It is easy to expose the weak underbelly of the “animal rights” idea. After all, the conception of “rights” is uniquely human, and so depends on humans to conceive of and apply to animals. It means that without humans, animals can have no rights, and so are subordinated to humans, having only the animal rights granted them by their human benefactors according to human interests and human concerns for self-preservation, enjoyment, etc. Ironically, the concept of “animal rights” accomplishes the opposite of what its advocates seem to be seeking. Rather than showing the innate value to ecology, it subordinates ecology (perhaps wholly) to man’s values and choices – ultimately to human utility.
It is then also ironic and certainly disconcerting that so many who assert a “fundamental right to life” for veal – unborn cattle, reject any fundamental right to life for humans who have not yet emerged from their mothers’ wombs. The inconsistency begs the question: What is the source of rights? The tendency here is that rights derive from power, or might makes right. Some discerning animal rights activists note that from power comes responsibility, but this leaves the question unasked: Why does power demand responsibility rather than simple utilitarianism? From what ultimate power and benevolence does the principle derive?
One answer to this question has been the “Gaia” deity (Mother Earth) theology which (without going into the mythological and purely religious details) asserts that great damage has been done to the terran ecology by man. The earth is somehow suffering, as a result of man, from futility, and is somehow returning the favor. This is an easy theology to adopt when it compliments the widespread faith of nihilism – belief in the futility of absolutely everything. It begs the question though: What are intelligence and volition, and how are they measured? Cause and effect are one thing, but a soul is another. Deifying the earth that one holds as ultimate value is essentially totemism; that’s fine, but it is a far cry from a genuine answer. If, as pantheism suggests, it is creation that is divine, why the persistent futility? The question becomes also: what is divinity? The Gaia myth also, however, identifies key human concerns which it may be possible to address in other if similar terms.
Debunking “animal rights” and “Gaia” arguments has two pitfalls: 1) that of a merely reactionary mentality – casual about suffering and uncompassionate, 2) that of rejecting the arguments without getting at the basic problems being identified, however not solved, by these ideologies. Set over against the “animal rights” and “Gaia” thinking is the most powerful force in Western thought, Latin and Protestant Christianity.
So often there has been a failure on the part of this force to at once adequately explore the identity of man with the rest of nature, to posit an adequate basis for the unity of all of creation, and to preserve the unique identity of man with God, man’s singularity among creations in the image and potential likeness of the Creator. This dilemma, as Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer correctly observed, has led to a concentration on the identity of man and God at the expense of the rest of creation, and so to a theoretical ethical vacuum which must necessarily be filled with the ideas of Christianity’s nemesis, Monism and its practical expression in Gnostic Paganism, even if those ideas are not only inadequate but carry attendant faults every bit as dangerous as the Western Christian ideas have proved destructive. Certainly the risk of greater inhumanity results from the blurring of the distinction between man and animal and the alienation of man from the moral perfection of the Creator.
It is possible, also that the best formulation of a morality of ecology is found not in a dialectical oppsosition to the Christian tradition, but rather within it. Eastern Orthodoxy argues that the Incarnation accomplished not only the deification of man, but the deification of ecology as well.