Persons Versus Property: Who Gets Rights?
Human beings are animals. Many folks like to think that we are special and different from all other animals, that there is a line that divides us from all other animal species. On the human side of that line, one is considered a person, and you have rights. On the other side of that line, one is considered property.
This presents difficulties: While it’s convenient to think of non-human animals as property, because that means we can eat them and use them to experiment on, and so on, most people agree that they feel pain and feel uncomfortable seeing them suffer. So we’ve made laws and informal agreements to try to minimize their suffering.
We run into weird situations like letting a grief-stricken man whose dog companion dies in the cargo hold of an airplane sue the airline – for property damage, as if the dog is a suitcase. Dogs are eaten, abandoned, inbred until they have crippling health problems, trained or abused to make them vicious so they’ll guard people’s land, and forced to fight and perform dangerous tricks. A dog in a laboratory may be subjected to violent, painful experiments by law, activities that would be against the law if perpetrated on a dog owned as a companion.
Basically, since dogs (and other non-human animals) are property and not persons, we humans have different sets of laws and social agreements about how to treat them, based on who owns them and what they’re being used for. Nothing makes a laboratory dog so different from a companion dog that he should be tortured while the other dog is loved and protected.
Another way of looking at these distinctions is to think about where animals fit into the first question in the game 20 Questions: “Person, place, or thing?” An animal is not a place. She is either a thing or a person. Does a dog have more in common with rocks, computers, houseplants, and stuffed animals? Or with human beings?
Given that we are all biologically animals, coming from a common evolutionary tree, a dog may be understood to be not a thing, but a person. Persons are not property, but individuals with rights we are bound to respect.
Justifying Power & Privilege with Speciesism
The idea that all humans are more worthy of concern than all non-humans is called speciesism. Speciesism, like racism or sexism or heterosexism, is a preference for one’s group over all members of all other groups. Prejudice can serve members of a powerful and privileged group very well, giving them rights and benefits not accorded to other groups.
Those who have privilege and power often defend it, calling on cultural or family traditions, religion and spiritual beliefs, science, business and the acquisition of profit, taste and aesthetics, and other justifications.
These justifications are subjective and vary from culture to culture, and they often change over time. They are not necessarily accurate or appropriate reasons for oppressing others.
The Ongoing Evolution of Ethics
Over time, ethics and morals evolve, as our understanding of the world evolves. As we learn about others, and widen our circle of compassion to them, we reduce oppression and injustice. The world becomes a more peaceful, joyful place. Slavery, child marriage and marital rape, cultural imperialism and exploitation, and other practices have gradually become more and more visible and less and less accepted.
Just as the personhood of women, children, and other oppressed groups has become widely accepted, the personhood of non-human animals is also becoming recognized. Many humans around the world have figured out other ways of meeting our needs, without exploiting other species. From Buddhist monks inventing tofu to eat instead of meat, to Donald Watson inventing veganism as a logical and less oppressive variation on vegetarianism, many humans are willing to use some of their power for the benefit of other animals.
Veganism is a belief system based on the acceptance and respect of animal personhood. Vegans abstain from exploiting members of other species, and do not use non-human animals for food, experimentation, entertainment, labor, clothing, or other purposes.
Anybody can make the choice to follow a vegan path, choosing to extend compassion to other species instead of continuing to participate in oppressing them. Making this change can be a profound personal or spiritual transformation, or a simple choice based on health and environmental concerns. Every vegan has different reasons behind their decision, and expresses their veganism in different ways.
Many vegans actively rescue or give sanctuary to non-human animals, do research and invent creative alternatives to useful or desirable things typically taken from non-human animals, and otherwise promote veganism and animal rights, along with other social and environmental justice causes.
Over time, humans find new ways of understanding our place in the world, our personal experiences and beliefs, and our relationships with animals. Most vegans find that their understanding and practice of veganism evolves over time, making veganism not just a simple on-off switch, but a process.
Creating a Peaceful World
How do you feel about your relationships with other animals, including other humans? Do you feel that your actions are in line with your beliefs – or do you find yourself making choices that make you uneasy? Do any of your choices require others to suffer (on a farm, in a sweatshop, etc.) or die (i.e., calves killed to produce dairy products, orangutans killed by palm oil industry)? Do you feel that you’re contributing to a peaceful, just world, for everyone, including those who will come after us?
You yourself, other humans, other animals, and our planet, all matter. See what happens when you decide to treat absolutely everyone with respect and compassion. In the words of Albert Einstein:
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.