A small but fit animal rights demonstrator recently hitched herself to a carriage and ran through Central Park to demonstrate the cruelty of horses pulling carriages. It was a puzzling thing to do, mostly because it convinced me and others that she didn't seem to grasp the difference between a 1,500 lb draft horse and herself, a skinny human being. She did pretty well, though for all that, I imagined it would be much easier for a big horse.
The stunt also revealed something else that was perhaps unintended, and that is the increasingly controversial and poorly conceived ideology that preaches that animals are superior to human beings, and entitled to greater rights and protections.
Writers and philosophers have been pondering the difference between people and animals for thousands of years. Aristotle was enthralled at the rational being that a human being had the potential to become. There was nothing like it in the natural world, he wrote. A human being could strive to be moral and take responsibility for what he does. Since no animal has that degree of self-consciousness, he argued that humans had a higher status, that human values and attributes could not be attributed to animals.
For almost all of human history, animals were valued because of the work they did with humans, which was everywhere inthe world, essential to growth, agriculture, defense, transportation, security, companionship and survival. Until a few years ago in New York and a few other American cities, the work of animals was always considered sacred.
In the Kabbalah, God tells a rich man who has beaten a donkey that he has committed a sacrilege and defiled the earth, "this beast and his work is precious to you, to all the world, treat him with care." What world the world be, asked God, without the work the animals did?
Religious scholars, ever sorting out questions of faith and the afterlife, carried these arguments further and codified them. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas established Aristotle's ideas as part of the Christian doctrine, which states clearly that animals, lacking reason, do not have immortal souls and cannot enter heaven. Animals cannot read the Bible or other religious texts, cannot worship God, understand good or evil, anticipate death or Heaven and Hell. Therefore, they bore no responsibility for their choices. They were beasts, working for us, under our control. We are obliged to treat them well because it makes us better humans.
We see animals in a broader and more loving way since Aquinas's time, but much of what Aristotle held still holds true. Animals are wonderful creatures, but creatures still, they work for us and in service with us. That is not abuse, it is in the best traditions both of animals and people. Because they have no language for or concept of right or wrong – they live to exist – animals cannot be responsible for their decisions. Animals like the carriage horses cannot be good or bad, they cannot choose to be in a stable or to be in the wild. We have no right to assume it makes any difference to them, or project the human conscience or aspirations onto them.
What made human beings so distinct from animals and other living things, Aristotle wrote, was our ability to reason about ethics, to have ethics. In order to be good, you must understand what it means to be bad.
Human beings alone have the ability to perceive what is right, and to struggle to do the right thing. Even if we fail, this is our most remarkable and unique characteristic, the essence of what we call the human soul. Animals and children cannot really make these moral judgements, Aristotle argued, it puts more on them than they can carry. Thus they exist on a different plane from human beings. One could no more attribute human consciousness to animals than to trees.
In the past decades, especially and almost uniquely in America, we have become disenchanted with human beings and their potential to do and be good, we have taken this disappointment and disconnection and turned instead to animals, fantasizing and emotionalizing their lives. In fact, we have begun to worship them even as we lose faith in our gods. They must live forever, can never die or be killed, be housed in no kill preserves until the end of their days, rescued wherever they can be found in the world and brought to us here so we can care for them.There is no national rescue network for human beings, no vans to re-home or transport them from one place to another. If we are just like animals, I wonder, how is it that we are treated so differently, how is it they are being accorded rights we do not have?
The so-called animal rights movement believes the animals must live perfect lives without pain, death or suffering, and many have come to believe that only perfect human beings can be permitted to own and live with them. We live in a nation where more than $30 billion a year is spent on animal health care, and the idea that health care ought also be provided to humans is a heresy.
Since every philosopher or writer knows that no animal can live a perfect life, and there are no perfect human beings, it becomes clear why this new ideology is sparking an increasingly bitter cultural conflict that is now raging everywhere over the future of animals in our world. This conflict centers on the standards and realistic expectations we set for living and working with them. The New York Carriage Horse controversy is the perfect and most revealing backdrop for this schism. In America, there are people with pets and people who live in the real world of real animals.
The New York Carriage Horse controversy is the Battle Of Bull Run in the animal wars.
A friend of mine is outraged at the columns I have been writing about the New York Carriage Horses, she can barely stand to speak to me. She believes the horses suffer terribly having to work in New York City and pull carriages. "Do you really think the horses wish to be there rather than in the wild?," she said, almost shaking with fury.
I don't argue my life or my writing, it is not how I wish to spend my time, but I was sorry to see her anger. "I guess I don't believe horses make career or lifestyle decisions," I said.
"That is the unique province and characteristic of human beings. If the horses have food, water, shelter, the companionship of other horses, regular work to do, time outdoors, good health care and human connection, then they are among the luckiest animals in the world. I don't imagine they wish to be in a wild they have never lived in and have never seen." I thought of Aristotle when I said this, and of his reasoned belief: we cannot take from animals what is theirs, we cannot give them what is ours.
Animal worship is not animal love, you cannot love animals and hate human beings.
I would love to ask the demonstrator pulling the carriage in Central Park if she was aware that nearly 1,000 mostly poor immigrants in New York City, almost all young men, pull humans on carriages through the park every day, heat or cold, rain or sun, for little money (that is, they make little, their fees are enormous), with no benefits or insurance of any kind. It is a lovely and natural thing to see the beautiful horses pulling their light carriages through the park, it is wrenching to see these sweating young men trying to explain in broken English which apartment was used in the filming of "Ghostbusters."
I wonder why no demonstrator has ever marched to protect this use of human beings to do the work of powerful and nearby horses, bred for centuries to pull things through crowded streets, let alone big parks. I wonder why no group has formed to stop this use of humans as beast of burden, I wonder why the city's mayor, a supporter of the rights of animals, has never mentioned them or proposed to ban them from the park. Animal rights demonstrators don't have to drag carriages into the park to pull them, they can just take their cell phones out and take a photo.
As almost any therapist knows, this worship of animals often does not come from a love of animals, rather from a growing disappointment, even hatred, of people. There is a staggering amount of rage in this movement. Aristotle wondered at people's ability to create drama, art, poetry and democracy. In our time, we are losing faith in the ability of people to do much more than argue and be greedy, fight and despoil the earth. Since animals cannot make any moral decisions, they can't really be blamed for anything, they can't fail or fall short, they provide a natural receptacle into which we can pour our frustrations, disappointments, anger and broken hearts and need for connection and purpose.
Animals can be anything we wish them to be, and increasingly we need them to be abused and piteous creatures whose perpetual, obsessive need of rescue at the hands of demonic and inhuman people enables us to feel that we can find some easy, inexpensive and communal way to feel better about ourselves and our fragmented lives.
Beyond that, I have yet to see a journalist, politician or celebrity in New York other than Liam Neeson express even the slightest concern for the hundreds of people in the carriage trade and their families, people who have suffered much worse abuse and cruelty than the horses, and for years now. No one seems worried about the toll this has taken on them, about their children, their jobs or livelihood, their way of life which, in a free country ought to be at least as important as the horses' career choices. We see in this story a true injustice, right before our eyes, plain enough to see. The people in the carriage trade have been dehumanized, so that they can be ignored and banished.
"What about the carriage drivers?," I asked my friend. "Do you worry about what will become of them, about what will do if the industry is shut down?" She looked at me incredulously, and said she knew nothing about the drivers, she had heard or read nothing about them. Now, I said, you are getting at the real story of the New York Carriage Horses.
The thing the demonstrator pulling the carriage in the park does not know, or perhaps does not care to know, is this: we are different from horses. We can feel empathy and compassion. We can make moral choices. We have a conscience that speaks to us about right or wrong, we can hear the words of our loved ones, children, colleagues and friends speaking to us when we do right or wrong, we can make those career choices, better our lives, seek to improve the world and to learn to love and listen to one another.
The real story about the New York Carriage Horses has nothing much to do with the horses, they all seem fine and content in their work, hardly anyone in the city believes any longer that they are being abused. Even the mayor has dropped that argument. The real story is the failure of the human beings involved in this sad and cruel affair to do any of the things Aristotle believed set us apart from the animal world, and which give us so much potential.
I think of the list below as my own human-animal checklist, inspired by Aristotle. I go over it to see who succeeds and who fails in the great philosopher's notions of humanity and rationality. Some days I can barely stand to look at the list, it is discouraging, but the horses call me to pay attention and tell their story.
What I have come to call Aristotle's "check list" speaks to the spiritual bankruptcy that has eroded the moral power of the movement that presumes to speak for the rights of animals. I think most of the carriage drivers I know would have no trouble checking most of this list off. The same goes for the lovers and tourists and kids in the park.
Aristotle's list speaks to the great potential of human beings to understand one another and resolve conflict, It also speaks to our continuing failure to do so.
– Unlike animals, we humans can talk to one another.
-We can empathize.
– We can negotiate.
– We can listen.
– We can understand cruelty and abuse
and avoid it if we choose.
– We can, as Aristotle did, choose to seek
the truth and tell the truth.
– Unlike animals, we can stand in the shoes of others,
and thus avoid doing them harm.
– We can choose to live in good faith,
to see the good in people as well as the bad.
– A human being has a wonderful capacity
called potential. He or she can grow and change.
– A human being can compromise.
– A human being can reason about ethics, hold himself accountable.
Thus, a human responsible for what he does, something that can never be
said of an animal.
I am not one who believes that animals speak in our words or have our feelings. I sometimes do wonder what the horses might say if they could talk to us and listen to this checklist. I think it would be this:
"God help you all."