By THEO ROBIE
NANJING — I recently had the displeasure of viewing a documentary entitled “Speciesism.” In it, the director uses interviews with ‘experts’ and footage from the field to make the argument that there is no moral justification for any sort of line separating humans from other animals, and it is impossible to justify being anything but a complete vegan, or one who consumes no animal products at all. Anyone who is not a vegan is a “speciesist” (think racist or sexist). When I watched the film, I actually found myself challenged at first by the arguments he made. It is indeed difficult to justify the chicken noodle soup I ate for lunch today, just as it is difficult to justify the pork dumplings I’m going to eat for breakfast tomorrow. But I’m still going to do it, and here’s why.
After thinking about his arguments, I decided you can draw a line between humans and other animals, and you can to do it by talking about the very thing that the director of “Speciesism” believes animals should have: Rights. Everyone loves rights, but most people forget that for there to even be rights, there must inversely be duties. Any right inherently comes with a duty for others to uphold it. If not a duty to act, then at least a duty to respect the right in question. I can’t claim a right to life if I’m walking around murdering people. In fact, if I do murder someone, I give up my right to life. That person can kill me in self-defense, and the State could give me the death penalty. My right is taken away, because I have clearly shown that I do not have the duty that goes with it. Rights and duties are things that can only be utilized when dealing with those whom we know also utilize them. If you, the reader of this article, were alone on this planet, you would not have any rights. This is because there is nobody else around with the duty to uphold your rights. In the presence of another human, however, you do have rights. Even at the most basic, negative level, you can expect that the other person will not kill you. But let’s say you go on an African safari and sit down next to a lion. Can you hold these same expectations? Of course not. On the contrary, you can expect that lion to rip your head off. After which, I would approach the director of the film “Speciesism” and ask him what should become of the lion, your murderer. Surely, if that lion is supposed to be enjoying the same rights as you (and inversely must hold the same duties), then it ought to be incarcerated. He may reply with something like: “The lion was hungry, he’s a wild animal. That’s just what lions do.” Stop right there… so animals have rights, but no duties? They are morally equal to ourselves, but blameless in their actions? If we are to give, say, sea lions the same rights that we have, then we must surely prosecute the sharks who hunt them. We can charge them with something clever, like Conspiracy to Eat Dinner (punishable by electric chair). What about the snake who committed premeditated first degree murder when it squeezed the rabbit to death and swallowed it whole? What about the mosquito who committed assault and battery on me last night? Is that just what these animals do? Well eating pork dumplings is what I do, and they’re delicious.
The director of “Speciesism” recorded several interactions with carnivorous pedestrians, trapping them by asking what makes us different than, say, a cow. Being completely unprepared, they all came back with: “we’re smarter,” to which the director, expecting exactly that, stated that we are also smarter than children and the mentally handicapped, but they still have rights. Again, stop right there. Since when do mentally challenged people and children have the same rights as us? They can’t drive, they can’t drink, they can’t work, they can’t own firearms… some people are completely insane and can’t even live with us, but rather must live in white padded rooms with strait jackets on. And as for children, at least they have the capacity to develop duties. That’s why they get spanked, sent to timeout, suspended and grounded when they mess up. Animals don’t even get detention. Why must animals have equal rights when not even all humans do?
Why is it so hard for people to accept that it is natural for us to be biased toward our own species? That we are all naturally “Speciesist?” If a human were walking past a pond and came upon a cat and another human drowning, and it was decided he or she only has the time to save one, is asking which one they would pick even a real question? The obvious choice is the human. The reason, perhaps, seems not to be so clear for some people. But it’s just what we do.
I believe protecting animals is important. I believe it is wrong to treat them poorly, and I recognize that many farming practices are unethical. Treating animals well and changing these practices is a nice thing to do, and we humans can ensure this by voting with our dollars at the market, for ethically produced products. But being a vegan is not a moral necessity. I have no duty to extend rights to something that lacks the capacity to extend them to me. Whether I do so or not is my choice. And that’s what makes us different. Humans alone have duties, making the inverse inescapable: We alone have rights.