A recent article by John Gray in The Guardian highlights an increasing divide between two schools of thought: 1) an orthodoxy promoted by Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, and others that human violence and war are decreasing; and 2) Gray’s view that we’ve made significant moral progress is wishful thinking and plain wrong.
So which is it? Are we spiraling toward doom or tumbling toward peace?
It’s neither exactly, and probably a little bit of both.
In relatively little time, tremendous strides have been made in the area of social justice. Generally, society is less and less tolerant of prejudice, discrimination, and violence based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and even species. The popularity of books and films dedicated to social justice are illustrative – including inspiring bestselling nonfiction books such as Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, and President Jimmy Carter’s book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, and popular feature films and documentaries based on books such as 12 Years a Slave, Hotel Rwanda, Milk, and Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Attention to how animals fit within the framework of social justice is also growing. Of six causes tracked in a large public opinion survey conducted by the Humane Research Council in 2014, animal protection was ranked most favorably, followed by causes including environmental protection, civil liberties, and LGBT rights. The number of strong supporters for animal protection approximately doubled between 2005 and 2014. The survey showed that a growing number of people are concerned with the wellbeing of both people and animals, not just one or the other. Meanwhile lawyers are bringing cases before the court to grant animals basic rights.
Nonetheless, we see more and more systematic violence. Rose-colored glasses won’t diminish the suffering created by mass crimes, the use of starvation and rape as weapons of war, or industrialized animal cruelty in factory farms, laboratories, and elsewhere. Human trafficking and human slavery have become modern problems. Terrorizing and extreme forms of violence are being perpetuated around the world. Meanwhile, each year, billions of animals are warehoused, made to suffer, and killed in factory farms, laboratories, breeding facilities, and the entertainment industry.
There is no doubt we are in crisis. The need is urgent. The time and opportunity are now. And we must have hope and work toward change.
“There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a vice of ‘backward’ peoples. Destroying some of the most refined civilisations that have ever existed, the wars that ravaged south-east Asia in the second world war and the decades that followed were the work of colonial powers. One of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda was the segregation of the population by German and Belgian imperialism. Unending war in the Congo has been fuelled by western demand for the country’s natural resources. If violence has dwindled in advanced societies, one reason may be that they have exported it.”
We may think ideas about human rights are new, but they are not, just as ideas about animal rights are not new. In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, the first king of Ancient Persia, entered the old city of Babylon, leading to what has been called the world’s first human rights charter since it called for racial and religious equality and an end to slavery. Today’s human rights charter – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – wasn’t adopted until 1948.
Only a couple of centuries after Cyrus the Great released the slaves in Ancient Persia and established religious and racial equality, Theophrastus – a nickname meaning “divine expression” given by his teacher Aristotle – wrote about the importance of treating animals justly. And he wasn’t alone. Some of the earliest objections to the use of animals for food and experiments are found in ancient writings. In the early part of the first millennium, neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry argued against treating animals as if they were mere objects for our use.
In reality, we aren’t going to spiral or tumble anywhere – just as the Ancients didn’t. We will end up where we do because of our everyday choices and commitments.
In many ways our world is smaller than that of Cyrus, Porphyry, and Theophrastus. We have made technological advancements that were unthought-of of at the time. Now is the time for moral advancement to parallel other human advancements.