Animal Rights: Natural Law and Cultural Customs

Natural law holds that law and morality are deeply connected.  Law is not simply what is passed as legislation – if legislation is not moral, then it is not true law, and has no actual authority. For example, if we were living in times of widespread slavery and, for some arbitrary reason, you were designated by society as a slave due to your beliefs, ethnicity, class, gender, in the eyes of the law you have no rights. This is perfectly legal, yet obviously unjust.

What if the arbitrary reason you have your natural rights stripped from you is because you belong to a different species? It is not wrong to harm a human because they are human – it is wrong because they are conscious, feeling, complex beings, not because they belong to the same species. The immorality of harm crosses across species boundaries; unless nature so makes it an absolute biological necessity for an animal being to consume others – a true obligate carnivore – we have no right to destroy the lives of billions of others simply because we fancy it.

Law is simply the contractual, enforceable obligation to behave in a certain way, to a defined moral standard. It entrenches moral guidelines – law is ultimately a discussion of moral philosophy – separating the good, acceptable  from the bad – like not abusing children, not killing, not causing suffering – almost all of society deems these things as “wrong” or “bad.” Other moral issues, most notably animal rights, get sidelined in the moral grey areas, in which we suspend judgement, even on things we know are wrong. Murder and suffering are normally things we would never normally agree to, yet with animals our laws are sadly lagging behind our morality.

St Thomas Aquinas asserted that law lacking morality  is a  “perversion of law”.  Natural law holds that there is an definitive connection between law and morality and that an unjust law is not a true law.  Just because law and cultural custom dictates something to be lawful and acceptable that doesn’t mean it is truly a law worth adhering to. It follows that if a law is not just we need not obey it.

Cicero said that:

“True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. … We cannot be freed from its obligations by Senate or People, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times…”

If slavery was legal, would sheltering and helping slaves be wrong? Should you be in trouble with the law for doing the great good of helping the weak and vulnerable? If tomorrow the law dictated that it was perfectly acceptable to own slaves, would you own slaves? If it were not only legal to belittle and demonise another ethnicity, but encouraged, would it be acceptable to do that? Through our law, mainstream society says that abusing and killing the weakest and most vulnerable members of the wider natural society – fellow animal species – is acceptable. This is not in alignment with the morality of natural law. We need to recognise this and change our society’s legislation to remedy the gross injustice of the animal issue.

Currently, society’s laws reduce animals to property – they are only valuable based on their ownership by us and their emotional value to a human being. Natural law however tells us otherwise, what we know deep down to be true: that animals lives matter to them and we have no right to interfere with their lives, nor to own them or use them.

Does an animal not deserve your respect, regardless of whether or not you personally derive pleasure and contentment from it? Does the chicken in a slaughter house 100 miles away not deserve the same respect as someone’s cat or dog? This is the empathy gap between our rational, compassionate morality versus our inconsistent application of it. When an individual animal is slaughtered, their entire right to life is wiped away and they are callously reduced to their physical flesh. The utility of their bodies, to a species that doesn’t even need to eat them, is deemed more significant than their entire lives are to them. If law and cultural custom states this as acceptable, we all ought to adhere to the greater authority of natural law which holds that harming innocent, vulnerable beings is wrong.

2 thoughts on “Animal Rights: Natural Law and Cultural Customs

  1. Obviously, it would seem foolish to talk about “natural law” and “natural rights” without the two conceptions being discussed by humans, because our sense of both are human-determined. Still, let us imagine humans don’t exist. What happens to natural law and natural rights? Would the idea of morality being “deeply connected” to natural law be lost? I think so.

    Our continued domestication of animals–pets included–is unnecessary, but so much of what we do as a species is unnecessary. If domestication is unnecessary, why engage in it? Any kind of engagement in domestication is preferential, whether judged benign or malignant.

    The carrying-capacity of this planet is finite. It isn’t as if every species (particularly, the megafauna) in the world could exist in the trillions without a price to be paid. Imagine if we stopped killing bovines for food, but permitted their species population to exist in the trillions. Obviously, this would be difficult to achieve and would require harm and/or death (and an “unnatural” balance) to other lifeforms. But aren’t we doing this with our preferred pet population? Aren’t we ensuring their numbers, and the continued growth of their numbers, to the detriment of other species?

    We continue to abominate the canine species through hybridization, but the happy human consumer is delighted to tote around a “boutique” dog in a purse for her psychological well-being.

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    • Obviously, it would seem foolish to talk about “natural law” and “natural rights” without the two conceptions being discussed by humans, because our sense of both are human-determined. Still, let us imagine humans don’t exist. What happens to natural law and natural rights? Would the idea of morality being “deeply connected” to natural law be lost? I think so.

      I agree that natural rights is a human-held concept, however there is some reason to believe that natural law does, to a certain extent exist independent of the human conceptualisation of. Frans De Waal, amongst others, has argued that morality actually has it origins within nature (at least in social creatures) and it not a totally man-made concept. I’ll try to elaborate on this further at some point.

      We continue to abominate the canine species through hybridization, but the happy human consumer is delighted to tote around a “boutique” dog in a purse for her psychological well-being.

      The objectification, breeding and manipulation of a species is certainly wrong, and the particular scenario of a handbag dog soothing the psychological wellbeing of a human is particularly unpleasant. Contributing to all of the harm by purchasing a boutique dog is morally reprehensible, however the human consumer is ultimately searching to fulfil a need – in this case perhaps attention, affection, and more negatively perhaps domination and ownership. Obviously the latter two should not be tolerated, neither should breeding, genetic manipulation and the consumerist objectification of animals.

      However the desire to engage with other animal beings is, at its root, a fine thing – seeking friendship with other species is a beautiful thing – friendship across species boundaries is the ultimate respect – it is in effect saying that no matter how different and weaker another individual may be, we still value their existence and respect their autonomy. To say we should not be closer to certain species who appeal to us more is like saying we shouldn’t be closer to our friends than strangers. It is a fact that we are drawn towards certain individuals over others. Nonetheless, treating some species well, whilst treating other poorly is of course entirely unacceptable.

      The carrying-capacity of this planet is finite. It isn’t as if every species (particularly, the megafauna) in the world could exist in the trillions without a price to be paid. Imagine if we stopped killing bovines for food, but permitted their species population to exist in the trillions. Obviously, this would be difficult to achieve and would require harm and/or death (and an “unnatural” balance) to other lifeforms. But aren’t we doing this with our preferred pet population? Aren’t we ensuring their numbers, and the continued growth of their numbers, to the detriment of other species?

      Very good point indeed, Jerry. Thanks for joining the discussion.

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