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Latent Prejudices and Animal Exploitation

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Our attitude to animals is often a marker of our own latent prejudices: those that we try to keep hidden in our dealings with human beings, but that bubble to the surface every now and again when we attempt to justify our participation in animal use or campaign for one species over another.

When I was a child, I decided I was no longer going to eat lambs. I didn’t know, of course, that all of the animals we send to slaughter to be eaten are very young, but I worked out that since “lamb” was the name that we gave to a baby sheep, the lamb who accompanied Sunday dinner must have been a child. We shared that in common, my “meal” and I, so I refused to eat him. When I was a teenager, the moral impetus (albeit a confused one) that came from that recognition of that shared characteristic, abated and I returned to eating lambs.

We see this arbitrary designation of greater moral worth to those animals who we deem to be like us in so many single-issue campaigns: campaigns for primates to be exempt from experiments because they share 99% of our genes; campaigns against dog meat because we in the west consider dogs to be family members; campaigns to release orcas from marine amusement parks because of their intelligence and sociability. All of these campaigns favour one type of animal because of criteria that we believe make some beings more valuable than others. Even when vegans argue that they campaign for many different species and promote veganism more generally, to participate in such campaigns is to validate those prejudices and to perpetuate the already pervasive notion that certain arbitrary criteria can be used as a moral touchstone to determine who is deemed worthy and who is excluded from the circle of moral concern.

So, yesterday, when an article appeared in my newsfeed discussing the intelligence and sociability of chickens, I was not surprised to see that it had been shared by vegans. Too often, we attempt to persuade others that nonhuman animals should not be used as a means to our ends because they possess characteristics that make them like us.

But what we’re really saying, when we share these articles and participate in such campaigns, is that we value intelligence (an amorphous concept that we define very narrowly, and, in fact, in quite a gendered way) and sociability, and that we deem those who possess these attributes to be of greater moral value.

What we’re implying, when we promote the intelligence of animals as a reason for not using them, is that those with greater cognitive capacity are more deserving of our moral concern. The corollary of this is that those who are further below the benchmark of “intelligence” that we set are less deserving of our moral concern.

In Anthropocentrism and its Discontents, Gary Steiner examines the many ways in which we have justified our subjugation of nonhuman animals throughout history by using the standard human rationality. Steiner discusses Aristotle’s view that only humans are deserving of moral concern because of their ability to reason and to use language and Peter Singer’s presupposition that human lives are more valuable than those of nonhuman animals because their rationality gives them the ability to plan for the future. Even Tom Regan develops his subject-of-a-life criterion as linked to “perception, memory, desire, belief, self-consciousness, intention, a sense of the future” (The Case for Animal Rights, p. 81); for Regan, any being who possesses these characteristics is worthy of moral concern. Although Regan says that preference autonomy (having preferences and being able to initiate actions with a view to satisfying them) is a sufficient but necessary criterion for moral worth, his entire theory is built around preference autonomy, so it’s difficult to understand how anything less than preference autonomy could count for him. Moreover, he maintains that death for a nonhuman is a lesser harm than death for a human.

Gary Francione recognises that what he calls the “similar-minds theory”—the idea that those with minds like ours are entitled to greater protection because of that similarity—is problematic for two reasons. First:

“It ignores that cognitive characteristics beyond sentience are morally irrelevant for determining whether we use a being exclusively as a human resource. We see that in the human context. That is, being “smart” may matter for some purposes, such as whether we give someone a scholarship, but it is completely irrelevant to whether we use someone as a forced organ donor, as a nonconsenting subject in a biomedical experiment. We ought to see this in the animal context as well.”

And second:

“It sets up a standard that animals, however much they are “like us,” can never win. For example, we have known for a long time that nonhuman great apes are very much like humans in all sorts of ways but we continue to exploit them. However much animals are “like us,” they are never enough “like us” to translate into an obligation on our parts to stop exploiting them.”

So, while we discriminate against humans on the basis of arbitrary criteria, the majority of us oppose treating humans who are “different from us” solely as a means to our ends. And even when animals appear to be “like us”, we continue to use them and justify doing so on the basis that they are not of our species.

This focus on cognitive characteristics certainly speaks to a prejudice that we have against members of our own species: how can it not? When we deem intelligence as a reason for affording moral worth to an individual, how is that any different from deeming gender or sexuality or race or body size or species as a reason for affording moral worth to an individual? When we say that we should demonstrate empathy towards chickens because they can use deductive reasoning, what are we saying about those (both human and nonhuman) who cannot do so?

But in the human context, even where people hold to the idea that some humans are more worthy than others by virtue of the qualities they possess, or even when we use cognitive capabilities to determine, for instance, to whom we give a job or allow onto a university course, we would never say that a human who is less “intelligent” could be used as a replaceable resource and treated solely as a means to our ends. For nonhumans, the cards are always stacked against them because we have, for too many years, failed to focus on the heart of the matter: that, to quote a title from a Gary Francione essay linked above, only sentience matters. The question on which we should be focussed when it comes to animals is not how like us they are. Instead, all we need to ask is “are they things?” Because if they are not things, then we can’t justify treating them as though they are.

By using “intelligence” as a yardstick for determining the moral worth of an individual, we are perpetuating hierarchies, we are perpetuating oppression, and we are revealing our own prejudices. But in the animal context, we move beyond discrimination and oppression into the realm of treating them solely as objects with no moral value. For nonhumans, the problem at hand is that we use another arbitrary criterion—species difference—to justify our exploitation of them. We do not seek to justify our use of humans as forced organ donors or unconsenting subjects in biomedical experiments (to use two of Francione’s examples) because we would never deem such things to be morally defensible; belonging to our species safeguards that right of other humans not to be used exclusively as a means to our ends.

When we, as vegans, therefore use cognitive capabilities to try to persuade people of the wrongness of using nonhuman animals, not only are we participating in a form of oppression that harms humans, but we are also missing the point entirely. The point is that sentience alone should be the morally relevant criteria on which we make such determinations. Not only is that the one criterion that, if we make it a focus of our advocacy, prevents us from perpetuating discrimination, prejudice, and other harms, but it is also the criterion that will erase the arbitrary lines we have drawn between humans and nonhumans when it comes to deciding whom we should treat as a resource.

If you are not vegan, please stop drawing arbitrary lines in the sand about which sentient beings matter morally, and go vegan.

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  • Sam Duncombe

    I understand your argument here “Too often, we attempt to persuade others that nonhuman animals should not be used as a means to our ends because they possess characteristics that make them like us.” However I think for the vast majority of people they don’t even have a clue that animals posses characteristics that make them like us. Sometimes pointing people in this direction can open their eyes to the bigger picture of animal suffering… everyone (as much as I wish) will not turn vegan over night – so in my mind anything that helps move them toward that goal is a step in the right direction.

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