Expository Writing, Vicki Hearne

Boring School Work

Response to Vicki Hearne’s “What’s Wrong with Animal Rights” The Best American Essays, 3rd ed., 2001.

What’s Wrong with Animal Rights casts the discussion of animal rights into the philosophical realm, presenting the author as a modern-day Thomas Hobbes arguing against the Rousseau-tinged philosophy of animal rights activists. Using American political rhetoric, Hearne attempts to show the philosophical flaws in the agenda of those who seek to protect animal rights.

This piece is obviously targeted at the philosophically naive. The argument was ludicrous from the first opposition: suffering and happiness are not oppositional poles in any coherent philosophy. As Edmund Burke eloquently demonstrated in his treatise A Philosophical Enquiry, the removal of pain does not create happiness; happiness is NOT positive pain. She lost me at her first step; she begins by comparing an orange with an apple.

Then it gets worse. Summoning Jefferson, she cites the Declaration of Independence as if it were the Bill of Rights, using words that Jefferson stole from John Locke. The original line from John Locke was “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson changed the line in the Declaration under pressure, at the last minute, so as to not appear too mercenary in declaring what the colonies were really on about. It’s a common misreading, which Hearne exploits to propose that animals have similar rights. Of course an animals notion of property (territory) or happiness for that matter exist only in the judgment of humans, and like Hobbes, Hearne suggests that animals need a benevolent king to make sure they are well cared for, because in their natural state, their lives are “nasty, brutish, and short.”

A reader that bites into Hearne’s apple is given a guided tour of her benevolent stewardship of animals; she trains them, to make them “happy” in ways that they obviously cannot be in their natural state. I found this difficult to swallow, due to the inappropriate comparisons and faulty logic. This is not to say that the arguments she rails against are not sour and unripe; animal rights activists do often argue that “this is the most perfect of worlds,” if only it is left alone. I suppose you could mark me in the same column with Voltaire’s cynicism; I think the best we can hope for is to “tend our own garden.” It seems erroneous to think that we can tend an animals garden, not knowing what level of consciousness they possess, like some benevolent king. To feel as if we are doing them a favor by training them to jump through hoops seems like thinly disguised despotism. However, to give animals rights at the same level as humans seems equally false. It is to humanities benefit to protect the diversity and environment of all the planets inhabitants; we need not resort to either style of philosophy in order to tend our garden in a sensible manner. The point seems ill-conceived, and even more poorly argued.