Animal rights' advocate Amrita Narlikar: "The planet does not belong to the people"
Why do we pet dogs and cull birds? Professor Amrita Narlikar advocates cross-species rights – not just to protect against pandemics.
HM: Ms Narlikar, why do you advocate for animal rights and interspecies justice as President of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies?
As a researcher, I care about questions of power and justice, and I know that these concerns cannot be limited only to human-beings. And by the way, these are not just philosophical questions, but political and economic questions – so they fit centrally into my research agenda, which has always dealt with how the weak can be empowered in a world of the strong. Generally speaking, the idea that we need to care about biodiversity and sustainability has taken hold, and that’s a good thing. What I don't like about the debate is: when we talk about sustainability, environmental protection or the climate crisis, we usually see humans as the focus, not animals; the discussion is far too anthropocentric.
HM: Do you have any concrete examples of this?
AN: Well, the best example is Fridays for Future protests, inspired by Greta Thunberg. A wonderful initiative by young people and their parents to address the climate crisis. But also a disappointingly narrow initiative, because the demands for climate justice are usually framed in terms of “you have stolen my future”. We’re constantly being told that we must save the planet for future generations of children. And I disagree fundamentally. The planet does not belong to humans, it is not an inheritance to be bestowed on future generations of children. The planet belongs to all the wonderful human and more-than-human beings – sea creatures, wild animals, farm animals, domesticated animals, and more – and it deserves to be saved for all its rightful owners, irrespective of differences in species.
Another example – we know one important cause for epidemics and pandemics is zoonotic jumping. But every time there is such an outbreak, we pay no attention at all to the extreme suffering that the animals endure. Often this is suffering that is caused by humans in the first place – because the animals are kept in such horrific conditions – be this the wet markets of Asia or the chicken and pig farms in the West. And then we kill those poor animals en masse – for instance the culling of birds during Avian Flu. Surely, the well-being and health of animals should also count for something, when we think of pandemic preparedness and avoidance – but these considerations seldom enter the very human-centric debate.
HM: For what reason should humans care about the suffering of animals?
AN: The simplest reason is: if we don't, diseases will be transmitted from animals to humans, and humans too will then fall ill. The second reason is: the idea that living beings have rights has become more and more widespread. I think that is right. The fact that women have the same rights as men or that coloured people have the same rights as white people was not a matter of course for a long time, but had to be fought for. Now we have to assert that animals have rights. Because they are also sentient beings.
HM: What is the difference between animal rights and trans-species justice?
AN: Trans-species justice is a goal - or should be a goal. For example, I would argue that it is not enough to talk about intergenerational justice (which usually refers to different generations of humans). Instead, we also need to think about cross-species justice, which recognises that humans cannot simply cut down forests in the name of urbanisation, build highways on the routes of elephant herds, or kill stray dogs that have lived in cities and villages for centuries. So Trans-species justice is a goal. Advocating for animal rights is a means to achieve that goal.
HM: You are co-chair of a working group for G20. Why should the group of leading industrialised and emerging countries care about animal rights?
AN: This international Task Force 3 – which forms a part of the T20 outreach process under India’s G20 Presidency – was founded on the initiative of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India currently holds the G20 presidency. The working group is actually about more than animal rights, namely LiFE (Lifestyle for the Environment, resilience, and values for well-being). Other collaborators in the group focus on sustainable production or access to resources, equality and inclusion. My ideas on animal rights have found a supportive, listening ear in the group, and others have joined me.
HM: You grew up in India, where the majority are Hindus, a religion that worships certain animals. Has this experience shaped your idea of animal rights?
AN: Hinduism is not the only religion that has shaped me in this respect. Every child in India knows the stories and characters of the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata. My favourite story in it is about a hero, he is the only survivor of a terrible war, who is on his way to heaven and is accompanied by a stray dog. The supreme god tells him he is welcome, but the dog is not allowed into heaven. But the hero declares that if his faithful companion is not allowed to come along, he will not enter heaven either. He treats the animal like a human being who has protected him. This turns out to be a test of the hero's goodness and morality - a test he passes with flying colours. The dog turns out to be a god - the god of "dharma" and also the hero's father - and the hero is then welcomed into heaven with much pomp and recognition.
HM: Can animal rights also be derived from other traditions?
AN: I think it is very important to also take into account other cultural and religious traditions of the global South, there are ideas of animal rights there as well. For example, there are indigenous traditions in the Americas that offer a very different view of the balance between species than the Western one. There is more than just the Western or Chinese idea of how the world should evolve.... And to be clear, I am not arguing against development. I'm just saying that we need to consider other models.
HM: What do animal rights consist of in terms of content?
AN: The right to life, the right to dignity, the right to love. I know that this is a distant goal from which we are far away. I am also not a hippie, but a realist.
HM: Specifically, do you think that a single ant has the same rights as an elephant?
AN: A Buddhist or a devout follower of Jainism, a religious minority in India, would say yes.
HM: And what is your opinion on this?
AN: I would say that we need to consider sentience - the ability to feel pain, love, loyalty and other emotions - and in this sense the elephant may feel more pain than the ant and therefore have more rights. But science is also evolving - with new insights into the sentience of different species. And so my answer might also change as we gain more knowledge.
But let's go one step further. Should we allow the enslavement of animals if they feel no pain or humiliation? I am inclined to say: No, we should not allow the enslavement of any living being. Let the ant enjoy its freedom and let the elephant enjoy its freedom. We could go even further with this, but perhaps we are now moving too much into the realm of philosophy J
HM: Do animal rights also apply in the relationship between animals. Does the antelope have a right not to be eaten by the lion?
AN: Lions do not have the option to change their mind and only eat vegetarian food. The more we understand about nature, the clearer it becomes what far-reaching consequences human interventions have. We humans, unlike animals, have a choice, we can change our behaviour.
HM: Could not the right to the absence of humans in the habitat of certain animals also be part of animal rights?
Humans are the only species responsible for the global decline of biodiversity by 70 per cent in 50 years. But I’m not making a case for voluntary self-extinction. I want “humanity” to behave differently towards animals than it does today. We can change our behaviour, which would improve our own lives and the lives of animals.
HM: If you take your arguments seriously, you would have to change humanity's diet completely and close all the slaughterhouses in the world. Do you want the world to become vegetarian?
AN: Right, that would be the consequence. But I know that won't happen from one day to the next. My goal is to have tougher laws worldwide that regulate the keeping of animals. When the EU concludes trade agreements, it writes social and ecological standards into these agreements. I propose that in the future the EU should also make animal rights standards a condition for goods or services from another region to gain access to the European market.
HM: In your opinion, do German politicians pay enough attention to animal rights?
AN: Not at all. Perhaps unsurprisingly so as the poor animals really have no voice and no vote. This is why it is very important in my eyes that whenever we can, we should stand in support for those who have no representation.
HM: Do you want to make animal rights a criterion of foreign policy as well?
AN: That is necessary. We value our relations with South Korea, for example, because the country is a democracy. But animal rights are much worse there than in Germany. There are international indexes for the protection of animal welfare, and South Korea ranks behind Germany and India. Moreover, dogs are also eaten in South Korea.
HM: Isn't that just a question of tradition? Why should it be worse to slaughter a dog than, say, a cow?
AN: I don't see any difference...
HM: But you just blamed South Korea for eating dogs there.
To be clear: for me, all animals deserve the same protection. It is a question of acceptance. However, in Germany and elsewhere, dogs and cats live closely with humans in many households. Therefore, Germans will think twice about improving relations with, say, South Korea when they realise that dogs are eaten there.
HM: Why don't you respect that there is a different cultural tradition there?
AN: Because I am against cultural relativism. If a culture has produced and justifies cruel practices, one has to say so clearly. What bothers me about the German debate on multilateralism is that there is a lot of talk about common values, but no red lines are drawn. I think it is right to talk about shared values, but I plead for also considering animal rights as a shared value and not cooperating more closely with countries that neglect them.
HM: You often show share pictures of your dog on Twitter. Do you treat him differently because you are convinced of the existence of animal rights?
AN: I think so. His name is Don, which is the term for professors at Oxford and Cambridge, where I taught, but he comes from India. He's a cross between a whippet and a retriever. And we usually try - perhaps not always successfully, but at least we try - to "listen" to his preferences rather than simply insisting that he "obey" our commands. And he rewards our trust and respect - he is incredibly polite and gentle.
The text for this interview has been translated into English primarily through DeepL, with a few clarifications/ corrections added.
Hans Monath in conversation with Amrita Narlikar, Interview first published in Tagesspiegel, 20 July 2023, pp 16-17, in German.
Photo: Amrita Narlikar and her companion Don.
Photo credit: Claudia Höhne / GIGA (used with permission of Claudia Höhne and GIGA)