Humanism’s Tyranny & Failed Progressives

Humanists are not the most popular thinkers among animal rights groups because they tend to be flat-out speciesist. The very terms humanist and humanism are themselves speciesist, suggesting a human-centered and even human-only focus. Many of these humanist intellectuals are indistinguishable from their religious counterparts in their actions and attitudes toward nonhuman animals. Indeed, you get humanists quite happy to proclaim they are speciesist and exhibit disregard for other sentient animals.

You would not expect it from someone steeped in cultural history with a heighten sensitivity to artworks—someone like Robert Hughes, for example. But he was the same. What would drive an intellectual with an eye for art and beauty, a man with fame and wealth, to go into a landscape and blast away at small animals? Hughes built a career on interpreting the reality of scenes before him, reacting to their emotional content, but killing animals seemed just part of another aesthetic experience:

Hughes woke up one morning “in a state of acute melancholia” to find that the rabbit had not only shared his bed but extravagantly misbehaved. “So, in a gesture whose psychological reasons I dare say would not be hard to disentangle, I gave it a rabbit punch. Then I thought, Well, this is a perfectly good rabbit, you can’t waste it. So I skinned it, as I’d been taught to do as a child, and made it into a pate. And very good it was.[1]Rhoda Koenig, “The Shock of the Hughes,” New Yorker Magazine, Jan. 5, 1987, 33.

It was his son’s pet rabbit. Let’s put it more plainly, without the cutesy banter: Hughes woke up grumpy, became even more pissed off that a pet rabbit had soiled his bedding (they do that if very stress), and revenged himself on everything by taking it out on the rabbit with violence and killing it.

This is not what an average individual would do. Hughes had numerous choices, yet as long-time hunter, killing was automatically an option for him, even for the most trivial of reasons. So comfortable was he about all of this that relating it to a national magazine did nothing to blunt his candor. One senses that he saw it as a bit of a chuckle—a manner you find in hunters when they let their guard down.

Hughes is equally candid about his attitude toward killing and torturing animals in his 2002 documentary Goya: Crazy Like a Genius. “I don’t care what the self-appointed humanitarians think about it,” he pontificates, “I want to see fox hunting preserved and bullfighting even more.” A strange statement this, for someone who, in his error-ridden last book Rome, wrote about the excesses of gladiatorial combats and how they must have debased the public! Bullfighting itself, as he should have known, is a barbarism passed down from ancient coliseums.

He might derisively label animal advocates as “self-appointed humanitarians,” but they do not bring as much darkness and death into the world as self-appointed animal serial killers. Hughes’ attitude is reminiscent of ultra-conservatives with strong religious ties, such as the appalling Roger Scruton, an English philosopher for whom pointless and cruel ritual is a matter of identity and traditional culture.

The root of their callousness and twisted worldview seems to lie in the failure to properly differentiate humanism from traditional religious ideas and anthropocentric thinking, especially in relation to other species and environmental concerns:

During nearly two millennia of European history in which Christian dogmas could not be questioned, many prejudices put down deep roots. Humanists are, rightly, critical of Christians who have not freed themselves of these prejudices—for example, against the equality of women or against nonreproductive sex. It is curious, therefore, that, despite many individual exceptions, humanists have on the whole been unable to free themselves from one of the most central of these Christian dogmas: the prejudice of speciesism.[2]Peter Singer, “Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism,” Free Inquiry, 24, No. 6 (Oct/Nov., 2004), http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200410–.htm.

That speciesist humanists, skeptics, and progressives are compatible in thought and deed with religions they purport to oppose is particularly galling.

Peter Singer stresses this deep religious association on numerous occasions, “the thoroughly religious idea that humans are at the center of the moral universe still seems to be alive and well in humanist circles.”[3]Peter Singer, Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism,” Free Inquiry, 24, No. 6 (Oct/Nov., 2004), http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200410–.htm. He calls on humanists to reject the speciesism that is “buttressed by the religious view that human beings are God’s special creation” with dominion over all creation.[4]Peter Singer, Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism,” Free Inquiry, 24, No. 6 (Oct/Nov., 2004), http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200410–.htm. But this is unlikely to happen because it has been a long-standing failing of secular humanism.

Secular humanists appear to be quite happy with anthropocentric sentiments that parallel a faith-based worldview. Plain old flexitarian skepticism appears to be the culprit, whose consequences are as dire as those wrought by religious dogma when it comes to nonhumans. Because of their speciesists attitudes, there is no difference in the results of either position—religious or humanist—namely, continued legalized discrimination, exploitation, and mass violence against other sentient animals.

In fact, speciesist secularists are occasionally the ones behind the worst of outcomes. “Taking myself as averagely cynical,” writes Christopher Hitchens in a review of Matthew Scully’s Dominion, “I came to discern while reading Dominion that in all the cases where animal suffering disturbed me, it was largely because of rationalist humanism.”[5]Christopher Hitchens, “Political Animals,” Atlantic Monthly, November, 2002, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/11/political-animals/2614/. He refers to ongoing speciesism manifest in the suffering and ill treatment of animals across the spectrum of the economic exploitation of nonhuman animals—all rationalized away and condoned.

Humanists refuse to adopt a truly holistic view and critique the underlying speciesist behavior perpetuating social injustices and environmental degradation—something that is well understood in the world of vegan skepticism. Identified by Henry Salt in the 19th century and by earlier vegetarian skeptics, this failure of humanism to grasp a larger vision goes way back.

Exceptionalism Recycled

Part of the reason for the failures of humanism and its modern variations is that it is simply a religious-like human exceptionalism in new clothing. This is true for people such as science writer Kenan Malik, for whom humanism is a quite openly a celebration of exceptionalism and the inevitable speciesism that goes with it. His is a speciesism indistinguishable from that of religious thinkers.

Malik, in fact, is in sync with religious apologists such as Wesley J. Smith, when he writes “viewing beasts as more human is but the other side of viewing humans as more beastly.”[6]Quoted in Angus Taylor, “Review of Wesley J. Smith’s A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement,” Between the Species, Issue X (August, 2010), 231. Perhaps the evening news can assist Malik in identifying whether humans are more or less beastly.

The zero-sum mentality behind Malik’s statement is identical to what we see in religious circles. “The perverse overvaluing of animal lives swings in tandem with the devaluing of human life,” writes Rabbi Avi Shafran on the evils of the modern world, “Standing firm on the issue of the value of every moment of human life is imperative.”[7]Rabbi Avi Shafran, “Judaism: Isms of a Modern Age,” Arutz Sheva, December 20, 2011, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/11047#.URbxxWfhd8E. But some things, such as the fallacies of the ignorant, are just not worth valuing.

What we can value is the science that proves human-like cognitive traits among animals, including self-consciousness and moral behavior, in direct contradiction to the wishful thinking of speciesist skeptics. So when Malik says science sees animals as machines because “like all machines, they lack self-consciousness, foresight and will,”[8]Kenan Malik, “In Defence of Human Agency,” Engelsberg Seminar on “Consciousness, Genetics and Society,” Avesta, Sweden, June 14-16 2002, http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/engelsberg_print.html. he is either lying or he is a humanist that ignores any science contrary to his philosophical fancies. Regardless, Malik and like-minded progressives will never give ground, because, like their deluded religious counterparts, they cling to a gulf of biblical proportions between humanity and nature.

Behind Malik’s desire to maintain an artificial gulf between humans and nature is a Kantian formula that insists humans are “moral agents” and everything else in nature is not. Animals

do not have, never have had, and never will have, the potential to belong to a moral community. That is why we must treat humans as ends but can treat animals as means.[9]Kenan Malik, “Debating Singer,” The Philosophers’ Magazine, 36:4 (2006), 75, http://www.exacteditions.com/read/tpm/4th-quarter-2006-1772/77/3.

Such is the tyranny of those who manufacture self-serving rules. Whether religious or humanist, people with this worldview tend to see everything in nature as fair game. If chimpanzees have consciousness,” Carl Sagan asks,

if they are capable of abstractions, do they not have what until now has been described as ‘human rights’? How smart does a chimpanzee have to be before killing one constitutes murder?[10]Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (Random House, 1977), 126-127.

Malik’s answer to that would be, it would have to be as smart as a human and presumably sporting the same appearance. Malik considers humans to be “exceptional beings” that are not just transcendent of nature, but at liberty to use nature however they wish to achieve political, social and moral progress. What’s more, the more you can distance yourself from nature in Malik’s world, the more human you are!

Christian tradition similarly sees humans as the only being in creation that has moral agency and excludes all else as amoral. This is the view of apologists such as Wesley J. Smith, who cites exactly the same reasons Malik does for excluding great apes and other animals from the moral community.[11]Wesley J. Smith’s A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement (New York: Encounter Books, 2010), 50 231-249. When it comes to nonhumans, then, not much difference between Malik’s speciesist humanism and the Christian lie of dominion.

Malik Preaches Dominion

Malik might call himself a Darwinian, but his view of animals is clearly contrary to Darwin’s, who saw differences of “degree and not of kind.” For Malik’s difference is “of kind” and that dictates everything. The viciousness that emerges out of such unscientific thinking is evident in his objection to the Great Ape Project, founded by Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, which seeks three basic rights for the great apes: the right to life; the right to liberty; and the right not to be tortured. It is not just about, for example, keeping them out of experimental labs, it is about protecting them from extinction, too.

Richard Dawkins is one of its many supporters from the scientific community. In his essay “Gaps in the Mind,” for a book on the Great Ape Project, he delves into the “unthinking nature of the speciesist double standard,” in particular pertaining to those who discriminate against great apes when they are themselves great apes.[12]Richard Dawkins, “Gaps in the Mind,” The Great Ape Project, eds. Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993), 81; also, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company: 2004), 20. Speciesist thinking comes from what he calls the “discontinuous mind,” a mind as much prone to racism as it is speciesism because of a failure to grasp kinship and evolutionary continuity. In A Devil’s Chaplain Dawkins writes,

It is sheer luck that this handful of intermediates no longer exists… But for this chance, our laws and our morals would be very different. We need only discover a single survivor, say a relict Australopithecus in the Budongo Forest, and our precious system of norms and ethics would come crashing about our ears. The boundaries with which we segregate our world would be all shot to pieces. Racism would blur with speciesism in obdurate and vicious confusion.[13]Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company: 2004), 20.

This notion was expressed earlier in The Blind Watchmaker,[14]Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 263. was reiterated again in a 2007 talk for the Center for Inquiry, and appears again in a 2012 Playboy interview. “In order to deny chimpanzees rights,” Dawkins states in the interview, “you would have to set up apartheid-like courts to decide whether this individual counts as human. Because it’s a continuum.”[15]Chip Rowe, “Playboy Interview: Richard Dawkins,” Playboy, August 20, 2012, http://www.playboy.com/playground/view/playboy-interview-richard-dawkins. Hence, for Dawkins, “Ethical principles that are based upon accidental caprice should not be respected as if cast in stone.”[16]Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company: 2004), 26. But in Malik’s discontinuous humanist mind and for the religious minded it is “irrational to accord rights to apes.”

not because we believe there is a biological discontinuity between humans and apes, but because we think there is a moral and political discontinuity. Humans are moral agents, in a way that apes are not, and rights are linked to our possession of agency. It is quite possible to believe that humans and apes are continuous in one sense and discontinuous in another.[17]Kenan Malik, “The voice of reason… usually,” Sunday Telegraph, February 16, 2003, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4729863/The-voice-of-reason…-usually.html; also http://www.kenanmalik.com/reviews/dawkins_devil.html.

Oh, really? So, a difference in degree and a difference in kind! Trust the modern speciesist skeptic, not just the religiously deluded, to keep two opposing ideas in mind simultaneously without a twinge of cognitive dissonance.

Worse still, Malik objects to any concession to nonhuman animals because of the kind of slippery slope paranoia noted above: “The real impact of the campaign for rights for apes is to diminish rights for humans.”[18]Kenan Malik, “Rights and Wrongs,” Nature, 406 (August 17, 2000), 675-676; also http://www.kenanmalik.com/reviews/wise_cage.html. This is nothing but a tired old false dilemma, that is, you cannot improve the lot of nonhumans without a loss to humans:

Once man is demoted to merely another animal in the forest, universal human rights will have to be tossed out and new criteria devised to determine which human/animal lives matter and which individuals can be treated like, well, animals.”[19]Wesley J. Smith, “Monkey Business,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 13, No. 42, July 21, 2008, http://www.weeklystandard.com/print/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/321itvqn.asp.

Hard to tell the difference, isn’t it? That last statement is not from Malik but from creationist Wesley J. Smith, bemoaning “concerted efforts to knock ourselves off the pedestal of exceptionalism.”

Malik’s other excuses and science gaffes are not worth debunking. We have a clear example of how the speciesist arguments of so-called progressives are often little more than a rehash of religion-based quackery. And their speciesist worldview is as chillingly pernicious as that of radical religious cranks. Far from progressive, imagine if Malik could have his way with political, social or moral agendas, given his compassion for apes and presumably all other animals: “I reject the idea that apes have the right to life, liberty and freedom from torture. I am happy to eat animals, cage them and use them in experiments.”[20]Peter Singer, “Should we breach the species barrier and grant rights to the great apes? An exchange between Peter Singer and Kenan Malik,” Prospect, May 20, 1999, http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/should-apes-have-rights-peter-singer/; also http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/singer_debate.html. This kind of nastiness—the sheer lack of generosity and decency shown—is why you would not want people like Malik influencing political, social or moral agendas, not after the centuries it has taken to achieve a modicum of moral progress.

Progressives like Malik, with speciesist proclamations no better than the anthropocentric religious nonsense of ages past, are on the wrong side of history. Regrettably he is a representative of all too many that claim free thinking credentials and yet maintain antiquated views on nonhuman animals. And regrettably it is across the board, the same among all traditionally liberal positions.

In short, the modern ‘radical’ tradition―whether, Marxist, socialist, anarchist, or other ‘Left’ positions that include anti-racism and feminism,” writes philosopher Steven Best, “stands in continuity with the entire Western heritage of anthropocentrism, and in no way can be seen as a liberating philosophy from the standpoint of the environment and other species on this planet.[21]Steven Best, “Rethinking Revolution: Animal Liberation, Human Liberation, and the Future of the Left,” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June, 2006), http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/journal/pdf%20files/pdf%20vol2/Rethinking%20Revolution.pdf.

What we see across the range of progressive positions is a failure of consistency,

the gross inconsistency of advocating values such as peace, non-violence, compassion, justice, and equality while exploiting animals in their everyday lives, promoting speciesist ideologies, and ignoring the ongoing holocaust against other species.[22]Steven Best, “Rethinking Revolution: Animal Liberation, Human Liberation, and the Future of the Left,” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June, 2006), http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/journal/pdf%20files/pdf%20vol2/Rethinking%20Revolution.pdf.

The worst are those who claim to be progressives and yet blatantly express prejudices and endorsements of tyrannical behavior, transparently contradicting progressive principles and time-honored causes and embarrassingly circumventing honest skeptical inquiry.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Rhoda Koenig, “The Shock of the Hughes,” New Yorker Magazine, Jan. 5, 1987, 33.
2. Peter Singer, “Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism,” Free Inquiry, 24, No. 6 (Oct/Nov., 2004), http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200410–.htm.
3. Peter Singer, Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism,” Free Inquiry, 24, No. 6 (Oct/Nov., 2004), http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200410–.htm.
4. Peter Singer, Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism,” Free Inquiry, 24, No. 6 (Oct/Nov., 2004), http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/200410–.htm.
5. Christopher Hitchens, “Political Animals,” Atlantic Monthly, November, 2002, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/11/political-animals/2614/.
6. Quoted in Angus Taylor, “Review of Wesley J. Smith’s A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement,” Between the Species, Issue X (August, 2010), 231.
7. Rabbi Avi Shafran, “Judaism: Isms of a Modern Age,” Arutz Sheva, December 20, 2011, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/11047#.URbxxWfhd8E.
8. Kenan Malik, “In Defence of Human Agency,” Engelsberg Seminar on “Consciousness, Genetics and Society,” Avesta, Sweden, June 14-16 2002, http://www.kenanmalik.com/papers/engelsberg_print.html.
9. Kenan Malik, “Debating Singer,” The Philosophers’ Magazine, 36:4 (2006), 75, http://www.exacteditions.com/read/tpm/4th-quarter-2006-1772/77/3.
10. Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (Random House, 1977), 126-127.
11. Wesley J. Smith’s A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement (New York: Encounter Books, 2010), 50 231-249.
12. Richard Dawkins, “Gaps in the Mind,” The Great Ape Project, eds. Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993), 81; also, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company: 2004), 20.
13. Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company: 2004), 20.
14. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 263.
15. Chip Rowe, “Playboy Interview: Richard Dawkins,” Playboy, August 20, 2012, http://www.playboy.com/playground/view/playboy-interview-richard-dawkins.
16. Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company: 2004), 26.
17. Kenan Malik, “The voice of reason… usually,” Sunday Telegraph, February 16, 2003, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4729863/The-voice-of-reason…-usually.html; also http://www.kenanmalik.com/reviews/dawkins_devil.html.
18. Kenan Malik, “Rights and Wrongs,” Nature, 406 (August 17, 2000), 675-676; also http://www.kenanmalik.com/reviews/wise_cage.html.
19. Wesley J. Smith, “Monkey Business,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 13, No. 42, July 21, 2008, http://www.weeklystandard.com/print/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/321itvqn.asp.
20. Peter Singer, “Should we breach the species barrier and grant rights to the great apes? An exchange between Peter Singer and Kenan Malik,” Prospect, May 20, 1999, http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/should-apes-have-rights-peter-singer/; also http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/singer_debate.html.
21. Steven Best, “Rethinking Revolution: Animal Liberation, Human Liberation, and the Future of the Left,” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June, 2006), http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/journal/pdf%20files/pdf%20vol2/Rethinking%20Revolution.pdf.
22. Steven Best, “Rethinking Revolution: Animal Liberation, Human Liberation, and the Future of the Left,” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June, 2006), http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/journal/pdf%20files/pdf%20vol2/Rethinking%20Revolution.pdf.

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