In a July 31 New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof celebrated the rapidly growing animal-rights movement. Kristof reported that Spain has legalized ape rights; Austrians are pushing legislation that would define the chimpanzee as a person; the Harvard Law School offers an animal-rights course; and an animal-rights referendum will appear on the California ballot in November. Convinced that “our descendants will look back on our factory farms with uncomprehending revulsion,” Kristoff writes of his experience growing up on a farm in Oregon, “Our cattle, sheep, chickens and goats had individual personalities but not such interesting ones that it bothered me that they might end up in a stew. Pigs were more troubling because of their unforgettable characters and obvious intelligence. To this day, when tucking into a pork chop, I always feel as if it is my intellectual equal.”
If this were merely a personal confession of imbecility, it would be odd (equality with a pork chop?), but no odder than many things that appear in America’s self-styled newspaper of record. But Kristoff’s bad conscience has clouded his judgment about a universal proposition: because man is a person who possesses a mind, he is substantially different from the pig and every other creature. Only man possesses reason, imagination, creativity, and capacities for moral thought and aesthetic experience. In the old saying: a man can make a monkey of himself, but no monkey can make a man of himself. It is man’s mind, not his body, that is made in the image and likeness of God and gives him his true dignity. Materialists may (apparently without irony) deny the existence of mind as a reality essentially different from matter, even though it obviously takes a mind to deny the existence of mind, since only a mind can affirm or deny anything.
Mortimer Adler was a powerful exponent of the truth that human nature differs from other animal natures because only man possesses “the related powers of propositional speech and conceptual thought,” and because human action is not governed by instinct. Man is free to choose. “He has, in short, the power of self-determination, the power of creating or forming himself and his life according to his own decisions.”
Man is an animal, to be sure (and often acts like one), but he is a very special animal, and it is this uniqueness that is the foundation of the “inalienable rights” referred to by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Inalienable rights in the political sphere are rights that cannot justly be taken from citizens by the state, because they were not given by the state. Our inalienable rights come from God, the author of human nature, and no fact of birth, wealth, or social position merits or diminishes them. The liberties of the people are natural rights precisely because, as Jefferson put it, they are “the gift of God.”
Most people do not know that the movement to equate man and beast is not new. The ideological origins of the animal-rights movement can be traced back to Cartesian reductionism, which measures the universe (mankind included) in exclusively material terms. As Descartes’ contemporary Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) put it: “Nothing can be known except quantitatively.” These thinkers rejected Aristotle’s “Hylomorphism” which taught that man is composed of prime matter and substantial form (body and soul).
For Descartes and the later rationalists a man is not a person, he is a thing. “There is no difference between cabbages and kings,” Nobel laureate Albert Szent Gyorgyi once quipped. “We are all recent leaves on the old tree of life.” The supposed difference between man and beast, between for instance a saint and a pig, is merely a matter of degree.
This is completely alien to the classical notion, which defines the person as a “complete individual of intellectual nature” (Boethius). This view puts God and the angels together with man as persons, and, being non-reductive, excludes rodents. The sine qua non of the human person is the soul, which is not simply an extension of a material or animal nature. It was this unity of body and soul that led Thomas Aquinas to say that the human person “signifies what is most perfect in nature.” With a soul, man has nobility. Without a soul, he has none.
If man is not exempt from the laws that govern beasts, he has no dignity, no inalienable rights, he is not a human person, he is a mere commodity. And if this notion prevails, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and cloning can be legally rationalized. If man is a non-person he can be deprived of life if “its” existence is inconvenient or deemed unfit by those holding judicial or legislative power.
The contemporary movement to elevate the beast is a ruse whose ultimate goal is to degrade man with a clear goal: implementing the culture of death.