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February 6, 2010 -- A war of pies broke out recently over one of Canada’s most unpopular practices: hunting seals. On Monday, January 25, a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) threw a pie in the face of Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, and was promptly arrested and charged with assault. A few days later, on Friday, January 29, a different member of PETA who was protesting the “seal slaughter” was on the receiving end of another cream-filled projectile. Her assailant, disguised in a local mascot’s outfit, did not stick around to await arrest after the incident.
But radical animal rights groups like PETA are not the only ones who object to the Canadian seal hunt. Seals are not and have never been listed as an endangered species, but the Marine Mammal Protection Act banned the importation of seal products into the United States way back in 1972. Last year, the U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution urging the Canadian government to end the commercial seal hunt, and voicing support for the European Union’s new import ban, which is to take effect this year. What is behind this most recent uproar over the longtime practice of hunting seals?
One answer is simply that activism pays. Activist groups, aided by celebrities like Paul McCartney and Pamela Anderson, have been campaigning hard against the seal trade in recent years. PETA’s Factsheet on the topic trumpets the youth of the seals (under three months of age) and implies that the animals are often skinned alive. It uses the word “slaughter” no less than 13 times in 500 words. Elsewhere on PETA’s website we learn that—gasp!—the seal hunt is “driven by profit,” and we are urged to “end the seal slaughter once and for all!” Other groups, like the Humane Society of Canada, claim that the hunt depends on government subsidies, and that without them, “ the annual seal slaughter would have ended decades ago .” They argue, not unreasonably, that it is wrong to force Canadian taxpayers to fund a practice they may not want to support.
On PETA's website, we learn that—gasp!—the seal hunt is “driven by profit.”
The Canadian government, not surprisingly, has a different take on these issues . It denies that seals are skinned alive or treated inhumanely. It also insists that subsidies from the Department of Fisheries ended in 2001, and at any rate were only for “market and product development, including a meat subsidy, to encourage full use of the seal,” and not because the industry was fundamentally unviable. (That means there is, indeed, profit to be had, but if this is what really gets your knickers in a twist, your enemy is all of capitalism, and the seal hunt is probably not high on your list of concerns.) As for the age of the seals, here the Canadian government tries to sidestep the issue, saying that whitecoat harp seals (those really cute ones) have not been hunted since 1982, and that only “self-reliant, independent animals” are hunted. On another page, though, it admits that these self-reliant, independent animals may be a mere three or four weeks old.
If seal pups weren’t so gosh darn cute, would anybody give them a second thought? Well, members of groups like PETA would, but then, they’re not just concerned with cruelty. Even if the seal hunt were—or, as the Canadian government claims, is—carried out in the most humane manner possible, it wouldn’t actually satisfy them. That’s because members of groups like PETA believe in something called “animal rights.” They believe that animals “deserve to live their lives free from suffering and exploitation.” They argue that “the capacity for suffering,” which animals share with humans, is “the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration,” and further, that animals have “an inherent worth.” And if you believe that animals have rights, then it is wrong to eat them, to wear their hides, to experiment on them for the advancement of science, or to use them for purposes of entertainment.
The belief that animals possess rights arises from a misconception about the very nature of rights.
The belief that non-human animals possess rights, however, arises from a misconception about the very nature of rights . Humans have rights, not because of an “inherent worth” or a “capacity for suffering,” but because we are rational beings who can engage in production and trade. Because voluntary exchange is so mutually beneficial to those who engage in it, it is worth it for productive, rational beings to respect each other’s right to life, free from the initiation of force. But rights, then, are reciprocal. A criminal who chooses not to respect others’ rights forfeits his own—for a certain length of time or for good, depending on the severity of his actions. Animals cannot have rights at all because they cannot agree to refrain from initiating force and cannot engage in production and trade (except as our beasts of burden).
At any rate, unless I am sorely mistaken, vegetarians are still a tiny minority in both the United States and Europe. If most people don’t mind the killing of cows and chickens, what, exactly, is wrong with killing seals? Does the mere fact that the animals are killed when young constitute cruelty? Then veal would have to be banned as well.
My best guess about the real reason for the bans—in addition to seal pups being cute as all get out—is that while banning veal would annoy a lot of people, a much smaller number actually eats seal meat, and only a wealthier few wears their fur. There’s no easier way to score points with a confused majority than by imposing vague and misguided morals on a marginalized minority. The rights of sealers and seal traders to live as they see fit, free from the initiation of force by other humans, are conveniently ignored.
The finance ministers of the G7 nations—which include four EU countries—actually met this weekend in Canada’s northern territory of Nunavut , where there is a long tradition of seal hunting. In a not-too-subtle attempt to woo the EU officials, their seats will be covered in sealskin, they will be fed seal meat, and they will be given gifts of seal vests and mitts. That probably won’t work, although there are lawsuits and World Trade Organization challenges that might. But ideas matter. It may seem farfetched, but unless more people clarify their thinking on the subject of rights and what kinds of beings have them, sealers and seal traders won’t be the only ones to have their rights curtailed by overzealous governments.