All in the Family

“Is altruism possible across species borders? And – the crucial question – can an entire species learn to shape its behavior, to its own cost, for the good of other species?” Those were some of the provocative queries posed by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a former member of The New York Times editorial board, in a recent online commentary. In his essay, Klinkenborg – who was writing about a disturbing new World Wildlife Fund report that estimates we humans have destroyed half of the world’s wildlife in the last 40 years (see page 5) – strikes at the problem of ecological empathy, a challenge that has bedeviled conservationism since the word was coined. Can we humans widen our circle of concern to include other species, whole ecosystems even?

No doubt it’s a difficult feat. Empathy may be a renewable resource, but it’s also a scarce one. There are limits to how much we can feel, a natural defense mechanism against the wounds of the world. Hard-wired as we are for tribalism, extending our sympathies to people who look different or who love different or who reside on the far side of the planet is tough enough. Stretching our hearts to include four-legged creatures and things with wings? For many (if not most) people, that’s a leap too far.

But what if we recognized nonhuman animals as legal persons, with the same right to life and liberty that we enjoy? Would that change the emotional calculus? As Journal managing editor Maureen Nandini Mitra writes in our cover story (“Animals Are Persons, Too” ), attorneys are pushing lawsuits through the New York State courts to get legal personhood for captive chimpanzees. According to one animal rights advocate, “If animals … were viewed as persons, that would make it a lot harder for people to abuse them.”

The lawsuits essentially demand that we transition from treating animals humanely – a posture marked by noblesse oblige – to treating them ethically – an attitude grounded in the deeper demands of solidarity.

I like the ambition of the effort. But I worry that it may be a case of strategic overreach. The danger is that if the courts get too far ahead of the culture, it could spark a powerful backlash against the idea of animal personhood.

Still, I wish the lawyers Godspeed. If they get a court to agree that other creatures enjoy basic liberties, it won’t mark the end of the debate over animal rights. But it will open up new space in which to make the case that our similarities with other animals far outweigh our differences, and therefore we should treat them like family.

We are saddened to part ways with Annie Leonard, our former columnist, who became the executive director of Greenpeace-USA in September. But we are excited to welcome our new columnist, writer-activist Anna Lappé. Anna is the author of several books, including Hope’s Edge (co-written with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé) and Diet for a Hot Planet, and an original thinker about modern agriculture, climate change, and environmental advocacy. Her column, “Digging Deeper,” will explore stories the mainstream media isn’t telling. You won’t want to miss it.

graphic of Jason Mark signature

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