Animals have no rights, but we still have duties towards them

In his muddled way, Barry Horne is forcing attention on to an issue which needs public debate
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The Independent Culture
MARTYRDOM is attention-seeking with the harshest of outcomes. It is a peculiar act, not just because it demands the painful sacrifice of one's own life, but because it is a suicide born, perversely, of optimism. It believes that the act of self-negation can change the world for the better.

Barry Horne, the animal rights hunger striker now nearing death, has elected to add the martyr's garland to the list of tactics with which he hopes to end animal experimentation in laboratories. By starving himself, he has chosen a death associated with causes of human struggle,.

The robust response to this is to say that he is a loony, some of whose supporters have threatened to kill other humans after he has gone. It isn't that easy, I'm afraid. A civilised and morally responsive society should take seriously the concerns of protesters, even if these are raised in ways we find questionable .

"True freedom," wrote Rosa Luxemburg in one of her wiser insights, "is the freedom of those who think differently."

To underline this point, unheeded by the Bolsheviks and their heirs, Jan Palach burnt himself to death after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. A few years later, inspired by Palach's example and its impact on world opinion, a Protestant priest self-immolated in East Germany to draw attention to the country's human rights record.

Were they wrong to do so? I have no outright answer to this question. My moral hunch tells me that they were at fault, because they caused themselves, their families and those who had to deal with the consequences of their actions great anguish. But they also had a certain justification in using shocking tactics because, in both cases, the state refused to engage in discussion of their grievances and forbad mention of them in the media. Their suicides were intended to force attention onto conditions about which the authorities was implacably silent.

Democracies, on the other hand, are obliged to engage in argument with people: even with those who do not accept their peaceful terms. That is why Margaret Thatcher's refusal to allow the voice of Gerry Adams to be broadcast was so disturbing.

Horne operates in an open society, but one which is deeply confused about the status of animals and what claim they have on us. In his muddled and often destructive way, he is forcing our attention onto an issue which demands a structured public debate. The reason there should be a Royal Commission on the treatment of animals in laboratories (and in farms and sport, for that matter) is not that a man on self-imposed death-row says there should be, but because we badly need to sort out our own contradictory views on the matter.

The more we learn about animal consciousness - not least because of some of the experiments the anti-vivisectionists condemn - and the more we learn of their ability to feel physical pain and psychological distress, the more solicitous we should be about their welfare.

At present, we apply lax standards to animals raised for food and increasingly anthropomorphic standards to the others. Some two decades ago, the pop- star Alice Cooper bit the head off chicken and Ozzy Osbourne decapitated a bat (it turned out to have been a dead one, but he did not take the precaution of checking), the response was one of revulsion and concern for Messers Cooper and Osbourne's states of mind, rather than for the animals. I suspect that today, such antics would arouse a rush of furious sympathy for the creatures .

So the protest movement is on the winning side of the argument when it comes to the public's increasing sensibility to animal distress. Most of us are not convinced by the anti-speciesist argument that it is better not to find a cure for cancer than to experiment on a rat. But we doubt that rats should suffer in order to make recreational drugs safer or that meat-producing animals should be turned into hormonal factories on legs for the sake of man's taste and profit.

Problems like these should command the attention of government in the same way that the future of human cloning or embryology does. The great weakness of the fundamentalist animal rights movement is the philosophical and strategic error it makes by associating the protection of animals with the notion of equal rights with mankind.

I'll say it again in the full knowledge that my desk will be full of furious letters disagreeing: animals do not have rights, in any sense of the word which is helpful in the battle to preserve them from harm inflicted by humans. The classic response to this statement is: "Neither do babies, or people in a permanent vegetative state or the senile elderly." But human beings have the capacity to be bearers of rights and are entitled, if incapable of exercising their own will, to have these rights enforced for them. The most loyal Lassie or the most clever Babe of a pig, on the other hand, do not consciously exercise their virtues, however winning to human beings they appear. They cannot morally choose to behave well or badly.

The expansion and enforcement of rights alone does not make a wholesome society. For too long, the intellectual left believed that it did and thus shares responsibility for conditions in which far more people know their rights than know their duties. The result is a neglect - and not only where animals are concerned - of other values which hold society together: reason, compassion, the duty of care and a sense of concern and reverence towards the world around us.

Our duties towards animals are based, not on any shared rights status but for the reason the saintly brother of Father Zossima gives in The Brothers Karamazov: "Everyone is responsible for everyone and everything."

My grandfather was an otherwise straightforward Victorian autocrat who took to animal welfare with a zeal that was considered rather odd in a rural and mining area where animals were used for work. He taught me this poem, which I would be grateful if any reader versed in19th century protest verse could source:

It would ring the bells of heaven with the loudest peal for years

If the parson lost his senses and the people came to theirs

And he and they together got down in angry prayers

For little blind pit-ponies and dancing dogs and bears.

Prayers, angry or otherwise, are not what Horne and his sympathisers consider to be a sufficient response to their demands. But behind the pathos, the old lines make a point which should be their strongest argument. We owe it to animals to respect their well-being and to re-evaluate their conditions as our knowledge about them expands because it is part of our moral status as humans to bear responsibility for them.