Once upon a time, everyone who mattered agreed on everything worth thinking about, thanks to the beneficent influence of Judeo-Christian Values (don't let that hyphen fool you, friend; there is not the slightest fissure in this monolith).
In those days, anyone who wanted to settle an argument had only to consult and interpret the Talmud, or the Bible, or the Pope, or the local pastor, or a vision granted by God Himself. There was no quibbling, no drama, no endless disputation over vexing questions like the moral status of animals.
Then along came modernity and postmodernity. And suddenly, it became fashionable not only to speak of animals as though they were something more than an ambulatory buffet straight outta Cockaigne, but also to imagine that science could actually shed some sort of light on their so-called "consciousness." If our Founding Fathers were alive today, they'd be spinning in their graves!
That story, which is arguably more fanciful than anything that appears in the Bible, comes to us from Peter Heck:
One of the most serious consequences coming from our society's collective abandonment of the Judeo-Christian ethic handed down to us from our Founders is our startling tendency to drift from truth into utter confusion....Perhaps because he realizes that this is not an obviously ridiculous question, Heck grabs his toboggan and dashes for the nearest slippery slope: If dolphins are special, then so are cats and dogs and rabbits, and the next thing you know, taking antibiotics for bubonic plague will be seen as an act of speciesist genocide against Yersinia pestis.
Take for example what recently occurred at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The fascinating topic of conversation (please note the sarcasm) was the ethical and policy implications of dolphin intelligence. In other words, should we grant dolphins some form of human rights that would protect them to a greater degree than other animals?
He calls that religion, as the song says. Never mind Balaam's ass, and the lion lying down with the calf. Never mind St. Basil's plea for God to "enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth in common with us." Never mind the medieval animal trials at which field mice -- who had certain rights in consequence of their ancestors' presence on Noah's Ark -- were permitted, through their appointed counsel, to "show cause for their conduct by pleading their exigencies and distress." What about our needs?
Anyway, some scientists say dolphins might be people. Or "nonhuman persons," which is just as bad, if not worse.
This nonsense is the logical end to an illogical worldview. It is exactly what to expect when your culture has torn itself free from any foundational moorings.Like Christianity, the scientific worldview has pretty deep roots (as does the idea of "nonhuman personhood," for that matter). However, it can't provide a "foundational mooring," because it's the product of inherently flawed human reasoning, unlike Papal infallibility or the Rapture or the idea that human life begins at conception whether that dirty slut likes it or not.
Besides, man's "position of superiority allows him to exercise dominion and dominance over all other living things," as is clearly implied somewhere or other in this book I have right here. Which proves that cruelty to animals is OK, so long as it's not "unbridled" cruelty. (Behold the clear guidance we receive once we submit to "a transcendent moral authority"!)
Let's accept that Heck sincerely believes we have an obligation to refrain from "unbridled cruelty" (whatever that is) toward at least some animals (the ones whose talents are cited by creationists as arguments against evolution, for instance). It seems logical that if we truly want to avoid being crueler than God intended us to be, it'd be helpful to have some rough idea of what a given animal can and can't feel and know. It'd be a start, at least.
This is not a question that's easily resolved by Biblical exegesis. There's no clear evidence that God smiles down on veal crates, but weeps over dog fights (especially if there's gambling involved). Hence the importance -- even to fundamentalists -- of a scientific discussion on the ethical and policy implications of animal intelligence, which can't actually be dismissed by whining over semantics or calling people stupid.
Heck complains about "the shifting sands of prevailing popular opinion," without noting that you can go to jail, today, for doing things to animals that were formerly viewed as good clean fun. Presumably, Heck is glad not to see cockfights and bear-baiting on every street corner. If so, he himself has strayed from the hallowed path of tradition and fallen prey to the whims of fashion, just like the fags and Frenchmen he deplores.
But needless to say, he draws a different lesson from all this:
[W]hen you begin with the assumption that there is no Creator, the distinction of humanity quickly gets lost in a fog of philosophy.So that's how it happened.
The idea that science can't or shouldn't attempt to give us a clearer picture of our obligations toward animals is especially rich coming from the type of person who can detect a soul in the ultrasound image of a month-old fetus. Which is, of course, what this whole tortuous argument is ultimately about, and why Heck's version of "the Judeo-Christian ethic" is so wonderfully simple: Man's dominion over animals is as self-evident and righteous as man's dominion over women:
The end result is a society that would grant dolphins and apes the unalienable right to life while denying baby humans in the womb the same. That is the very definition of confusion...tragic confusion.I don't suppose it'll surprise anyone to learn that baby humans in Iraqi wombs have no "inalienable right to life," according to Heck, and can be slaughtered wholesale so long as "Iraq becomes a valuable ally...one whose democratic processes rub off on its neighbors, thus transforming the world’s most volatile region into stability." (And if things don't actually work out that way...well, the road to Heaven is paved with good intentions.)
Given what we routinely do to human beings, for fun and profit, I think it's safe to say that dolphins may find "personhood" to be a bit less of a blessing than Heck imagines.
(Illustration: "The Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks, 1834.)