Egalitarianism is a position in ethics and in political theory that claims that we should try to reduce inequality. Egalitarians don’t think that only reducing inequality matters. They view other things as important as well, such as reducing suffering or promoting the best possible situation overall. But they claim that reducing inequality is one important consideration among others. Any view that considers reducing inequality important is an egalitarian view, and all of them value something else as well. For this reason, there are many versions of egalitarianism.
As we will see below, egalitarianism has very important implications for animals. It means we should oppose speciesism. Moreover, because nonhuman animals are typically worse off than humans, according to egalitarianism it should be a top priority to change their situation.1
According to egalitarianism, it’s better if everyone lives at a satisfying level of happiness than if some enjoy paradisaical conditions while others are in a very bad situation. Some other ethical and political views do not share this concern about those who are worse off. An example is utilitarianism, according to which we should try to reduce the total amount of suffering and increase the total amount of pleasure regardless of the way such suffering and pleasure are distributed among different individuals.
So, for example, compare two scenarios. In one of them everyone has a year of happiness and a year of suffering. In another scenario, half of the people have two years of suffering and no year of happiness, and the other half has two years of happiness and no year of suffering. According to utilitarianism, both situations would be equivalent, because the total years of suffering and happiness would be the same. According to egalitarianism, the second situation would be worse.
Consider another situation. Imagine that we could turn seven days of happiness into seven days of discomfort for those who are very happy and in exchange we could turn six days of discomfort into six days of happiness for those who are the worst off, who are suffering a great deal. Egalitarianism would agree with doing this, while utilitarians would oppose it. Therefore, egalitarians argue that a decrease in total happiness can be acceptable if it means a sufficiently good improvement in the situation of those who are the worst off.
Egalitarianism also differs from what some right theories claim. Some people with a rights view would oppose reducing the suffering of the worst off in a way that might violate the rights of those who are better off. Egalitarians claim that no right should be respected if it protects the better off by prohibiting improving the situation of the worst-off.
There are different versions of egalitarianism. Some egalitarians think that all forms of inequality are undesirable in comparison to a more equal situation. Others don’t agree that all inequality is bad or wrong but think that inequality is undesirable only when individuals are not responsible for it, but not if it is someone’s fault that they are worse off than others (for instance, if one has worked less hard than others).
Egalitarian views can also differ in what kind of inequality they address. Some egalitarians claim that we should reduce inequality between the happiness and the suffering of different individuals. Others claim that we should reduce inequality between the resources that different individuals have to live the way they want to. Finally, others claim that we should reduce inequality between the opportunities different individuals have to avoid suffering and to have good lives.2 In addition, there are suffering-focused or negative versions of egalitarianism.3 According to these views, we should focus (mainly or only) on two things: reducing inequality and reducing suffering.4
Egalitarianism has important consequences for nonhuman animals. It is concerned with equality so it opposes discrimination, which is by definition inegalitarian. Because disregarding the interests of nonhuman animals is speciesist discrimination, egalitarianism entails taking the interests of nonhuman animals into account.
We know that not only humans, but also nonhuman animals are sentient (can feel and experience things). According to speciesist views that discriminate against nonhuman animals, human interests count more than the interests of nonhuman animals simply because they are human interests or because only humans have certain cognitive capacities, special relations with others, or other features. Opponents of speciesism point out that these arguments fail not only because there are humans who don’t have those characteristics but also because those features are not what matters when it comes to respecting someone. Accepting egalitarianism should lead us to reject arguments based on characteristics or relationships that are irrelevant to wellbeing. According to egalitarianism, what is relevant for the moral consideration of an individual is whether that individual has the capacity to be better or worse off. And all that matters for this is sentience. Consequently, speciesist arguments cannot justify giving a nonegalitarian priority to the interests of humans over those of nonhuman animals.
In this, egalitarianism is not alone. Other theories also defend nonhuman animals from the harms they suffer on the grounds that it’s not justified to cause them harm or to not help them when they need it. But egalitarianism goes beyond these other theories in the defense of animals. According to egalitarianism we have an additional reason to care for the interests of nonhuman animals: because they are worse off.5 Note that this is different from giving humans priority as mentioned above. Giving humans priority simply because they are human is not justifiable. Giving nonhuman animals priority because they are worse off is justified, just as it would be justified to give priority to humans if they were worse off.
Currently, the majority of nonhuman animals are worse off in comparison to most humans. Certainly some humans suffer terribly. However, most nonhuman animals live short lives that often contain large amounts of suffering. Due to this, most of them are worse off than most humans. Those who are used as resources by humans have terrible lives. Billions of animals are exploited on farms in which they are in pain and distress their whole lives. They are killed at the earliest profitable opportunity so they can be eaten and used for other purposes.6 If we consider the lives of animals living in the wild, the picture is also very far from idyllic.7 They suffer greatly and in many ways, and their lives normally end prematurely when they are very young. There are many factors that negatively affect animals in the wild in very serious ways, including disease and parasites, starvation and malnutrition, injuries, conflicts, severe weather conditions, and in some animals psychological stress.
Something that shows the extent of this is that the majority of animals die shortly after coming into existence. The reproductive strategies prevalent in nature consist in bringing into existence huge numbers of offspring per parent, of which, on average, only one per parent will make it to maturity. The rest of them die, often in painful ways. And because they are very young when they die, they typically have very few opportunities to have good experiences. Due to this, it is likely that many of them, perhaps most, have lives where suffering predominates over happiness. Accordingly, we will be doing a lot of good if we help them when we can. Considering all this, animals suffering from natural harms in the wild, like those harmed by humans, should be a priority for egalitarians.
Advocating egalitarianism leads to a number of practical consequences for nonhuman animals. The main one is that we should not exploit them. Animal exploitation increases the inequality between humans and nonhumans, whose lives are miserable as a result. Moreover, the harm caused to nonhuman animals far outweighs the trivial benefit humans derive from their exploitation. Animal exploitation is completely at odds with what egalitarianism prescribes, as it means giving priority to the better off over the worse off. Due to this, egalitarianism implies that we should oppose animal exploitation and thus support veganism.
In addition, while being vegan has a positive impact on animals, we can have a greater impact by being actively involved in the defense of animals. Thus, egalitarianism requires us to try to improve the situation of nonhuman animals. We can do this by working to spread concern for all sentient beings and opposing speciesism. Egalitarianism thus supports getting involved in animal advocacy work.8
Finally, egalitarianism also prescribes helping those animals who, although not directly exploited by humans, are being harmed in different ways in which we could help them. To egalitarians, it doesn’t matter what is the cause of the harms, at least when the harms are not caused by the same individuals who suffer them, which is not the case here. This means we should support efforts to help wild animals and therefore reduce wild animal suffering.
Despite the arguments and practical consequences outlined above, some people might recognize that the situation of nonhuman animals is extremely negative but not consider it a priority to help them. Many people are likely to deny the priority of animals not because of an unbiased assessment of their plight, but rather because they have far less empathy for them than for humans, or because they are biased in other ways (for example, because we think those who are different from us deserve less consideration, or because it is convenient for us that animals are exploited). But these attitudes can be rejected in light of the arguments against speciesist discrimination and should be considered unacceptable in views like egalitarianism. Someone who claims to be egalitarian but is speciesist can be said to not really be embracing what egalitarianism actually implies. For the reasons outlined above, helping animals should be a priority for egalitarians.
This is a conclusion that can be reached by all kinds of egalitarian views:
· Whether egalitarians focus mainly on reducing suffering or give equal consideration to both reducing suffering and increasing happiness, they will come to same conclusion because of the overwhelming amount of suffering.
· In addition, it is obvious that nonhuman animals cannot be blamed for the situation they are in. Rather, to an important extent we are responsible for the fact that they are much worse off than we are and that for the most part they are being harmed rather than helped by human beings.
· It is evident that there is huge inequality between humans and other sentient beings no matter how you measure it, including happiness and suffering, available resources, and opportunities to have a good life.
To conclude, egalitarianism is an important approach for defending animals. It opposes discriminating against any sentient being. Furthermore, the above defenses of egalitarianism suggest that not only should we defend nonhuman animals, but we should make it our main concern. Because their situation is far worse than ours, egalitarianism implies that nonhuman interests should become a priority.
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1 These arguments are developed further in Faria, C. (2014) “Equality, priority and nonhuman animals”, Dilemata, 14, pp. 225-236 [accessed on 16 April 2014] and in Horta, O. (2016) “Egalitarianism and animals”, Between the Species, 19, pp. 109-145 [accessed on 20 August 2016]. We recommend these papers for learning more about this topic.
2 For an introduction to egalitarianism that also explains this see Holtug, N. & Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2006) “An introduction to contemporary egalitarianism”, in Holtug, N. & Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (eds.) Egalitarianism: New essays on the nature and value of equality, op. cit., pp. 1-37.
3 Mayerfeld, J. (2002) Suffering and moral responsibility, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Vinding, M. (2020) Suffering-focused ethics: Defense and implications, Copenhagen: Ratio Ethica [accessed on 23 May 2021].
4 Some egalitarians are consequentialist and others are nonconsequentialist. Consequentialism is the position that we should do what brings about the better (or the least bad) outcomes. Nonconsequentialists think that the way we should act is not to bring about the best (or less bad) situation, but instead by following other considerations (such as norms that are followed regardless of the consequences). Accordingly, consequentialist egalitarians consider equality better than inequality, so the “best” or “least bad” outcome would be one in which there is less inequality. That is, we should try to reduce inequality because it is bad that some individuals are in a worse situation than others. Other egalitarians aligned with nonconsequentialist positions do not necessarily accept this. That is, when they see two situations and one of them has less equality, they don’t necessarily think the less equal situation is worse. However, they think we nevertheless have a duty to reduce inequality, because they think that doing so is simply right thing to do. At any rate, consequentialist and nonconsequentialist egalitarian views have the same practical implications. Each of them reaches the same conclusion for different reasons, but they all defend a similar course of action.
5 These ideas were initially formulated, even if using different terms, by the 19th century antispeciesist pioneer Lewis Gompertz. See Gompertz, L. (1997 ) Moral inquiries on the situation of man and of brutes, London: Open Gate.
6 Estimates are that humans kill more than 80 billion mammals and birds annually; 1 to 3 trillion fish(es), and an even higher number of invertebrates. As for other animals, estimates are that the number of sentient wild animals may be up to 1018 or even 1021. Any of these figures is evidently many times higher than the number of human beings. Tomasik, B. (2019 ) “How many wild animals are there?”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, Aug 07 [accessed on 4 June 2021]; Mood, A. & Brooke, P. (2019) “Numbers of fish caught from the wild each year”, Fishcount.org.uk [accessed on 4 June 2021]. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2021) “Livestock primary”, FAOSTAT, February 19 [accessed on 4 June 2021].
7 Animal Ethics (2020) Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues, Oakland: Animal Ethics [accessed on 4 June 2021]; see also our video course on this issue.
8 In addition, focusing on defending nonhuman animals can be extremely effective because there are very few people doing this today in comparison to the number of people working in other causes. This would be an extra reason to help animals that complements egalitarian concern for them because they are worse off.