What Justice Scalia’s Gay Marriage Tirades Tell Us About Animal Rights

What Justice Scalia's Gay Marriage Tirades Tell Us About Animal Rights

by Zach Groff

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was known in the popular zeitgeist for his vitriolic dissents in gay rights cases. Perhaps equally deserving of recognition, though, was an ability that the justice who authored each of those cases lacked: the ability to predict the future. That is, Justice Scalia saw through to the implications of the progressive justices’ ideas in a way the pro-gay rights majority, in its opinions, always failed to do.

His predictions stated precisely the implications of an endorsement for LGBT equality. In his dissent to Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 case striking down state sodomy bans, Scalia wrote, “If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is “no legitimate state interest”… what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples?" “The majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition,” he wrote in his dissent in United States v. Windsor, the 2013 case striking down the federal ban on same sex marriage without touching state bans.

Scalia’s evocation of nationwide state-ordained same-sex marriage as the inevitable result of liberal principles is reminiscent of another conservative prediction that has been made for at least two hundred years: animal rights.

What's next -- animal rights?

What's next -- animal rights?

Consider a piece written this summer by Charles Krauthammer, once hailed as “the most powerful voice in American conservatism”: “Surely some contemporary practices will be deemed equally abominable by succeeding generations… I’ve long thought it will be our treatment of animals.” Or consider the fact that after pioneering feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792, the conservative satirist Thomas Taylor’s response was to write “A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes,” lampooning the principle of equality for implying rights for animals. There are plenty more examples where these come from.

Progressive supporters of animal rights have of course been making the same arguments for years, but it means something different when they come out of the minds of conservative opponents. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, one of the foremost thinkers on political ideology, has offered a number of findings that both explain this phenomenon and predict a good future for animal rights.

First, Haidt has closely studied the minds of progressives and conservatives as they think about moral dilemmas and consider political decisions. He has found, first, that human moral thinking tends to rest on six modes of thought: (1) care/harm, (2) fairness/cheating, (3) liberty/oppression, (4) loyalty/betrayal, (5) authority/subversion, and (6) sanctity/degradation. Progressives,  tend to think only with the first two modes of thought while conservatives think with all six.

One consequence of this, of course, is simply the different decisions progressives and conservatives come to: conservatives tend to hew more to tradition, are skeptical of government programs, favor their own country and locality more, and believe in standards of personal conduct that are intrinsically good or bad. However, on this reading, progressive principles like equality and liberty clearly support animal rights. The reasons not to support animal rights tend to fall under the other four modes of moral thinking – for example communal norms of eating animals, loyalty to one’s species, the tradition of eating animals.

Another consequence of this is that there is an asymmetry in conservatives’ and progressives’ ability to predict each other. Haidt asks those in his lab to respond to moral dilemmas and then he asks them to predict how their political opponents would respond. Conservatives fare far better than progressives at this task because, it seems, conservatives do think about harm and fairness even as they care also about other principles. Progressives, on the other hand, have difficulty predicting how someone concerned with purity, for example, would respond (and are less accurate the more progressive they are).

But here’s the thing: while we all respond on rare occasion to reasons, most of our moral argumentation is a way to back up pre-existing beliefs or the beliefs we want to hold. Grow up in a cosmopolitan society with gay, black, and Latino friends, and you will likely support marriage equality and oppose mass incarceration and deportations. Grow up in a rural white town with church as the backbone of your family, and you will likely feel very different.

In this respect, we might actually expect conservatives, especially those who run in progressive circles, to be particularly good at predicting what progressive principles imply when progressives are unwilling to do so for selfish reasons. And on animal rights, while the Left may have yet to adopt animals, the Right knows what’s coming.

So what does this mean? Animal rights activists should pat ourselves on the back and go home? Not exactly. We, like the broader left, need to interrogate whether we have fully accepted all of our beliefs’ implications. We will all likely be wrong about many things we don’t even realize now. Even within animal rights, conservatives’ absurd predictions may come true. When welfarist groups’ opponents claim that support for animal welfare implies worldwide veganism -- well, they’re probably right! And even those of us who are more-outwardly liberationist in our language someday may need to seriously face the question of whether if we don’t support the killing of animals by humans we need to oppose the killing of animals by animals. So, it turns out there’s work cut out for progressive animal rights activists, too.

However, the greater disjoint between progressives and animal rights activists is definitely one that the progressive who wants to avoid having regrets needs to work on, because if you support equality with respect to religion, age, race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and class, you’ve got to support it for species.

It turns out, according to Their Turn, that Scalia died while hunting. Maybe deep down he feared that increasing social acceptance of gay rights, civil rights, and women’s rights would imply acceptance for animal rights. Some day, that fear will come true.

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