High ethics abide with animal rights

Current public policy debates are increasingly placing greater emphasis on the need for stronger ethics. Human rights and environmental issues compete for center stage. The quotes found in the following paragraphs are from individuals considered to be the greatest minds in history, and they serve as excellent starting points in the quest for higher ethics, starting with the way people treat animals.

“Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”
— Thomas Edison

I used to collect bullets when I was a kid and owned my own Winchester 30/30 and a .16 gauge shotgun. I remember one time a friend and I stood underneath a tree out in Shakopee somewhere and held our shotguns perpendicular to the ground, firing round after round to see how many crows would fall at random. I used to blow up frogs with firecrackers, stomp on ant hills and throw cats in the pathways of dogs to see what they would do. I grew up, I believe, no different than any other adolescent male American. I played cowboys and Indians, had my own plastic army set and dreamed of some day killing a bear with just a pocket knife. When I was a kid, I had no idea what vegetarian meant.
No one was around to show me that my cruelty to animals was wrong, and I obviously was too dumb or insensitive to see it myself. Since then, I’ve seen all the horrible pictures: a picture of an elephant with its face sawed off by an electric saw; a dead gorilla sitting upright with his hands hacked off by a machete; a monkey’s head protruding through the top of a table while tourist-types spoon out raw brains after the top of the monkey’s head was severed. And perhaps nowhere else have I been so emotionally moved as seeing groups of people — families including mothers and kids — crowd around a small gathering of baby seal pups and beat them with baseball bats and other bludgeoning instruments.

“I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Being a vegetarian is not about politics, although it certainly involves a form of rebelling. A vegetarian rebels against unnecessary killing and cruelty to animals. True, not all vegetarians are so because of a love of animals. Some abstain from eating meat for health reasons. Others don’t eat meat because of the environmental ramifications. A recent global analysis of 109 sustainable programs and projects in 26 countries from the International Institute of Environment and Development shows that even though enough food is produced to feed the world, 800 million people are starving, including 180 million children suffering from malnutrition. By 2025, the world population is expected to surpass 8 billion. It is common knowledge now to know that livestock agriculture is the single greatest cause of world-wide deforestation. The United States is losing its topsoil and overgrazing is the largest cause of human-made deserts. The bulk of corn and wheat grown is for livestock, while more than 500 million people are starving. Food going to livestock can go directly to the mouths of the hungry.
There are many arguments for eating meat, most of them old and tired ones. The Bible claims dominion over all other living creatures. Well, I don’t believe pummeling a baby seal with a baseball bat or gutting a cat in a voodoo rite is exactly what God had in mind. Killing to survive or that it’s human nature to be carnivorous is a weak argument because very few people are running around in the jungle or woods on a quest for fire. And vegetarians have proven over very long periods of time they don’t need to kill animals to survive. If surviving were that crucial and immediate, then eating each other would be morally acceptable, as well as starving parents committing the act of infanticide.
Meateaters who claim they’ve just got to have their meat sound more like the words of an addict than one who justifies what they do on moral or philosophical grounds. When they say they can’t imagine a pizza without pepperoni or eggs without sausage, it speaks of the limits of their imaginations and tells the tale of habit rather than reasoning.
Eating meat is a luxury, a cruel one at that. It is a habit born from custom and tradition. Some customs and traditions deserve to disappear. Slavery, burning witches at the stake, and throwing thieves to the lions were once customary and traditional.
“It is my view that the vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”
— Albert Einstein

Economics is also a poor argument. If profitability were all one needed for justification of an act, then slavery, drug dealing and child pornography would be legitimate business practices. As for humans being at the top of the food chain, if people chose not to eat animals, they wouldn’t be at the top of the food chain. Vegetarians prove you don’t have to eat meat to survive. Confused pseudo-evolutionists miss caring for the sick and elderly when they pull out the “survival of the fittest” argument in justifying the killing of weak animals in the wild by hunters. Besides, hunters rarely bring home anything less than the strongest buck even though they believe their hunting license fees contribute to necessary herd thinning due to starvation. They also miss the fact that over-population problems are largely the result of destroyed habitats.
The reasonable goal is to stop the cruelty; stop the abuse. If humans collectively decide they must eat meat to survive, then they can do so without pulling the wings off a butterfly, putting a sock over a cat’s head or riding a speedboat over the back of a manatee. No one needs to feel they deserve the death penalty for accidentally stepping on an ant hill.

“The day should come when all of the forms of life … will stand before the court — the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams.”
–William O. Douglas, late U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

There is no argument against self-defense. That argument speaks for itself. The idea is to reduce the suffering caused by thoughtless cruelty. I don’t know if plants feel or suffer from pain, but I do know animals suffer. I know people suffer. And even though a human or animal might not cry out in pain, I will still not stick them with a knife simply because I didn’t get a response. People kill for fun, for sport, for fashion, for power and for wealth. We often torture before we kill. We conduct wholesale slaughter, from human genocide to factory farming.
From zoos to circuses, rodeos to hunting, vivisection to trophies, people exploit the hell out of animals. It’s also true, people exploit each other with the same insensitivity and lack of remorse.
Reasonable goals. Commonsense. Being ethical. Whether the belief comes from God, or science, or out of a comic book, it is universally understood that hurting others — people and animals — is wrong. Would you teach your child anything less?

Jerry Flattum is the Daily’s editorial page editor