The Equality of Species

El pensador político canadiense y vegano Will Kymlicka cuestiona provocativamente el conflicto entre derechos humanos y derechos de los animales.

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Molly Malcolm

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Will Kymlicka is a Canadian political thinker who has moved his area of interest from multiculturalism in human societies to the rights of animals. Kymlicka, who is vegan, asks why human rights and animal rights are so often perceived to be in conflict. He also questions the logic and ethics of the supremacy of our species as a precondition for the human rights cause. In a conference on the subject, Kymlicka began with the unintentional origins of this latter theory with the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration in 1948. 

Will Kymlicka (Canadian accent): When the UN first adopted the declaration on human rights, the UN asked Jacques Maritain, who was a famous philosopher of the day, to explain to the world the point and purpose of the idea of human rights. And Maritain said: “The purpose of human rights is to… elevate humanity above animality and to liberate humanity from the animality which enslaves him.” So for Maritain the whole point and purpose of human rights was to radically distinguish humans from animals.

AN OPEN DEBATE

As there was no organised animal rights movement at the time, this view was not controversial. From the 1970s on, however, as animal activism developed, the human rights movement did too, and there was a flourishing of theories unattached to the ideology of human supremacism. The basic idea behind them was that humans were subject to certain threats in society and the state had an obligation to protect them.

Will Kymlicka: Starting in the 1970s, we’ve seen the emergence of an active vocalanimal rights movement which has challenged ideologies of human supremacism. And many theorists of human rights have decided they don’t want to and don’t need to attach their defence of human rights to human supremacy. That trend increased and expanded in the 1990s and into the 2000s. And all of these ideas seem naturally to apply to animals as well. 

COUNTER-REACTION

However, in the last ten years a new and increasingly influential group of human rights defenders that Kymlicka calls ‘new dignitarians’ has argued its case from the perspective of a species hierarchy.

Will Kymlicka: In the past ten years, we’ve seen what I view as a very powerful counter-reaction to reconnect human rights to human supremacism. The ‘new dignitarians’ are people who say that the purpose of human rights is to protect human dignity. And their second claim is that the essence of human dignity is that we’re better than animals. It is a very powerful view. 

HIERARCHICAL THINKING

Using dignity — a word that seems absurd when applied to animals — as a precondition for human rights ignores growing evidence of continuity between humans and animals, says Kymlicka, while it covertly supports the billion-dollar industry of factory farming. What’s more, he argues, these human supremacists promote views that may place certain human groups at risk.

Will Kymlicka: I think this is bad, not just for animals, I think this is bad for human rights. Historically, some humans have been seen as less than fully human: women, racial minorities, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities… So, this doesn’t just lead to prejudice and stereotypes, it also leads to violence. If you think that a member of another group [is] governed just by basic instincts you’re going to view them as beasts who need to be governed through force.

LOVE ANIMALS to LOVE HUMANS

Those that draw a sharper distinction between humans and animals are more likely to dehumanise other humans, Kymlicka argues, as it teaches us to deaden our ethical sensibilities. He believes that there is a more moral and more logical way to approach the debate. 

Will Kymlicka: We have a large number of prisoners who are kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time — racial minorities vastly overrepresented — the average public just sees them as animals who need to be caged. It would be good to have an understanding of why it is wrong to keep animals in solitary confinement, in zoos and cages. We know that this causes self-harming behaviour, depression, mental trauma, even PTSD... and if people had a sense of why it’s wrong, it would be very easy to persuade them that it’s a human rights violation to keep humans in solitary confinement. 

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