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SPECIESISM, by Joan Dunayer, Part Deux

I realize that in writing about "old speciesism" I failed to define this term that Dunayer uses. I think of "old speciesism" as analogous to racism and sexism in that it is exploitation based on species. The advocacy component of old speciesism isn't the campaign to end that exploitation, however. Instead, it is the campaign to modify it. Meanwhile, "new speciesism" is the notion that within a paradigm where rights are included for nonhuman animals, some are more deserving of rights than others for any of a variety of reasons (e.g., intelligence, having a sense of past and future, having social ties, being a mammal or a bird).

Here are some of the my favorite quotes:

  • In reality, species don't evolve toward greater humanness but toward greater adaptiveness in their ecological niche (105).
  • No living group of nonhuman animals–no existing species of invertebrate, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird or nonhuman mammal–is ancestral to humans. No nonhuman alive today belongs to the same species as some ancestor of humans. Modern fishes radically differ from the fish who was the last common ancestor of fishes and humans. No frog, toad, or salamander ever was our forebear. Although we have reptilian ancestors, we didn't descend from reptiles or any species alive today (105).
  • Today's nonhuman apes don't represent earlier stages in human development. Our common-ape like ancestor lived about 15 million years ago. About six million years ago, human and chimpanzee evolution parted. Chimpanzees didn't prepare the way to us any more than we prepared the way to them (106).
  • Before African-American emancipation, a number of slaves sued for freedom on the grounds that they were white. Unable to prove whiteness, they had to demonstrate that they were so much like a white that they should be given "the benefit of the doubt" (109). . . . We react with revulsion to the idea of demonstrating whiteness. We should react with equal revulsion to the idea of demonstrating humanness" (110).
  • Citing abilities such as nonhuman great apes' ability to learn human languages suggest that animal rights advocates seek nonhuman participation in human society. We don't. We're not asking that any nonhumans have freedom of speech or voting rights. So, what difference does it make if nonhumans can learn human languages or show other human-like capacities and behaviors? We don't want nonhumans to remain within human society (which invariably would keep them subservient). We want them to be free and independent of humans (119).

I understand the logic of that last one, but I also appreciate the intention of many activists to have great apes be a gateway of sorts. I'm not saying it's not speciesist, but that I understand it. After all, many activists don't support the use of the same tactics they'd approve of to liberate human animals to liberate nonhuman animals. I think that's speciesist, too, but I understand why they take that position.

  • There's no good reason to lack confidence that animals who possess a brain are sentient (134).
  • In contrast to old-speciesist and new-speciesist advocacy, nonspeciesist advocacy advances the goal of emancipating all sentient beings from human abuse. It moves society closer to the view that all forms of speciesist exploitation–from dog breeding to commercial fishing–are morally wrong (151).

To combat speciesism and work toward justice for sentient nonhumans, we must change our minds, our language and our behavior. We must rethink what we were taught in school, on the playground and at home. It's quite a dramatic overhaul–an extreme makeover–but it's a necessary one.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. For me, sentience is not of crucial importance, either. The only useful criterion, in my view, is the ability to suffer.

    One could argue that the ability to suffer (all dependent on how one defines 'suffering') implies awareness. But not necessarily to the point of what we usually call 'sentience'.

    Perhaps we should not go the way of granting animals rights as 'persons'. They should have them 'in their own right', so to speak, simply because they can suffer. I agree with your idea that creatures shouldn't be deemed worthy only when they resemble us.

    April 2, 2010
  2. Dave #

    You write: "After all, many activists don't support the use of the same tactics they'd approve of to liberate human animals to liberate nonhuman animals. I think that's speciesist, too, but I understand why they take that position."

    I'm wondering who you have in mind.

    April 2, 2010
  3. To me — and I haven't thought this out entirely so please jump in if you think I'm wrong — I can see how, theoretically, we could stamp out racism or sexism. But speciesism? It seems unavoidable. So I'll give an example from my so-called vegan life where I'm speciesist:

    Some cats (most cats?) don't do well on a vegan diet because they are carnivores. When feeding such cats, I intentionally try to find cat food that is all or mostly fish based as opposed to from birds or mammals. Should I not care what the cat food is made from because it supports the meat industry regardless of what I buy? Or should I seek out the food made from what seems to be a less sentient species (although admittedly still very sentient)?

    Or, while driving down the road, if I spot a giant Mormon cricket in the road or a rabbit, and I can't avoid hitting one of them, I'm going to spare the rabbit. Or if there's a rabbit or a human child, I'll spare the human. Very speciesist.

    I understand that perhaps I'm not making my distinctions based on species but instead on intelligence or individuality or some other trait. But no matter the trait — and admittedly these are lifeboat-type scenarios — they all seem speciesist. Whereas if there were a black child or a white child in the road or a female or a male child, their sex or race would play no (conscious) role in my decision of which to spare. But with a different species, the species will almost always play a conscious role.

    So I guess my question for others is two-fold: Is it possible to end speciesism and if it's not, what purpose does it serve to highlight speciesist acts?

    April 2, 2010
  4. Angus #

    Here's an interesting Freudian slip from ABC's Nightline. The gorillas are repeatedly referred to as "women" or "men" over the course of this segment. It seems the journalist, as well as the primatologist, can't help but see the gorillas as persons, and unconsciously use the applicable words for humans.

    April 2, 2010
  5. @Dave I don't have anyone particular in mind. I know many people who take that position.

    @Angus There's so much great language in that piece. He's shocked to see that one gorilla "did something almost human" (using the stick to measure the water, etc…). The "boneheaded move" of the "teenagers" was very much like moves of human teenagers, though that wasn't emphasized. What always strikes me most is how surprised people (usually the reporters) are to learn that human and nonhuman animals aren't as dissimilar as we like to think.

    April 2, 2010
  6. @Mark:
    I also think that some speciesism is unavoidable. And that's because nature is a spectrum, making it impossible to formulate the sort of black and white rules we'd prefer, as humans.

    I don't see any reason why any animal, or any creature that can suffer, would be 'better' or 'more important' than another. There are no hierarchies of 'better' and 'less good' in nature. Things just are. Nothing is 'more important' than something else.

    If I could save either a dog or a human being, then my natural sympathies would incline me to save the dog, but I'd probably choose the human being anyway. For 2 reasons:

    1. Simple cowardice; practically everyone would condemn me for choosing to save the dog

    2. The death of a human being usually causes a much bigger sum total of grief than the death of a dog. I guess that's a utilitarian principle; I don't know a better one, for this sort of choice.

    April 4, 2010
  7. babble #

    A few things to get to, here. Mary writes:

    "After all, many activists don't support the use of the same tactics they'd approve of to liberate human animals to liberate nonhuman animals."

    While true, in some cases, I think this is incomplete; some of us taking a more "hard" pacifist position (myself included) reject the often-claimed position that "nobody" would object to violence to liberate humans — I would, on moral grounds. That may be neither here nor there with regard to somebody else's actions in any specific cases, but the claim is often made as if pacifists have no objections whatsoever to violence being done for "good" reasons when the recipients of that claimed largesse are humans. This misses a pretty fundamental point.

    Folks who think all pacifists to a person don't object – repeatedly – to violence humans do to other humans (regardless of the motivation behind those acts of violence) aren't listening.

    A moral objection to violence is similar in some fairly important ways to a moral objection to animal use. While I recognize that it's messy and imperfect and (in some ways) impossible to put into practice in the world in an ideal way, both things – a society that rejects violence *regardless of the claims that it's the only way to solve some problems*, AND a society that rejects the notion that animals exist to serve human desires – are nevertheless *goals*. Pro-violence ARA's are fond of invoking child abuse as an example in these sorts of discussions, as if any act of violence could somehow be justified in the minds of pacifists if the life of a human child were at stake – of "course" I'd do "anything" to protect the life of a human — of "course" I would.

    No, I wouldn't. I'd do anything I could to *protect the life of that human child*, quite probably, yes, but I would't tell myself that that justified any and all acts of *violence against the human perpetrator.*

    Folks are right to point out the moral hypocrisy and speciesism inherent in a claim that violence to protect the lives of humans is acceptable in some cases, but not where nonhumans are concerned. It's not *acceptable* in either case, but I accept that it's going to happen in the near term, in cases where humans, or (for some ARA's) where nonhumans are concerned.

    The problem is that it's much, MUCH easier for humans to value the lives of other humans. It's much, MUCH easier for humans to *disregard* the value of nonhuman lives. The reason some activists may be more willing to "look the other way" on the question of some forms of human violence has less to do with speciesism or moral hypocrisy than it has to do with this simple fact of (present) human nature. My *goal* is to get humans to move beyond thinking of violence as "regrettable but necessary," AND to get them to move beyond thinking of animal use as "acceptable, under the 'right' conditions." Both of those are difficult, because they're both butting up against *very* difficult-to-crack social conditioning.

    Now then – the oft-cited hypothetical (which would you save) always presents this as if it's a binary choice. This is ridiculously unrealistic, and as such doesn't say anything useful about *anybody's* actions or choices in the real world *regardless of how you'd answer.*.

    It's overwhelmingly unlikely that one is ever going to BE in a position where the ONLY possible choice is to save the life of a dog *or* save the life of human. It's not an either/or choice. Posing the hypothetical in this way is a favorite game played by folks opposed to animal rights (on the grounds that they think this says something meaningful – it doesn't.)

    April 4, 2010
  8. babble #

    Oh, crud, I meant to include this, as well:

    Mark writes:

    "So I guess my question for others is two-fold: Is it possible to end speciesism and if it's not, what purpose does it serve to highlight speciesist acts?"

    …obviously, I think many (most?) ARA's would reject your premise. I do.

    I *do* think it's possible to eliminate speciesism, even if I allow that it may never be *absolutely* eliminated. I also allow that it's possible (not guaranteed, but nevertheless, possible) that racism, sexism, homophobia and a raft of other human prejudices may never be *completely* eliminated.

    But there's still value in working to combat racism, sexism and homophobia.

    Even if it's possible (again, not guaranteed, but possible) that any and all speciesism may never be *completely* eliminated, there's still value in working against speciesism when and where we're confronted with it in the real world.

    This is why hypotheticals have very little useful value in these discussions.

    When, in your life, have you EVER been confronted with the choice to save a black human or a white human as a binary choice? When has this EVER been a realistic possibility for you?

    The far, far more likely possibility is that you'd do your darndest not to hit EITHER human, regardless of skin color, with your car. You may actually end up hitting one or the other, but it's ridiculous to think that says ANYTHING about what you think about persons with white skin as a class, or persons with black skin, as a class.

    The choices you make with regard to those people *outside the hypothetical*, in the real-world realm of everyday choices, say useful things about your treatment of arbitrary groups of humans far more than any claim about any hypothetical.

    If you seek to deny women the vote, on the grounds that women are less intelligent than men, or whatever, THAT says far more about sexism than any hypothetical claim pitting a hypothetical woman against a hypothetical man in a given fantastic scenario.

    Even if we can't magically eliminate speciesist thinking in a given silly hypothetical (solely to resolve the flawed premise of the hypothetical), that doesn't really have anything at all to DO with everyday choices, where we certainly CAN choose what we're going to eat, wear, use, etc.

    April 4, 2010
  9. Accepting the use of force as legitimate and morally justified to stop violence against the innocent is different from advocating or encouraging it as a general tactic. Only sociopaths are truly "pro-violence."

    "It is the propaganda machines of the major animal user industries that have made violence and animal rights synonymous in the minds of many people." – Tom Regan (pg 199, Empty Cages)

    April 6, 2010
  10. Mary, do you have any comments on the final section (last three chapters) of Speciesism? Dunayer's vision of the animal rights future is inspiring and motivates me to work harder to counter speciesism and bring justice for nonhuman animals.

    April 6, 2010

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