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The Left is not progressive when it comes to non-humans

The political Left may be principled when it comes to racism, sexism and other forms of oppression but when it comes to non-humans, they have a profound blindspot, writes Alex Melonas.

I recently had a conversation about Ethics and nonhuman animals with someone from a large Leftist organization. We had our disagreements, but oppression and equality emerged as fundamental moral concerns. These concerns are usually simplified under the heading, “violations of human rights.”

As a practical tool, anthropocentrism, or roughly the belief that humans are, or ought to be considered, the center of, and above any other aspect of, reality can be a useful idea.

Realizing human rights, for example, is an ideal. This concept is predicated on one essential characteristic: there is something special about being human. It is a universal claim, encompassing all members of our species.

By definition, then, if these rights are distributed unequally among different groups of humans, then this can be accounted for by mere prejudice. It is irrational to exclude women from the net of human rights because they have the one necessary and sufficient characteristic – women are human.

In this human-centric paradigm, however, some necessary exclusions follow, namely, nonhuman animals. Responses of the following kind are common in my discussions about animal rights: “Animals aren’t people; they don’t have rights.”

This means that rights are to be understood within the framework of human rights as described above. Therefore, nonhuman animals, definitionally, cannot have rights.

But here’s my question (and it should be yours, too): What are human rights? David Hume sought to “throw light upon ideas and render them precise.” Let’s render oppression and equality precise to expose the Left’s blind-spot on the animal rights issue.

Minority groups have recourse to human rights discourses because as we’ve seen there isn’t a justification for their exclusion from these moral and legal protections. Anti-oppression, equality (and “human dignity”), then, are disembodied, ethereal phrases that nicely fit into this schema.

Like anthropocentrism itself, these concepts don’t need to be connected to anything material or actual. They are conceptual tools used to establish the specialness of all humans regardless of other characteristics.

But let’s concretize anti-oppression and equality. I think the common thread is that ignoring or discounting someone’s interests for morally irrelevant reasons like race, or sex is wrong.

And when we talk about interests, in the moral sense, my interest in not being harmed (or conversely being happy) seems to be the fundamental issue.

  • Our primary response to oppression must concern itself with the harm experienced by the oppressed. (The same is true with tyranny.)
  • What would it look like to respect someone’s dignity if not, most importantly, treating them as an equal (moral) person – your interests are of equal moral worth to mine.
  • Equality? Surely we are not naïve enough to believe that equality is meant in the literal sense. Whatever characteristic we appeal to – reason, intelligence, etc. – inequality within our own species is clear. Equality is intended as a moral concept. The equal moral worth of interests is a good candidate.      

Consider slavery. What a clear example of oppression and inequality. Isn’t the primary wrong of this institution all the harm that occurs when humans are treated like property? That’s what we mean by oppression, the loss of dignity, and the like.

Erecting strong moral barriers against causing me pain for pleasure, or convenience, or tradition is the implication of Leftist discourses. Indeed, it is of paramount importance.  

Now, animals, other than human, can be harmed emotionally and physically. That is a factual assertion, akin to the following statement: My three year old niece can suffer.

Human rights, then, which take anti-oppression and equality as governing prescriptions, does not seem to hold together (as the Left understands it) because the primary concern, or principle – that is, the badness of harm – extends beyond our species.

Since the Left must fundamentally be concerned with harm, nonhuman animals should necessarily be included, as a matter of principle, because they can be harmed.

In other words, the operative principle is not anthropocentrism. That is just a practical tool. When someone argues, “Don’t treat me like an animal,” it is a rhetorical device meaning treating me like an object, a thing, whose interests are of little to no moral concern is just plain wrong.

But the principle that the Lefts primary moral concern is predicated on – why it is “just plain wrong” – extends to nonhuman animals.      

What I am suggesting, then, is that liberals cannot find a rational way to defend their prejudice (i.e., anthropocentrism) against nonhuman animals. And it is, make no mistake, a prejudice, like racism, like sexism. There isn’t a moral justification for refusing to extend the challenge to oppression and defense of equality to all animals.

How do we justify qualifying the principle as follows: Causing harm is horrible, accept to cows, pigs, chickens, fish, etc.? We cannot, because species membership is no more morally relevant than sex, or any other biological group distinction.    

This is to say, the Left is not principled.  

The argument for animal rights is perfectly rational because harm is harm and therefore oppression is oppression, but groups on the Left just cannot admit it.

Where, then, are the so-called intellectually honest liberals and progressives when billions of nonhuman animals are suffering and dying annually for such trivial reasons as “taste” or “because I’ve always done it”? Where are their principles?

Alex Melonas is a first-year Ph.D. student in political theory at Temple University. He occasionally writes about animal rights at That Vegan Girl.





0 #4 Alex Melonas 2010-02-14 13:29

I never claimed that we have "no basis for applying different standards" to nonhuman animals; indeed, as my article suggested, we don't even apply the same standards to ALL human animals because of differences in intelligence, etc. Moral agency matters, sometimes, and humans are treated differently accordingly. Of course nonhuman animals ought to be treated "differently" than say you and I. That is a straw man argument. But on matters of inclusion in the moral community, intelligence, or moral agency do not matter as we show time and again with our inclusion of humans who are equally "un-intelligent ", or non-moral agents.

My argument concerns itself with our principled objection to causing harm, and why we exclude nonhuman animals, who can equally be harmed, from the reach of this principle. The thesis, if you will, is this: anthropocentris m has simply been a convenient tool to include minority groups; however, most fundamentally, what truly concerns the Left (and Right) are issues of harm, and since that's the operative principle (causing harm is bad), our exclusion of nonhuman animals amounts to a prejudice. Therefore, we should drop the anthropocentris m because speciesism is no more morally justifiable (because that is what anthropocentris m would mean) than racism or sexism.

Your argument again assumes that these "special" human qualities track along the species barrier. As I've shown, they clearly do not. Therefore, a "strong" animal rights position doesn't rely on anthropocentris m at all: by definition, if we consider moral agency as an important factor in this discussion, humans are not "unique" or the "center of Nature" at all because we aren't all moral agents.

Now, I never claimed that anti-racism was "universal", but that premise doesn't need to be factually true for my argument to have grounds to stand on. You believe, Robin, and so does the Left, that excluding someone from the moral community because they are non-white is morally wrong. Whether that's objective or not, it doesn't matter. Therefore, on that same logic, to be consistent, basing the exclusion on species membership, which is merely another biological characteristic, is equally morally wrong.
0 #3 Robin 2010-02-13 18:50
Alex -- my response to your article was specifically about the contradiction in your saying that humans have no basis for applying different standards to human animals and non-human animals, because anthropocentris m is a "convenient tool" with no factual basis. Your latest response confirms this contradiction, because you argue that humans know the difference between right and wrong, whereas animals do not, and should therefore behave differently.

I'm not suggesting that humans, by virtue of accepted social norms, shouldn't know better than to harm animals -- I'm merely saying it's ridiculous to say that a "strong" animal rights position doesn't involve a degree of anthropocentris m. Furthermore, while I of course agree that violence, racism etc. are considered morally wrong IN OUR SOCIETY, your argument is not universal -- it's a culturocentric approach that, once again, is based on social norms.
0 #2 Alex Melonas 2010-02-11 17:36

There is a lot in your comment that needs a response. So please stay with me.

We live in a world composed of moral agents, that is, those of us who understand moral concepts, hold principles, understand "right" and "wrong"; and moral patients, that is, those who have moral claims against moral agents (you and I) but who are, themselves, not moral agents. Now, and this is extremely important to note, this division does not track along the species barrier: nonhuman animals are not moral agents; but many, many human animals, babies, the mentally handicapped, those who have suffered certain brain injuries, the senile, for example, are also not moral agents. We include these latter non-moral agents, the human ones, in the moral community (they are moral patients), while we exclude the nonhuman ones.

The question is, why?

What you've done is appealed to nature to justify this distinction. Animals kill and eat other animals, therefore, you and I should be justified in doing so as well. But that doesn't follow logically or ethically because we are moral agents, other animals are not. Your appeal, then, is fundamentally flawed because it assumes a) that we should justify our actions based on those of other animals and b) that we should be governed by instinct -- and that is a "good" or justified thing.

To a) I would ask, Why don't we similarly justify our actions based on what the mentally handicapped do? Because we recognize that they are not capable of understanding "right" and "wrong", but we are. Our entire system of justice is predicated on this distinction between those who are moral agents and those who aren't moral agents. The reasoning is similarly flawed when applied to what nonhuman animals do: they are not moral agents; therefore, appealing to what they do doesn't work as a matter of morality. I could ask, lions regularly commit infanticide. Should humans be able to do so as well? If you say no, then your appeal to the "laws of nature" begs the question.

Your second assumption would suggest that our other "instincts" should likewise be morally acceptable. What about violence, or out-grouping prejudices (that is, racism)? These are clearly grounded in "instinct". There is no denying that. However, I sincerely doubt that you would find them reasonable ethical justifications for the ardent racist: "Well, it is just instinct."

Because we are moral agents Robin, we cannot ethically appeal to "instinct", or "nature", or "evolution" or any other "fact". That is fallacious; it is actually called the "is-ought" fallacy because you are deriving a moral proposition from a factual assertion, but that doesn't follow, logically. For if it did, imagine what else we could justify. Males of our species have evolved to use sexual aggression to the point of rape to ensure procreation. That is a "fact". Therefore, by your reasoning here, we could derive a moral concept: rape is moral. That is clearly wrong!

Robin, by whatever rational criterion you appeal to that justifies the inclusion of human moral patients in the moral community, it will follow that nonhuman animals should likewise be included.
0 #1 Robin 2010-02-10 15:42
Dear Alex,

I admire your principled, consistent approach to an issue you clearly feel strongly about; however, I feel that your argument falls prey to the same problem you identify in alternative approaches to animal rights. Specifically, you decry an "anthropocentri c" approach to animal rights, arguing that human beings should apply the same standards to animals as they apply to other humans and should not eat animals if we don't eat each other, etc.. However, this behavior isn't even typical of animals -- there are plenty of animal species that do not consume each other, but do consume other animal species. Is this injustice?

To say that human animals should defy this behavior, which other animals themselves exhibit, is applying a different standard. Furthermore, to say that the fact that humans have advanced cognitive abilities, and thus should be able to defy instinct and make the choice to eschew an omnivorous diet, is anthropocentric . You assume that exclusively-hum an concepts of morality, equality, and the inherent value of life trump the laws of nature that all other species abide by.

In reality, we do not live in a society of absolutes. We construct norms that are convenient for us, many of which subscribe to instinctual human-animal behaviors. Your attempt to codify these behaviors using rigorous standards of moral and social acceptability is premised on a fallacious, artificial construct.

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