Canada’s Seal Hunt/The Roots of Animal Rights

So the Canadian seal hunt is starting around now. There are predictable arguments, like here. So I might as well weigh in.

The first thing to say is that, unsurprisingly, I’m against it and support the efforts of all those trying to prevent or disrupt it. She who saves one life, it is as though she had saved the whole world, etc. etc.

The second thing is to put this in perspective. This hunt involves killing 2 or 3 hundred thousands individuals. The same number of individual birds are killed for food every three minutes.

So there’s a certain validity to the common response to criticism, “if you’re not a strict vegan, shut up”. Indeed, since, though vegan, I am not entirely ‘strict’ (I eat honey, drink wine and beer filtered through fish scales, will, if unsure of something’s ingredients, often with it to hell, etc.), I might as well situate myself as the target of the ‘shut up’.

But the validity is really only as a defective version of a more appropriate statement, “if you’re not a vegan, be a vegan”. That is, it has no bearing on the truth of claims such as “the Canadian seal hunt is hideous and barbaric”.

The problem is that it is often quite effective when criticism is offered on small components of ‘athroparchy’* in isolation. Because the fact is, whether a sentient being is cute or not is irrelevant to its rights. Everybody kind of knows that, so when it can be used to defend them, they will use it. The only way to blunt its force is to embrace it.

The other argument often used is that this seal hunt is a component of the culture and economy of the indigenous people of the area, and thus should not be criticised. Now this is a good argument for proceeding with a certain caution and a certain respect, since indigenous American communities have indeed been hugely victimised and continue to be marginalised.

But unless the critique was based on something incautious or disrespectful, it should remain no less valid when done cautiously and respectfully. Can it be said that it is so based? The main attempt to suggest so is based on the insinuation that vegans and animal rights supporters are applying an idea drawn from ‘European’ or ‘modern’ or ‘Western’ culture and using it to sweep aside the ideas or practices of another culture.

But this isn’t even particularly true, even if we grant whatever relativistic caricature is intended. If veganism were an idea that was somehow rooted within and had no roots beyond ‘Western’ culture, then we would expect it to be 1) absent elsewhere, and 2) widespread and accepted there. I don’t think it’s either. It’s clearly not absent elsewhere in the world (most famous, probably, are the vegetarian strands within various Indian religious and philosophical traditions, and more broadly animal-worship in societies all over the world) any more than it is absent in the West, where something around 1% of the population, if that, is vegan, and only 2 or 3% vegetarian.

Perhaps it would be useful to be a bit more positive about the roots of the idea. I will focus on animal rights, because so many different motivations lead people into veganism (health, environmental, spiritual, animal welfare, etc.) but even in animal rights, there’s a lot of blur and a lot of variety. No doubt the contours will become clearer if the movement becomes larger and more prominent. But for now I will focus on where the idea of animal rights that I hold to comes from.

There are two components, and I think they are actually quite diverse in their origins – the idea of animal rights, and the idea of animal rights. The latter, I will allow, is of enlightenment stock, drawing on the idea of a natural and equal right owed to all, not to the holders of particular dignities and ranks and identities. But even this is not really a ‘new’ idea but a particular formal adjustment to a fairly obvious and universal idea, that people should not be treated cruelly or abusively. History is filled with admonitions to look after the wellbeing both of the community and that of the individual ‘outsider’, the ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’ who is owed hospitality. All that ‘rights’ does is clarify and sharpen this idea (at least, that’s my reading of the history of ideas, which may be partial or flawed).

The other component is the universalism that sees this right as applying to animals as well as to humans (or should I say, as well as to European male humans). The idea that animals are in some sense ‘bound up with’ humans, and vice versa, can be found all over the world, especially where ideas of reincarnation are prominent (I am fond of, though ill-qualified to evaluate, the line of thought which says that reincarnation is merely a mythological or metaphorical way to express the idea of universal interconnectedness or identity).

What is interesting is how often these have come apart – indeed how in a sense they are opposed. The idea of rights is very much what a distinct individual claims against the rest of the world. Rights are the rights of the subjective, of the individual, of the part against the social or cosmic whole. While the interconnectedness of all beings is easily seen as a dissolution of individuality, an affirmation that I cannot claim anything against the greater whole of which I am merely a part.

But this apparent opposition is simply the opposition between heads and tails, two sides of the same coin. Neither can really be taken in isolation. For example, the assertion of the subjective, individual right by the englightenment mind, precisely because of its willingness to separate the individual from others, amounted in practice to the rigourous subordination of most individuals (female, non-European, deviant, non-human, etc.) to the privileged, because the privileged were, due to their social position, best equipped to assert their subjectivity as subjectivity in general.

Which suggests, of course, that both sides contain the other in themselves. The logic of enlightenment individualism itself contains respect for the other, including ultimately the marginalised and subordinate other. Animal rights is only the final expression of that, while the various movements of the oppressed have tried to articulate this for those humans who fell outside the privileged. And conversely, the common good of the group is best served by privacy as well as publicity, by each component being free to develop itself.

So in conclusion, animal rights is, to my mind, a combination of the englightenment discourse of rights and individuality with the mystical and animistic discourse of interconnectedness and sisterhood – but a combination in which each side in fact merely expresses the truth of the other side, and thus in a sense merely the full unfolding of either.

This is of course all very Hegelian, and if I knew more about Hegel’s specific philosophy of politics I would probably be able to quote bits of him. But it is also very Marxist – or in a word, dialectical. I’m just throwing that in because dialectical is a crazy word about which people are often like, wtf?, so I figure examples should be flagged.

One Response to “Canada’s Seal Hunt/The Roots of Animal Rights”

  1. Q Says:

    ‘It’s clearly not absent elsewhere in the world (most famous, probably, are the vegetarian strands within various Indian religious and philosophical traditions, and more broadly animal-worship in societies all over the world)’
    I don’t think that animal worship was typically vegetarian. It was usually, as far as I know, the product of hunters asking for for help and giving offerings; ascribing intent and character to the natural world, just as with rain gods and sun gods.
    ‘…or should I say, as well as to European male humans…’
    I’m not so sure that women lived a free, perfect and unoppressed life everywhere else until Europeans started travelling.
    ‘The idea that animals are in some sense ‘bound up with’ humans, and vice versa, can be found all over the world, especially where ideas of reincarnation are prominent…’
    I think it’s been a feature in mythology anywhere hunting was prevalent. The LBK culture of 7,000 years ago made fish statues because (we guess) they relied so heavily on the rivers, especially in winter.

    But anyway, the rest of it makes sense.

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