January 27, 2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a breathtakingly and darkly ironic moment in human history given that the liberators were the forces of Joseph Stalin. What the Soviets found shocked the world: it was irrefutable evidence of the efforts of one group of people to exterminate another, and the name Auschwitz, which was but one of scores of such camps, became symbolic of a meticulous and mechanical cruelty and inhumanity of humans to humans that is unique. What went on in the Nazi death camps caused the deaths of some 6 million human beings and the torture and abuse of countless others, a campaign that came to be known as the Holocaust and was one of the animating features for forming the United Nations.
Today, the powerful symbolism of the Holocaust — an event that should never be forgotten, indeed must never be forgotten — has been co-opted by Animal Rights groups, with PeTA having launched a campaign entitled "Holocaust on Your Plate", an odious and perverse effort to draw emotional parallels between what happened in the Nazi death camps and the human use of animals.
Beyond this, there have been pseudo-intellectual efforts to make the "logical" case that there are valid parallels between the immorality of the treatment of Jews and other unfortunates in the death camps and the treatment of animals by everyone who doesn't subscribe to the Animal Rights agenda (read: just about all of us . . .). Such tracts give the appearance of serious scholarship and insightful thinking, when in fact they are nothing of the sort: they are shallow and poorly reasoned, if reasoned at all. While the "Holocaust on a Plate" campaign, as with so much of PeTA's propaganda, is an appeal to the emotions, the pseudo-intellectual efforts are appeals to the minds of unskeptical or naive readers who may be more impressed with the appearance of scholarship than they are with scholarly content. Indeed, the goal of such tracts is to give a scholarly public face to the incoherent AR "ideology," and in this way gain intellectual legitimacy.
"A Tale of Two Holocausts" is tedious and pedantic, and weaves together cliched themes of Animal Rights moral equivalence with the fallacious logical operators of the sort "what if" "could well be" "some say" "can't show otherwise" "'can' equals 'should'" that wouldn't pass muster in any peer reviewed journal other than a post-modern rag specializing in the ivory-tower equivalent of "alien abduction" conspiracy theories ("You weren't there — I was abducted. Prove me wrong!"). "Two Holocausts" differs little from other such tracts either in its challenged logic or in pretentiousness, neither of which is an asset. But don't take my word for it — plod through the entire thing yourself.
Now don't get me wrong. However outrageous Dr. Davis is in the way she exploits the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust for her own warped Animal Rights agenda (she is a champion of chickens, it turns out . . .), I am not in favor of silencing her: she has no fewer rights than any other in our society, and if by medical condition, perverse intent or willful blindness she can see no moral difference between what happened to the victims of the Holocaust and the way in which animals are treated, that's just the way Animal Rights ideologues are. (Frankly, I see "Two Holocausts" as being its own worst enemy whether regarded from a moral/ethical perspective, or from an intellectual/scholarly perspective.)
I can't reason a person out of a faith-based ideology ("You can't reason a person out of a position they didn't reason themselves into" — Anon.), however appalling I find the ideology and its implications, and in the end, you, the reader, must make your own moral judgment about Dr. Davies' moral perspective.
But what I can do is to dissect away a little bit of the smoke-and-mirrors sham that Davis tries to pass off as a scholarly article. Indeed, it's hard to impress upon those who haven't read it how really shallow and distinctly un-serious "A Tale of Two Holocausts" is, even if considered in isolation from its horrifying moral equivalency and implications.
The problem I face is that "Two Holocausts'" is so unwieldy that I just can't do justice to all the unsupported assumptions Davis slings out at the reader, or characterize all the logical faux pas that strikes one's eye.
But the bottom line is this, and it's the bedrock of the typical Animal Rights argument: Davis wants us to accept that the capacity to suffer should be the basis for according rights. Since animals can suffer, she argues, then they should have rights. Indeed, Davis goes to great lengths to cite the opinions of others, and leans heavily on her love of chickens to make her fatally-flawed case.
And it is on the basis of the capacity to suffer that she argues for moral equivalence between humans and non-humans, and arrives at the disgusting equivalency between the chickens she loves so much and the humans who lost so much during the Holocaust — and in subsequent events that are similarly tragic for humans (Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, etc.). In the process, Davis defends PeTA's "Holocaust on the Table" campaign . . ..
Davis makes the same mistakes that so many Animal Rights activists do.
First, her argument is muddled because she does not always keep separate the concepts of "natural rights" (intrinsic rights not dependent on human agency), and "legal rights" (rights as defined, crafted and codified by humans). This is a big flaw in her treatise, because one can never be quite sure which variety (or if both) she's invoking, which often precludes meaningful criticism (one senses this to be deliberate).
Struggling beyond this, Davis assumes that because animals can have rights (natural? legal? both?), it is both wise and good to grant them rights. But to get there, Davis identifies a physiological capacity and morphs it into being a morally relevant characteristic — one that trumps all other physiologic capacities and would, in her view, place any creature with a capacity to suffer under the protection of the law.
Where, the skeptical reader might ask, is it written that the capacity to suffer is a moral absolute?
Davis fails to tell us why the world would be a better place if human lives were of no greater moral relevance than the lives of her chickens. Indeed, she makes it perfectly clear that the world is a worse place because we mourn the death of 6 million plus Jews in the Nazi death camps rather than deaths of several billion chickens a year for our dinners. What is staggering about this is that she feels no need to defend the indefensible: for Davis, an assertion of moral equivalency is enough.
The issue of "why better" is an important one, not just from a lofty albeit abstract moral perch high above the mundane worries of daily life, but also from the practical perspective of resource allocation, which carries with it its own moral impact (funding to protect the rights of animals is money that can't be used to protect the rights of people). It is an issue that AR activists choose not to address, largely, I expect, because it cannot be forced to fit their fantasy utopia.
Davis suggests that animals have a "birthright in nature" to follow their own "projects" (such as having a "family life and the comfort it brings"), something that humans deprive them of. This is clearly her nod to the world of spirits — why should animals have legal rights equivalent to those of humans? Well, because it is their birthright — an answer which is in reality a non-answer.
Well, to begine with, how does Dr. Davis know nature bestows a birthright on animals, and from whence, specificially, "in nature" might this birthright come? When there are conflicts between birthrights of individuals, how are they arbitrated and who is to be the impartial arbitrator? How is this impartial arbitrator selected, and what appeals process is open to the losing party?
And why, Dr. Davis, is your "nature-spirit" a better, more authoritative, supernatural agent than the supreme being of the mainstream Christians, Jews, Hindus, or Muslims?
These are the hard questions that Dr. Davis and her fellow travelers will not answer.
Davis spends much time pointing to the physiological capacities of her chickens, marveling at their complexity and their capacity to suffer. Indeed, even when they don't have a cognitive capacity to suffer, this becomes something that may cause them to suffer. Here's a true gem:
I compared all this to the relatively satisfying lives of the majority of human victims of 9/11 prior to the attack and added that we humans have a plethora of palliatives, ranging from proclaiming ourselves heroes and plotting revenge against our malefactors to the consolation of family and friends and the relief of painkilling drugs and alcoholic beverages. Moreover, whereas human animals have the ability to make some sort of sense of the tragedy, the chickens, in contrast, have no cognitive insulation, no compensation, presumably no comprehension of the causes of their suffering, and thus no psychological relief from their suffering.
Here, Davis assumes that "being able to make some sort of sense" of a tragedy is always comforting, never discomforting. That is patently incorrect. Indeed, it's downright stupid.
Davis also incorrectly assumes that the chickens lack "cognitive insulation," which insulation, the author asserts without evidence, would provide psychological relief from suffering. One could much more plausibly argue that lack of cognition is itself supremely effective insulation from suffering, and that lack of cognition in and of itself would justify lax animal welfare laws with regard to the housing and treatment of chickens.
Beyond this cognition stuff, Davis plays the "may" game with élan, using terms like "may" and "might" as pillars of her case rather than interesting possibilities consequent upon her case having been made. Check this out:
Notwithstanding, it is reasonable to assume that animals imprisoned within confinement systems suffer even more, in certain respects, than do humans who are similarly confined.
Without having defined the conditions of confinement, it is not reasonable to assume anything, much less that animals suffer more from it than humans.
This occurs in a similar way that a mentally impaired person might experience dimensions of suffering in being rough-handled, imprisoned, and shouted at that elude a person capable of conceptualizing the experience.
Davis goes from an unwarranted assumption to a speculative mechanism involving a specific case (shouting, rough-handling, "imprisoned"): the author suggests the mechanism by which suffering might occur is like that of a mistreated human patient.
Well, anyone for speculation about extraterrestrial visitors walking in our midst?
For a piece to be a serious work of scholarship, an author must avoid such foolishness.
Just as you think you've seen it all, you come across this:
Indeed, one who is capable of conceptualizing one’s own suffering may be unable to grasp what it feels like to suffer without being able to conceptualize it, of being in a condition that could add to, rather than reduce, the suffering.
Davis' assertion that animals who can't conceptualize might suffer more than animals who can is counterintuitive and speculative in the extreme. It begs for support, but Davis blithely fails to provide any.
In fact, Davis' assertion can be rewritten in the negative with just as much oomph (which is to say that however it's written — in the affirmative or negative — not much): animals that cannot conceptualize their own suffering may be "in a condition that could reduce, rather than add to, the suffering."
Indeed, there is ample evidence to the contrary of what Davis asserts. In fact, being able to imagine — to conceptualize — the future can cause anxiety and suffering (ask any soldier who has gone into combat about what he was thinking during the hours before the operation began, or consider the run-up to your last dental appointment . . .).
When I read her piece, I was struck, too, by a typically poor way of thinking that one encounters all to often in ideologically oriented "truth-seekers." It's as if there is a big box of facts sitting out there, and these people — Davis among them — sort through it finding facts that agree with the favored thesis, removing them from the box, and assembling them into an argument that supports the preferred result, discarding those facts and whatever logic don't fit the mold.
That, of course, is a fatal flaw: scientists and serious scholars don't have the option of constructing reality only from whatever fits their preconceptions. They have no option but to take into accounts facts that disagree with what they want to be reality, and to stick with logic (serious scholars must convince knowledgeable skeptics and competitors, not the naive or the chorus. They ignore that reality at their peril).
Taking into account all pertinent facts, not just the preferred ones, is a singular strength of the scientific method, a strength Davis ignores, presumably because, like ideologues the world over, she was more interested in persuasion than enlightenment. Not only does she ignore facts that disagree with her thesis, she sometimes twists logic into a pretzel trying to make her case. (Parenthetically, any good scholar will tell you that though you can gather data consistent with an hypothesis, you can't ever prove an hypothesis correct. You can, however, falsify or disprove an hypothesis, and the most definitive studies are those in which falsification happens.)
Suffice it to say that I could continue to Fisk the living daylights out of Davis' woeful effort, practically line by line, but there's no point in beating a dead horse (pun intended . . .). You've seen how sloppy and unpersuasive her thinking is conceptually, and how poorly she has executed her (unscholarly) mission.
Now, you have every right to buy into Davis' ethic, and with it even her disgusting moral equivalency of Holocaust victims and chickens, but just don't try to hide behind the "scholarship" of this article to justify your decision: there is no reason for you to see "Two Holocausts" for other than what it is.
Thanks to Dave G. for the heads up.
UPDATE: 2/3/05. Brian Carnell's analysis of Davis' article is to be savored.
Question: How can Davis possibly be taken seriously after this?
Recommendation: Dr. Davis, don't cross Carnell.