Speciesism: a beastly concept

Why it is morally right to use animals to our ends.

Josie Appleton

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The battle over the new Oxford animal research lab hangs on the question of whether it is morally right to use animals to our ends. On Saturday two demos will take to the streets: one in support of the lab, arguing that animal testing is necessary to save human lives; the other arguing that animal lives are as valuable as our own. In recent years, the animal rights camp has claimed the moral high ground, asserting that it is mere ‘speciesism’ to prioritise human ends over those of mice, cats or primates.

Animal rights activist Peter Singer defines speciesism as ‘a prejudice or attitude of bias towards the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species’ (1). Advocates argue that fighting speciesism is an extension of struggles for human equality: just as we once dehumanised others on the basis of their race or sex, so apparently we now think animals are below us. The argument goes that speciesism, racism and sexism are all examples of ‘exclusionary attitudes’. In The Political Animal: The Conquest of Speciesism, Richard Ryder notes that Aristotle thought that animals ‘exist for the sake of men’ while also looking down on slaves and women (2). No coincidence, says Ryder. According to Ryder, either you are a caring person who recognises the value of other beings, or you are selfish and care only for yourself. He cites ‘evidence of a link between caring for humans and caring for animals’: one study found that opponents of animal rights tended to be male, anti-abortion, have ‘prejudice against homosexuals’ and ‘exhibited racial prejudice’; another study of US students concluded that ‘those students who favour animal experimentation tend to be male, masculine in outlook, conservative and less empathetic’ (3).

When this argument was first made in the early 1970s it was considered crackpot and insulting. America had recently allowed black citizens the vote; national liberation struggles were setting the world alight; women were burning their bras. Human equality was the priority: nobody was much concerned with improving the conditions of gorillas in the West African jungle. Now the notion of speciesism has gained respectability and kudos, filtering into a variety of professions.

One social worker, David B Wolf, argues that his colleagues need to reflect on their speciesist attitudes: he notes that the current aim of social work is ‘to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people’, and suggests instead that ‘the issue of speciesism should be incorporated as a basic element of the profession’ (4). An article by a Swedish educationalist critiqued the ‘oppressive human-animal domination structures’ in schools, and deconstructed the speciesism implicit in school textbooks and choices of school trips – she calls for these prejudices to be replaced by ‘compassion and respect for “the other”, in the broadest sense of the word’ (5). A cultural studies professor suggests a ‘non-speciesist vision’ for reading literature and the arts. Just as historians might read history from the point of the oppressed, he suggests that ‘The visual arts must be viewed so as to interpret the role of the animals which crouch in the corners of the frame or stare from the owners’ lap.’ (6)

The term speciesism hasn’t yet entered the popular vocabulary, perhaps partly because it is such a mouthful. But the assumption behind the term – that it is wrong to prioritise humans over animals – has become mainstream. Animal experimentation today has few defenders: at the new Oxford animal lab contractors hide their faces behind balaclavas, and few from the government or scientific community will speak out in its defence. The government backs the lab with funding and security but not with political or moral arguments. Indeed the UK government’s draft Animal Welfare Bill sends the opposite political message: the new regulations require pet owners to respect their pets’ rights to privacy and provide them with adequate ‘stimulation’, an bans animal ‘mutilation’ such as tail-docking and fish-dyeing. Our everyday relationships with animals are being called into question. The US Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) advises schools against keeping pets because this apparently places children’s educational needs above the welfare of animals – if they must, ‘animal handling should be supervised and kept to a minimum, the animals’ needs must remain paramount’ (7).

Of course, in practice most of us are speciesist: we eat animals but not humans; we buy pets and keep them locked up in cages; we support animal experimentation in order to save human lives. But increasingly these distinctions lack moral justification. It’s time we developed a more human-centred morality, to provide our practical judgements with intellectual support.

Human and animal equality

Animal rights activists get the relationship between human and animal equality completely skewed. In actual fact, the idea of the brotherhood of mankind was founded on the basis of uniquely human features. In the Enlightenment, when the notion of human equality was hammered out, it was argued that we should treat one another as equals because we were all rational, self-conscious beings. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that we have to respect other human beings because they are self-willing: they are conscious of their existence, so you cannot merely treat them as a means to your end. By contrast, says Kant, ‘Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man’ (8). It is because animals are not ends for themselves that humans can treat them as a means to our ends.

The flowering of human consciousness went hand-in-hand with a growing distinction from animals. It is when humans lived in cramped and degraded circumstances that they have felt the most commonality with the beasts. In ancient Egypt, cats and dogs were mummified because they were believed to have an afterlife, and Egyptian Gods had animal heads. Premodern societies often had animal totems, and they saw animals and humans as intertwined through reincarnation. Animals were attributed with agency: some societies tried animals in court, and prayed to fish to return to the rivers. The sense of fellowship with animals corresponded to societies subject to the whims of nature. These circumstances didn’t foster brotherly love. Some tribes called themselves ‘the humans’, the implication being that outsiders were not fully human and could be killed with impunity (though it might be forbidden to kill a pig for food).

With Ancient Greece, when humanity began to develop a fuller sense of itself and its abilities, animals began to be cast out of the picture. Greek Gods are all human – though they sometimes disguise themselves as animals, as in the myth of Leda and the swan. Human-animal hybrids remained in the form of satyrs and mermaids, but crucially these had human heads and arms and so retained the locus of personality. Theorists of ethics and the good life, such as Aristotle, generally argued that animals lacked reason and so could not be granted justice.

Christianity developed a broader notion of human equality, and a clearer distinction between humans and animals. We are all made in the image of God, says the Bible, even women and slaves, and we are all deserving of equal respect. Christianity respected no holy animals, a point made in the Bible where Jesus casts the swine into the sea. But Christianity understood humanity’s distinctness from nature as a gift from God. ‘I have given you all things’, says God: ‘Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.’

The Enlightenment philosophers increasingly located the source of human distinction in mankind itself, writing excited essays about the innate ‘dignity of man’ and humanity’s capacity for self-development. While fish worshipping corresponded to a feeble control over nature, so this notion of human uniqueness corresponded to a society that was developing science, technology and industry. Our ‘dominion’ over nature came to be seen not as a gift from God but as the product of our own hands.

Defining humans down

Those who argue that human beings and animals are equal, devalue humanity. As animal rights academic Paola Cavalieri notes, new notions of animal rights are the result of changing definitions of humans, with a shift from ‘high-sounding claims about our rationality and moral capacity’ to ‘work on a much more accessible level’ (9). The ability to feel pain is the definition of moral worth suggested by Peter Singer (who calls it sentience) and Richard Ryder (who calls it painience). Human beings’ superior mental abilities are apparently of no moral consequence: Singer talks about humans’ ‘self-awareness, and the ability to plan for the future and have meaningful relationships with others’, but argues that they are ‘not relevant to the question of inflicting pain – since pain is pain’ (10). Here commonality with other human beings (and animals) is based on our central nervous systems. We are all part of a ‘community of pain’, says Ryder. Singer suggests that a human life is worth (a bit) more than an animal’s, because we have a slightly higher level of sentience. We should therefore treat sentient animals as we would a mentally handicapped human being.

Others take a behavioural psychological approach. Primate studies have found that they form relationships among members of the group; that they have some kind of memory of events; that they can use twigs and rocks as tools and have different ‘tool cultures’ for different groups; that they can communicate with one another and can learn basic signs to communicate with humans. Here the question of moral value is decided in a laboratory or in field tests, weighed on the basis of cognitive and awareness skills. Humans come out better than chimps, but it is a quantitative rather than qualitative difference. ‘[Chimpanzees] clearly have some kind of self-concept’, writes primatologist Jane Goodall. ‘The line dividing “man” from “beast” has become increasingly blurred’ (11).

Finally, others take DNA as their measure of moral value. Studies have shown that we share some 98.4 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees, and an even greater proportion of our genes. When recent research showed that humans shared a closer evolutionary relationship with chimps than previously thought, calls started for chimps to be removed from the pan genus and welcomed into homo. Many drew the assumption that shared DNA made chimpanzees into moral agents. ‘Could a chimp ever be charged with murder?’, asked the UK Daily Mail (12).

It seems that we no longer know what it means to be a member of the human club, but have a feeling that it cannot be much. These different definitions of moral worth are entirely arbitrary. Why should a shared gene mean that people are of equal value or that we should respect them? If some historically isolated groups had a notably different DNA should we treat them differently? Why does the possession of basic memory mean that we should respect chimps? The drive behind these arguments is not their logical coherence, but the desire to knock humans off their pedestal. Observations on the sophistication of primate behaviour are punctuated with pokes at human beings: ‘Who are we to say that the suffering of a human being is more terrible than the suffering of a nonhuman being, or that it matters more?’ asks Jane Goodall in a piece about chimp behaviour (13). ‘Why is human arrogance so pervasive and where does it come from?’, asked Roger and Deborah Fouts in a chapter on primate language use (14).

The notion of humanity here is based on humility. For Richard Ryder this is a generic capacity for caring, the feminine antithesis to dominating machismo. Surely the Jains would be the most humane of us all, as they walk around apologising to ants and plants if they step on them? But what kind of model of man is that? This is the compassion of subservience: we regret causing other beings pain because we feel that we are not worthy. Genuine compassion, by contrast, is based on a fellowship of feeling: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’, wrote the sixteenth-century poet John Donne. Humility is no basis on which to build commonality between human beings, who properly face each other eye to eye as upright equals.

How humans are different

Human beings are not just a variation on chimps. What is at question is not awareness of our world, but consciousness. Humans are the only beings that are an object for themselves: that not only exist but know that they exist; that don’t just act, but reflect on their activity. ‘Man makes himself’, is the title of a book on human history by archaeologist V Gordon Childe (15). He notes that biological evolution selects characteristics that will be useful for a particular environment – a tough hide for protection, fast running to escape predators, or sharp claws with which to kill. Human beings have virtually no useful biological adaptations: we are slow, naked and thin-skinned. Instead we consciously fashion our own adaptations, from clothes to cars to weapons. Rather than being a product of evolutionary improvement, we improve ourselves.

This is not a question of degree: it is a question of kind. Over time evolution has produced increasingly complex species, which have a greater control over and awareness of their environment – from bacteria to plants to reptiles to primates. Evolution is the equivalent of a plane speeding up on a runway, and then with the emergence of humans it takes off and operates according to completely different laws. Whatever chimps’ and gorillas’ genetic similarity to humans, they are primarily creatures of evolution. A chimp community from two million years ago would be completely indistinguishable to one today.

The human line separated from chimpanzees around seven million years ago, but it was only with the emergence of modern humans some 50,000 years ago that we notice a qualitative leap. In the intervening period there was a host of different hominid species, many of which died out. Our evolutionary line was marked by an increasingly upright stance, a growth in brain size, and a reduction in robustness of the jaw and teeth. Our hominid ancestors had developed basic tools – mainly hand-held ‘choppers’ – and they probably knew how to use fire and buried their dead, but they were sluggish. With anatomically modern humans there is an explosion in the sophistication of tools, including fish hooks, specialised cutters, spears, bows and arrows, lamps. There is also complex culture such as art, jewellery and religious rituals, which suggest humans trying to explain their world to themselves and to exert control over it. Within a few thousand years, humans had spread from Africa to Siberia, Australia and the Americas, showing that they were the universal animal that could adapt itself to each and every clime.

Who knows what the key ingredient was that allowed human beings to take off. Some scientists suggest that it was a refinement in the vocal tract, allowing a greater range of sounds for speech. Certainly consciousness is intrinsically social: we only become aware of ourselves as individuals by seeing ourselves in the eyes of others; we only have inner thoughts through the common symbols of language. As Kenan Malik has argued, if we were mere individuals ‘we would possess sensations and experiences, but we could never interpret those sensations or experiences, or make them meaningful’ (16).

In the development of humans, there was a weakening of biological adaptation and an increasing reliance on culture. We became upright, leaving our hands free; our hands lost their adaptations for swinging (chimps) or bounding (gorillas) and became primarily for manipulation of tools; our mouths lost their adaptations for tearing food (such as tough tongues and lips, heavy jaws, large teeth) and became sensitive and versatile for speech. The hand and the mouth are the key human organs. Aristotle called the hand the ‘organ of organs’ because of its versatility. Thomas Aquinas looked down on the ‘horns and claws’ and ‘toughness of hide and quantity of hair or feathers’ in animals: ‘Such things do not suit the nature of man…. Instead of these, he has reason and hands whereby he can make himself arms and clothes, and other necessities of life, of infinite variety’. Reason, Aquinas said, was ‘capable of conceiving of an infinite number of things’ so it was fitting that the hand had the ‘power of devising for itself an infinite number of instruments’ (17).

Some suggest that we have been in denial about the moral implications of Darwinism for the past 150 years. Richard Ryder argues: ‘Thanks to Darwin, many of the huge and self-proclaimed differences between humans and animals were revealed to be no more than arrogant delusions. Surely, if we are all related through evolution we should also be related morally.’ (18). In fact, the opposite is true. First, knowledge of Darwinism shows just how much we have managed to break free of the process of natural selection that holds every other living creature in its yoke. Second, in finding that we evolved rather than were created by God, perhaps we truly became our own gods. After all, what kind of species manages to find out the secret of its own origins?

Crossing the species barrier

In purely practical terms, modern society is more distinguished from animals than ever before: we live more than ever in conditions of our own creation, immune from natural pressures of hunger and cold. Yet there is a curious dissonance between practical reality and consciousness. Whereas in the past human beings’ practical mastery went hand-in-hand with an expanding consciousness, now the two have come apart. While practical mastery continues apace, it lacks the moral foundations to justify it. As a result, we are effectively living in two worlds: one composed of the things we do, and one of the things we can justify. Behind this lies doubt about the point to human existence. EO Wilson’s 1978 book On Human Nature argued: ‘We have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature’. Wilson perceptively noted how such ‘evolutionary ethics’ were a fill-in for ‘the seemingly fatal deterioration of the myths of traditional religion and its secular equivalents’ (19). It was a loss of faith in our ability to make our own history that encouraged the view that we are just a bundle of nerves and DNA.

Some humans are now trying to cross the species barrier, seeking again a kinship with animals. Indeed such is the real content of many of the primate experiments with chimps and gorillas. Jane Goodall in Gombe National Park was less observing chimps from outside than trying to become one with them, empathising with their courtships and fights and injuries. She writes: ‘She was too tired after their long, hot journey to set to on the delicious food, as her daughters did…. The leader of the patrol, hearing the sudden sound, stopped and stared ahead’. Goodall’s manuscripts are peppered with ‘as ifs’ and ‘as thoughs’, as she projects human dramas and tragedies on to her subjects. Other primate researchers took chimps into their homes and treated them like human children. Two couples – Roger and Deborah Fouts and Beatrice and Allan Gardener – lived with chimps and taught them to use basic sign language. They gave them presents on their birthday and ‘candy trees’ at Christmas, behaving more as parents and kids than researcher and subject.

This blurring of the boundaries between animals and humans means a loss of moral sense, and a disgust at humanity. We can see this dramatically in Grizzly Man, a new film about a man who went to live with grizzly bears in the far reaches of Alaska. Tim Treadwell filmed his life with the bears for 13 years, less observing or admiring them than wanting to be like them. ‘I love these animals!’ he repeatedly cried (they all had names like ‘Mr Chocolate’). He sought to face up to them on their terms, earning their ‘respect’ and refusing to carry weapons. One of his friends observed: ‘He wanted to become like a bear, to mutate into a wild animal, connect so deeply that he was no longer human.’ Behind this lay his contempt for the human world. The narrator noted: ‘Treadwell speaks of the human world as something foreign. Wild primordial nature is where he felt truly at home.’ Treadwell was able to feel compassion for a bee (‘I love that bee!’) but saw human visitors to the area as foreign intruders. Of course, Treadwell’s is an extreme example – but perhaps he was only living out the theory of human-animal equality. By turning theory into practical reality we can see its depravity.

We are in a paradoxical situation today, of using our capacity for consciousness and creativity to devalue that consciousness and creativity. Scientists use their ability to analyse DNA to prove that we are little more than chimps. Philosophers use their reasoning powers and the accumulated knowledge of human history to try to prove that humans have no special ethical value. Artists use their creativity to represent human experience as akin to that of animals – with British artist Damien Hirst using flies or animals in formaldehyde to explore human experiences of love and death.

There are severe consequences of holding human life so cheap. For a start, it is demoralising, drumming home the notion that our lives are futile. There are practical implications too. Animal research has produced key medical breakthroughs, from insulin to heart transplants to vaccines. Many of us would now be dead were it not for these discoveries. Now that animal rights concerns hold back research, this will mean needless human deaths in the future. Meanwhile, in wildlife sanctuaries in the developing world the welfare of chimps or tigers is placed above that of local villagers. The biologist Jonathan Marks sums up the crude calculations he heard from a colleague: ‘A British professor thinks there are too many Asians and not enough orangutans.’ (20).

Towards a human-centred morality

It is only a human-centred morality that can provide for fertile and equal relationships among human beings. We should relate to each other and respect one another as conscious, rational beings, rather than as DNA databases or collections of nerve endings. Attempts to find equality between humans and animals are founded in a loss of moral compass, and a disgust at humanity. As such, they are antithetical to historic attempts to fight for human equality. Moreover, it is our sense of humans as a common family that means that we can treat those who lack full agency and rationality – such as disabled people and children – with love and respect. These humans live in a network of relationships, and are loved and valued by those around them.

None of this means that we should be nasty to or disinterested in animals. Wanton torture is wrong, though less because of the pain it causes to the animal than because it reflects badly upon the torturer. The same level of animal pain, existing for a clear purpose in a slaughterhouse or a science lab, would be entirely justified. A proper relationship to animals consists in using them in a controlled, conscious manner – for the varied ends of the butcher, the nature photographer, the poet, the scientist, or the pet-owner. These relationships with animals are founded on our different aims and values, and as such are moral. A human-centred approach could mean spending hours in the wild studying animals, or painting and admiring them – but seeing them through a human eye rather than trying to escape our humanity.

What is at question is the position from which we see the world. Taking a bear-centred perspective makes no more sense than a DNA-centred perspective. Humans are the measure of all things: morality starts with us.

(1) Animal Liberation, Peter Singer, Granada, 1977

(2) The Political Animal: The Conquest of Speciesism, Richard D Ryder, McFarland, 1998

(3) The Political Animal: The Conquest of Speciesism, Richard D Ryder, McFarland, 1998

(4) ‘Social work and speciesism’, David B Wolf, Social Work, 2000, vol 45 no1

(5) See article on speciesism in education

(6) ‘The Longest Revolution: Cultural Studies after Speciesism’, Environmental Values, 1997, vol 6no 4

(7) See ASAB and the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Research and Teaching

(8) ‘Lectures on Ethics’, Immanuel Kant

(9) The Animal Question: Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights, Paola Cavalieri OUP, 2001

(10) Animal Liberation, Peter Singer, Granada, 1977

(11) In The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, Paola Cavaleri and Peter Singer (eds), Fourth Estate, 1993

(12) Chimps and humans: what’s in a name?, by Chris Pile

(13) In The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, Paola Cavaleri and Peter Singer (eds), Fourth Estate, 1993

(14) The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, Paola Cavaleri and Peter Singer (eds), Fourth Estate, 1993

(15) Man Makes Himself, Gordon V Childe

(16) ‘What is it to be Human?’, Kenan Malik, Institute of Ideas

(17) Thomas Aquinas, On Human Nature, Hackett Publishing Company, 1999

(18) Animal Experimentation: Good or bad?, Institute of Ideas and Hodder and Stoughton, 2002

(19) EO Wilson, On Human Nature, 1978

(20) What it means to be 98% chimpanzee – Apes, people, and their genes, Jonathan Marks, p194

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