy rarely arrives at these conclusions, even if they are rightly identified as the bastard spawn of the most vulgar and simplistic utilitarians.

Mankind has been speaking in terms of "rights" for at least five hundred years. The Renaissance notion of human rights grew out of medieval theories of natural law, and I am happy to have a regional connection to one of its signal moments: I live in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, adjacent to the state of Chiapas, where the Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, was the first prominent advocate in history to argue in terms of "equal rights."

Las Casas was the Bishop of Chiapas in the 16th century, and the officially designated "Protector of the Indians." He in fact owned slaves, but came to the conclusion -- then unthinkable -- that the indigenous people of the New World were fully human. While the Conquistadors were still engaged in "the longest rape in history," Las Casas freed his slaves and returned to the Spanish court, where he argued for the abolition of Indian slavery and advocated equal rights for the conquered.

The philosophy of rights crystalized in the Enlightenment, and John Locke's famous triad -- "life, liberty and estate" -- ultimately found expression in an even more famous triad, the inalienable rights of man in the Declaration of Independence: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Now which of these rights is not considered inalienable by Ingrid Newkirk?

PETA's "animal rights" group was perhaps fated from the start to veer in the direction of death, because it inherited this theoretical flaw from Peter Singer: a concept of rights with a terrible hole at the core. The right that she would like to deny animals in her scheme -- and that Peter Singer would like to strip from disabled babies -- is the one without which the structure implodes: the right to life.

Without this most basic foundational concept, the very notion of "rights" becomes meaningless. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" implies a hierarchy: liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rather empty concepts in the absence of life.

Likewise, for humans, happiness presupposes liberty. This is not always true of domestic animals, who -- despite Newkirk's efforts to liberate them -- are sometimes miserable in a state of freedom. (She does occasionally recognize this, in order to distort and exploit the difference: it is the central argument behind her campaign to slaughter feral cats.)

The crucial point is this: if I can take your life from you, arbitrarily, at a moment of my choosing, then any other rights you are said to have are worthless.

A possible exception is the right to bequeath your estate, but this is not really helpful if you are a domestic animal. A puppy can inherit his mother's bowl after she is dispatched by Newkirk? Valuable only if the puppy is not also subject to arbitrary "euthanasia."

In short: Ingrid Newkirk's concept of animal rights has nothing whatsoever in common with mainstream human-rights theory, and is in fact a deeply perverted reordering of the priorities we take for granted.

Newkirk should of course be using less deceptive language, but the term "rights" is money in the bank: people donate to PETA under the false assumption that the most fundamental right is included in the package.

These people are not paying attention. There is more than a suggestion in PETA's official materials, for instance, of their belief that the pursuit of happiness is consummated in death. A painless death is the end of unhappiness, so this qualifies in some sick way as joy: "For Pepper," a dog put down by PETA, "euthanasia was a sweet release from the painful existence that she'd endured for so long."

Now, Pepper may well have been one of the relatively few dogs whose killing was ethical: which is to say, actual euthanasia. The photographs all show eminently curable maladies -- dehydration, emaciation, various infections -- but PETA tells us that Pepper also suffered from cancer, and this may have been true.

If true, then euthanizing Pepper was not slaughter, even if decent people might find this description more than a little nauseating: "PETA's fieldworker stayed with Pepper as she peacefully slipped away from this world."

It is important to note that these death-dealers do not have a monopoly on the concept of animal rights. While many people -- myself included -- prefer to speak in terms of "animal welfare," Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Community insists upon rights-based language, for complex and interesting reasons.

He has yet to convince me, but I certainly do not reject his approach out of hand, because -- like all respectable rights theorists -- he considers the right to life paramount. It is safe to say that it matters to him, deeply: because the creatures he is trying to rescue matter.

Conversely, Peter Singer's arid, death-tilted notion of animal rights may derive from a deep failing as a human being: animals do not matter to him. He has admitted as much: "We are not especially 'interested in' animals. Neither of us had ever been inordinately fond of dogs, cats, or horses in the way that many people are. We didn't 'love' animals."

This is why I would argue that Peter Singer is not qualified to think or speak on behalf of animals, despite his punctilious reasoning. He does not care enough about the creatures whose status he would like to define. He is not interested in them. He does not love them. Hence they do not matter to him sufficiently to constitute a proper subject of inquiry.

Here, most analytic philosophers would dismiss me as sentimental and poorly educated: philosophy is a question of reason, not emotion. It certainly has nothing to do with love (despite the etymology of the word).

The Ancients differed. Philosophers of course always differ -- they differ in perspective and sensibility and stature -- and both Plato and Peter Singer are philosophers, in the sense that a giant redwood and a radish are both plants. In contrast to the average modern thinker, Plato could not have imagined access to the truth in the absence of love.

Newkirk's seeming indifference to domestic dogs and cats is chilling. It is not simply that she kills them so easily. She just does not appear to like them very much: in her ideal world, "eventually companion animals would be phased out, and we would return to a more symbiotic relationship -- enjoyment at a distance."

This is a peculiar understanding of "symbiotic," which generally implies the opposite of distance. But then, Ingrid Newkirk has her own special way of using words (like "rights" and "ethical").

Nathan Winograd points out that distance is not conducive to sympathy: spending time with domesticated animals is what develops compassion for creatures in the wild. It contributes to real animal rights, of the life-based sort.

Of course, you have to actually enjoy the experience. Photographs of Newkirk posing with a puppy -- inevitably somebody else's -- are often somewhat creepy: she tends to look deeply uncomfortable, and you cannot imagine her holding the dog for any longer than is required for the publicity shoot.

We can argue about whether passion is appropriate to philosophy, but when it comes to the question of activism -- a lifetime of selfless devotion to a cause -- the last person you want to have advocating on your behalf is someone who simply does not care about you. The world's domestic creatures suffered a grotesque misfortune when Ingrid Newkirk, of all people, decided to become their champion.

She does say some rousing things. These words may not be much help to dogs and cats, but they are the kind of words people like to hear from revolutionaries. This, for instance, is a longer version of the Newkirk quotation excerpted above: "There's no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They're all animals."

Meanwhile, Newkirk's very being -- even though she insists that these rights are irrational -- is protected by powerful documents, written by humans for humans, which enshrine her right to life. A right that she has no desire to extend to her canine comrades, however equal.

The truth, of course, is that dogs -- even if I find them in every single respect more lovable than Newkirk -- are not her functional equal. Moreover, this inequality is her friend. Ingrid Newkirk's life is protected by the law, yes, but also very much by the fact that dogs are not vengeful, do not read minor philosophers, and tend to be clumsy with a syringe.

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You can read Douglas Cooper's serial exposé of PETA's pet-killing practices starting here.