Social justice for all beings on this Earth

2013-10-09 00:00

THINK about a dog called Pippa. Abused, and then rescued by the Pietermaritzburg SPCA, she was terrified, dirty and thin, but only too eager to trust, co-operate and share her life with her new caring family. She has learnt many words and actions, which bring immense excitement and pleasurable anticipation, like to fetch her ball, what a lead means, and to respond immediately when her people appear in walking shoes.

Pippa is, quite obviously, a sentient being, capable of experiencing both pleasure and pain. She is also an individual, a valued and happy member of a family, giving as much pleasure to her cats and humans as she receives. She is a “somebody” not a “something”.

Then think of countless animals subjected to life in cages in zoos and medical experimental laboratories, made to perform unnatural tricks in circuses, and continually moved in cramped containers. All this cruelty apparently justified by the argument that it is necessary for scientific research, or that the animals are well fed and therefore don’t mind. Despite sharing this planet with thousands of non-human species, until very recently we have been almost totally unmoved by the cruel treatment and violence inflicted by humans on these fellow creatures.

In the 17th century, the philosopher Rene Descartes experimented on live dogs with no qualms as he asserted that they were incapable of suffering. Most people regarded animals as lower beings, lacking sentience, regarding their existence and welfare as entirely for the benefit of superior humans, to be exploited and used without regard for their intrinsic value.

This mindset persisted until 19th-century philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill recognised the ethical implications that animals were capable of suffering. This challenged the traditional anthropocentric view of the centrality and superiority of humans. Thinkers such as animal rights advocate Peter Singer, Jacques Derrida and South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, are at the forefront of advocating animal rights.

This paradigm shift prompted the recognition that the boundaries between human and non-human species are far more permeable than previously thought, demonstrated, for example, by the discovery that chimpanzees share 98,5% of their DNA with humans. Scientific studies of animal intelligence reveal remarkable abilities in many animals, from elephants, to dogs, dolphins and whales, and even parrots and crows, trashing the pejorative term “bird brain”. These studies also revealed the emotional lives of animals; their ability to experience pleasure, anticipation, fear, foreboding, as well as their remarkably long memories.

In discussing human attitudes to animals, there are some fundamental differences between those advocating animal “rights”, and those who maintain concern for animal “welfare” offers sufficient protection for animals.

The basic tenet of animal rights theory is that animals as sentient beings should never be reduced simply to the status of a useful resource, and so may not be treated as existing merely for the benefit of humans. They have a right not to be tortured, confined, eaten, hunted for sport, raised or trapped for their fur, or trained to perform in circuses to entertain humans. Respect for their wellbeing is a matter of justice, not merely compassion.

The term “speciesism” means the assumption that humans are superior to all other living organisms, and have the right to exploit and dispose of them at will, without any regard for the suffering inflicted.

Animal welfare, on the other hand, is mainly concerned with preventing suffering and cruelty, generally allowing some human exploitation of animals as long as “humane” guidelines are followed. The main concern of animal welfare is the funding and running of animal shelters as sanctuaries for abandoned, abused animals, attempting to re-home them in caring environments, providing a very important service to counter the all-too-frequent abuse of animals in an ostensibly civilised society. But many activists argue this agenda does not go far enough to provide real protection for animals.

Although many animal rights activists believe that even the existence of domestic and companion animals should be abandoned as exploitation infringing their fundamental rights, my feeling is that harmonious and respectful relationships between human and non-human animals offer the possibility of mutually beneficial enrichment.

History records accounts of animals displaying curiosity about humans and initiating contact with them: dolphins approaching swimming people and even apparently rendering assistance to those in difficulty, wolves adopting human children, elephants presenting their young to humans they have come to trust, early accounts of wild dogs and cats attaching themselves to human communities. These encounters appear to indicate that even “wild” animals are capable and desirous of relationships with humans, which at times look very much like friendship. There appears to me no doubt that much can be learnt and gained from this type of freely established communication.

As John Muir, an American pioneer of environmental conservation, maintained: “Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way”.

However, I would suggest that both rights and welfare advocates should work together in urging the United Nations officially to acknowledge animals as “sentient beings whose wellbeing matters”. It is imperative that South Africa and all responsible citizens should recognise the necessity of social justice for all animals.

This is not merely sentimental bunny hugging. Human rights, animal rights and environmental rights are inextricably linked. Reverence for the creative spirit within all life will help achieve healing for the Earth.

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