Sunday, May 5, 2013

Philosophy and Animal Rights-- Part II: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778, portrait done in 1753
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Franco-Swiss political philosopher who lived during the Enlightenment. He was partly responsible for the French Revolution, which was inspired by his political works which stated that "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains". The revolutionaries of his time adopted his slogan of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité", which is still widely remembered to this day.
Animal rights activists, then, will be happy to hear that he also believed in animal rights!
Rousseau believed that animals and humans are subject to "natural law" because of their sentience. This means that they should be compassionate towards others if they are able to understand this "law" of compassion. The following quote is from one of Rousseau's books, The Social Contract:

"In proceeding thus, we shall not be obliged to make man a philosopher before he is a man. His duties toward others are not dictated to him only by the later lessons of wisdom; and, so long as he does not resist the internal impulse of compassion, he will never hurt any other man, nor even any sentient being, except on those lawful occasions on which his own preservation is concerned and he is obliged to give himself the preference. By this method also we put an end to the time-honoured disputes concerning the participation of animals in natural law: for it is clear that, being destitute of intelligence and liberty, they cannot recognise that law; as they partake, however, in some measure of our nature, in consequence of the sensibility with which they are endowed, they ought to partake of natural right; so that mankind is subjected to a kind of obligation even toward the brutes. It appears, in fact, that if I am bound to do no injury to my fellow-creatures, this is less because they are rational than because they are sentient beings: and this quality, being common both to men and beasts, ought to entitle the latter at least to the privilege of not being wantonly ill-treated by the former.
Every animal has ideas, since it has senses; it even combines those ideas in a certain degree; and it is only in degree that man differs, in this respect, from the brute. Some philosophers have even maintained that there is a greater difference between one man and another than between some men and some beasts.
Compassion, which is a disposition suitable to creatures so weak and subject to so many evils as we certainly are: by so much the more universal and useful to mankind, as it comes before any kind of reflection; and at the same time so natural, that the very brutes themselves sometimes give evident proofs of it. Not to mention the tenderness of mothers for their offspring and the perils they encounter to save them from danger, it is well known that horses show a reluctance to trample on living bodies. One animal never passes by the dead body of another of its species: there are even some which give their fellows a sort of burial; while the mournful lowings of the cattle when they enter the slaughter-house show the impressions made on them by the horrible spectacle which meets them."
Rousseau promoted vegetarianism, but he didn't go so far as veganism, probably because it would have seemed so radical at the time, and because people didn't know as much about how to have a healthy vegan diet (and, as well, the word "veganism" didn't even exist back then). Another of his works, Émile, or On Education, discusses why children should not be fed meat:
"Beware of ... making children flesh-eaters, if not for their health's sake, for the sake of their character. For however one tries to explain the practice, it is certain that great meat-eaters are usually more cruel and ferocious than other men. This has been recognised at all times and in all places. The English are noted for their cruelty while the Gaures are the gentlest of men. All savages are cruel, and it is not their customs that tend in this direction; their cruelty is the result of their food. They go to war as to the chase, and treat men as they would treat bears. Indeed in England butchers are not allowed to give evidence in a court of law, no more can surgeons. Great criminals prepare themselves for murder by drinking blood. Homer makes his flesh-eating Cyclops a terrible man, while his Lotus-eaters are so delightful that those who went to trade with them forgot even their own country to dwell among them."
I always love to look to people of the past for the answers-- the world is so messed up now, so I find the stability of the past calming (yes, I know I'm talking about the time of the French Revolution! But at least there was a certain degree of predictability outside of politics). Now, we seem to be in a cultural free-for-all where "anything goes"-- except for true individuality of personality, that is. In Canada, you can dress the way you want, eat the way you want (which is a good thing for vegans!), and swear the way you want, but the moment you start to "think outside the box" in a big, philosophical, socio-political, conspiracy-theorist way and start to live by your values, people get all weird and shun you and call you a freak. It's so annoying. You shouldn't let that stop you from being yourself and living by your values, though. The question always comes down to this: How do you want to be remembered? As someone who was afraid to speak up and never really thought for themself? Or as the one who started a movement that changed the world for the better, because they believed that they could make a difference, despite adversity and ridicule? Or, if the limelight isn't for you, something in between? It's okay to be in between those two extremes; just please remember to think for yourself-- don't end up as the person who only ever believed the fads of the time. Be bold. Be daring. And be yourself, honestly. Being yourself will usually get you further in activism or any other pursuit than being a faker will. As John Mason once said, "You were born an original. Don't die a copy." Okay, enough inspirational ranting.
In part III of this series, I'll be talking about more philosophy as it pertains to animal rights. Have a nice week!

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