Joaquin Phoenix at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival
Photo Credit: Harald Krichel (CC-By-3.0)

During his acceptance speech for best actor in a leading role (which he overwhelmingly deserved) at the 2020 Academy Awards on February 9th, Joaquin Phoenix delivered a rambling diatribe against all the human beings on this planet who think they can milk a cow without being big bad meanie monsters of cruelty. According to Phoenix, if you ever have cow’s milk on your breakfast cereal, you don’t deserve to live.

His speech at the Oscars is not the first time Phoenix has cranked out this absurd animal rights claptrap. He narrated the 2005 documentary entitled “Earthlings,” and it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten his lines.

That production begins with a discussion (or rather monologue) of a philosophy it impugns called “speciesism,” which considers it a moral outrage that any species that considers itself superior in terms of intelligence, strength, or other factors, feels justified in subduing and brutalizing another “inferior” species to promote its own interests. This is equated with the evil of racism, where one race considers itself to be superior to another and feels justified in inflicting various atrocities on other races on that basis. In the film, the obvious case of speciesism is man using animals for food, clothing, domestication, experimentation, and so on. The basis for considering this practice morally reprehensible is that we are all “earthlings” living on this planet, and all living species have a right to comfort, life, freedom, and security. No species, therefore, should subdue or brutalize any other species for its own gain.

One of the problems with this view is that numerous carnivorous predators on this planet engage in that very pursuit. The film itself has footage of a lion in the wild ripping a small rodent to shreds and having it for lunch. Can you imagine the horror, the pain, the suffering that the prey experiences in that kind of transaction? Oh, the injustice! Lions and other similar predators are never concerned with the plight of their prey. Never. You never see a lion doing everything it can to make sure its prey dies a quick, painless, “humane” death.

Victims of predation in the animal kingdom often live for quite a while as they are tortured, sliced open, mauled, mutilated, and eaten by their predators. Aren’t lions, therefore, and all the other species which behave the same way guilty of speciesism? If you check the definition of speciesism, it’s clear that any predator in the wild that isn’t human does the very things the film condemns. Shouldn’t all the “earthlings” of the world become active in a crusade to stop predators in the jungles of Africa from inflicting such violence and horror on their less powerful victims, not as fast, not as intelligent as the predators?

If this philosophy is to have any consistency, it should condemn speciesism in all species, not just in humans. But it is silent about the fact that speciesism is wrong when perpetrated by humans, but practiced on a routine basis by countless other species in nature. I guess Phoenix and his ilk haven’t thought of that.

Another glaring problem of the philosophy of the film is that it calls killing animals for food “murder.” The term is used several times throughout the film. Civilized man has always defined murder as the unjustified killing of another human being. We have never called an animal killing a human “murder.” Neither have we ever described a human killing an animal “murder.” But the film does. There are a couple questions crying out to be answered here. First, when a lion kills and eats a rodent in Africa, isn’t this murder too? Shouldn’t that lion be prosecuted, punished? If the philosophy of the film is to be taken seriously, it absolutely should. Otherwise, the whole point of the film is sheer lunacy.

Another question requires a little background. In an interview, Persia White, one of the producers of the film and outspoken advocate of animal rights around the world (and incredible musician by the way), agreed with her talk show host that stopping mankind from using animals for food is not her agenda.

White made it clear that she is satisfied with the “humane” killing of animals used for food, and believes that we should not tolerate the inhumane, painful methods of slaughtering those animals that go on so often and in so many places—methods which cause the untold suffering and agony of those animals, as opposed to ways which are quick and relatively painless. But doesn’t killing an animal for food, even if it’s fast and painless, still count as murder and speciesism? According to the definition of speciesism and the philosophy of the film, it should. Why does the fact that it’s painless mean it isn’t murder and speciesism? If a human being murders another human being, the murderer can’t avoid prosecution merely because their victim might not have felt anything. To mount a defense that says, “Your honor, I should be found not guilty because I anesthetized my victim before I shot him” would incur nothing but laughter from the jury, and rightly so. Why should it be any different in the animal kingdom if we are all “earthlings” with the same rights and duties to other species?

It is quite obvious that the worldview of the film is naturalistic, and rooted in evolutionary assumptions. In this naturalistic world view, the primary core assumption is that since we are all the product of the evolutionary process (phyletic gradualism), no species can claim any moral superiority over any other, since there is no author behind the process giving us any moral compass to guide our behavior. We are all on the same footing, with the only difference between the species being a matter of how advanced. The assumption is that being more advanced doesn’t give us the right to dominate and subdue another species, causing members of that species to suffer and die at whim. So the equality of all species is presumably based on our shared heritage of having evolved from chance on this planet through a blind impersonal process that doesn’t give any species a built-in right to conquer any other.

However, in reality, this ideology breeds exactly the opposite agenda. If there is no author, no guide, no absolute moral compass, no one to answer to, then any species can and should do whatever it pleases. The idea that all living species have a right to comfort, life, freedom, and security is nonsense within this philosophical framework. No species has any “rights” if there is no one there to give them those rights. Blind evolutionary processes don’t confer moral attributes on anything, let alone the life forms on this planet. Therefore there is no basis for condemning any species for inflicting suffering on another for its own purposes. There is no transcendent moral law, no code of conduct, nothing. So to denounce a species for whatever the observer considers to be moral atrocities against another species is asinine.

This foundational world view destroys the entire moral basis of the film, rendering it meaningless. It is survival of the fittest, and we are all on our own. It’s the Lord of the Flies of the natural world. Hear that roar? That’s the sound of the whole moral structure of the documentary, with all its vacuous claims crumbling to the ground. Stand back.

Within the Biblical world view, by contrast, mankind is given the awesome responsibility of being the stewards of the Earth. Mankind, we are told, is to have “dominion” over the Earth, its creatures, and its management. In my view, and the view of many scholars, the idea of dominion might best be understood as “responsibility.” It’s like we are the caretakers of the planet.

There are numerous examples in the Bible of God telling mankind that we have his permission and directive to eat animals for food. In Genesis 9, God says we are not only to eat plants but to eat the creatures that crawl and walk upon the Earth as well. In the book of Acts, God shows one of the apostles a vision of all sorts of species of animals and then says in effect, “See all those animals? Kill and eat.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus (the Son of God) cooks up a batch of fish for his disciples after his resurrection from the dead. Jesus was obviously a cruel monster for his naked act of speciesism against the fish.

It gets worse: Not only did God tell mankind to use animals for food, but he also commanded the Israelites to sacrifice animals on the altar in rituals he endorsed. These animals included bulls, lambs, and doves, to name a few. That animal sacrifice wasn’t pretty, and the documentary I am discussing would no doubt consider it an example of speciesism. God should be ashamed of himself for violating the superior moral ideology of the animal rights activists.

The Bible makes a crucial claim about the nature of humankind as opposed to the animal kingdom: we are made in God’s image. This is said of no component of creation other than mankind. So animals are not made in God’s image, and to kill them for food or other meaningful purposes is therefore not murder.

Joaquin Phoenix has always been one of my favorite actors. I was thrilled to see him win the best actor award for his performance in Joker, which in my opinion was an outstanding film, as were many others in which he has appeared. One of the more notable ones that comes to mind is Signs with Mel Gibson, which may well be my favorite movie of all time. But as much as I admire Phoenix for his acting skills, he nevertheless exhibits the same severe lack of rational thinking skills that has become a virulent epidemic in Hollywood. Some actors in Tinseltown actually know how to think. But they are few and far between, and I wish Phoenix was one of them.

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