What’s for Dinner? A Look at Speciesism

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(Co-Authored by Lakshmi Venkataraman, 5th year, NALSAR.)

“The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?”

– Jeremy Bentham

Is morality subjective? Yes. Yet, there are certain acts or behaviours that are deemed objectively morally unjustifiable by most societies today, such as killing, torturing, enslaving, etc., – even if they were common earlier. Civilized societies today do not permit them, except in some limited situations where they are (controversially) allowed by law.

At several points in history, there has been conflict stemming from discrimination based on artificial, arbitrary distinctions created by people between people. Men (even now?) thought that they were superior to women, whites thought that they could own blacks, Hindu Brahmins oppressed dalits – all on the artificial and morally unjustifiable grounds of sex, race and caste. Revolts and rebellions by the oppressed characterized the breakdown of this hierarchy over several decades, from slavery to patriarchy, but sadly, most of this oppression continues till date.

Why do we regard racism, sexism, casteism or similar forms of oppression as morally unjustifiable? I think we can all agree that a 50 year old, Mensa IQ, woman scientist who is funny and kind, is different in several ways from a 25 year old, serious and brooding male journalist – in gender, age, capabilities, intelligence and personality. So they are in fact, not equal. The statement then that ‘all human beings are equal’ is not trying to force on us the understanding that they are actually equals in every respect. It is not a descriptive statement of their equality in fact – rather it is a normative or prescriptive statement of how things ought to be. Instead, the statement (which is reflected in our national and international laws) is based on the understanding that regardless of differences in gender, race, age, ability, class, caste, etc., all human beings ought to be treated equally. This is precisely why opposition to racism, sexism and other similar forms of oppression cannot and should not be based on any kind of factual equality. As prominent philosopher Peter Singer put it, “Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact”.

Equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration of interests. What this equality of consideration of interests will lead to will depend on the nature of beings in question and their respective interests. A being has a right to something, if it has an interest in that. A baby has an interest in not being killed or suffocated to death, and therefore has a right not to be killed or suffocated. A pig similarly, has an interest in living and not being tortured, and hence ought to have the right not to be killed or tortured. No one is asking for the pig to have voting or driving rights, as it has no interest in such activities. No one is similarly asking for the right of a stone not to be tortured, as it does not have an interest in not being tortured.

Equal consideration, for different beings’ interests, will thus lead to different treatment and rights. To not extend the principle of equal consideration to animals, is to partake in a morally unjustifiable form of discrimination – speciesism. As Singer said, “A prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interest of members of one’s own species and against those of members of another species, is called speciesism.”

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Let’s consider animals now. Why do we treat them as inferiors? Why are we proponents and supporters of speciesism? We say that their cognitive functions are not as developed – that they can’t think or innovate like us, that they don’t experience a wide range of emotions, that they can’t communicate like us, etc. Are such abilities morally relevant for not extending equal consideration of interests to animals?

Singer opined that the “pre-requisite for having the right to equal consideration is a capacity for suffering”. If we are to speak of equal consideration of interests in a meaningful way, the being must have the capacity to feel pain or sufferingin other words, it must be sentient. Thus, the moral baseline for extending equal consideration of interests to animals is sentience, and sentience alone. It ought not to be based on arbitrary criteria such as cognitive capabilities, intelligence, emotional diversity, etc. If a higher degree of intelligence would not be a morally justifiable criterion for one human to kill, enslave or torture other humans, how is it morally justifiable for humans to do so to animals? It is because the speciesist bias is so engrained in each of us individually, as well as at the societal level – in the form of institutionalized animal exploitation – that we continue to do so to billions of animals.

If speciesism as a ground for animal exploitation is based on differences of intelligence, cognition, innovation and emotion, we have a problem of inconsistency. Singer proposes a thought-provoking example here. Consider a baby, say, a month old. Does it have capabilities comparable to the average adult? No, in almost every metric, it really is quite helpless; yet we think it deserves to enjoy rights equal to those of a full-grown human. Why? If you say it’s because of the future potential of the baby, then consider a baby that suffers from severe and permanent mental retardation. The doctors say that he/she will never be able to overcome the disability, and hence will never be able to perform certain cognitive and processing functions of the brain that we attribute to all human beings in general. Do we still treat the individual’s rights as equal? Definitely. Why? We do so because while differences between the baby and adult, as well as between an animal and adult, might be relevant sometimes (say, while extending driving rights to animals or babies), such differences are morally irrelevant for making a determination that the baby and animal have an interest in living, and in not being tortured or enslaved. Arising out of these interests should be their rights not to be used in such a way.

Another important thing to keep in mind here is that several animals such as dolphins and chimpanzees are said to have abilities of intelligence and cognition that far surpass that of a baby or a person with severe mental retardation. Are philosophers then proposing that dolphins and chimpanzees have greater rights than such people? No. This example is solely for the purpose of demonstrating the absurdity of using any criterion (other than sentience) as the basis for differential consideration of interests.

The only argument against not according the interests of animals equal consideration, would be that if animals did not feel pain. However, scientists have conclusively disproved this – and there are numerous studies to show that animals exhibit physical and physiological signs of pain and suffering. What animals may be lacking in is their ability to communicate this pain verbally, but this alone cannot be a morally justifiable reason to deny them the right against pain (babies and people with some mental disabilities may not be able to communicate the feeling of pain verbally as well). In short, if a being is sentient, there is no morally coherent reason not to take this into consideration.

The above argument has sought to establish that equality is not an assertion of fact, but a normative standard (amongst humans, and therefore extended to animals as well), as well that equal consideration of interests could produce different rights depending on different interests. Therefore, applying this principle to humans, but not extending it to animals is a form of arbitrary and unjustifiable discrimination and a speciesist bias, not any different from discrimination based on sex, race, class, caste or ability.

Today, the status of animals in our society is one of property; they are used as an intstrumentality – solely as a means to an end. Legal philosopher and animal-rights advocate Gary Francione states that animals, by virtue of their sentience, and their existence, have rights not to be used exclusively as resources by us. When we speak of human rights, one basic right that all of us would agree on is the right against being enslaved. If one is enslaved, one is not a ‘person’ – one is a thing, one is property. Such a ‘thing’ then, has no inherent moral value or rights to speak of, apart from the economic value attached to it by its property owner.

Most people today agree that it is wrong to cause animals ‘unnecessary pain and suffering’ (the standard that manifests in most of our laws). But in a world where animals are human property, we (the animal exploiters) decide what ‘necessary pain and suffering’ is. This covers literally everything – horrifying torture and slaughter of animals, animal use in zoos, circuses, in entertainment, for clothes, in home products and in experimentation for research.

If animals have any moral value, they ought to be included in our moral community – and their status as a resource or property must be dismantled. The only logical conclusion of this is the complete and total abolition of institutionalized animal exploitation. This means abandoning the usage of animals and animal products as food, entertainment, clothing and experimentation – i.e. veganism.

Several people say, ‘Oh, we recognize that animals suffer, so, let’s give them bigger cages? Or use a stunning gun before we slit their throats? Or give them some more grass to eat? Or give them one extra hour of sunlight each day?’ This is a call, by most people, for ‘humane exploitation’. But once we recognize that it is not morally justifiable to use humans OR animals solely as property, ‘humanely’ exploiting animals makes about as much sense, as tying a slave with a longer rope, or waterboarding someone with his choice of background music. There is NO way to make a morally unjustifiable act justifiable, by making it more ‘humane’. Slaughter cannot be made more humane. Torture cannot be made more humane. ‘Humane exploitation’ is just a way to make people more comfortable with the idea of institutionalized animal exploitation. If a being is sentient, it has a right not to be used exclusively as a resource, and the moral baseline can then only be veganism.

Take a careful look at your dinner plate. See the pain, crying, torture, blood, rape and exploitation? There, the rose-tinted glasses are slowly coming off.

(Views expressed in this article are of Professor Peter Singer and Professor Gary Francione. To learn more about speciesism, read works by them, as well as Professor Tom Regan and Professor Melanie Joy.)

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