3 March

Religious Slaughter and the Rights of Chickens in Denmark

To the delight of secularists and ‘animal rights’ activists the Danish parliament last week passed a law banning Kosher and Halal methods of slaughter on the grounds that these violate the rights of animals. Dan Jørgensen, the Danish minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries told Denmark’s TV2 that ‘animal rights come before religion’.

Unsurprisingly, Jewish and Muslim groups hit back declaring the ban an unjustified intrusion into free exercise of religion. They are mounting a petition to have the law overturned.

What is striking is the way the new law has been presented in the media. The idea that ‘animal rights’ come before ‘religion’ must truly be one of the vaguest and most confusing pronouncements on any issue by any politician to date. In what sense do animal rights precede religion in importance? Does this have anything to do with the religious vegetarianism of many Hindus or Buddhists? Does the class ‘animals’ include all, or can rats still be killed with relatively slow-acting substances like Warfarin? Does religion include (as a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights seems to indicate) belief in climate change? Must then animal rights be considered when making Green legislation? One might as well say that the rights of one vague and open-ended class of creatures trumps the rights of an equally vague and open-ended set of beliefs.

This is manifestly not quite what the minister meant. He must have feared being labelled ‘Islamophobic’ or anti-Semitic had he said that the rights of chickens, cows and sheep take precedence over the religious practices of only Jews and Muslims, even though that might more accurately describe the objective of the new law.

If we are going to talk about rights we must enquire on what basis we can identify rights for humans or animals. After all, it is hardly as if there had been a petition to the Danish government from the Poultry, Bovine and Ovine (PBO) communities asking for their basic rights and dignities to be upheld. Can we assess just how far cattle and poultry can conceive of any right to which they are entitled and whose denial affronts their nature?

This is not to say humans are blind to special dignities of animals in their diverse kinds. It is unbecoming to squash hamsters just for the sake of it, but it is surely also the case that there is a special dignity in a beautiful sunset or in the biodiversity of a rainforest neither of which could be given ‘rights’ without emptying the concept of all meaning.

The widely accepted reality is that the special dignity of humans is set apart from the rest, and that it is for this reason that Human Rights are acknowledged. Part of their very existence is bound up with the idea that they inhere in human nature, and cannot be reduced to a single characteristic by which they are ‘merited’ or earned. These rights are one means of holding to account violent and inhumane regimes which see the liquidation of human opponents as a convenient means of maintaining their grip on power. But by claiming that rights be extended to non-humans, the likes of Dan Jørgensen are necessarily (if unwittingly) complicit in reducing rights to a set of privileges conferred on one species or another in recognition of some meritorious characteristic in its nature. Such a separation of rights from human nature is deeply problematic since it opens up for human rights abuses the possibility of some cloaking in a narrative of legitimacy. All that a dictator need do is proclaim that a certain person, or class of people, is devoid of relevant ‘rights-meriting-characteristics’ and that therefore brutal and degrading treatment is fine and in accordance with the nature of the world.

Human rights as an internationally accepted concept are still not even seventy years old, and abuses abound. In its rash hurry to satisfy a naïve secularist vision the Danish government has done this fledgling project serious damage.

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