United by nothing but the right of reply

The Liberation Debate
April 5, 1996

Beware of a sinister plot that is subverting the academy. It is masterminded from university departments "devoted to indoctrination and agitation" which "ought never to have been established".

These plotters are "new wave feminists". The uneasy man who wrote these words is the philosopher Antony Flew, responding to a case for feminism put forward by Jean Hampton in The Liberation Debate: Rights at Issue.

The editors of this lively book, Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Michael Leahy, have gathered together protagonists for the allegedly oppressed - women, gays, blacks, animals, children and the poor. Each has his or her say and is then subjected to vigorous attack from one of their notorious critics. The result is an enjoyable mix of anger, occasional consensus, sensationalism and even despair.

One way of arguing for rights is to say that injustice occurs when like cases are treated differently. Then it becomes crucial to establish whether the two cases are "like" in a morally relevant way. In the animal rights debate, the morally relevant characteristic is whether animals suffer in the way humans do. Leahy argues that many allegations about animal suffering are sentimental or anthropomorphic. He is responding to Andrew Linzey's radical contention that animals should have more than equal rights because they are more defenceless than humans, which incenses him: "Linzey's list of alleged abuses is highly dubious." Most animal abuse has by now been identified and eradicated, Leahy says, and he relegates Linzey to a category of hardliners in which he includes the "fanatics-in-orbit".

One of Leahy's more bizarre arguments is that animals lack the self-control necessary to suffer in silence. Ergo any animal that is quiet, even though it may have appalling injuries, cannot be in pain. "This would make the alleged horror stories of the suffering of neglected beef cattle awaiting slaughter highly misleading," he writes. Strangely, given growing numbers of veterinary experiments aimed at understanding animal's feelings, Leahy resorts to Wittgenstein to support his argument.

A more thorough exposure to the subtleties of science would have benefited Michael Levin, before he wrote his diatribe against black liberation. This manages to be offensive, unlike the other contributions. Levin is obsessed with inferiority, especially with low IQ scores, which he says tally with increased crime rates. He believes that these scores indicate an inferiority caused by nature rather than nurture. He seems unaware that "innate" is an increasingly complicated term which can probably never be extricated from "environmental".

Bernard Boxill makes a weary response. He had obviously been looking forward to debating radical solutions to the problem of the black American underclass. Instead, he has to address the IQ question. Levin's arguments, he writes, are "evil nonsense", which is "an essential part of a philosophy that has justified theft, murder, slavery and genocide".

"Don't be ridiculous" is the flavour of Laura Purdy's reply to John Harris, who wants the liberation of children. She concedes that many children would benefit from having more rights than they have today, but argues children would be damaged by acquiring rights similar to those of adults. She quotes an 18th-century British experiment in which a child was allowed to develop as a Rousseauan noble savage. By 13, he "slept on the floor, spoke 'a jargon he had formed out of the several dialects of the family', could neither read nor write, and was 'a little emaciated figure, his countenance betraying marks of premature decay, or depraved passions; his teeth discoloured, his hearing almost gone'". Harris retorts that equal rights for children would not prevent adults from taking an active role in rearing them.

Purdy is also concerned with the consequences of children's liberation for the wider population and here she coincides with Roger Scruton's reservations about the rights of homosexuals to marry. Scruton's reply to Martha Nussbaum is essentially a defence of conservative sexual values and it is probably the most eloquent contribution to the book. "I should suggest that institutions like marriage and the family," he writes, "which have evolved over centuries, guided by the invisible hand of our deepest interests, and animated by a myriad consensual transactions, ought not to be tampered with lightly, merely because of some hare-brained scheme for human emancipation."

The book would have been improved by including at the end a short tutorial on the moral philosophy behind rights and liberation debates. This would have added depth for the nonspecialists who will be the main readers (experts in animal rights, for example, will find little new in these pages). It would also have been useful to gauge the extent to which the success of women's liberation has inspired the other debates.

By squeezing the debates, end-to-end, into one book, Leahy and Cohn-Sherbok have emphasised their idiosyncrasies, rather than their similarities. The different pivots of each debate demonstrate the differing levels of public acceptance in each debate. One wonders what would be in such a book published 20 years from now, in 2016. Perhaps a chapter on the rights of the white male, written by a man in a quaintly aggressive style? Or, given their recent success in mastering language, maybe chimpanzees will provide us with an eloquent defence of animal rights?

Aisling Irwin is a reporter, The THES.

The Liberation Debate: Rights at Issue

Editor - Michael Leahy and Dan Cohn-Sherbok
ISBN - 0 415 116937 and 11694 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 260

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