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A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day, a week or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
– Jeremy Bentham
From Bentham to Singer: A brief history of impartiality
It is rare that a philosopher will make arguments that stand the test of time. Especially 227 years of it. But in 1789, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham made an argument, the argument, for anti-speciesism that remains as relevant today as the day it was published.
Bentham set out all the relevant criteria for deciding whether someone’s suffering is morally relevant. He realized that things such as the intelligence, or the ability to speak, or the ability to reason about morality, were completely irrelevant. Clearly some human beings lack intelligence, eloquence, or reasoning skills, and yet we view all humans as morally equal, believe that no human suffering should be discounted.
Bentham recognized the implications of this for non-human animals. If intelligence or reasoning abilities are not relevant to moral worth, how can we justify disregarding the interests of non-human animals? How can we justify our unrelenting abuse of animals for human profit? Bentham’s answer was that we can’t. He affirmed that equal suffering should count equally, and that anything less would be arbitrary discrimination.
Sadly, these arguments were overlooked for centuries. It was not until the 1970’s when philosopher Peter Singer picked up where Bentham left off, with the groundbreaking work Animal Liberation. Singer was the first to popularize the term ‘speciesism’, and to draw the analogy between discrimination based on species membership and discrimination based on other grounds such as sex and race.
What is speciesism?
Speciesism means discrimination based on species-membership alone. Speciesism means eating a hot dog while you pet a kitten. It means applying animal-tested cosmetics while you send your dog to the groomers.
Anti-speciesism means realizing that dogs and pigs have equal interests in being free from suffering, and it means not eating one and adoring the other. Anti-speciesism is the view that equal suffering counts equally, no matter the species membership of the individual involved.
Importantly, anti-speciesism does not mean that carrots, flies, pigs, and humans should be treated equally (even though, yes, they all belong to different biological species). Rather, anti-speciesism simply requires that the same interests, or interests of the same strength, be taken into account to an equal extent.
So, our first step should be to determine which kinds of beings have interests, and then to work what those interests require us do.
A carrot, quite clearly, does not have any interests. As a non-sentient plant, there is no way for the carrot’s life to go well or badly. We are therefore free to treat it in any way we like.
A fly is slightly more complicated. There is some persuasive evidence to suggest that insects might be sentient. If so, we could assume that the fly has an interest in not suffering, and we could take steps to avoid causing it any unnecessary suffering (such as by not using fly swatters). Of course, any action we take would be subject to the considerations of effective altruism; it may well transpire that insects do suffer, but that reducing their suffering is not an optimal strategy to pursue in the present circumstances.
A pig, again, has quite a different set of interests. Pigs are highly social, intelligent individuals. As well a having an interest in being free from immediate physical pain, pigs also have an interest in being socially and intellectually stimulated. An anti-speciesist approach to pig welfare might therefore involve ensuring pigs are cared for in a safe environment, treated for painful diseases, and stimulated by social contact in challenging environments.
Human beings have the broadest range of interests. As well as wishing to be free from suffering, we have interests in other rights such as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly. Clearly, it would not be speciesist to deny freedom of expression to a pig, and pigs do not have any interest in freely expressing themselves. Note, however, that this decision is not informed by species membership. Should a pig suddenly (and somewhat surprisingly) leap up and launch into a speech denouncing the conditions on factory farms, it would be wrong to deny him or her the right to that expression.
Speciesism in the discussion on animal rights
As we have seen, very often human and non-human animals are treated unequally. Just as often, people will cite differences between human and non-human animals as the reason for this unequal treatment. How do we know if speciesism is at work? We can ask a simple question: Are the differences cited really morally relevant? If not, it is likely speciesism is involved.
Over and over again, for example, people give the same set of reasons for why animals receive unequal treatment: Animals are not intelligent, they cannot talk, they cannot reason about morality, they cannot perform contractual obligations. But imagine if these criteria were applied to humans? People would rightly be outraged at the proposal that some humans should receive less moral consideration than others, simply because they were less intelligent or less articulate.
Animals cannot reason about morality
There is a widespread belief that the ability to reason about morality is an ethically relevant criteria. This likely stems from the popular idea that “without duties, there can be no rights” or that “duties are tied to rights”. This is correct in some trivial sense. Of course, it is true that “Tom has a right”, for example, means nothing other than “moral agents have a duty towards Tom”. Rights do imply duties for others. But it does not follow that individuals who have rights must also be individuals who have duties. There are many humans who cannot have duties, such as children or the severely mentally disabled, and these individuals remain deserving recipients of human rights.
Animals are less intelligent
The idea that intelligence is relevant for deciding whether someone’s suffering matters is remarkably unintuitive. Think about your own suffering. Recall a time you experienced intense pain, whether mental or physical. Do you think this suffering was bad because you are able to speak, or because you can do calculus? The idea seems preposterous. No-one can credibly defend the idea that in order for suffering to count, the victim must be intelligent. What is bad about suffering is suffering itself.
Also note that there are some chilling implications to idea that intelligence is relevant for deciding if suffering matters. Endorsing this position would mean that highly (artificially) intelligent agents could rightly torture or enslave all of humanity. A common counter-argument is that humans are above some relevant ‘intelligence-threshold’ that makes someone worthy of moral consideration. But what non-arbitrary threshold could that be? What would we do with a human who fell one IQ point too low? Or a chimp who could intelligently communicate her pain?
Sometimes people just give up trying to contrive ethically relevant distinctions between human and non-human animals. They simply object that ethics is about rules for how human societies should function, and that our treatment of animals is “justified” by reference to human self-interest.
Conceiving of ethics in this way is absurd, useless, and antithetical to progress. It would justify any kind of status quo in which the people in charge had nothing to gain by expanding their moral concern. Should we accept the status quo of Saudi Arabia, for example, where women are routinely denied moral consideration, simply because it is in the self-interest of the governing powers? Should we have accepted societies build on slavery, racism, and the subjugation of certain religious groups, simply because they were ‘stable’ and self-serving to the powers at the time? Endorsing nihilistic self-interest with regards to how we treat animals is no less vacuous than endorsing it with regards to the treatment of women, children, or minorities.
As an important side-note, we acknowledge that this article has so far been concerned with suffering, not killing. This was intentional. The question of whether death constitutes harm is a complex one, and to address it would go beyond the scope of this article. It is sufficient for the purposes of explaining speciesism to focus on suffering, as it is one criteria that is undoubtedly ethically relevant.
The limits of empathy
People sometimes cite ‘empathy’ to justify our treatment of non-human animals. Humans tend to have more empathy for other human than for animals. Therefore, the argument goes, it is morally acceptable to discount the suffering of animals.
Let’s pause to consider the implications of this. If moral consideration must stem from empathy, we could justify discrimination against human groups that we feel less empathetic towards. Someone would be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, I just feel more empathy for caucasians than for hispanic people. Hispanic people don’t matter as much morally’. Clearly, this position would be unacceptable.
Unfortunately, however, it would not be unprecedented. History has shown that humans have the alarming ability to switch off empathy for individuals in an “out-group”, especially when the welfare of their own “in-group” is threatened. Even when different groups of humans are not in direct conflict, it is an unfortunate fact that we do not feel the same level of empathy for all humans. Nevertheless, we consider the ideal of equal human rights to be one worth pursuing.
Yes, we likely need empathy to get ethics off the ground, and to stimulate our concern for the suffering of others, but we cannot rely on empathy alone to lead the way. We are product of evolution, and hardwired to feel strong empathy for those who can reciprocate or are our kin. Without the aid of rationality, empathy will drag us off the course towards impartial moral concern for all. It may lead us to work hard for our neighbours and families, but empathy alone would not have fuelled the social justice movement or the human rights movement. Empathy alone is certainly not equipped to tackle the moral catastrophe that is factory farming, or the pervasive speciesism that underpins it.
Expand our moral circle
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Given that the history of human civilization is largely one of war, violence, and conflict, this is nothing short of remarkable.
From the early days of small, warring tribes, our moral circle has expanded to encompass all of humanity. While the reality falls short of this ideal in a thousand ways, the principle itself remains intact. The same cannot be said for our principles on non-human animals. It is now time to push for one final expansion of our moral circle. This time it must include all sentient beings whose interest in being free from suffering is just as strong as ours.