Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Rights of Fetuses and Animals: Who Really Believes in Them?

George Carlin has a routine I heard once years ago, and have been thinking about ever since. The people who say that a fetus is a person just like you and me, and that abortion is therefore murder: do they really believe that? Why aren't fetuses counted in a census? If a fetus is a human, why do people say we have two children and one on the way instead of saying that we have three children? Why is a funeral not given when a woman has a miscarriage?

I would add some more questions, ones that I admit would be out of place in a comedy routine. If the pro-lifer's expressed opinions are true, then abortion as it is practiced here in the US is an evil akin to that of the Holocaust. In that case, why aren't these poeple bombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors? Why don't most of them even go so far as to favor laws that impose penalties on women who have abortions? Haven't these women paid someone to commit "murder," like the clients of Murder, Incorporated? Of course, there are a few people who do draw these seemingly logical conclusions, but they are regarded as obviously insane, even by other right-to-lifers.

Similar questions can be asked about animal rights advocates. Hugo Schwyzer, in a vegan blog I enjoy visiting, poses a thorny problem. He recently invited some friends to dinner at a restaurant of his choice and picked up the tab afterwards, even though some of the friends had eaten steak and lobster. What should he do in situations like that, he wonders. After all, he tells us, he believes animals have rights. I appreciate the moral bind he is in, but I also think that if he really believed that animals have rights in the sense that we do, there would be no conflict at all. That belief would logically imply that eating a steak is wrong in the very same way that cannibalizing humans -- humans, moreover, who had been killed in specifically in order to be eaten -- is wrong. Paying someone to do that would be, once again, morally on a par with patronizing Murder, Inc. It would simply be off the menu. So, no moral conflict.*

There is another thing that vegetarians often do that does not seem to fit their declared beliefs at all. They frequently eat foods that are obviously designed to resemble meat products. They put hamburger-like soy protein crumbles in their chili, they eat breakfast links that are meant to resemble pork sausage, and so on. I eat these foods myself for health reasons, but if I seriously believed that pigs have the same right to not be killed and eaten that you and I have, I would avoid them with horror. If you were a reformed cannibal, would you eat foods that were designed to resemble human body parts? "Mm. Try one of these. They're just like real human toes. Crunchy!" I don't think so.

This is a very interesting phenomenon, one that deserves to be studied and explained. I don't know what the full explanation would be, but at minimum it must include the supposition that these people do not actually hold the beliefs they claim to hold. Surely, there has to be an element of behaviorism in any conception of what a belief is. If it's a belief, and not a hope or a hunch, you act on it. These people, I admit, surely must believe something that is different from what I believe, because they act differently than I do. But their actual behavior is far, far from fitting their beliefs as they describe them. Something else is going on here. What it is, I can only wonder.
* As with the pro-lifers, the animal rights movement does include a tiny minority whose actions are actually consistent with their declared beliefs. These are the ones who blow up science laboratories and commit other acts of violence. But they are generally regarded as crazy, even by other anti-vivisectionists.
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