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Speciesism: The final frontier

PigAnimal rights isn’t about literal equality between humans and animals, nor is it about extending all human rights and obligations to animals, writes Alex Melonas.

Animal rights is about the inclusion of nonhuman animals in Ethics. Let’s say I enjoy stabbing other humans. What’s wrong with this particular form of entertainment? It seems to me that it isn’t really about a failure to respect some disembodied concept like “human dignity” but rather unjustifiably causing harm. I’m inflicting pain because I get pleasure from doing so and that’s ethically prohibited.

Let’s alter the example and say I enjoy stabbing pigs. Am I wrong to do so? If we are reasoning consistently, it is wrong for the same reason: causing the pig to suffer for pleasure cannot be justified.

Why doesn’t “pleasure” suffice as a justification for causing harm? I think it’s this. Because of our capacity for empathy, we strongly hold the principle that causing harm is bad, and pain, suffering, and misery are all significant harms.

However, for sentient beings, some harm is inevitable, so it’s causing unnecessary harm that really raises an ethical question. (Harm resulting from self-defense would count as a necessity.)

“Unnecessary” does suggest some subjectivity; however, as Gary Francione argues, for the concept to have any meaning at all, convenience, pleasure and tradition cannot be included in the definition, or as exceptions to the general rule.

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), a vegan diet is nutritionally sound at all stages of the life-cycle. Indeed, their latest report suggests that a vegan diet has health benefits.

We eat nonhuman animals for many reasons, the pleasure we get from how they taste, convenience and habit being primary amongst them, but not dietary necessity. Given that non-animal based sources of sustenance are abundant in most Industrialize nations, and keeping in mind why our example above raises an ethical issue, eating pepperoni and cheese pizza cannot be justified because it involves causing unnecessary harm.

Why the contradiction then between what we believe and what we do? We’re missing something in our analysis, and this something is what philosophers call speciesism.

Our example above only makes sense if it’s assumed from the outset that the beings who are being stabbed count, ethically, or that they’re members of the moral community. Speciesism, then, is basing the exclusion of a class of beings from the moral community based on a biological distinction: species membership. It’s a prejudice, analogous to racism and sexism, as we will see, and it accounts for this contradiction.

The most common answer given when I ask people why we don’t perform painful biomedical experiments on unconsenting humans, or kill the homeless when shelters, etc. become overpopulated, but we do it daily to nonhuman animals, is: Because they aren’t human. Well that begs the question: What’s so special about humans?

All the answers to this question are meant to be prerequisites for inclusion in the moral community that aim to avoid the inconsistency of making the issue one of biology, as the speciesist does, while simultaneously condemning the most blatant sexists for citing the biological fact of sex as reason for discounting the interests of women.

In other words, we’re seeking out a relevant characteristic that separates humans from all other animals to justify why dominating a female cow’s reproductive process – from impregnation, to birth, to child rearing, to lactation, etc. – is acceptable but doing the same to a female human is ethically outrageous.

Moral agency, which is basically the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and act accordingly, language-use, or “intelligence” are the most common responses. The reasoning runs like this: one or some combination of these principles is the prerequisite for membership in the moral community and therefore animals are excluded. Does that work? No.

Once we begin to identify these characteristics we will necessarily be excluding members of our own species. Some mentally handicapped humans, the severely senile, those who have suffered certain brain injuries, and every human baby aren’t moral agents.

According to our system of justice, they cannot be held accountable for their actions because they haven’t developed, cognitively. The same is true in ethical reasoning – two year old children can’t intelligibly be criticized for acting unethically. This obviously holds for whatever level of intelligence we cite, or speaking human language, because inevitably some humans will be excluded (or some nonhuman animals will be included).

And just as a matter of simple logic, what does my ability to understand the nature of ethical constraints have to do with why it’s wrong to hunt me for “sport”? Would the Holocaust have been any less terrible if all the victims were mentally handicapped?

Only one option remains: they’re not members of our species so the rules don’t apply. This is deeply problematic because the reasoning logically parallels those who would cite race, or sex as this insuperable line.

Think about it. We would ask the sexist: What’s so special about being male? His answer: Well, because men can do X, Y and Z. Our retort would be the same just detailed because we’re dealing with characteristics that some possess, while others don’t, or they’re possessed in varying degrees. Indeed, it is only in our capacity to subjectively experience (i.e. sentience) that we are equal.

The sexist is left with one option, just like the speciesist: a biological difference. Since we reject this kind of reasoning because it relies on an ethically irrelevant characteristic, both the sexist and speciesist ought to be challenged.

Animal rights, then, is simply about consistency. If causing me harm unnecessarily is wrong then doing likewise to nonhuman animals is too unless we can cite a relevant dissimilarity.

Ethical veganism therefore is a logical conclusion. Those opposed to violence and oppression must come to the defense of the over 10 billion land animals – not including billions of marine animals – we exploit and kill annually in the US alone.

As we have seen, it cannot be justified. Ethics mustn’t stop at the species boundary.

Alex Melonas was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. A significantly conservative culture, one which defines itself in no small part as Christian traditionalist, his upbringing didn't lend itself well to discussions about the ethical significance of nonhuman animals. Fortunately, he was introduced to the argument for animal rights as an undergraduate; a time in his life where the critical examination of norms and assumptions was commonplace. It was the scale of the injustice and the manifest absurdity of the rationalizations we offer as a defense of it, that compelled, and continues to compel, his advocacy for the inclusion of nonhuman animals in the moral community. With his girlfriend Jen at the helm, That Vegan Girl was eventually born.

Alex holds degrees in Political Science and Sociology from the University of Utah, and a Master's of Science in Public Affairs from American University, Washington, D.C. He is currently a first-year PhD student in Political Theory at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.

Photo courtesy of Peta.

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