The Incoherence of Speciesism

“Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allows the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.” ~ Richard Ryder, 1970

I’ve noted how often people register their disgust at the attitude of animal lovers who give nonhuman animals equal, if not greater moral consideration than other humans.

I’ve also noted how this attitude has been portrayed as ‘extreme’, 'ignorant', 'immoral' and, on two occasions just recently, 'racist'. The last one quite astonishing.

Looking at this from a naturalist point of view, the restriction of moral consideration to one's own species is merely an evolutionary knee-jerk. It is a hard-wired, instinctual attitude and we see the same fundamental syndrome in nationalism, sexism, classism, racism etc - in fact, in all the -isms that cause division among those of the human species.

This segregation is the expression of 'Us' vs 'Them', and it is a survival-driven instinct - we trust who we know and distrust those we don't know. It gives rise to philosophical separatism, the idea that we are separate, independent entities, which is a strange idea in an interdependent world...

The labelling of vegans, animal liberationists and animal rights activists as ‘extreme’ is based on the perception that these people take compassion ‘too far’ and that treating animals ‘humanely’ is fine as long as they can still be killed and eaten. The typical rationale is that they are ‘just animals’ and expendable to human needs, and that they have no ‘intrinsic value’; they have no value except their instrumental value to human beings.

I find this particularly interesting given that it is an argument presented by a primate, itself little more than a smart animal, and based on the idea that there is a vast gulf in abilities between humans and other species, which is difficult to support, given that many if not most animals possess abilities we do not. But it also ignores animal suffering – and there is a huge body of scientific evidence showing that animals suffer both physically and emotionally at the hands of humans in the animal agriculture industry – as if their pain does not matter. This is the argument of a psychopath, who has no empathy for others. If anything is ‘extreme’ it is the idea that sentient beings’ lives don’t matter and their pain is incidental. It is the sort of argument one expects from a dictator, and if anything characterises human hegemony over other species, it is the idea of dictatorship. We control, abuse, and exploit them because we can. Might is Right. That is what it comes down to. In any other context, dictators are criticised and condemned.

The ‘extreme’ argument is normally presented by those heavily invested in animal agriculture or other industries in which animals are exploited and abused, and vivisection laboratories will often present the justification that the means (animal cruelty) justifies the end: more healthy humans and extension of human longevity. Once again, nonhuman animals are mere instruments, and there are several problems with this view. We should expect that such experiments would be useful in that they are reliable indicators of the effects, of the products being tested, on humans. Fact is, they are not. And in some cases there have been disastrous results where products tested exhaustively on nonhuman animals had serious side effects in humans or simply did not work according to their claimed benefits. But beyond that, why do we deem the mutilation and pain caused to nonhuman animals that we know, beyond reasonable doubt, are experiencing significant levels of physical discomfort and pain as well as high levels of anxiety, if not sheer terror or insanity, a legitimate practice? Are we so pathological in our intent that we have no regard for the suffering of another, purely because the other is from another species? Could you do that to another human? If not, the difference between humans and many other nonhuman animals in respect of the capacity to suffer is marginal at best and cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, legitimise the practice. The differences are at best differences in degree, and in fact nonhuman animals are likely to suffer more, since they lack our ability to rationalise. Just brutal, senseless suffering.

Is giving nonhuman animals moral consideration 'ignorant'? I would argue exactly the opposite. Firstly, as stated above, we are ourselves animals - mammals of the order Primates - who have developed faculties like imagination and written language that have enabled us to develop technologies, communicate more effectively, and utilise natural resources to benefit ourselves. In so doing, however, we have not only caused harm to our living environment, but also abused and exploited nonhuman animals in our factory farms in which they are fattened and then slaughtered for our food. In achieving dominion, we have leveraged our advantages in a definitively separatist manner, regarding the environment and nonhuman animals as means to our ends, always imagining how they can be exploited to our advantage, but never imagining the environmental consequences of our actions or the impact of those actions on the lives of sentient beings.

On the one hand, we have been very intelligent; we have learned how to solve puzzles in a local context and with a narrowly-defined objective: to maximise our own utility. On the other, we have failed to consider long-term and large-scale effects of local actions, and we have failed to understand our effects on other animals, as if their existential pain is not worth considering. Given that we have learned an enormous amount about animal cognition and emotion in the last few decades, and given that every single study has shown that nonhuman animals experience pain and emotion, and in some cases to a greater extent than we do in the same circumstances, it means we are either not very intelligent or not very moral, or both. Add to that the environmental, socio-economic and health effects of animal agriculture on humans, and we veer towards outright stupidity or malevolence.

Which brings me to the third criticism levelled at those who give nonhuman animals moral consideration; that this is somehow ‘immoral’. The basis of this argument is that when someone chooses a nonhuman animal over a human, whether in respect of resource allocation or indeed any trade-off, that this ethically unsound because humans ‘obviously’ deserve greater moral consideration. It’s a strange idea, because it presumes that ethically, humans are somehow more important or valuable than other species. Conveniently, it is presented only by humans; I think the other animals would ask for a second opinion, if they could engage on the subject.

Is there a sound rational basis for this idea? There are several versions. One is the ‘humans are smarter’ argument. By human criteria, perhaps. But how about if we compared human intelligence to, say, the ability birds have to navigate using electromagnetic waves? Or in comparison to sharks, who use Lorenzini jelly in their faces to detect prey in muddy waters, or vampire bats, who, besides using echolocation to navigate, also identify and hone in on blood vessels using proteins in their noses. Vipers see infrared and elephants can interpret sounds made by other elephants from 10 miles away. These are all modes of perception that we do not have and in fact have developed technology to. There are numerous other forms of intelligence that humans simply do not have, and we are discovering more of these abilities all the time.

But let’s ignore that for a moment and admit, for arguments’ sake, that humans are smarter. Does that justify exploitation? If I consider myself more intelligent than you, does that legitimise me paying you slave wages, asking you to work late without pay, or making you work in unhealthy conditions? If you think these absurd, they were (and still are in some countries) ways in which people have been abused by others who regarded them as ‘savages’ with inferior intelligence. And you’ll note that I said, “consider myself more intelligent’; the issue of whether the superiority is actual is not relevant; dictators assume they are superior by virtue of their dominant position. It’s still Might is Right, packaged differently.

The second version is often asserted by religious people: ‘the animals were given to us to consume and use for our benefit’. That this is an article of faith and not a fact should be obvious, but some people mistake ‘what they believe’ for ‘what they know’. It is a denial of our animalhood and an ontological claim all in one; we are special because we were created thus, ‘in the image of’ a supernatural deity, and the other animals were created to be our servants, to do with as we please. There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that either of these are true; a sentence written in an ancient book by ignorant bronze age people is not evidence, it is a religious artefact, and there is overwhelming evidence that we share an ancestor (or ancestors) with other primates. The evidence, including genetics, palaeontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, and speciation, render the issue beyond discussion. We are smart primates. End of story.

And besides, how is extending one’s moral scope to include other sentient beings ‘wrong’? Is compassion an inherently bad thing? Can it in fact be asserted that those who have more compassion are bad people? How so?

The racist label attached to animal rights activists and vegans is an extension of the ‘immorality’ argument, and it goes something like this: “Activists will spend money and time on animals in impoverished communities and not help the human communities, and that is immoral”. Because these impoverished communities, specifically in South Africa, are black or coloured, that makes the action ‘racist’. I assume that this is because action for nonhuman animals instead of humans of colour is a trade-off and since, in the minds of some, that is already immoral as discussed above because it supposedly discriminates for nonhuman animals, but adds the further insult in discriminating, not just against humans, but against people of colour.

It largely depends on whether acting for one species rather than another is objectively immoral, and that would be contingent on the one having intrinsic value and the other not, or some sort of yardstick by which one can be regarded as more important or valuable than the other. If we were to consider whether chimpanzees were more important than, say, sharks or elephants, we would have some difficulty. And it is no more difficult than the case of comparing humans with other species. Choosing one species to support and defend is really a form of identification – some like to help elephants, others dogs, others humans. Adding the dimension of colour or race does not help; if we cannot establish this benchmark for humans in toto, it seems an irrelevant complication to add a specific category of humans and then claim it is immoral because of certain characteristics or conditions, i.e. having been previously disadvantaged or living in poverty. It only becomes relevant to ‘race’, itself a dubious concept, if it can be shown that the intent and action of assisting animals deprived one race group in exception to another group, or affected them negatively in such a manner that their quality of life was reduced. But if I invest in animals and not in humans, that is speciesism, not racism. And given the degree to which humans have exploited and abused nonhuman animals, I am comfortable in making that discrimination in order to compensate for the injustices, not only of the past, but in the present. Call it Affirmative Action, if you will…

Having said that, the issue of human living conditions in a given community is certainly a pragmatic one; after all, if we care about the companion animals living in the midst of an impoverished community, then it stands to reason that investing in that community to make it more sustainable is a good idea. In so doing, we create an environment in which both human and nonhuman animals can thrive. In the case of wild animals, it is necessary to create a balance that may be a little more difficult to achieve, given that the variables are different in respect of space and populations.

In the long term, sustainability is the overriding ethic. Domination by any species at the expense of the long-term viability of the living environment and the lives of other species has consequences for the biosphere that includes feedback loops that affect our lives too. A consequentialist ethic demands that we consider the ramifications of our actions and their effects on others, including other species, and should include questioning whether our dominance is practical or ethical.

We share the world with other creatures; we are not their owners or masters. As the dominant species we have a greater responsibility – to use our power sparingly and not assert our advantage in a manner that is destructive to other animals and our living environment. Only then can we claim to be a species with moral supremacy, which is defined, not by how one leverages ones advantages, but by how much is willing to forego them in pursuit of balance and harmony.