Do Animal Rights Activists Only Care About Animals?
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FROM Beth Levine, LCSW-C, Exploring Veganism
September 2019

If you are someone who values equality, I invite you to get curious about the ways that you exclude others of all species from your moral consideration and to consider becoming vegan, which is the least we can do to include non-human animals in our sphere of moral consideration.

Kittens

As an animal rights activist, I've heard from many people in a concerned, and sometimes in a questioning, way that I only care about animals, not humans. Or, that we should tackle human problems first and then deal with animals. Or, that they care about people, as if I and other animal rights activists, don't.

I'm reminded of conversations I had with my mother when I was little about how she could love both me and my brother; that her love for one was not mutually exclusive from her love for the other.

The animal rights activists I know are active in supporting the fundamental rights of all animals (and all animals include humans), as well as caring for our planet. My intuition says that people who are willing to include in their circle of moral consideration those who are most vulnerable, nonhuman animals, are also those who will advocate most strongly for the rights of other humans who are vulnerable too. Wouldn't it be nice if there were research to prove, or disprove, this hypothesis?

Well, there is.

Research by Yon Soo Park and Benjamin Valentino, as reported in The Washington Post on July 26, 2019, shows that people who are expansive in their view of human rights and welfare are more likely to support animal rights.

"Most interestingly, however, we found that attitudes about LGBT rights, universal health care, welfare for the poor, improving conditions of African Americans, and supporting birthright citizenship for U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants were strongly associated with views about animal rights. Some of these effects were very large.

Americans who indicated on a 5-point scale that they strongly favored increasing governmental assistance to the sick, for example, were over 80 percent more likely to support animal rights than those who strongly opposed it. These findings hold even after controlling for a variety of potentially confounding factors - including political ideology."

Park and Valentino continue their discussion of their research by explaining how the correlation between support for animal rights and human rights and welfare are not only strong on an individual level, but also on a state level. They go on to say:

"States that afforded stronger protections for LGBT rights and enacted more extensive hate-crime statutes tended to have significantly more animal-friendly laws. These results held when controlling for each state's economic dependency on animal agriculture, state-level political ideology, state per capita wealth, the religiosity of state residents, and race."

As Park and Valentino summarize, these results suggest that the conviction that animals have rights reflect a person's way of understanding rights for themselves. They go on to point out that currently, rights are more about extending rights to groups who were previously excluded from the dominant groups' entitlements. Examples include civil rights for African Americans, women's suffrage, and LGBTQ rights. These out-groups weren't trying to get a new set of rights, but rights that the in-group already enjoyed. It is not that that disadvantaged human groups have succeeded in gaining equality (sadly there is much injustice to humans), but that that rights, as a human construct, has more recently been about extending rights already enjoyed by the dominant group to oppressed groups and not about adding the number of rights to which humans are entitled.

So, people who support animal rights are not so much animal lovers, although they may love animals, but people who believe in extending the rights they enjoy to others. Animal rights activism, like other civil rights activism, is about social justice.

Why might this be?

I believe it has to do with supremacist ideology. Supremacist ideology is the belief that one group – fill in the blank – is superior to another group – fill in the blank. Whites can feel that they are superior to blacks. The rich can believe they are superior to the poor. Men can feel that they are superior to women. This superiority isn't about difference. This supremacist ideology says that the dominant group can do whatever they want to the out group because they are morally superior. This way of thinking, plus having an unfair advantage over their victims, promotes oppression.

In 1970 clinical psychologist Richard Ryder coined the term "speciesism" to describe the belief of human supremacy over other animals. This belief allows humans to use other species for food, entertainment, clothing, and research without thought, consideration or ramifications. Speciesism means that species who are not human are not allowed the basic rights of bodily integrity and to be free from harm and exploitation.

Supremacist ideology is the same whether it is "white" over other races or "human" over other species. It is the in-group saying, "We are morally better and so we can do what we want to the other without remorse." Following this thinking leads to the belief that to foster true equality all species must be included in our moral consideration. This conclusion fits with the research by Park and Valentino.

Oppressors must engage in denial and live a false reality in order to dominate and exploit others easily and with a clear conscience. Human beings want to see themselves as good and people will go through all sorts of cognitive distortions to make it so.

We can all be more mindful of the ways we use defense mechanisms to maintain the status quo and avoid thinking and behaving in more expansive ways. If you are someone who values equality, I invite you to get curious about the ways that you exclude others of all species from your moral consideration and to consider becoming vegan, which is the least we can do to include non-human animals in our sphere of moral consideration.

"The basis of all animal rights should be the Golden Rule: we should treat them as we would wish them to treat us, were any other species in our dominant position."
- Christine Stevens


Beth Levine, LCSW-C, has a private practice based in Rockville, Maryland. She is Certified as a Therapist and Therapist Supervisor in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy by The Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. She also has earned a Level I Certification in Internal Family Systems. Beth works with adults in individual and couple settings. She works with people struggling with anxiety, depression and relationship issues. She is honored to be part of her clients' journey toward better health, happiness, and relationships. She is driven to make the world a better place on an individual, as well as a systemic level. Beth can be reached at [email protected] and at her WEBSITE.


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