Human beings are capable of experiencing suffering and feeling joy. That is why we can be harmed or benefited by the ways we are treated by others. This is something we are well aware of, so we do not accept it when anyone causes unjustified harm or takes advantage of us. Therefore, it seems wrong that someone would take advantage of anyone else. This is the reason why slavery is considered unfair and unacceptable.
Nonhuman animals are also capable of experiencing suffering and feeling joy. It is unfair to oppose the suffering of humans while accepting the suffering of nonhuman animals as if it were simply a fact of life.
If one were to argue that discriminating against and exploiting nonhuman animals is justified because they are less intelligent, or because we are stronger and have more power, then one would have to accept that this can be applied to humans who are less intelligent or less strong as well. This would mean discrimination against the very young and very old, the handicapped, and injured members of our society. And who would accept that?
This argument is explained in more detail in Speciesism is unjustified.
Speciesism is the moral discrimination against certain individuals because of their membership to a particular species. This includes undervaluing a being’s life or disregarding her suffering because she does not belong to a given species, such as the human species.
Speciesism is similar to racism and sexism. Sexism means disregarding the interests of others solely because they do not belong to the same sex, and racism is the disregarding of the interests of others because they have a different skin color. Speciesism means disregarding the interests of other individuals simply because they do not belong to the same species as oneself, or to some other favored species.
Clearly, the characteristics of sex, skin color, and species are not morally relevant to whether or not we should care that someone can be harmed or helped by our actions. Another common reason for disregarding animal interests, intelligence level, does not justify discrimination, either. In the throes of agony, understanding algebra is of little comfort, and bliss is not limited to those who write poetry.
Respecting others means caring about how our actions may affect them. Sentience – the capacity to experience suffering and joy – is the only factor relevant to determining whether someone’s life can be made better or worse. Other factors affect the particular ways an individual can be harmed or benefited, but not the actual capacity to be harmed or benefited.
For example, if you like to read and someone takes away your access to books, you will suffer. A dog, on the other hand, will not suffer if she has no access to books because she cannot read, or even conceive of reading. But the fact that you can read only determines one of the particular ways in which you can be harmed. It does not determine whether or not you can be harmed at all. A dog might suffer if she does not have something to chew on, and a cat if she has nothing to scratch. You probably will not. The desire to read and the need to chew or scratch are not relevant to the capacity to suffer or feel enjoyment. Rocks, plants, and some animals such as sponges do not have this capacity because they don’t have any form of consciousness (the prerequisite to sentience) which enables them to feel good or bad. The animals we are most familiar with do have this capacity.
Most of us can see and realize that nonhuman animals are suffering or content by observing their behavior. For example, when they are injured they whimper, cry out, or try to get away from the harmful situation. Since their responses to physical pain are similar to those in humans, the connection that they are in pain can be easily made. It would be unreasonable to think they do not suffer.
There are also more in depth scientific reasons for concluding that nonhuman animals suffer. The reasons lie in their physiology. What makes an animal able to suffer or feel good is the possession of a centralized nervous system that can encode complex information. Many animals have nervous systems of this type. This allows them to experience the world, to feel and to be aware of what is happening to them. They are conscious beings. Consciousness is what makes it possible for them to experience suffering, unlike other living things such as plants, fungi, microorganisms, and animals without a centralized nervous system, such as hydras. Non-centralized nervous systems only transmit information relating to possible changes in the environment. Information is passed on to the nerve cells of animals, but without the sensory experience, because the information is not encoded and converted into experiences.
The reason we are able to suffer and feel joy is because we have a centralized nervous system. When something happens to us, certain information is transmitted through nerves to our brain, and then encoded and converted into experiences. If this did not happen, we would not suffer or be able to enjoy our experiences. For an animal to have conscious experiences, it is essential to have a system that encodes physiological information.
Plants and fungi, like other living organisms, such as bacteria, archaea, and protozoa, cannot suffer or feel joy, because they do not have centralized nervous systems.
Some say that plants “look for” the light of the sun, and this means that plants feel. The reality is that they are simply reacting to stimuli. The mercury in a thermometer also reacts by rising when it is exposed to a heat source. Does this imply that mercury experiences sensations? Of course not.
The biological mechanisms at work in plants are obviously much more complicated than the workings of a thermometer, but like thermometers, plants don’t have the structures necessary to give rise to consciousness. Therefore, they are not capable of having either positive or negative feelings, and they can’t be harmed or benefited by what we do.
Conscious beings have the ability to have experiences of all kinds, and to learn from the things that happen to them. This capacity includes a wide variety of feelings (cold water on your hand), emotions (the joy of seeing a sunrise), and thoughts (such as reasoning through a problem). This ability is what allows us to perceive harms and benefits.
Suppose you lost consciousness forever and stopped being able to have experiences. For instance, imagine you had suffered an accident and your brain was completely damaged so that you were unable to regain consciousness, but your body remained alive. In this state, you would not have the capacity to care about what happened to your body. Others might care if your body were kept alive, and when you were conscious you might have had a preference for what was done to your body in such a situation. But in that state without consciousness, you could not care about anything.
This demonstrates that being alive is not valuable simply in itself. It is valuable only because it allows us to have experiences. If we are harmed by death, it is precisely for this reason. If we are killed, we are prevented from having experiences that we might have had otherwise. However, staying alive would not matter to a living organism that is not going to have any experiences, as in the example of an accident victim. The same is true of living things, like plants, that are not capable of having conscious experiences.
In terms of the abilities they possess, some humans are similar to certain nonhumans. For example, a child’s capacity to reason is very much like that of many nonhuman animals. Certain capacities in adult humans are also similar to those in other animals, and in some areas, such as visual memory tests, some nonhuman animals perform better than humans can. Yet in their capacity to feel, humans and other sentient animals are alike. It is this capacity that is crucial, because any being who can feel should matter to us.
Suggesting that such a comparison is insulting reveals certain prejudices that humans have about nonhuman animals. To be called an animal is considered something negative, and some find any association between humans and animals to be offensive. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that humans are animals, too! In our daily speech, we use certain expressions that betray this attitude: dumb as an ass, dirty as a pig. People use chicken to mean coward, and “brutality” or “beastliness” (from brute and beast, respectively, both derogatory terms for “animal”) to mean “cruelty.” Some men find it offensive to be compared to women, and expressions such as “he cried like a woman” are commonplace as an insult to men. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the objects of such comparisons – pigs, chickens, and women – are in some way inferior. Rather, the use of derogatory language like this exemplifies the bias that exists against certain individuals, both human and nonhuman.
Being a human is not being better than some other animal. It is simply being different in some ways and similar in other ways to nonhuman animals.
On the contrary; it is the other way around! If you ask people who see being like an animal as degrading why they believe that, they usually try to justify their disregard of animals based on the claim that nonhuman animals lack certain intellectual abilities. Yet this argument, consistently applied, would also deny full moral consideration to humans who lack average human intellectual abilities. The position implicitly discriminates against many human beings, although this isn’t the initial intention of people who make the argument.
Being given respect should not depend on whether or not one has certain cognitive abilities. Those who defend speciesism using intelligence, or other capacities related to it such as language ability or symbolic thinking, inadvertently insult mentally handicapped people or young children, just as they insult nonhuman animals.
Some animals are discriminated against in comparison to others. For example, in Western countries it is considered unacceptable to eat dogs and cats, but there is no problem with raising and killing pigs, chickens, or fishes for the purpose of eating them. However, like dogs and cats, all other sentient animals are also individuals with the capacity to suffer and feel joy. They want to live.
The most common form of speciesism is anthropocentrism, the discrimination against nonhuman animals compared to humans. But when some animals are treated better than others, such as dogs and cats in the West, this is also a form of speciesism. Any conscious animal can suffer and feel joy; therefore it is unjustified to discriminate against any of them.
It’s commonly claimed that the lack of concern for animals is just the way it is, and it is not going to change.
This claim is simply unwarranted. All around the world, an increasing number of people are currently rejecting speciesism. It is a growing movement. A few decades ago, the term speciesism did not even exist. Now, though, millions across the globe think that animals should be respected. These people are spreading awareness of speciesism. It is unrealistic to believe that they cannot make a change. They certainly can.
Claims similar to this have been made at other times in history. For instance, when women were denied the ability to vote, there were naysayers who thought that women’s rights would never catch on and suffrage would not be granted to members of both sexes. Over time, social situations and mentalities change, and, from one generation to the next, circumstances and institutions that seemed unchangeable have, in fact, gradually disappeared. Although we would all like to see changes happen quickly, this is a slow process. But that is also precisely why we should start now to demand rights for nonhuman animals. Persistence leads to progress.
The short answer? No.
It is not necessary to feel a special sympathy for someone in order to respect him or her as a subject with individual interests. When Martin Luther King, Jr. and others led the March on Washington, whites marched for the rights of blacks throughout the United States – individuals they did not know and would never meet in person.
Justice is not a matter of sympathy. Sympathy may motivate people to stand up against injustice, but the core of justice is based upon the impartial consideration of interests. If that were not the case, a judge could convict or clear a suspect according to how much he or she sympathized with the suspect, a position we tend to find unjust.
You don’t have to love a group of people different from your own to claim that they should be respected. The same applies to nonhuman animals.
On the other hand, no one can be asked to love another, whether it is his or her neighbor, a stranger, a frog, or a squirrel. No one can be asked to be an “animal lover.” And there is no reason this should be necessary, since personal likes and dislikes are a private matter.
We can be expected to avoid harming others, whether they are animals or humans. This is simply a matter of respect.
Some people think: “Surely, we should help suffering humans first, before we come to the aid of suffering animals, right?”
This question assumes that humans’ interests are more important than those of other animals, something which there is no reason to believe is true. Nonhuman animals suffer no less than humans, and we should not ignore or undervalue their interests. Would we really say that we shouldn’t be concerned with the suffering of women because men are still suffering? Or that the anguish of those with skin of another color is unimportant, since many of those who share our skin color are suffering in some way? One wrong doesn’t diminish another; the ill-fortune of many humans does not mean that we can excuse animal exploitation, or consider it of less importance. The number of animals killed for food in one week outnumbers the whole human population!
First we should note that someone can have legal rights and still be the victim of discrimination. Minority groups in many countries are discriminated against on an everyday basis. The people belonging to these groups may have rights, but not equality. If the rights don’t address the issues underlying equal consideration, their benefits will be limited. In addition, it isn’t possible to create laws that would protect against all types of discrimination, particularly those that take place in people’s private lives. For example, a parent can discourage their daughter from dating someone from a different economic class without breaking any laws.
Nonhuman animals suffer terrible harms. Billions of them are killed every year by humans for food, clothing, and entertainment. Many more suffer and die in situations in which we could easily help them, but don’t. They clearly do not have any significant legal protection.
Current legal systems draw a line between rights-holders and goods, goods being things that can be used for one’s benefit. At present, nonhuman animals are considered to be goods, that is, property. Legally, property cannot have rights. Some non-sentient entities such as corporations and even some rivers and religious books are considered persons, and actually have more legal rights than nonhuman animals do.
There are certain regulations concerning how animals can be exploited. For example, the law in the USA states (but does not always enforce) that an animal must be stunned at a slaughterhouse before being killed. This may offer them some relief from pain and fear when they are killed, but it certainly does not mean that they have legal rights that would provide them with any strong protections. After all, being stunned beforehand does not change the fact that he or she can be killed legally within the walls of that slaughterhouse.
In the past, certain limitations existed regarding the ways human slaves could be used, and there are laws today that limit the ways we can use property. For instance, land owners have to follow regulations that dictate how they can use their land. Zoning restrictions that restrict the height of buildings and limit the ability to dump wasteful products into the soil are two such examples. However, neither slaves nor pieces of land have ever had rights. A being with legal rights cannot be considered property or be used as such.
The law recognizes both positive and negative rights. Negative rights are those that protect us against the harms others can inflict on us, such as the rights not to be killed or enslaved. Positive rights are those that entitle us to be assisted when we need it, such as the right to be cared for in the event of a medical emergency. If we reject the unfairness of speciesism, and if we claim that humans should have both negative and positive rights, which they currently do, then we must conclude that other animals should also have both positive and negative rights in our legal system, which they currently do not.
The fact that something has been happening for a long time, or has always been done does not make it acceptable. For generations, the unfair feudal system of the Middle Ages was widespread across Europe. In certain parts of the world, young girls are circumcised in accordance with deep-rooted traditions. In other places, women are considered the property of their fathers or husbands. Slavery and racism are far from eradicated. The claim that something has “always been done” is no justification for discrimination.
There are several things you can do:
You can make the move to a lifestyle free of animal exploitation. For more information see What is veganism?
You can also become an activist and advocate on behalf of animals. You can join those who are already defending animals and help fight for an end to speciesism. There is a need for people to bring public awareness to the situation of nonhuman animals and to educate others about how and why nonhuman animals should be respected. You can collaborate with Animal Ethics or other antispeciesist organizations. Feel free to contact us.