Truths Self-Evident: Lincoln and the Rights of AnimalsPosted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on December 3rd, 2012
I recently watched the film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring the inimitable Daniel Day Lewis. Lincoln has been an interesting figure for animal advocates because of several quotes attributed him regarding the rights and status of animals. However the accuracy, veracity, and origin of these quotations have been highly contested. What is more interesting to me is the legacy and legend of Lincoln’s humane ethical views and his legal conundrum in the abolition of slavery.
The similarity to the struggle to abolish animal use and abuse struck me as I watched the film. Day Lewis’ Lincoln explains to his cabinet that his goal in the war is to deny the claim of the South that some humans, in this case slaves, are property—to be owned and traded by whites. But if he admits to the states that slaves are property, he can thereby recover them. Even though the war is to establish that slaves are not property. What can he do?
So too does animal law wrestle with this conundrum. Animal advocates do not believe animals are “things” but sentient beings, not something but someone. And yet, the law says differently. So we fight—not only to achieve the status of rights and personhood, a birth of freedom and protection for animals heretofore unseen—but to meet the law where it stands, in order to assure that as long as the law treats animals like property it must thereby protect that “property.”
And so we fight with two hands, one with shorter term trials and tribulations, the here, the now, the immediacy of animal suffering—and the other fighting a longer vision of the future and the day when animals are recognized for the sentience they possess.
Today’s laws fail to reflect the reality we all know is true: that we are all of us animals, that animals have rights and interests, and that animals are far more than mere property. In one scene, Lincoln discusses Euclid’s first common notion: “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” This mathematical rule of mechanical law is “self-evident.” In many ways this is true of animal advocacy as well, though not all can yet see it.
So too were objections to abolition of slavery met with notions that we were “not ready” to abolish the injustice of slavery, as today’s animal advocates are told society is not ready to move into a greater age of compassion where animals exist in their own right, and not on our plate.
But make no mistake. The slavery of humans in our country eventually met the tide of freedom with a strong embrace. It did end. So too will the shackles of animal cruelty meet the coming era of compassion and the legal tide of rights, respect, and protection. We must keep that day in our sights, believe in it, and continue the struggle towards it.
And on that day, as we look back on slavery as a barbarous and shameful blight on our history, we will look back on our treatment of animals as property as a dark memory of un-enlightenment, and as a failure of the law to meet its better self in ubiquitous justice. That day will come.