December 10th is International Animal Rights Day. International Human Rights Day is celebrated on the same day. Here we explain the relationship between them.
We know that in our society the interests of most other animals usually receive little or even no attention. They are used at will for all sorts of purposes, and rarely receive help when they are victims of misfortune such as accidents or illness. They are victims of speciesism—the discrimination that non-human animals suffer from humans—just as certain groups of humans are victims of other types of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. Just like humans, animals have the capacity to suffer and be affected by what happens to them. Therefore, they need their rights to be defended, both ethically and legally. This is what International Animal Rights Day is all about.
Since the inception of International Animal Rights Day, year after year, animal defense organizations organize events on this date—to demand respect for nonhuman animals.
We at Animal Ethics also want to highlight that this date is a day to remember the importance of defending animals and of ending speciesism.
We present below an overview of the fundamental concepts that we defend at Animal Ethics.
As many people already know, speciesism is a form of discrimination. It consists of treating those who do not belong to a certain species worse and unjustifiably. We say “unjustified” because, although those who try to justify speciesism do give arguments to defend it, these arguments are easily refuted. For example, it is said that nonhuman animals do not deserve as much consideration because they are less intelligent than humans, or because they are not as powerful. However, many humans do not possess these qualities either. According to this principle, it would be right to discriminate against them as well. It would be right to use them as food or to cage them in zoos. This scenario does not seem acceptable at all. We know that if we do this, these humans will suffer greatly. For the same reasons, we shouldn’t do this to nonhuman animals either. Here you will see different arguments against these attempts to justify speciesism.
The term speciesism was coined by philosopher Richard Ryder in 1970. We at Animal Ethics consider it essential that people know that this form of discrimination exists and know its name, because it is a problem that affects a huge number of nonhuman animals. In fact, of all the discriminations that exist in the world, speciesism is the one that causes the largest number of victims. Understanding very well what speciesism is will allow us to question it more effectively.
Sentience is the ability to have experiences. It is not the mere ability to react to stimuli— something that, for example, plants can also do. Sentient beings are capable of transforming these stimuli into conscious experiences—that is, they are capable of feeling. So it is very important to distinguish between “being alive” and “being sentient.” They are not the same thing.
Many people believe that animals of species other than our own are not really capable of feeling, or that they have no awareness of the world around them. Fortunately, this idea is becoming less and less popular, thanks to scientific evidence. But how do we know that nonhuman animals are capable of suffering or feeling pleasure from their experiences?
One of the things we can observe is the physiology of animals. Our ability to experience suffering and pleasure does not happen by magic. On the contrary, we have a central nervous system by means of which we not only receive stimuli, but which furthermore creates the conditions for the experiences triggered by the stimuli to appear. Human beings are the only animals with nervous systems. Many other animals have them as well. This is true for all vertebrates, as well as for many invertebrates.
Since sentience is what makes experiences positive or negative, sentience is what makes someone able to be harmed or benefited. For this reason, sentience is what makes someone deserve moral consideration, since to give moral consideration to someone is to avoid harming them and to seek to benefit them. This means that every sentient being deserves not to be harmed and also to be helped when needed. Skin color, social status, intelligence, or species are not the qualities which should determine how much moral consideration to give someone.
Defending a species or an ecosystem is not the same as defending the nonhuman animals that are members of that species or that live in that ecosystem. Environmental advocacy campaigns sometimes show animals as victims of environmental impact. This might make us think that the environmental movement defends each animal as an individual, but this is not the case. Looking at the content of such campaigns, we can see that the goal is to protect “the whole”—such as an ecosystem or a species—and not the sentient individuals.
One way to get a good understanding of the difference between animal advocacy and environmentalism is to imagine whole world stories and observe that animal advocates and environmentalists would have very different criteria for evaluating how good or bad that story is. Animal advocates would evaluate based on how sentient beings are affected positively or negatively (e.g., the amount of suffering subtracted from positive experiences). Environmentalists, on the other hand, might say that a world story is better even if it is much worse for the affected sentient beings, if the nonsentient entities valued by environmentalism are preserved in a way they favor.
We will now talk a bit more about the importance of imagining complete world histories in general:
Suppose we could compare two complete histories of the world, from now until the end of time. Which one occurs would depend on the course of action we decide to follow. If our goal is to make the world the best possible place for all sentient beings, the question is: which of the two courses of action would bring the best result for sentient beings, from now until the end of time?
To make this decision, we have to think about what is the best thing to do in the long run. However, we are usually more concerned about the present or the near future than about what might happen in the distant future. This also affects animal activism. We often focus more on changing the lives of animals that are alive in the present, without caring much about the problems that sentient beings of the future will face. This means that the beings of the future receive less consideration than those of the present. But it shouldn’t be this way, because the sentient beings of the future will also have equally important interests. But this is not all. We have reason to believe that due to a likely emergence of new technologies that could harm an enormous number of sentient beings, the suffering of sentient beings may increase greatly in the future, reaching astronomical levels. To visualize this point, it is useful to remember that the animal advocates of the 19th century probably could not imagine the enormous number of animals that would suffer and die due to the emergence of factory farms that would occur a few decades later. It is possible that we are in the same situation as these defenders regarding what might occur in the future. Therefore, a long-range approach is very important.
Considering how uncertain the future is, it seems a good strategy to change attitudes rather than behavior, because attitudes influence our behavior in general, and not just in certain situations. To change attitudes, we can question speciesism and emphasize the relevance of sentience for moral consideration. In this way, we will have a positive impact on sentient beings in the future regardless of the scenario.