Michael Gerson

I remain convinced that equating animal rights and human rights does nothing to serve either cause. Philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton University argues that all beings that feel pain and pleasure have equal rights -- dog, pig or child. But rather than elevating animal rights, Singer and others remove the moral basis for all rights, including human rights. "We can no longer base our ethics," says Singer, "on the idea that human beings are a special form of creation, made in the image of God, singled out from all other animals, and alone possessing an immortal soul." Singer is left with a pitiless utilitarianism that would allow for the killing of "imperfect" children and the elimination of the disabled, just as we would weed out the runts or cull the herd.

The mainstream of the Western tradition -- the philosophy found in the Declaration of Independence and espoused by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. -- has viewed human beings as a special form of creation, made in the image of God. This special status is displayed in our moral nature -- our capacity and duty to make moral choices, including the imperative to care for the weak. No lion or fox is held responsible for murder.

This principle means that a human being, in any state of health, is always more valuable than a dog or a cow; that a hamburger is not a holocaust. But this principle does not mean that the animal kingdom lacks a worth and purpose of its own. A long tradition of ethical reflection has asserted that animals are not merely property, like a vase we can choose to display or break. Their unique nature requires a moral response: We should not, according to St. Francis, "exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity."

Animals are not equals. But, amazingly to me, they can sometimes be friends -- something I missed for far too long. Now people laugh at my Havanese and me. But, like Ebenezer Scrooge following his transformation, I am content: "Many laughed to see this alteration in him, but he let them laugh and little heeded them. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him."


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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