Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.
~ Mark Twain, American author (1835–1910)
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. ~ 1 Cor 13:6, NIV
Rev. Michael P. Orsi recently wrote an article, “The Nonhuman Animal” for American Spectator. In his article he supports the findings of Wesley Smith’s book, A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement. The title is derived from something stated by Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who actually said: “When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Ignoring the original purpose of that statement, Orsi goes on to call the term “animal rights” oxymoronic. Taken at the root, “oxy” indicates pointed or acute and “moronic” indicates foolish or stupid; the term is usually used to indicate a contradiction in terminology. According to Smith, animals cannot have rights because 1) they are amoral and 2) they cannot bear obligations. He fails to address the basis of animal rights as sentience, that animals can feel and therefore are worthy of consideration. Orsi too is stuck in archaic thinking as demonstrated by his referring to an animal as ”it,”, thus immediately objectifying animals:
Thus, an animal’s awareness of its surroundings or its impulses — to whatever limited degree it can be aware — is sufficient to imbue it with rights equal to those of human beings.
Given that human beings have more than enough resources and could choose to leave animals alone yet instead choose to cause endless suffering, it is hard to see how this kind of “exceptionalism” is praiseworthy.
Nonhuman Animals as Rights Bearers
I would challenge Rev. Orsi and Wesley Smith on both counts. First, what evidence is there that animals are amoral? How many animals have risked their own lives in times of danger rather than just skedaddling (Civil War slang meaning to leave in a hurry) in order to save another human or nonhuman animal? Animals show affection and loyalty, something some of our more morally challenged fellow humans often fail to do. They are social beings who show comfort to others in their communities. Recent research continues to show us more and more that we humans tend to miss signs of intelligence, morality and sentience that are not exactly like our own. As to bearing obligations, if Smith means legal obligations within the human community, then he is right. But animals have borne endless obligations to humans, including being forced into lives of misery and servitude. Within the human-nonhuman relational construct, most humans have not borne any obligations towards nonhumans. A one-sided approach to ethics hardly seems fair, especially from a man who is a spiritual leader. Perhaps it is the very “human exceptionalism” that gives Rev. Orsi such comfort that is causing so much suffering in the world. Domination and exploitation tend to spiral outward.
Orsi fears people whom he perceives want animals to have rights comparable to human beings (voting? driving? paying the mortgage?). I have not read Smith’s book, but have heard him debate Gary Francione regarding animal rights. Smith, like Orsi, seems unaware of the plethora of evidence about the sentience of animals and takes a stand for exploitation of animals to continue without limitation. While Smith’s book does accept welfarism as legitimate, since it is part of the status quo, Smith and Orsi both believe that welfarism is doing a splendid job of keeping animals protected. Orsi seems particularly concerned with animals achieving any legal status beyond property, fearing that humans will somehow be threatened with extinction. He goes on to fear not only animal protectionists but environmental protectionists, too:
Smith doesn’t connect animal rights activism with the broader environmental movement, but the similarly anti-human aspect of the “green” agenda demonstrates a natural linkage (which would make an intriguing subject for a follow-up book). One need only look at the environmentalists’ emphasis on caring for the ecosystem while decrying the damage done to it by human beings with their infernal “carbon footprints.” Both movements seek the reduction of human presence on the planet through birth control, euthanasia, eugenics — even by starvation, if you carry the policies they advocate to their natural conclusions.
Assuming no responsibility for the tremendous suffering and destruction which human hubris has put forth on the earth, Orsi stays firmly locked into his sense of entitlement. His concern is only for the rights of humans, his rights. Yet the only right I have heard Gary Francione request on behalf of animals is their right to their very lives, the right to be free from property status. Somehow, treating animals as the living, feeling, sensitive beings that they are, threatens something deep within Smith and Orsi, causing them to make outrageous claims against both animals and the people who recognize the injustice of their current status. Orsi conclude with:
Religious leaders, especially, should take note and warn their adherents of the underlying threat that this radical movement poses to our Judeo-Christian belief system and to all human life.
Isn’t God omnipotent? Surely our little rag-tag group of Animal Rights activists pose no real threat. Once again, Orsi needs to do some research. He has missed what is happening with regard to environmental degradation, especially what animal agriculture, corporate interests and and greed are doing to the natural world. Human overpopulation and a lack of responsibility towards the earth have led us to the brink of self extinction; the vegans and animal rights folks are trying to save the world, not destroy it. If Orsi truly worships the Being he believes is the Creator of this once-magnificent planet, it would seem he would need to treat the Creation with a bit more respect. Were we not supposed to tend the garden, rather than annihilate it?
An Unwillingness to Recognize Exploitation and Injustice Within the Church
Finally, Orsi thinks that people who are proponents of animal rights really value nonhuman animals over human beings; he fears these people and their movement pose a threat to the theory that humans are exceptional and dominant. If Orsi was willing to take the abject cruelty with which animals are treated into consideration, if he had taken any time to research these issues, it would be difficult to see how a man of a benevolent God could support such horrors towards other feeling beings. If there are any threats to the Judeo-Christian legacy and his own Catholic church, it may be internal, rather than external. Perhaps it comes from an unwillingness to recognize exploitation and injustice, whether it is in the form of pedophilia or animal cruelty or homophobia. It is the very conservative, traditional vantage point behind which Orsi hides that will render him unable to witness the truth. It is revealed when he states that animal welfare is acceptable because the laws have already made certain animals are treated humanely, that animals feel “as little anxiety and pain as possible” when being slaughtered. Rev. Orsi must be living under a rock, with all the undercover videos available these days, with the film Earthlings available for viewing online, with all the documentary films available on any Netflix site, and Meet Your Meat available on YouTube, with all the recorded statements from slaughterhouse workers, if he truly believes that. The global horror that is life for most animals on this earth seems to have escaped him. It would seem that Orsi simply does not want anything to change, because his foundation is inextricably intertwined with a belief that humans are superior and animals are put on earth for man’s use, however cruelly mankind wants to use them. If he were to admit that animals are beings who feel, experience emotions, and suffer greatly, it might cause him to reassess his beliefs. If his religious tradition is in jeopardy because a small percentage of humans believe that such injustice is intolerable, perhaps he needs to look for the numerous inconsistencies inherent in what he espouses. Where is the mercy of his God for the animals? What constitutes morality and superiority? Surely, this holocaust for animals created by mankind does not lay claim to any kind of moral superiority, but rather to shame.