Worldlog Week 11 – 2009

13 March 2009

Democracy for animals.

This week I’d like to dip into some current events. The Netherlands is a country immersed in ideas about animal rights. Last week, the national book week (an event in which all bookstores and libraries take part) was devoted entirely to animals.

In addition to my own book ‘Het gelijk van de dieren, het geluk van de mensen’ (loosely translated: the truth (as the animals know it) and people’s happiness), lots of other books were published that reflected the theme of the book week ‘Chilp, chilp’ (the sound of a sparrow in Dutch).

Another book that was published this week is ‘Democracy for animals’ in which philosopher Erno Eskens, in a kind of mental exercise, considers how it would be to give animals the same rights as people. For some people, a sign of ultimate decadence, as who would fight for animal rights when the rights of so many people are not what they should be? Seen from that point of view, animals would ‘almost’ be eligible for the granting of rights, but until that time comes they effectively have no rights at all.

Humans regards themselves as so superior to animals that in the discussion on improving their living conditions, they simply talk about ‘allowing them rights’. People determine the extent to which animals are awarded rights and they are not overly generous in doing so either. Just as in the past, the white man determined what rights the coloured man would receive and men determined what rights women would be granted. Animals are legal objects in the same way a bicycle is. You could be careful in your use of the object, but this is certainly no obligation.

The most feeble arguments brought by opponents of animal rights is that animals themselves are not able to exercise their rights. Animals cannot reflect on the past or anticipate the future and cannot resort to the ballot box or the courts to exercise any rights they may be granted. Oddly enough, those criteria are not applied to people unable to give informed consent, such as infants, the demented, or people with a mental handicap such as Down’s syndrome. Not being able to exercise rights independently does not, however, make a person a legal object. Although animal rights may be regarded as a human duty, they don’t necessary mean that animals are entirely dependent on man’s goodwill.

It is remarkable to see that what distinguishes people from animals, the ability to make moral ethical decisions and a different kind of intelligence, is not used by people to benefit our habitat in a sustainable manner. While animals could survive very well without people, people could not make it without animals. That dependency should make people think again. It is therefore the time to rethink the relationship between people and animals, including their legal relationship.

In this book, Erno Eskens presents the most radical version yet: give animals the same rights as people and then decide what rights you could or should take away again. Not as a blueprint for the short-term or long-term future, but as a mental exercise that could help create greater understanding for the situation in which animals find themselves with their oppressor, humankind.

What gives man the right to behave with such superiority, while he is far from superior to animals is so many ways? Many animals are faster, stronger, more social, more sensitive or more loyal than people. And animals nearly always have an instinctively better developed sense of sustainability than mankind. Every reason to reexamine the existing assumptions that people are here to ‘rule’ over animals. Esken’s book is certainly thoughtprovoking and an extremely good read.

The fair treatment of animals is a subject we will be dealing with very intensely in the coming years. Several years ago Dutch philosopher Paul Cliteur said that within 50 years mankind would look back in shame at his moral blind spot with regard to how animals were treated.

I hope sincerely that this book will help shorten the time we have to wait until we reach that awakening!

Till next week!