National Catholic Register


When Dog Becomes God

BY John M. Grondelski

July 18-31, 2010 Issue | Posted 7/9/10 at 2:06 PM


A Rat Is a Pig Is

a Dog Is a Boy

The Human Cost of the

Animal Rights Movement

By Wesley J. Smith

Encounter Books, 2010

312 pages, hardbound, $25.95

To order: (800) 786-3839

We live in “interesting times.” Just as evolutionary atheists would have us believe that men are but animals, the “animal rights” crowd proclaims that there is no difference between animals and man. Man and beast have “rights.” Failing to see that is just stubborn “species-ism.”

While it might seem at first glance that little links Richard Dawkins and PETA, Wesley Smith shows how les extremes se touchent: “Bringing animals and perhaps even plants into the moral community with human beings would break the spine of Judeo-Christian ethics, which hang on the belief that all human beings are entitled to equal moral worth regardless of individual capacities, age or state of health — that all have ‘intrinsic human dignity.’ Discarding the concept of intrinsic human dignity would humble — nay, degrade — the human self-image to the point where people would willingly sacrifice their own well-being ‘for the animals’ or ‘to save the planet.’ An ethic that upholds the sanctity and equality of human life would give way to a utilitarianism that countenances the discarding of unwanted human ballast, much as we get rid of unwanted animals today.”

This book argues powerfully that “animal rights” is far from some marginal phenomenon, that it lives off and nourishes certain dangerous contemporary intellectual currents, and that its triumph would inflict real harm to human beings. Smith’s book surveys the range of that impact: stymieing medical research, driving up the price of food, affecting how we dress and destroying pastimes as varied as going to the zoo or going fishing. Much of the book involves anecdotes, which are drawn together to show the consistent purpose of “animal rights.” The author also chillingly describes the readiness of its votaries to engage in extremist action, from assaulting people in fur coats and destroying property to more explicit threats.

This reviewer does not have the expertise to evaluate the specifics of Smith’s claims, e.g., about humane trapping methods, sheep mulesing or contemporary slaughterhouse techniques. All those subjects require discussion in an overview of the animal “rights” movement.

But, for me, the most valuable part of the book is Smith’s exposure of the anti-“human exceptionalism” philosophy that underlies “animal rights.” For Judaism, Christianity and Islam — the key forces that shaped the West — man is not a pig or a dog or any other beast. Yet the paradox is that “animal rights” devolves not into a “respect for all life,” but actually lays the foundation for “quality of life” judgments: It’s still safer to be a seal fetus than an unborn baby.

Not that Smith denigrates animals. He is clear to distinguish between “animal welfare” — something that he supports — and “animal rights,” something he rightly regards as intellectual chicanery. While admitting that sometimes “animal rights” activists have advanced animal welfare, he also notes they have sometimes drained resources away in favor of their agenda. “For … us who love animals … but also recognize that our obligation to humanity matters even more — let us strive continually to improve our treatment of animals as we also promote human prosperity and health. First and foremost, this means rejecting out of hand all moral equivalences between human beings and animals.”

One could quibble with some parts of the book, e.g., does Smith really consider the comprehensive “sanctity of life” ethic in some Eastern religions (like ahimsa in Jainism)? Of course, those traditions did not form the Western view of man’s dignity. That said, the thrust of Smith’s analysis is right on target and is particularly relevant given the tendency in some parts of the “green movement” to anthropomorphize and even apotheosize nature at human expense. Besides, he writes well. Recommended.

John M. Grondelski writes

from Bern, Switzerland.