Contrary to a vegan professor’s utopian description, a world in which animals had legal rights would not be viable.
I must apologise to Steve Cooke, associate professor of political theory at the University of Leicester, for plagiarising the title of his article, How the world might look if animals had legal rights, but it describes my article as well as it does his.
Cooke, who is affiliated with the Vegan Society UK and with the Animal Welfare Research Network, asks us to imagine a world, however distant and improbable, in which animals had enforceable legal rights against being killed, being made to suffer, or being exploited for human gain.
It’s probably best to read it in full but let me try to summarise. Cooke observes the many ways in which humans use animals, to produce food, clothing, industrial and consumer products, and even waste for biofuel.
‘Animal products are everywhere,’ he writes. ‘We kill billions of animals to make them every year.’
He contemplates the ethics of these uses and urges us to rethink our relationship with animals. He argues that for many or even most animal-derived products, vegan alternatives exist.
In support of this claim, he links to an article on the website of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which itself is based on the controversial EAT-Lancet Report which was itself heavily influenced by the vegan/vegetarian lobby, and which I comprehensively dismantled a few months ago.
Cooke points out that it is already possible to grow meat, eggs, milk, and leather in a lab without harming animals. He acknowledges that the technology for widespread production does not yet exist but makes no mention of the expense of producing bio-similar substitutes for animal products. The cost of food is already too high, worldwide. Imposing rules that would increase that cost would be extremely prejudicial to a majority of the world’s people.
The same is true for non-food industrial or consumer products. While some could certainly be produced at competitive prices, questions of both price and quality would still make animal products preferable in many cases.
He also cites worries about the environmental impact of animal husbandry, which is another topic that I have debunked in gory detail.
Cooke’s article acknowledges concerns about job losses and income reduction in the animal agriculture sector but argues that we shouldn’t be protecting jobs that violate animal rights, adding that agricultural jobs aren’t very nice jobs anyway.
That’s easy to say for an ivory-tower elitist philosophising on the taxpayer’s dime.
Cooke touches on animal testing in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, suggesting with some merit that computer models can substitute for live animal tests in many cases. He concludes that it is unethical to pursue medical advances that rely upon animal testing.
He wades into the subject of animals as workers, entertainers, and companions, hanging his entire view on the behaviour of some pet owners who choose to euthanise pets for the sake of convenience. He doesn’t say how big of a problem this is and doesn’t address working animals at all.
He does, however, want pets to ‘become something much closer to a fostered family member’, or even ‘fellow citizens’.
‘As citizens, animals could be entitled to workers’ rights, health and retirement benefits,’ he fantasises.
Cooke compares the struggle for animal rights to the struggles against slavery or the struggle for universal suffrage, by which he clearly draws an equivalence between human rights and animal rights.
Ultimately, Cooke contends that imagining this animal rights utopia is easy, and achieving it is merely a matter of being brave enough to use the mechanisms, technologies and concepts that are already available.
Let’s pour a little cold water on his dream, though. First, what constitutes an animal?
There’s a biological definition, of course: animals are multi-cellular, eukaryotic organisms. But if we use this definition, we’d have to extend legal rights to mosquitos, flies, fleas, ticks, lice, not to mention parasitic worms, and borer beetles, cutworms, termites and locusts.
So, let’s exclude invertebrates.
That leaves us with rats and other rodents; pigeons and other birds; snakes; moles; skunks, porcupines and badgers; rabbits; baboons and monkeys; jackal and other predators; all of which can become pests to some degree or another.
It makes perfect sense to seek to minimise the indiscriminate killing even of pest animals, and to prefer non-lethal pest control methods instead. However, endowing each individual animal with legal rights against being killed or otherwise maltreated would leave us without a last resort option, if all else fails.
And if we consent to killing, say, rats, for the sake of public health or damage to property, by what ethical standard can we then object to killing any other pest that poses a threat to human health or agriculture?
Humans, having fenced off much of nature, are ethically obliged to manage the ecosystems that remain within protected reserves and semi-protected areas. In some cases, such conservation requires active population management, since overpopulation of one species may pose a risk to the habitat and survival of other species.
Active population management, even just by translocation, would be impossible if animals had the right not to be killed or made to suffer, however.
Game farms and game ranching would die a death, too. In South Africa, private ownership of game has resulted in massive expansion of private game farms, ranches and reserves, which now account for three quarters of all South African land under game and a similar proportion of its game numbers.
Many species were brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to game ranching.
If animals had rights, however, they presumably couldn’t be bought or sold, because that would make them property, equivalent to human slaves.
Even more problematically, a significant majority of the revenue that supports game farms and ranches comes from hunting. Only 5% comes from ecotourism. It simply isn’t possible to increase that share by very much.
There are several reasons for this. A majority of game farms, ranches, and reserves are not very scenic and are off the beaten tourist track. Tourists don’t pay very much. There isn’t an inexhaustible supply of tourists. Even if their numbers could be substantially increased, large numbers of tourists traipsing everywhere would place severe pressure on the ecosystems under conservation.
Once hunting bans make land that is now under game commercially unviable, much of it would be repurposed for more profitable use. Animal husbandry will also be forbidden by animal rights doctrine, so the only options left would be cropland, or perhaps mining.
Granting animals legal rights would also put the kibosh on any further growth and development of land for any purpose, whether industrial, commercial, residential, or agricultural.
On a small scale, one can try to make provision for the rehoming of affected animal species, but on a large scale, any reduction of habitat will affect the ‘rights’ of at least some animals.
Forbidding the use of working animals would have a tremendous impact on the rural poor in many countries around the world.
It might seem feasible to someone sitting in a professor’s office in one of the world’s financial capitals to ‘save’ horses, donkeys and oxen from ‘slavery’, but if they aren’t prepared to back it with vast sums of money to buy machines to replace those animals, their wishes will fall upon deaf ears among rural poor.
If animals had legal rights, our courts would be flooded with cases, which all would have to be prosecuted and defended by humans, at great expense.
If you think access to justice is hard for common people now, wait until every rich elitist is in court arguing that dog collars constitute slavery, canaries should be free, or cats must be paid a pension.
Moreover, determining the interests of animals in legal proceedings would also be hard. Animals have no agency. They cannot convey their wishes. We would have to trust humans to interpret their wishes for the court, but those claims would be impossible to prove or disprove, leaving the court unable to make rulings based on factual evidence.
An animal rights utopia would prohibit killing animals for food. That means we would all be forced to become not just vegetarian (because cows have the right not to be bred for milking, and chickens have the right not to be kept in captivity for their eggs, too), but vegan.
This might not be a great inconvenience for a wealthy professor in a major city of a rich country. It would be entirely unaffordable for a large part of the world’s population.
Even the EAT-Lancet Reference Diet, however, which wouldn’t eliminate meat entirely, but would limit us to less than a McDonalds patty worth of meat per week, is too expensive.
A study found that its cost exceeds the entire household per capita income for 1.58 billion people. For who knows how many billion more, it would cost too large a share of their income.
Specifically, the EAT-Lancet diet would cost 1.6 times as much as the minimum cost of a nutritionally adequate diet, thereby making the poor, for whom food is a large share of their monthly expenses, significantly poorer.
Imagine how much more expensive it would be to go completely vegan. It requires larger volumes of food, takes longer to prepare, is more difficult to rescue from blandness due to the absence of animal fats. There’s a reason you’ll find vegans crunching away on trail mix all day, and why they must buy expensive vitamin supplements. A vegan diet is simply not adequate for most people.
It works for some rich elitists, but it is entirely inappropriate for people who work long hours and who haven’t the money, the access to variety, or the leisure time to seek out and prepare a reasonably balanced diet of tolerable plant-based foods.
The alternative to this animal rights dystopia is to establish a coherent, comprehensive set of animal welfare laws, which would seek to minimise the harm humans do to animals, without prohibiting the use of animals outright.
Animal welfare and the enforcement of anti-cruelty laws can certainly improve.
Pretending that it is feasible to confer rights upon animals that are equivalent to, and often in conflict with, those of humans, is a silly, elitist pipe dream that should remain quarantined in the corridors of out-of-touch academia.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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Image: Donkey cart on a South African national road. Public domain photograph by Lynn Greyling.