The Question of Animal Rights

By Parth Maniktala

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The Holocaust was without question one of the greatest tragedies of modern history. Even using the broadest parameters, the death toll was around 6 million Jews, 17 million victims overall. Soviet Gulag Camps, regarded as embodiments of the greatest forms of human cruelty registered a death toll of over a million. The bone-chilling dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 people in Nagasaki. All these tragedies have collectively been regarded as blots on the consciousness of current-day civilization. We have deeply mourned these catastrophes and made global pacts and assurances to prevent similar horrors from reoccurring. However, there is a genocide that is occurring on a daily basis, and we’re all partaking in it. Estimates suggest that over 56 billion farmed animals are killed every year by humans. These figures do not even include fish and other sea creatures whose deaths are so great they are only measured in tonnes. The fact that despite all our rhetoric of valuing life and preventing tragedies, we’re all complacent and complicit in this mass extermination of billions of living beings is truly worrying.

At the very outset, this article deserves a clarification. At no point am I implying that the aforementioned human tragedies ought not be regarded as the saddest, most unpleasant moments of our history. I don’t intend to insinuate that victims of any human catastrophe can be overlooked (in our prioritization of animals), or that these victims don’t deserve our deepest sympathies and collective help. All I seek to argue is that there is a clear moral dichotomy when we regard one loss of life as tragic (in case of humans), and another as conveniently acceptable (in case of animals).

In 2004, PETA launched the Holocaust on Your Plate campaign, which sought to create awareness about animal oppression by juxtaposing images of animals in slaughterhouses and factory farms with images of humans in Nazi concentration camps. The display was inspired by a passage from Nobel-prize–winning Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book, The Letter Writer: “In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” The campaign unsurprisingly became a center of controversy, and was banned by Germany’s high court, stating that it would have made “the fate of the victims of the Holocaust appear banal and trivial.” However, the moral question posed by the campaign remains significant. It urged us to create valid differentiation between the sufferings of two living beings; how is it that we can entirely condone the killing of a being just because they occupy a different shape from ours?

Historically, arguments used to justify the denial of rights to blacks and women have shown similar character to those used by contemporary animal rights deniers. These have been appeals to arbitrary biological standards that have then been made grounds for exclusion from basic fundamental rights. Even if one were to attribute absolute validity to this claim that humans are superior to animals, I clearly fail to see how that can be a justification for us oppressing them. Jeff Bezos (with his current net worth of $106 billion) is certainly economically superior to a slum dweller in Dharavi, but that in no way would be morally or legally legitimate grounds for Bezos to oppress the poor individual. Similarly, the bulky high school thug is clearly physically superior to say, a lanky teenage lad; that too would not be valid reason to justify the bullying. All arguments that attribute to human superiority as justification for us killing animals invariably stem from the moral compass that justifies an absolute oppression of the vulnerable (for no good reason other than their weakness).

“Jeff Bezos, for example, with his current net worth of $106 billion, is certainly economically superior to a slum dweller in Dharavi, but that in no way would be morally or legally legitimate grounds for Bezos to oppress the poor individual. Similarly, the bulky high school thug is clearly physically superior to say, a lanky teenage lad; that too would not be valid reason to justify the bullying.”

In the words of Gary Smith, “150 years ago, they would have thought you were absurd if you advocated for the end of slavery. 100 years ago, they would have laughed at you for suggesting that women should have the right to vote. 50 years ago, they would object to the idea of African Americans receiving equal rights under the law. 25 years ago they would have called you a pervert if you advocated for gay rights. They laugh at us now for suggesting that animal slavery be ended. Some day they won't be laughing.” The reason the notion of animal slavery might not seem morally abhorrent to most is that we’re so detached from the entire process of obtaining a non-vegetarian meal. For a regular meat eater, ordering a mutton burger is a perfectly sanitized everyday experience. But if I were to ask an individual to be completely involved in that process--snatching a lamb from its wailing mother, constantly impregnating it to ensure the Ewes produces enough milk, subjecting it to the torturous procedure of mulesing to prevent fly-strike, and ultimately brutally slaughtering it for meat-- it’s possible the individual might have qualms eating the mutton burger then. The argument here is that for far too long we’ve been in oblivion of the brutality of the entire process because we’re just exposed to the sanitized restaurant that serves us a sophisticated non-vegetarian meal (without any ethical reminder of the process involved).

The Way Ahead

We must truly be willing to confront the moral cost of our lifestyle patterns, and most importantly be held accountable for the distinction we draw between human life and animal life. If the killing of 6 million humans is regarded as the worst human tragedy, and the annual butchering of 56 billion farmed animals is an issue not even worth discussing, there is some serious flaw with our moral compass.

Views expressed are personal.

About the Author

Parth Maniktala is a student of literature at Hansraj College, Delhi University. He is the current President of the Hansraj College Debating Society. Parth has been recognized as one of Asia’s top 10 speakers at the United Asians Debating Championship held in Cambodia in 2017. He has also been the chief adjudicator of the annual national schools debating championship of Nepal. Apart from debating, he has a keen interest in cinema and literature. He has in the past served as the literary editor of his school magazine.

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