Apart from its marginal leverage within the radical-ecology movement, animal rights discourse has scarcely entered into or altered the work of Left/progressive groups in the United States. Animal advocates are orphans of the Left, championing a progressive cause that is shunned by other progressive movements. Animal rights may receive a passing ritualized mention before being promptly ignored. With few exceptions, the Left has historically viewed human violence toward other beings with indifference.
WILL KYMLICKA: In shorthand summaries of the preferred causes of the progressive Left in the past 40 years, one often ﬁnds a reference to animal rights, alongside gender equality, gay rights, the disability movement, and the rights of immigrants, racial minorities, and indigenous peoples. All are seen as paradigmatically progressive causes, ﬁghting to emancipate historically subordinated and stigmatized groups, often subsumed under the label of “social justice struggles” or “citizenship struggles. “Yet the inclusion of animal rights in this list is misleading: the reality is that the animal question is virtually invisible within the Left. As Boggs notes, “Apart from its marginal leverage within the radical-ecology movement, animal rights discourse has scarcely entered into or altered the work of Left/progressive groups in the United States”. Animal advocates are “orphans of the Left,” championing a progressive cause that is shunned by other progressive movements. Animal rights may receive a passing ritualized mention before being promptly ignored.
Nor is this a new phenomenon: the same pattern held for the old Left, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Sanbonmatsu notes, “the Left with few exceptions has historically viewed human violence toward other beings with indifference”. While this indifference is long-standing, its causes have arguably changed. Marx — who was contemptuous of animal rights movements — shared the Kantian/Hegelian view that the intrinsic value of humanity derives entirely from what distinguishes “man” from animals and that nature (including animals) is simply the stage on which humans enact their unique Promethean species powers for self-conscious and creative cooperative labor. The result, in Benton’s words, is a “quite fantastic species-narcissism”. This account of the human good, which rests on a dichotomy between higher human capacities and mere animal functions, is now widely discredited on the Left, not because it ignores the fact that many animals engage in conscious, intentional, and cooperative activity, but rather because it leads to a pernicious hierarchy among humans.
The claim that the intrinsic value of humanity derives from the capacity to self-consciously transform the external world leads not only to privileging humans over animals, but also to privileging men’s productive labor over women’s reproductive labor, to privileging the able-bodied over people with disabilities, and to privileging European systems of intensive agriculture and property use over traditional forms of subsistence production. Not all groups or cultures were seen as equally capable of engaging in this Promethean mastery of the external world, and the progress of history for Marx required allowing the most advanced of these masters to rule. If animals, as biologically determined beings, were unable to participate in the progress of history, so, too, Marx and Engels believed that there were “history less peoples” whose conquest by great nations “is the right of civilization as against barbarism, of progress as against stability . . . [This] is the right of historical evolution.”
After waves of feminist, disability, multicultural, and postcolonial critiques, the Left today almost unanimously rejects this picture that the intrinsic value of humanity lies in its capacity for rational self-conscious mastery of the external world, and in its transcendence of the merely “natural” or “animal.” There are multiple forms of human ﬂourishing, multiple sources of value in our lives, all of which are deeply embodied, inescapably linked to our ontological existence as ﬁnite and vulnerable physical beings (i.e., as human animals). This new picture of the good of human lives should have opened up the possibility for including animals in the Left’s conception of social justice. Humans are no longer disembodied Cartesian rational egos, and science has conclusively shown that animals are no longer mechanical automatons — rather, we are all conscious, feeling, communicative selves, bound to other conscious selves through various webs of relationship and dependency, each with our own subjective experience of the world. The human good is now continuous with that of other animals.
If we look at a feminist ethics of care, for example, there is no conceptual or theoretical reason why its account of the good of human lives, and of the moral signiﬁcance of caring relationships in promoting that good, cannot apply to animals. Similarly, if we look at “capability theory” in the global justice literature, there is no theoretical impediment to extending its account of the good of capabilities and of human ﬂourishing, and the claims of justice it gives rise to, to animals. If we look at disability theory, there is no theoretical impediment to extending its account of the human good, and of the role of dependent agency in promoting that good, to animals. If anything, it is the refusal to extend these theories to animals that appears ad hoc and theoretically unmotivated. Indeed we can ﬁnd theorists who have drawn precisely these conclusions, extending feminist, postcolonial, and disability theory to include animals.
And yet, as noted earlier, these pleas to include animals in the work of the Left have largely fallen on deaf ears. The vast majority of the Left — whether feminist, postcolonial, multiculturalist, critical race theory, disability, cosmopolitan, and queer — continues to view human violence against animals with complete indifference. How can we explain this? Part of the explanation is the depth of our cultural inheritance. The Abrahamic religions all assert that only humans were made in God’s image and that animals were put on earth to serve human beings. Even people who disavow religious arguments, and purport to believe in evolution, often implicitly accept this premise. Another part of the explanation is that accepting animal rights can involve painful and inconvenient changes in one’s personal life: people may not be ready to give up their favorite meat dishes or leather shoes.
In order to avoid having to confront such challenges, they simply avoid thinking about animal ethics at all. Both the depth of the cultural legacies, and the difﬁculty of the personal sacriﬁces, are arguably greater in relation to animal rights than, say, gay rights or disability rights. These familiar reasons help to explain why people on the Left resist animal rights, despite the logic of their own commitments. Put another way, people on the Left are not immune to either “species-narcissism” or self-interest — these are both “human, all too human” reasons for ignoring the claims of animals that cut across the ideological spectrum. But there is also, we believe, a distinctively Left motivation for resisting animal rights: namely the perception that advocating for animal rights will end up harming the struggles of other disadvantaged groups. This is the perception that we wish to unpack and evaluate, to see whether indeed it offers a sound reason for the Left’s reticence regarding animal rights. SOURCE…