It is difficult to defend “human rights” when “human” becomes a contested word. Tai Ji Men’s Shifu has a solution for this problem.

by Massimo Introvigne*

*A paper presented at the webinar “Human Rights, FoRB, and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on December 10, 2023, United Nations Human Rights Day.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 11th, 2023.

Speaking for conscience: Dr. Hong Tao-Tze at the Parliament of World’s Religions, Chicago, August 14, 2023.
Speaking for conscience: Dr. Hong Tao-Tze at the Parliament of World’s Religions, Chicago, August 14, 2023.

Every year the United Nations organizes Human Rights Day on December 10. But every year defending human rights becomes more problematic. On the one hand, there are those who attack the notion of “rights,” claiming that those embodied in the United Nations documents are not “universal” but “westerners,” and imposing them on non-western cultures is an act of colonialism. Of course, this is a convenient theory used by totalitarian regimes to justify their crimes. 

However, in the expression “human rights” even the word “human” is increasingly under attack. There are those who regard the theory of “human rights” as an expression of a subgenre of racism they call “speciesism.” A racist advocates that whites, for example, are superior to those of African descent. A speciesist, according to those who use this word, advocates that the human race is superior to other races such as dogs, chickens, or elephants. Some today believe that speciesism is a form of racism. There are no human rights, they insist, only rights common to all living beings.

Of course, the idea that animals have rights is very old. Religions that believe in the  possible reincarnation of humans into animals have understandably proposed to recognize rights to non-human living beings centuries if not millennia ago. In the West, organizations sympathizing with Eastern religions such as the Theosophical Society emerged as early and influential advocates for animal rights. Members of the ancient Indian religion of Jainism are very active in this field. Some Jains wear masks similar to those we all became familiar with during the COVID pandemic to avoid inadvertently inhaling and killing small insects.

There is much to be commended in the animal rights theories, and the Catholic Church has praised them in two encyclical letters by Pope Francis. Biodiversity is a fundamental resource for the planet and there is no moral justification for unnecessary cruelty towards animals. However, the matter is less clear-cut that we may at first sight believe. I am giving this speech from South Africa, where laws very strictly protect endangered species such as leopards, hippos, or rhinos. Although leopards may enter farms and eat chicken or cows and hippos may rock boats and kill fishermen, these laws are generally popular. In 1979, an Italian movie called “I’m for the Hippopotamus” became an international hit, and audiences rooted for the heroes protecting the hippos against the poachers. 

A hippo on the banks of Chobe River, Namibia, photographed by the author in November 2023.
A hippo on the banks of Chobe River, Namibia, photographed by the author in November 2023.

However, what about mosquitoes? These animals kill more than 700,000 human beings every year through malaria, zika, and dengue. Mosquitoes are the most lethal living being on the planet—humans, with their wars and crimes, are only a distant second. Some academic and scientific foundations are studying projects to eradicate mosquitoes by making all their males sterile. Apart from the question whether they may succeed or not, there is an ethical debate on whether they are morally permissible. Well-known environmental philosopher Melanie Challenger is leading a campaign against the anti-mosquito research. She argues that driving mosquitoes, or even only the species of mosquitoes that carry deadly viruses, to extinction, is against “the sanctity of life. If you start getting cavalier about the existence of a living being, if we start to think it’s OK to eradicate something because it’s a threat to us, we put other ideas about the sanctity of life in question.”

Challenger is applauded in British universities, but telling this to African villagers who every year lose most of their infant children to zika or dengue carried by mosquitoes would be more difficult. Yet, the discussion continues and there are forms of radical ecology that regard human beings as a disease of the planet. Mother Earth, they say, would be better off without humans and we should at least start by drastically reducing their numbers. Some radical environmentalist such as the late David Foreman seriously suggested to let epidemics and famines do their course without intervening in any way since they are tools Earth uses to protect itself and animals from the excessive number of humans. 

A mosquito of the “Aedes Aegypti” species, responsible for spreading the lethal zika and dengue viruses. Credits. 
A mosquito of the “Aedes Aegypti” species, responsible for spreading the lethal zika and dengue viruses. Credits

Do animals have rights? I believe that through a long process and with a help from Eastern religions we should acknowledge we came to answer “yes” to this question. Do animals have the same rights as humans? The answer is no. It is perfectly legitimate to reserve “human rights” to humans while enacting domestic and international laws protecting animals from unnecessary killing and cruelty. Driving hippos or leopards to extinction to place trophies in the living rooms of arrogant hunters is rightly recognized as a crime. Assuming it is possible, saving hundreds of thousands of children from premature death by malaria or zika by eradicating the species of mosquitoes that carry them is a worthy enterprise.

This is because human beings are also a necessary part of biodiversity and the global ecosystem. Although they may damage it, they are also the only ones who may save it because they are the only reflective beings on Earth capable of thinking about  biodiversity and understanding the need of preserving it. This happens because humans, unlike animals, have a conscience. They have a moral compass telling them how to distinguish good from evil. All evils, including the ecological evils, come from the fact that we suffocate the voice of the conscience and refuse to hear it—which is the fundamental lesson of Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, the Shifu (Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men.

We do not need to disparage or diminish humans. We need to tell them to go back to conscience, which is the source of both human rights and ecological consciousness. Proclaiming these ideas may be unpopular. Corrupt politicians and bureaucrats are very happy when somebody insists that there are no human rights, since they can thus violate them with impunity. But human rights do exist, conscience does exist, and human rights are human because they are rooted in conscience. It is for stating these truths everywhere and in every circumstance that Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men were persecuted. It is for the same reasons that they deserve our applause and support.