Giving Animals More Rights Improves the Quality of Human Life

Expanding our moral sphere to include animals isn't just good for animals. Professional skeptic Michael Shermer explains the various ways that it's also good for us.

Michael Shermer: Yeah I think animal rights is the next wave after the same-sex marriage. We just got done with that. And that’ll be pretty much over in terms of social attitudes within a few years to a decade. No one will even talk about it anymore. What’s next? Animal rights, but also I think — you don’t want to say environmental rights, but the rights of future generations to have a sustainable earth, a planet to live on. I think we do owe a moral obligation to future generations and animals for a balanced ecosystem. And I think we’ll get there. I think we’re on our way there. But in terms of animal rights, where do we start? We start where Jeremy Bentham, really the founding father of animal rights and rights in general, natural rights concept is that it’s not can they talk or reason. Can they suffer? So we begin in case of animals because they can’t tell us I want the right to vote. We’re not talking about that. Can they live a life without suffering? That we have improved. All the laws against animal cruelty, dog fighting, bear baiting, you know, cat nailing to the post and all the cruel things people used to do to animals. We’ve largely gotten over that. Bullfighting is on the way out. Cockfighting is illegal in most countries. So the next step then, I think, I’m on board with Temple Grandin — that is the modification of the meat industry.

So that cattle are not, they don’t suffer as much. I think we need to get away in the long run from factory farms. It’s not healthy anyway. The food is not good for you. It really isn’t. You’re really better off eating organic foods, foods that are grown or raised on small farms. The EU is really good about this, like chicken cages can’t be too small and the cows have to be free to walk around and I’m still concerned about like taking the calf away from the female cows because that’s how they get them to generate more milk. It’s not good for them. They don’t like it. They scream and cry and those are the kind of things that we’re making a lot of progress on and have a ways to go. In the long run, you know, in a century or two maybe we’ll have synthetic meat. I kind of see that. You know the Google guys are working on that problem. I think that’s just a — it’s just a molecular machinery problem. And so I think we can get there in time. That one’s going to happen slower than same-sex marriage, women’s rights, civil rights simply because these are different species and we care less about them. But as the moral sphere continues to expand, we’ve already banned the use of chimpanzees in medical research as of this year. That’s it. They’re all being retired and they go to Club Med for chimps. Great. How about monkeys? Let’s keep the sphere out a little bit more. All marine mammals, whales, dolphins, cetaceans, and so on and just keep going. It’ll take a while, decades, you know, but we’re getting there.

I think the idea of being a carnivore, we’ll look back on that as like we look back at the Romans as, "How barbaric of them." It’s totally understandable why we eat meat. I love to eat meat, you know, and I’m not quite vegetarian, vegan, you know. I’m what’s called a reducitarian. There’s an actual group, the reducitarians. Reduce your meat eating. Okay, hey it’s a goal. And the reason for that, that I like, is because it’s practical. Because, you know, if you go, "I’m going vegan. That’s it, I’m not going to eat another piece of meat," and then you have a steak and you go, "Oh no, I feel so bad. I’ve sinned. I have to go confess my sins." It’s practically like a religion and I don’t like that. So let’s just see if we can reduce the factory farm carnage. Just eat less meat. And if you’re going to eat meat, meatless Mondays or whatever. How about just meat Mondays and no other meat for the week? And if you eat meat, then just eat, you know, not the factory-farmed meat but the organic meat that came from a small farm. Increments. I call this protopia. Instead of aiming for utopia, where everything is perfect forever and we’re all just sinless — okay forget that. That’s not going to happen. Just see if we can make today slightly better than yesterday and tomorrow slightly better than today. Just incrementally protopia.

Professional skeptic Michael Shermer sees major moral progress happening. In the next decade, he says, nobody will discuss gay marriage as though it were a controversial topic; and many of the ways we currently treat animals will be considered barbaric. Practices meant to entertain humans at the expense of animal well-being — bear baiting, bull and cock fighting — are already on their way out of fashion. But we will not only stop causing animals abject pain, but also them with a more comfortable way of life, allowing them to enjoy human rights like freedom and self-determination. The results will be positive for animals as well as human health, Shermer explains.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.