Not a week goes by that somebody, somewhere doesn’t raise arguments against (or in favor of) so-called secular humanism. It’s a favorite whipping boy for plenty of politicians, yet despite the demonization, few people—even those ostensibly professing beliefs consistent with humanism—can cogently define its philosophy.

In an intriguing commentary titled, “The Humanist View of Animal Rights,” Peg Tittle, a columnist and author of the book, “Critical Thinking: An Appeal to Reason,” provides a succinct definition: “Humanists have faith, not in a supernatural being, but in human beings. Humanists look to scientific inquiry and reason for the solution of human problems, a critical difference from people professing a belief in the supernatural and in revealed truth.”

That description represents the worldview of plenty of people who might not otherwise describe themselves as humanists. Thus, Tittle’s discussion of how that perspective impacts the debate over animal rights merits consideration. As she noted, because the supernatural is irrelevant to humanists, so too are the four standard animal rights arguments, which include:


  • Since man is made in God’s image, animals are subordinate to humans and thus have fewer—if any—rights
  • Since God has given man dominion over the animals, he can do what he wants with them
  • Since God gave man stewardship over animals, we are responsible for them and they do have rights
  • Animal’s rights depend on whether or not they have souls

Dismissing those discussions—which in fact are central to virtually the entire debate over livestock production, medical research and hunting, Tittle rightly asks, What arguments about animal rights are relevant to humanists?Her answer: intrinsic arguments.

“Unlike instrumental arguments which grant rights to animals only insofar as they are of value to us, intrinsic arguments grant such rights on the basis of the animals themselves, independent of their relation to us,” she wrote. “Intrinsic arguments say there is something in and of the animal itself that justifies its rights.”

That interpretation mirrors exactly the basic thrust of the animal activist community, many of whom loudly profess a theological basis for their stance—which would seem to suggest that regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof), there is broad consensus for according animals exactly those intrinsic rights that would invalidate virtually all of animal agriculture.

Numerous surveys would dispute the existence of any such consensus, of course. Where the rubber hits the road in discussing animal rights isn’t about deciding whether livestock or wildlife shouldn’t be treated humanely, but whether they ought to be extended legal protections within the jurisprudence system.

Shades of gray

That determination matters, because like every other issue that’s ultimately decided in the courts, there is no right and wrong, no black and white to guide jurists. Judicial rulings depend on interpretation, on nuance, on how different judges interpret various points of existing law.

For humanists—and for those who may not label themselves as such, but who agree with the philosophy’s tenets—there is a spectrum of belief. At one end, simply being alive becomes the basis for “rights.” Those who espouse this view, and they’re legion within the animal activist community, would extend the notion of rights to plants, trees and all living things.

At the other end of the continuum, as Tittle argues, are those who insist that only the determining factor is “consciousness, sentience, intelligence.” That argument, she wrote, “Requires one to draw lines, and I’m willing to live with fuzzy lines concerning the extent, content and strength of these rights.”

But those fuzzy lines are where the entire construct of animal rights founders. The fundamental question of how the judicial system might accommodate the extension of legal rights to animals becomes, instead, a question of which animals have rights.Sponges? Insects? Larvae? Amoeba?

No one with any credibility tries to include all animals in their argument, but even if sentience is the admission ticket to the legal system, we’re still left with the challenge of defining it legally. Most people would agree that whales and dolphins certainly qualify. But what about salmon? Isn’t their incredible ability to navigate from ocean to rivers to the very streambed from which they were spawned evidence of an equally remarkable intelligence?

Is fishing thus a violation of animal rights? And would that apply to less lauded marine species? Hake? Herring? Sardines?

In the end, whether one’s motivation is religious or otherwise, the justification of animal rights ultimately rests not on solid philosophical grounds, but on a perceived emotional connection to the creatures with whom we share our existence. That impulse is good and noble and serves to underscore the stewardship with which homo sapiens are best served in dealing with all of the life forms comprising the planetary ecosystem.

But it’s no basis for pretending that animals should someday have their day in court.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.