Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Postmodern Culture of Animal Rights Activism

Last week, in "Human Rights for Animals?", I suggested that postmodern ideology explains the push in Europe to grant human rights to non-humans.

It turns out that Wesley Smith,
at the Weekly Standard, has picked up on Spain's bid to grant rights to apes, seeing this as a threat to Western civilization's Judeo-Christian moral philosophy:

Specifically, by including animals in the "community of equals" and in effect declaring apes to be persons, the Great Ape Project would break the spine of Judeo-Christian moral philosophy, which holds that humans enjoy equal and incalculable moral worth, regardless of our respective capacities, age, and state of health. Once man is demoted to merely another animal in the forest, universal human rights will have to be tossed out and new criteria devised to determine which human/animal lives matter and which individuals can be treated like, well, animals.
Note some additional thoughts on the postmodern, relativistic mindset:

We are witnessing a broad based backlash against reason in our culture. This backlash is widely promoted in contemporary higher education. The argument is that every time somebody claims to be in possession of the truth (especially religious truth), it ends up repressing people. So its best to make no claims to truth at all.

Rejecting objective truth is the cornerstone of postmodernism. In essence, postmodern ideology declares an end to all ideology and all claims to truth. How has this seemingly anti intellectual outlook gained such wide acceptance in history's most advanced civilization? That question requires us to understand how postmodernists conceive the past three hundred years of western history.

Postmodernism abandons modernism, the humanist philosophy of the European Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking is based on the authority of French philosopher Rene Descartes' autonomous man--the one who starts from his own thought ("I think, therefore I am") and builds his world view systematically from reason alone. Naively, postmodernists charge, modernists assumed that the mind was a "mirror of nature," meaning that our perceptions of reality actually correspond to the way the world is. From this presumption, modernists built a culture that exalted technological achievement and mastery over the natural order. Expansion-minded capitalism and liberal democracy, outgrowths of modernist autonomous individualism, subjugated the earth to the eurocentric, male dominated paradigm.

But modernism planted the seeds of its own undoing. As arrogant, autonomous modernists conquered the globe and subjugated nature in the name of progress, oppressed and marginalized people have responded. "Progress toward what?" they cry. Postmodernists say that the idols of autonomous reason and technological proliferation have brought the modern age to the brink of disaster. The "myth of progress" ends up in a nightmare of violence, both for marginalized people and for the earth.

Enter postmodernism. Postmodernism rejects modernism's autonomous individualism and all that follows from it. Rather than seeing humanity as an ocean of individuals, postmodernists think of humans as "social constructs." We do not exist or think independently of the community with which we identify. So we can't have independent or autonomous access to reality. All of our thinking is contextual. Rather than conceiving the mind as a mirror of nature, postmodernists argue that we view reality through the lens of culture. Consequently, postmodernists reject the possibility of objective truth. Reality itself turns out to be a "social construct" or paradigm. In the place of objective truth and what postmodernists call "metanarratives" (comprehensive world views), we find "local narratives," or stories about reality that "work" for particular communities--but have no validity beyond that community. Indeed, postmodernists reject the whole language of truth and reality in favor of literary terms like narrative and story. It's all about interpretation, not about what's real or true.

Postmodernists hold that the pretense of objective truth always does violence by excluding other voices (regarding other world views to be invalid), and marginalizing the vulnerable by scripting them out of the story. Truth claims, we are told, are essentially tools to legitimate power. That's why in postmodern culture, the person to be feared is the one who believes that we can discover ultimate truth. The dogmatist, the totalizer, the absolutist is both naive and dangerous.

A growing number, especially among the emerging generation, believe that reason and truth are inherently political and subversive. That's why they are often so cynical. According to the voices in contemporary culture that shape "Generation X" thinking, claims to truth are clever disguises for the pernicious "will to power." Consequently, rather than dominating others with our "version of reality," we should accept all beliefs as equally valid. Openness without the restraint of reason, and tolerance without moral appraisal are the new postmodern mandates.
See also, Dennis Prager, "Moral Absolutes: The Case for Judeo-Christian Values..."

Related: Victor Davis Hanson, "
'Bomb Texas': The Psychological Roots of Anti-Americanism," and Dr. Sanity, "The Intellecutal and Moral Bankruptcy of Today's Left."


Anonymous said...


I'm afraid that your comments show a great deal of confusion about the issues at hand. Animal rights is not a "relativistic" moral position; nor are animal rights activists "postmodernists." On the contrary, animal rights is what we in philosophy call a (strongly) normative ethical position. Far from being "relativistic," animal rights proponents suggest that it is wrong to exploit and kill other sentient beings, period, regardless of whatever the customs "on the ground" happen to be. Ironically, the anti-animal rights position is the more relativistic position, insofar as anti-AR proponents concede that torturing someone's pet dog or cat would be wrong, while torturing a monkey or rat in a corporate lab, say, would not be. In other words, many anti-AR proponents adopt the contradictory position that treating animal subject N is right in context A, but wrong in context B. That is the height of relativism.

Finally, the animal rights position is *not* "postmodernist." While there are some academic scholars interested in "animal studies" who identify broadly with the postmodernist movement (or more properly, who write under the influence of poststructuralist French philosophy), most of them disavow "animal rights" as such, saying that it is part of the old liberal, individualist claptrap. By contrast, animal rights theorists and activists are staunchly modernist--at least in the sense that they/we draw upon the same claims to equality, justice, and social progress that were the founding principles of the French and American Revolutions. (The very notion of animal rights is a modern idea, and grew out of the same European movements that gave rise to movements for democracy, abolition, and, eventually, women's suffrage.)

So this posting is factually wrong on all counts. What remains is only the blogger's animus toward animal rights, based neither in logic nor reason, but simple prejudice.

John Sanbonmatsu
Assistant Professor of Philosophy