PETA's Thirty-Year Legacy

"...a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy"
 - PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2010.  They honored their longstanding animal rights battle in style by hosting a star-studded Hollywood gala in September.  Former President Bill Clinton soon gave them more to celebrate when he announced that he is, at least for the time being, a vegan.  His newfound diet appears to be for health reasons more than for any real concern for animals, but such details did little to dampen the animal rightists' mood.

Despite some success for the animal rights movement on state ballot initiatives, the percentages of American vegetarians (3%) and vegans (1%) are small.  The philosophy of humans and animals as morally equivalent has gained minimal traction in the past thirty years, and for good reason.  A common thread among most animal rights philosophies is a rejection of the belief that man was made in the image of God and bestowed with dominion over animals.  The proportion of animal rights supporters that claim to be atheist or agnostic is reportedly five times greater than that of the U.S. population.  It is not surprising that those who view mankind as little more than smart animals find no reason to treat animals and humans differently.

Unfortunately for those who consider their vegan lifestyle ethically superior to what we meat-eaters and milk-drinkers do, there may be no worldview that provides less support for treating animals humanely than the naturalism that underlies their beliefs.  Charles Darwin understood that according to his theory of common descent, our sense of morality is also a response to the forces of mutation and natural selection.

The first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.

If our moral sense is nothing more than a byproduct of evolutionary forces, then sympathy toward animals is merely genetically inherited sentimentalism.  Perhaps ancestral lines inheriting the "be nice to animals" genes were rewarded with a more stable food supply.  Those genotypes coupled with the right cultural sensitivities can overflow into an inclination toward veganism.  But what of those hunters, or even sadistic animal abusers for that matter, who received a lesser dose of the animal empathy genes?  They are being no less true to their genetic hardwiring, and so there is simply no basis to claim that their treatment of animals is somehow ethically inferior.  Nor are those genetically inclined toward veganism evil if they consume animal flesh.  They might activate a few internal chemical reactions that we associate with guilt, but catalyzing an unpleasant chemical reaction is hardly unethical.

To suggest that it is truly unethical to abuse animals is to suggest that there are moral truths that transcend nature.  That comes with the unfortunate consequence that we don't get to decide what's right or wrong, and we are confronted with what C.S. Lewis described as "that troublesome God we learned about when we were children."  If that "troublesome God" did in fact create man in his image, then lowering humans to animal status is a long distance from any sort of moral reality.  It even borders on the worship of creation we were warned about in Paul's letter to the Romans:

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

The outcome of the current animal rights movement is that even when a valid point is raised, the issue is dismissed because to align oneself with PETA is seen as the worse of two evils.  Farmers in particular understand the evil of a philosophy that lowers human beings to status of the animals they work with on a daily basis.  When PETA raised objections to the California "happy cow" commercials that showed cows grazing, the rest of the country's dairy producers kept quiet even though they were the true victims of the disinformation campaign.  They know full well that California is the capital of mega-dairy farms that house cows in drylots with no access to pasture, but they gave little public support to PETA's position.  The animals PETA claims to protect become the losers because those who might otherwise speak up are silenced for fear of enabling PETA.

Ultimately, PETA's assertion that there are no ethical differences among rats, pigs, dogs, and boys is correct if their naturalistic worldview is true.  The problem is that it does not follow that we should not eat pigs just because we don't eat boys.  Instead, it follows that it would not be unethical to eat boys.

Chad Dechow was raised on a small dairy farm in New York State and is an associate professor of dairy genetics at Penn State.
"...a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy"
 - PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2010.  They honored their longstanding animal rights battle in style by hosting a star-studded Hollywood gala in September.  Former President Bill Clinton soon gave them more to celebrate when he announced that he is, at least for the time being, a vegan.  His newfound diet appears to be for health reasons more than for any real concern for animals, but such details did little to dampen the animal rightists' mood.

Despite some success for the animal rights movement on state ballot initiatives, the percentages of American vegetarians (3%) and vegans (1%) are small.  The philosophy of humans and animals as morally equivalent has gained minimal traction in the past thirty years, and for good reason.  A common thread among most animal rights philosophies is a rejection of the belief that man was made in the image of God and bestowed with dominion over animals.  The proportion of animal rights supporters that claim to be atheist or agnostic is reportedly five times greater than that of the U.S. population.  It is not surprising that those who view mankind as little more than smart animals find no reason to treat animals and humans differently.

Unfortunately for those who consider their vegan lifestyle ethically superior to what we meat-eaters and milk-drinkers do, there may be no worldview that provides less support for treating animals humanely than the naturalism that underlies their beliefs.  Charles Darwin understood that according to his theory of common descent, our sense of morality is also a response to the forces of mutation and natural selection.

The first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.

If our moral sense is nothing more than a byproduct of evolutionary forces, then sympathy toward animals is merely genetically inherited sentimentalism.  Perhaps ancestral lines inheriting the "be nice to animals" genes were rewarded with a more stable food supply.  Those genotypes coupled with the right cultural sensitivities can overflow into an inclination toward veganism.  But what of those hunters, or even sadistic animal abusers for that matter, who received a lesser dose of the animal empathy genes?  They are being no less true to their genetic hardwiring, and so there is simply no basis to claim that their treatment of animals is somehow ethically inferior.  Nor are those genetically inclined toward veganism evil if they consume animal flesh.  They might activate a few internal chemical reactions that we associate with guilt, but catalyzing an unpleasant chemical reaction is hardly unethical.

To suggest that it is truly unethical to abuse animals is to suggest that there are moral truths that transcend nature.  That comes with the unfortunate consequence that we don't get to decide what's right or wrong, and we are confronted with what C.S. Lewis described as "that troublesome God we learned about when we were children."  If that "troublesome God" did in fact create man in his image, then lowering humans to animal status is a long distance from any sort of moral reality.  It even borders on the worship of creation we were warned about in Paul's letter to the Romans:

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

The outcome of the current animal rights movement is that even when a valid point is raised, the issue is dismissed because to align oneself with PETA is seen as the worse of two evils.  Farmers in particular understand the evil of a philosophy that lowers human beings to status of the animals they work with on a daily basis.  When PETA raised objections to the California "happy cow" commercials that showed cows grazing, the rest of the country's dairy producers kept quiet even though they were the true victims of the disinformation campaign.  They know full well that California is the capital of mega-dairy farms that house cows in drylots with no access to pasture, but they gave little public support to PETA's position.  The animals PETA claims to protect become the losers because those who might otherwise speak up are silenced for fear of enabling PETA.

Ultimately, PETA's assertion that there are no ethical differences among rats, pigs, dogs, and boys is correct if their naturalistic worldview is true.  The problem is that it does not follow that we should not eat pigs just because we don't eat boys.  Instead, it follows that it would not be unethical to eat boys.

Chad Dechow was raised on a small dairy farm in New York State and is an associate professor of dairy genetics at Penn State.

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