This text was published in French the n°5 of the Cahiers antispécistes (1992), and can also be read on the journal's website. Its Italian translation appeared in 1993 in the journal Etica & Animali (a. VI n. 1-2. It was included in the collective work Luc Ferry ou le rétablissement de l'ordre – L'humanisme est-il anti-égalitaire, ed. tahin-party, 2002.
Read time: 55 min.
Upon its publication in 1992, Ferry's “very modest”1 book, The New Ecological Order2, was a big hit – Médicis Award, interviews on every French television network, etc. It is essentially an apologia for humanism and therefore an attack on the animal liberation movement and environmentalism, both of which he accuses of being naturalist movements. We will take a closer look at this and see how this accusation can also backfire, working against both humanism and speciesism3.
Ferry and non-human animals
Ferry does not reject all kindness to animals4. He says he is in favour of regulating vivisection and that he “love[s] cats”5. But he is against the idea of non-human animals having rights and summarises his position as follows: “We have duties towards animals, but animals have no rights6.”
What does this negation of animal rights mean to him? Taken literally, his statement is not antithetical to animal liberation. While activist Tom Regan feels that animals (whether human or non-human), have rights7and that our duties towards them are based on these rights, utilitarians such as Peter Singer believe that at a basic ethical level no beings have rights and that there are only duties that typical humans have towards any sentient being, whether human or non-human. Does Ferry share Singer's point of view?
Singer and Regan do agree on one fundamental point: regardless of what our ethics are, we should apply them in basically the same way to humans and at least some non-human animals. But Ferry grants rights to humans and humans alone. With his above statement, he is essentially saying that we have duties not towards animals, but on behalf of animals8. Our duties on their behalf, he believes, are indirectly towards humans and their feelings, or towards humankind on a concrete or symbolic level – never towards the animals themselves.9 This position based on indirect rights is one that has been invoked by many people throughout history and therefore has something reassuring about it10. It seems at least to prohibit the most gratuitous cruelty, but the principle itself is completely brutal. According to this view, there is nothing inherently bad about non-human suffering, even of the most horrific sort, if no human is affected by it.
Love of animals and Nazism
In their behaviour toward creatures, all men are Nazis.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies: A Love Story
There is also a certain brutality in the way Ferry compares quite a few people to Nazis. Having myself already explained many times why, in my view, environmentalism, both in its radical form (“deep ecology”) and its apparently “milder” form (“everyone's” environmentalism, which also casually condemns homosexuality and vegetarianism as “unnatural” practices) is a reactionary ideology,11 it was with some pleasure that I learned Ferry felt the same way. It was with less pleasure that I discovered his attempts to liken the animal liberation movement to environmentalism.
And it was with great displeasure that I noticed his efforts to liken both environmentalism and the animal liberation movement to Nazism. When one wishes to highlight the reactionary nature of a doctrine, the temptation to compare it to Nazism is always strong. This inclination, which Ferry unrestrainedly indulges in, unfortunately soon transforms a message into invective, where “like Hitler” becomes an argument in itself. It should be obvious enough that doing something “like Hitler” is not necessarily dishonourable. The fact that the Nazis built a lot of motorways does not in itself make building motorways a barbaric act – as Ferry himself admits12.
For a comparison between an ideology and Nazism to be meaningful, for it to be something more than the mere observation of a coincidence, the common points identified in both the ideology in question and Nazism must be demonstrably linked to what is reprehensible about Nazism – for example racism, contempt or attempts to kill and cause suffering13. If no such link can be demonstrated and analysed, the comparison with Nazism has no moral significance. And if one is identified, the comparison becomes at best secondary, if not superfluous, and can serve only as an illustration. This, however, is a dangerous illustration, since any reference to Nazism is so emotionally charged it becomes blinding14. The media campaign to which Ferry has complacently assented is an excellent example of this danger. It has often insulted activists who not only do not deserve it, but in many cases have even devoted a significant part of their lives and a great amount of effort – much more than the average person, including the average journalist – to fighting racism and other forms of human oppression and suffering. A certain number of animal liberation activists, myself included, have been disheartened to have meat-eaters (who generally haven't done much of anything to fight racism) barking at us, much more brazenly than before The New Ecological Order came out, that “Hitler was vegetarian too”15. It should not be forgotten that animal liberation activists are progressive and as such also support the anti-racism and anti-sexism movements, often participating actively in these causes that they see animal liberation as the logical extension of16. And even environmentalists, who are most often themselves also progressive despite the intrinsically reactionary nature of their movement17, are within their rights to be outraged by the excesses of the media frenzy surrounding Ferry's book.
If the animal liberation movement has been more successful in the English-speaking world than in France, this may be due in part to the tradition of democratic debate prevalent there that makes people open to examining even ideas that initially strike them as excessive or scandalous18. Meanwhile, leftist and/or democratic French intellectuals have (since Sartre?) most often refused to engage in substantive debate, in particular on racism, automatically categorising such ideas not as opinions but as signs of bad faith – and thereby leaving the field open to them. Thus, as soon as they encounter an inconvenient idea – as is the case with animal liberation – they are strongly tempted to look for some way to compare it to Nazism or racism, and therefore to bad faith, to sidestep a debate they do not feel sure they could win. Whatever Ferry may say [p. 61], the pressure to be politically correct is stronger in France than in North America.
But let's look at the substance of his comparison between the animal liberation movement and Nazism. It takes two forms, one direct and the other indirect. In the first, Ferry argues that a “love of animals” does not rule out a “hatred of humans”, and in the second, he compares the animal liberation movement to environmentalism, which he compares directly to Nazism. Since we reject his likening of the animal liberation movement to environmentalism (I will elaborate this point further on), I will not dwell on his comparison between environmentalism and Nazism, despite its impropriety.
Let us examine the direct form. Starting on p. 91, Ferry presents three Nazi acts that were passed between 1933 and 1935: the Animal Protection Act, the Reich Act on Hunting19 and the Reich Act on the Protection of Nature. The comparison seems a bit forced. And Ferry claims for himself the glory of rediscovering this legislation in a German library20, although it had already been analysed earlier that same year in an American journal by Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax21. According to Ferry [p. xxii], who takes the Nazis' word at face value, this was the most advanced legislation at the time – and still is – in the area of animal protection22. To hear him talk, one might imagine that under Hitler, non-humans were treated just as today's animal liberation activists would like them to be23. In particular, he claims, the Nazis were the first to protect animals for their own sake, while earlier animal protection legislation had always aimed first and foremost, according to Ferry and Nazi propaganda, to indirectly protect humans [p. 99]. This is incorrect. Although it is true that animal protection legislation of the 19th century was formulated to enable this interpretation, the fact remains that the laws were passed due to pressure from activists whose goal was clearly to protect the animals themselves from suffering24. And more recent laws, such as those passed in England under pressure from the animal liberation movement, protects certain farm animals for their own sake, regardless of whether they were in public view, and against the wishes of their “owners”.
But the fact remains that the Nazis did have a certain concern for animals, a paradox I am unable to definitively explain. Like Arluke and Sax, we can imagine that a regard for animals “allowed Nazis to ‘double' or maintain a sense of self as humane while behaving insensitively or cruelly towards humans”25. At an ideological level, of course, it is clear that non-humans, by definition unable to interbreed with humans, posed no threat of “polluting” the “superior race” – one of the Nazis' main accusations against humans of “inferior races”. The Nazis could not, therefore, hate non-human animals on those grounds. As we can see, such fantastical notions are far from being of any concern to the animal liberation movement.
A “love of animals” therefore does not rule out a “hatred of humans”, as anyone could tell you. This kind of dichotomy between a love of animals and a love of humans is possible only in a context in which a high moral and symbolic value is already attributed to a dichotomy between animality and humanity, and to dichotomies based on biology in general, as the Nazis did, and as most people do if, like Ferry, they are speciesists26. Conversely, the philosophy of animal liberation contests the moral significance given to being a member of the human species, so we are not concerned by this dichotomy between a love of animals and a love of humans27. We have said time and again that we are not necessarily “fond of animals”28. The animal liberation philosophy is not an extreme form of a love of animals. It isn't a love of animals at all. We are not asking people to have sympathy for non-humans but to treat them fairly, just as we condemn the Nazi genocide not in the name of our “love of the Jews” but of the fairness they are owed.
As for feelings – they matter too, after all – it should be noted that if a love of animals does not rule out a hatred of humans, the writings of many humanists like Ferry suggest that their way of loving humans not only fails to rule out a hatred of other animals, but even seems to inevitably lead to it. Let us reflect upon the suspension points with which Ferry felt he had to finish this sentence: “Another [chapter of The German Law for the Protection of Animals]29 devotes inspired pages to the feeding, resting, aeration conditions, and so on, with which it is appropriate (...) to arrange for the transportation of animals by train (...)” [p. 101]. Like a raised eyebrow, these last three points appeal to the sympathy of the reader, who, Ferry assumes, will be less scandalised by the mistreatment of the Jews than the fact that non-humans were not treated worse than them. Humanism's need to hate is also evident in Ferry's shock [p. 19] at the increase in emergency veterinary clinics for pets30. Whatever he may say, the civility he advises we adopt towards non-humans [p. 56] is rooted quite deeply in barbarism. It is actually the animal liberation movement that works to extricate humanity from hundreds of millions of years of predatory barbarism and to persuade our species to finally begin to behave, at the very least, in a somewhat civilised way.
Finally, if the quote that I have highlighted is not more compelling than Ferry and the media comparing the animal liberation movement to Nazism, it is certainly not less compelling. Nobody could seriously accuse Isaac Bashevis Singer, for instance, of antisemitism and yet, “like Hitler”, he too was vegetarian – but his reason for this was, in fact, to avoid being a Nazi in the way he behaved towards animals, including non-human animals.
Dances with wolves?
Ferry categorises the animal liberation movement as one of the three types of environmentalism [from p. xxiii]31: the first is humanist environmentalism, which views the non-human world as an environment to protect for the good of humans; next, the animal liberation movement, which is a form of environmentalism because it isn't a form of humanism32; and finally, the environmentalism known as “deep ecology”, which grants intrinsic value not only to humans and animals, but to nature as a whole, which it regards as an order or a system.
The animal liberation movement, as we have never ceased to repeat in Les Cahiers antispécistes, does not concern itself with defending “ecosystems” or “natural orders” for their own sake; in reality, it fights against environmentalism just as much as it fights against humanism. And in practice, it is an opposition to animal liberation that unites humanism with the vague feeling that the natural order should be conserved – a feeling that deep ecology simply systematises. I have lost count of the times people have said to us, “But eating meat is natural!” or “Animals eat each other!”33
And it's true – animals do eat each other. The end of human contempt for other animals will undoubtedly lead us to see them from a new perspective, and to admit that we have a lot to learn from them. I would go so far as to say that admitting that awareness, free will and value exist elsewhere than in our species may have the same effect in the field of what we have so far termed the “human sciences” as the effect that admitting that gravity exists elsewhere than on our planet has had in the field of the physical sciences. It will nevertheless always necessarily be humans who explore these other planets of sentience and morals, and humans who decide whom, on these planets, is to be taken or left behind.
The animal liberation movement is not trying to get us to dance with wolves. It is not trying to get us to “look to animals as examples”34. Its goal is, first and foremost, to get us to willingly and knowingly (unlike wolves) stop behaving like predators. But it is not trying to institute a “species apartheid” either. The idea is to go further – to act, perhaps, as Steve F. Sapontzis has termed it, “as nature's caretakers, in order to insure the flourishing of sentient life on Earth.35” Thanks in part to these emergency veterinary clinics that so irritate Ferry, some non-humans are already benefitting from the human cultural explosion. And thanks to efforts by animal liberation activists, dogs and cats can also live without being predators36. Humans have thus taken the first steps towards – dare I say it? – getting the wolves to dance with us.
Speciesism and subjectivism
How does Ferry justify attributing zero direct moral relevance to non-humans? His answer is that ethics is an artificial construction and not “natural”. It is humanity that creates ethics, and ethics “therefore” can only ever apply to humanity – an ambiguous term designating both the human species as a whole and the “humanity” in each individual.
This reasoning is simply flawed. Humans are the ones who study physics. Does this mean the laws of physics apply only to them? Ferry makes the classic error of confusing moral agents (parties that can act according to ethics) with moral patients (parties that are directly impacted by the action). Everyone acknowledges that human infants and the severely mentally unstable are moral patients without being moral agents, so there is no reason why the same could not be true of non-human animals37.
And Ferry uses this (flawed) reasoning to claim that the animal liberation movement is similar to environmentalism in trying to see ethics as a science applying to “objects” of the real world [from p. 84]. Citing David Hume for support, he attacks “ethics experts”. As he sees it, because ethics isn't objective, there can be no such experts.
Here again, he is completely mistaken. The animal liberation movement does not have any position on the existence of objective moral values. Tom Regan believes in them but takes care not to commit the naturalistic fallacy decried by Hume38; utilitarian Peter Singer, on the other hand, does not*. But according to Ferry [p. 86], utilitarianism – and “therefore” animal liberation philosophy – functions with “the notion that one is basing one's actions on an objective science of nature or of history” – which, from Lenin to Hitler (him again!), has always ended in catastrophe (human catastrophe, of course).
Ferry is right to be wary of morals that are presented as objective, that are supposed to be based on genetics, or environmentalism, or history. Trying to deduce what should be from what is can indeed very easily lead to adopting conservative or reactionary ideologies – to concluding that what is, or what was, is what should be. This is why environmentalism is a reactionary ideology39. But animal liberation philosophy is not based on “what animals do” – it isn't about dancing with wolves.
Ferry criticises utilitarianism for allowing the possibility of “calculating” and “adding up” pleasure and pain40 and, because he sees the idea of “calculating” as coming from what we call the exact sciences – which, like physics, are supposed to study what is – he concludes that utilitarianism transgresses against Hume's law.
He is wrong. The problem of expertise or calculation involving objects without any “objective” existence external to us does not come up only in the area of ethics. It also comes up in mathematics. Does “six” designate a real object, or something that's purely a creation of the mind? And if this object is only imaginary, how can there be experts on it? This tricky problem has intrigued countless minds for centuries. And yet no one would even think about claiming that this type of object – mathematics – can have no experts, lead to the discovery of new information or have a number of concrete applications41.
The same goes for ethics. The degree of “objectivity” of moral values is subject to debate. However, as Singer made clear during his talk in Paris in May 199142, there is no need to assume something is objective to be able to apply reason and, with it, a certain number of internal and external constraints, which can be determined through discussion – the “experts” being nothing more than people who are very experienced with these discussions, although this does not make them infallible43.
This, in the end, is rather fortunate. Why then, as a philosopher by profession writing a book devoted to ethics, has Ferry expressed annoyance over it? If there were no room for “experts”, it would mean that there would be no room for discussion or sharing points of view either and that all morals would be equally valid. The way Ferry interprets moral subjectivity leads him straight to moral relativism. Why, then, should we not accept Hitler's morals, for example? A simple question of taste?
I do not think it's just a question of taste. I think that in ethics too, choices can be defended and argued for. And like in mathematics, the argumentation can, in seeking to solve a problem, lead to the discovery of new information. This, for Ferry, may be the rub. Singer often explains how, in trying to understand and refine the meaning of human equality, he often found himself forced to admit that restricting this equality to the boundaries of our species is arbitrary. This same need for internal consistency in ethical theory is what makes us reject racism and speciesism; we reject Hitler's morals and Ferry's speciesist morals for the same reasons. And if Ferry rejects the idea of ethics experts – and therefore, ultimately, discussions of ethics – it may be so he can reject animal equality from the outset. Animal equality is a new idea that bothers him, but it follows, in my view inevitably, from any logically consistent examination of what we call ethics.
According to the speciesist, or, as Ferry prefers to say, humanist position, a given individual's membership in the human species is in itself a morally significant criterion, to the advantage, of course, of humans. Thus, according to Ferry, [pp. 31–32] “for [humanism] it is (...) the ability to separate oneself from interests (freedom) that defines dignity and makes the human being alone a legal subject.” As Ferry would have it, all members of the human species, and they alone, have the moral characteristics of dignity and legal personhood44. An example of what this means in practical terms is that they cannot legally be exploited for the benefit of others' interests45. Of course, it is not the biological nature of the human/non-human distinction that he focuses on, but the supposedly typical characteristics of members of the human species: here, the “ability to separate oneself from interests”; further on, Ferry characterises humans by “the criterion of freedom defined as the faculty to separate oneself from nature, to resist selfish interests and inclinations – a criterion that propels the entire tradition issued from Rousseau and Kant to distinguish animality from humanity” [p. 36].
Never mind the astonishing fact that Ferry cites altruism in his attempt to glorify humanity46 when his actual goal is to justify the enormous amount of suffering that humans, for their own purposes, inflict on animals (it is impossible, at this point, not to think back to Stephen Clark's sarcastic comment)47. What should be noted here is that attributing dignity or a legal status to certain individuals and not others should be justified by something other than birth, something other than the simple fact of being born human or non-human. If not, we are dealing with pure arbitrariness – arbitrariness of the kind despised by the architects of Ferry's beloved French Revolution. The justification must be based on a difference between individuals. For this, Ferry does not refer to the easily observable factual differences between a typical human and other animals. He instead notes the existence, highlighted by Peter Singer, of “marginal cases” among humans48 and admits that there is a “certain continuity in suffering, intelligence, or even in language” [p. 41; see also pp. 6–7] between humans and other animals. Free will, as we have seen, is his criterion: “when it comes to freedom, men and animals seem to be separated by an abyss” [p. 41].
What is this abyss exactly? Since this is about justifying the attribution of dignity, etc. to all humans and humans alone, Ferry must be trying to say that all humans and humans alone have free will. But how could we say that a severely mentally disabled human has free will, without also saying the same of a healthy adult chimpanzee? Ferry continues: “[This abyss] bears that same name – history – whether we look at the individual (education) or the species (politics).” So there is an individual and a collective level at play here. At the individual level, it still is not clear how one could claim that humans have free will but non-humans do not without citing factual characteristics such as intelligence and language upon which the capacity for education in particular depends, regardless of the meaning given to the word. Yet these same factual characteristics that make a human individual different from a non-human individual do not differentiate all human individuals from all non-human individuals, as Ferry admits. These characteristics therefore do not justify attributing free will, as an individual characteristic, to all human individuals without also attributing it to certain non-human animals. If Ferry really is reasoning at the individual level, he needs to acknowledge that there is a “certain continuity” between humans and other animals when it comes to free will too, and not an abyss.
The question of collective free will remains. And Ferry continues [p. 41]: “Until the existence of proof to the contrary, animals have no culture, but only customs and modes of life, and the surest sign of this absence is that they transmit no new legacy from generation to generation.” History, in the collective rather than the individual sense of the term, which is to say the existence of a culture, is what Ferry sees as the key criterion in the distinction between humans and animals. He bases the distinction he makes between culture and mere “customs” on the fact that culture changes from one generation to another. The problem is that this difference concerns the group and not the individual. We can say that humankind has a culture, and that this is what distinguishes it from the common chimpanzee species, for example, but we cannot deduce from this that a given human individual has a culture while another individual, of the common chimpanzee species for instance, does not. I will now explain this distinction between collective and individual levels with an example from nuclear physics.
Culture and customs
As I have explained in another article49, I believe that the intellectual capacities of humans grew over the last few millennia, finally exceeding, for the first time in the Earth's history, a critical threshold allowing for the explosion of culture. How can simply exceeding a threshold cause an explosion? We need only look to atomic bombs for an example.
When a certain quantity of a certain type of uranium is gathered together, it represents a “critical mass” – a threshold amount needed for the spontaneous occurrence of a chain reaction leading to a nuclear explosion. A chain reaction actually already occurs below the critical mass, but does not lead to an explosion. In any quantity of uranium, atomic nuclei sporadically undergo spontaneous fission (individual explosions). A few neutrons are ejected, each of which can leave the mass of uranium or be absorbed by another nucleus it encounters on its way, and this other nucleus can then itself fission (induced fission). Other neutrons are then created as a result of this process, and so on.
This chain reaction always takes place, even in a small quantity of uranium. Uranium nuclei are unstable and always likely to fission, either spontaneously or following the absorption of a neutron. These are characteristics of individual atoms. At the collective level, however, the behaviour of a mass of uranium can differ radically depending on the number of atoms present and its average composition – uranium 235 being more “fissile” than uranium 238. If the mass is below the critical mass, a neutron produced will on average cause the production of less than one neutron in the next generation. Each chain reaction therefore dies out over a few generations. But above the critical mass, the first spontaneous fission, or one of the first, will cause a chain reaction that will affect the entire mass.
The collective behaviour of all the uranium nuclei gathered together therefore depends on individual characteristics, which is to say those that qualify each nucleus50, but also on collective characteristics. However, whether it is placed in a mass that is above or below the critical mass, an individual uranium nucleus is still the same nucleus. At the individual level, there is always a certain variability (spontaneous fission, absorption or non-absorption of the neutron in question). But at the collective level, the individual variations leading to the explosion are either stable or amplified, and this dramatic difference may depend on the addition of a single gram, or a miniscule change in the proportion of uranium 235. Finally, the specific characteristics of a nuclear explosion are unpredictable. They may depend for instance on the exact moment of the first spontaneous fission.
The analogy with the development of culture is obvious. Ferry himself admits that many non-humans are capable of innovation at the individual level [pp. 6–7]. This is the case among chimpanzees – far from merely reproducing pre-programmed behaviour, each individual contributes something new. This is a fact that neither Ferry nor any modern behaviourist can contest. Chimpanzees are also able to pass these inventions on to their group. Common chimpanzees that are taught sign language teach it to their children. Let us then consider this question: given the average individual characteristics of chimpanzees and the collective characteristics of the groups in which they live (size, environment, etc.), will the innovations and other individual variations be maintained and amplified? Will they trigger a chain reaction of innovations within the group, or will they instead be lost after one or more generations? In other words, does the group always, in spite of individual variations, return to a single average behaviour, or towards a single “attractor” as physicists say, or rather are individual variations (in some cases at least) the cause of an unpredictable divergence in behaviour, of a cultural explosion?
Observations suggest the following answer: in two of the three species of chimpanzees, the capacity for maintaining and passing on innovations is below the threshold necessary for amplification. Common chimpanzees and dwarf chimpanzees live today much as they did 10,000 years ago, despite incessant individual innovations – these have not accumulated but have rather fallen away and been lost by the group. We can agree with Ferry that these chimpanzees have no culture; that group behaviour is generally determined by genes and the environment, and varies over time according to these factors. But in the third species of chimpanzee – Homo sapiens – there is, under certain circumstances, an amplification51. Ferry notes the existence of many human populations that until very recently lived without history, reproducing the same culture in each generation [p. 14]. In such cases, can we even use the term “culture”52? We can say that humanity is not very far above the threshold. The human species is now nevertheless experiencing a cultural explosion, one that is dominated by Western culture, which happened to be the first to initiate the reaction.
This explosion is clearly of capital importance for the world's future. But what about for individuals? How much does it matter whether a given individual contributes to innovation and the passing on of culture? Very little. Every human innovates to some small extent and passes on some of the culture they have learned, augmented by their own innovations, to younger generations. We can say the same of common and dwarf chimpanzees, but perhaps they do this to a lesser extent, or less well, on average, than humans. Moreover and most importantly, there is a difference of situation. We cannot say that someone is non-human if it turns out that over the course of their life, they received more than they innovated or passed on. And yet, this is the case for a great many humans in our society. It is only as a whole, and on average, that individuals innovate and pass on more than they receive. Everyone participates in culture, since they are immersed in it, just as in a nuclear explosion all the nuclei are immersed in the explosion, even those that do not fission or that produce very few neutrons when they do. Atomic bombs must contain a sufficient proportion of uranium 235 because uranium 238 nuclei are incapable of causing a nuclear explosion on their own. When an explosion occurs, they do participate in it, but to a lesser extent, on average, than uranium 235 nuclei. Similarly, we could say that even our pet dogs and cats participate in the cultural explosion, since they're immersed in and benefit from it, even though they would hardly be able to trigger it on their own. But that does not constitute their nature. On the other hand, if by some twist of fate a human were permanently isolated from others – stranded on a remote uninhabited island for example – and therefore due to their situation could not participate in the cultural explosion, this would not change their nature and it would not necessarily become morally acceptable to fatten them up and eat them.
We all participate in a cultural explosion, due to a certain convergence of circumstances and a slow evolution of the average characteristics of our species. These things are external to us. Anyone who, like Ferry, allows themselves to be persuaded that this constitutes their nature makes the same naive mistake as the football fan who, watching a match on television, feels proud when their country's team wins. “We won!” But who is this “we”? It is Ferry's “we”, which, in his writings, always designates humans, without anything justifying this usage53.
The meaning of free will
The nature of a given nuclear explosion is largely indeterminate and unpredictable; chance can mean the difference between a power of one kilotonne and 10 kilotonnes. The phenomenon thus has a certain individual and collective “free will”. But this does not lead Ferry to attribute “dignity” and “legal personhood” to each nucleus that participates in the explosion (which would be absurd).
An atomic explosion is merely a phenomenon of physics. As such, in spite of the “free will” involved, it has no meaning. And as a simple biological phenomenon, a cultural explosion, although indeterminate, has no meaning in itself either. It can easily be considered part of the sphere of behaviourism, just as the weather, although physically indeterminate, is part of the sphere of meteorology. Nothing stops us from viewing a cultural explosion as another “fact of nature”.
Ferry's ultimate argument against animal liberation (and/or utilitarianism) is that nothing obliges us to assign ethical value to the suffering of non-human animals [pp. 39–40]. Indeed not. Nothing obliges us to apply ethics to anything – that is precisely Hume's point, and it is hard to see how the simple fact of citing, as Ferry does, our participation in the cultural explosion – in what is – solves the problem. It is hard to see how free will, defined simply as a lack of pre-determined behaviour, at the collective level moreover, can be the basis of an abyss between human individuals and individuals of other species.
Ethics nevertheless exists, and cannot simply cease to exist once the question of what choice should be made is asked. Free will plays a role in ethics, not as chance or a lack of pre-determination, but as a description from the participant's point of view. This free will is not antithetical to determinism, as Peter Singer has said54:
Some people say that if an observer could predict how we would choose, that would show our belief in our ability to choose was illusory; but this is a mistake. We would still be making genuine choices….
The distinction between the standpoint of the observer and the standpoint of the participant is ineliminable. Even if my theories [on human behaviour] were so accurate and complete that I could predict how a person exactly like myself would choose, I would still have to choose. Moreover, it is a curious and significant truth that my choice might be the opposite of what my theory predicts someone exactly like me would choose – without the theory thereby being refuted.
And this is due to the difference between observer and participant. In the next part of his text, Singer shows how, by applying this free will to the (biological and social) reality of humans and to reason, one reaches an ethics55. His explanation seems convincing, more so than the absence of explanation from Ferry. Let us just note here that in this sense, nothing implies that non-humans, from their own point of view, have no free will. From my point of view, I am the only being with free will. All others, human or not, are objects for me. It isn't only in relation to non-humans that the problem of why we would have consideration for others comes up.
I think we can say that ethics consists of having consideration for others, despite their status as objects, as if they were participants. And which beings should I have consideration for? Which beings can I treat as if they were participants? Can I treat a rock as if it were a participant? Is a rock a participant from its own point of view?
As a participant, I do not take action indiscriminately. I take action because things matter to me. My life, as Regan says, can go well or badly56, as can the lives of others, whether they are humans or pigs, but the lives of rocks cannot. Rocks do not have a point of view because they see nothing, feel nothing. They are not sentient. It is therefore in this regard – the fact that some beings are sentient and have interests (in experiencing pleasure or satisfaction and in not suffering, etc.) while others are not sentient and do not have interests – that we find the crucial difference between the beings that I can take into consideration in planning my actions, because they have a point of view, and those that I cannot take into consideration. And if I take a being into consideration when nothing requires me to do so – this being, from my point of view, is still an object – simply because I can act as if the being were a participant, then I should logically take into consideration all beings that I can treat as if they were participants, which is to say, all the beings that have interests: all sentient beings. And I should do so in an equal way, since my reason for taking them into consideration is the same in each case.
Saying that ethics can be founded only on sentience is not violating Hume's law, it is not deducing what should be from what is. It is simply saying that having free will does not mean that our choices are disconnected from what is. But to attribute greater ethical importance to the interests of humans57 than to those of non-humans (and Ferry attributes zero direct importance to the interests of non-humans), one would need to demonstrate how a strictly natural boundary – the boundary of species – justifies this difference. It therefore seems clear that it is the humanists, and not the partisans of animal liberation, who need to explain how they avoid a naturalistic fallacy.
Although Ferry and speciesists in general attribute “free will” and therefore a particular dignity to each human, they do not do this based on each individual's own merits but rather on their membership in a group. The respect Ferry has for human individuals is not for them but through them for humankind. In his view, human individuals are to be respected as sign-bearers, as representatives. Thus, when it comes to humans “reduced to a vegetable state” [p. 42], he urges us to “respect humankind, even in those who no longer manifest anything but its residual signs58.” This makes him, in spite of himself, somewhat of a partisan of indirect obligations (...) including to human individuals! The individual, to him, is nothing. It is the group – humankind – that is everything, the everything that must be respected through individuals. It is intriguing to see Ferry, a champion of the values of democracy and human rights, taking positions similar to those of totalitarianism and collectivism, in the worst sense of the terms, once he begins talking about animal rights.
We can therefore see how, in contrast, defending norms of respect for individuals for their own sake, and not as bearers of values exterior to them, implies extending respect – and the protection without which this respect is but a meaningless word – to all individuals that could benefit from it, regardless of their situation, regardless in particular of where their birth placed them, and in an equal way. By demanding values of justice and affirming equality independent of the situation in which biology and/or social traditions place us, animal liberation can also, and with more justification than humanism, claim to embody the best legacy of the French Revolution. The legitimacy of this claim cannot be judged simply by determining whether the instigators of the French Revolution were partisans of animal liberation. Otherwise, by the same reasoning, we would also be unable to give women the right to vote. The pursuit of progress, of the cultural explosion that the upheavals of the Revolution represented, does not consist of clinging to the ideas formulated in these days to the letter, but rather trying to develop them in their abstract form, trying to understand their implications in spite of the blinding false evidence of the concrete. And animal liberation represents a significant additional step towards this abstraction – a step that leads us to see there is as much equality between a cow and a human as between a nobleman and a commoner.
Historically, the ideas of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment have generally been seen as progress59 because they included all humans in the sphere of morality – because they gave commoners or black people rights that had previously been reserved for noblemen or whites. The positive connotations of the word “humanism” come from this inclusive nature. But Ferry tries to transfer these connotations to its exclusive nature: to the humanist affirmation that only humans are moral patients60. This is why he begins his book with 12 pages on legal trials of animals held between the late Middle Ages and the 18th century.
Ferry tries to frame the animal liberation movement as an attempt to close the “parentheses” that humanism, he muses, could be understood to represent [p. xvi]. To hear him talk, one might imagine that in the Middle Ages, non-humans were treated just as today's animal liberation movement would like them to be. It is difficult to take him seriously. The prevailing attitude towards non-human animals in the Middle Ages can be summarised by these words from Thomas Aquinas: “It matters not how man behaves to animals (...)”61.
In this context, it is undeniable that those legal trials of animals represent (yet another) historical paradox that has intrigued more than one historian, and I too am unable to account for them. It is paradoxical that people should have sometimes felt the need to hold a trial to issue a death sentence to pigs that had been raised only for their meat. In any case, the execution of several leeches from the lake of Berne simply to “testify to the seriousness of the formal notice” [p. xiii] demonstrates that unlike what Ferry claims [p. xiii], animals were not considered “legal persons” as individuals, only as representatives of their kind. This nuance is naturally lost on Ferry, who like everyone else systematically confuses animals with “animalkind”.
Humanism is a form of naturalism
We no more choose our species than we do our sex. Ferry – as a non-racist and non-sexist – recognises that there is no black or female “essence”. “A woman, it is true, can bear children: that, to speak Sartre's language, is her situation” [p. 15]. But we are born with our sex, which permeates each of our cells and sometimes even our language, for instance in the case of French and other languages that have gendered adjectives and other features. We have a strong tendency to view our sex as constituting our nature. This is the illusion that the anti-sexism movement criticises.
This illusion, like the illusion of racism, consists of attempting, to borrow Ferry's words [p. 15], to “read our situation” as a destination and to see signs of a plan in it. His wording is ironic since this is exactly what he himself is doing when he tells us, “animals have no culture (...) and the surest sign of this absence is (...)” [p. 41]. Interpreting things as signs of animality/humanity is an obsession of speciesists, as I have already explained elsewhere62. As we have seen, it is impossible to use the free will of humankind, as a collective reality, to infer individual dignity in each human, but this does not bother Ferry since he does not in reality consider free will to constitute human dignity. For him, free will is not the substance of human dignity, but a sign or proof of it. The substance of this dignity, for him, is physical (it has an objective sign – free will – but can be found even in individuals and peoples in whom other material circumstances prevent this sign from manifesting) but also metaphysical, since as a nature it is a “destination” upon which morality can be founded.
Ferry declares himself a partisan of “non-metaphysical humanism” but such a thing would be doomed from the start: a moral truth cannot be inferred from a biological reality – even one with as much weight as species. What should be cannot be deduced from what is. To imagine that our situation – and our species, like our sex, is only our situation – constitutes our nature is to attempt to see a destiny in it. And to attempt to see our destiny in our biological reality is to allow ourselves to be controlled by nature and deny our free will, the free will we have to behave as ethical beings, just as the animal liberation movement advocates.
What Ferry says about the animal liberation movement is ultimately an enormous contradiction. It is not animal liberation that represents a variant of naturalism. It is, on the contrary, speciesism, humanism – the wish to prohibit a transgression of the natural boundary of species and the refusal to recognise that, morally speaking, all animals are equal – that is naturalism's last avatar63.
1. Ferry described it in these terms during his appearance on the French television programme Caractères (France 3 network) on 13 November 1992.
2. Luc Ferry, Le Nouvel ordre écologique: l'arbre, l'animal, l'homme. Paris: Grasset, 1992. Excerpts from the book used in the English version of this article are taken directly from Carol Volk's translation The New Ecological Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
3. To keep these endnotes to a minimum, I have referenced the relevant pages of The New Ecological Order in brackets in the main text.
4. I include humans in the term “animals” – no educated person will contradict me on this point.
5. On the French television programme Repères, October 1992.
7. Regan attributes rights to “subject-of-a-life” animals – that is, individuals that each have their own unique life story, such as adult mammals, for instance – but not to those that lack the mental continuity necessary to have individuality.
8. Although he words his ideas fairly obscurely here [p. 56].
9. But Ferry identifies a desire to protect animals for their own sakes in both the animal liberation movement [pp. 30–31] and the Nazis' supposed love of animals [p. 99].
10. On the position of indirect duties, see also Tom Regan's article “The Case for Animal Rights” (not to be confused with the book of the same name), which appeared in Peter Singer (ed.), In Defence of Animals. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.
11. See for example “Pourquoi je ne suis pas écologiste” (in French), written in 1988 and rejected by the environmentalist journal Silence but finally published by the Nantes-based journal Le Farfadet, as well as this editorial (in French) in Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 1, October 1991, pp. 5–6. See also Yves Bonnardel, “L'Animal, l'Homme, la Nature...” in Nous ne mangeons pas de viande pour ne pas tuer d'animaux (in French), ed. Y. Bonnardel, 1989.
12. “Guilt by association, here as elsewhere, is inappropriate” [p. 92]. Yet this is precisely what he is rushing to base his argument on.
13. It is not enough to point out a connection since, of course, “everything is connected”; this connection must also be analysed and its relevance assessed. After all, the emotions that any human being would feel when listening to Wagner's music are probably the same ones that a Nazi would feel. According to Wilhelm Reich, sexuality is what underpinned Nazi violence. Finally, like all the progressivist revolutionary currents of the time, Nazism itself was founded on a dissatisfaction with the world as it was. These details are not enough to discredit romantic emotions, sexuality or dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Rather, we must ensure that these things do not lead to violence or a regression towards a mythical lost paradise. Along the same lines, we could, if we wanted, subject the LGBT+ rights movement to the same unfair trial as the animal liberation movement, based on the homosexuality of many dignitaries in the Nazi regime, the male homosexuality expressed in warrior virility and the current existence of at least one far-right LGBT+ organisation. In spite of these convergences, which have nothing contingent about them either, the LGBT+ rights movement, just like animal liberation, is a progressive movement and therefore, in this fundamental sense, diametrically opposed to Nazism. Ferry, caught in his own trap, ends up casting aspersions of Nazism on anticolonialism too [p. 104 and following]! (This does not prevent his criticism of “praising diversity” from being very relevant; see also the introduction to my article “What is Speciesism?”).
14. As understandable as this emotional charge may be, its use is not always innocent. In a world where every year, tens of millions of humans suffer and die from poverty that we have the means, but not the willingness, to eradicate, and where every year millions of non-human animals suffer and die at our farms and slaughterhouses due to the desire humans have to eat their bodies, the systematic reference to Nazism often hides a desire to be behind the times with regard to such an atrocity.
15. Not all historians accept Hitler's supposed vegetarianism. On this subject, the following appeared in the Animals' Agenda of May 1992 (p. 31): “Vegetarian historian Rynn Berry has refuted the myth that Adolf Hitler was vegetarian, documenting his taste for Bavarian sausages, ham, liver and game, as well as his prohibition on vegetarian organisations across all Nazi-controlled territories. Chef Dione Lucas, who often cooked for Hitler, mentioned his love of stuffed pigeon on page 83 of her book The Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook.”
16. See for example Peter Singer, The Animal Liberation Movement: its Philosophy, its Achievements, and its Future, Nottingham: Old Hamond Press, 1985 ((the first two chapters are published here under the title “Animal Equality and Speciesism”), as well as chapters 1 and 6 of his book Animal Liberation. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (first published in 1975).
17. I'm referring here to the environmentalism currently in vogue, which is founded on the idea of Nature, a natural order that should be preserved for its own sake.
18. It is in this spirit that we clearly are meant to take Regan's publication – which Ferry seems to criticise him for [p. 75] – of an anthology including a text by “deep ecologist” William Aiken, who alludes to wishes for a mass human extinction. Regan, whose entire philosophy is based on independent respect for each individual (human or non-human), would be the last to support this kind of idea.
19. Das Reichsjagdgesetz, which means “Reich act on hunting” and not “Reich act limiting hunting” as Ferry says [p. 91]. It is also noteworthy that Ferry translates “das Wilde” (game) as “wild animals” (“die Wilde”) [p. 106]. According to the excerpts cited, under the terms of this legislation, “game” is a “cultural asset” that must be protected so that it can continue to be hunted. On this point, Ferry himself is very much like the Nazis (...) just as he is when he equates non-human animals with nature. The ambiguity of the Nazis' position on predation should also be noted. They accused the Jews of being predators, but they also identify themselves as such (see the article by Arluke and Sax mentioned in note 22 below).
21. Arluke and Sax, “Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust”, in Anthrozoös, vol. v, no. 1, 1992 (published before the end of August).
22. Ferry in fact says here that this legislation was the most detailed – but the context suggests that this means it was the most favourable to animals. In reality, the meticulous nature of these texts probably owes a lot to the regime's particular bureaucratic thoroughness.
23. Except that animals continued to be raised for meat, hunted and experimented on in laboratories.
24. According to Ferry [p. 25], the fact that the founders of England's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had also been against slavery was proof of their philanthropy and meant that the duties towards animals that they advocated could only be indirect. Strange reasoning. If anything, it demonstrates the opposite – that these founders sought to promote the rights of animals for the animals' sake, just as they advocated for rights for black people for black people's sake. As early as 1776, in A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals. London: R. Hett, Humphrey Primatt wrote, “[T]he white man (...) can have no right by virtue of his colour to enslave and tyrannise over the black man (...) for the same reason, a man can have no natural right to abuse and torment a beast.” See also the unambiguous speech that another anti-slavery advocate, Lord Erskine, made to the House of Commons in 1809.
25. Arluke and Sax, p. 15, referring to Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors. New York City: Basic Books, 1986.
26. Furthermore, according to Arluke and Sax [p. 14], “The Nazi notion of race in many ways assumed the symbolic significance usually associated with species (...) The Germans were [for the Nazis] the highest ‘species', above all other life (...)”. The philosophy of animal liberation, in contrast, questions this symbolic significance itself, as well as the hierarchy people extrapolate from it.
27. It is however sometimes important to know what ground we are treading upon. This applies to both the dubious campaigns by French animal welfare groups against ritual slaughter and the motivations behind certain attacks on the fur industry. This does not mean we should not fight against the fur industry, but we must reject alliances with the animal-loving far right and groups that focus more on environmentalism than liberation, if we want our message to remain clear.
28. See for example LAIR, “Non, je ne suis pas une amie des bêtes”, in Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 1, October 1991. The desire to view animal liberation philosophy as a simple fondness for animals comes from a refusal to acknowledge direct duties towards non-humans. In this context, our demand that non-humans be treated fairly is thus reinterpreted as a demand for respect for our personal feelings about non-humans.
29. Giese and Kahler, Das deutsche Tierschutzgesetz. Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1939.
30. There are countless examples of the hate that humanists feel for non-humans outside of any specific conflict of interest between them. In Le Nouvel Observateur (29 October–4 November 1992, p. 18), François Reynaert wrote: “Just how far in the negation of humans will we go if, today, we ask people to have the concern for livestock that yesterday we had for black people?” Do humans really negate themselves by showing concern for other species? Similarly, in an article about the 1942 Vel' d'Hiv Roundup (published on 3 June 1992), Télérama titled a double-page spread as follows: “Animals entrusted to the building caretaker. Children taken away.” Can the suffering and death of these children not be morally relevant in themselves? Is there really a need to highlight them with such a comparison? How sad that humanism can only mourn some by spitting upon others! Finally, Alain Renaut, who has worked with Ferry extensively, sees bullfighting (which he is a great fan of) as the very expression of humanism. Ferry criticises him on this point [p. 49 and following], without seeming to realise that eating meat, which is just as unnecessary as bullfighting but something he himself is a great fan of, fits the same logic – in other words, a desire to dominate animals for the purpose of celebrating humankind.
31. Dances with Wolves (dir. Kevin Costner, 1990) is a film that Ferry often cites as an implicit rebuttal of the animal liberation movement, although this is undoubtedly a purely environmentalist film.
32. Thus: “Though different from deep ecology, the utilitarian position…” (which, with his strange reasoning, he likens to animal liberation [p. 31]; Regan in particular would appreciate this – see his article “The Case for Animal Rights”) “…is nonetheless infused with a form of antihumanism” [p. 40]. For Ferry, this is enough to lump it together with deep ecology!
33. If, as Ferry says, the animal liberation movement could most logically be categorised between environmentalism and deep ecology, we could expect that partisans of deep ecology would all necessarily be partisans of animal liberation. In reality, champions of deep ecology have only disdain for the animal liberation movement, which, in their view, is not comprehensive enough and advocates for ephemeral individuals rather than venerating the Great Whole. Aldo Leopold himself was a hunter, and very few environmentalists are vegetarians; when they are, it is for reasons other than those promoted by the animal liberation movement.
34. Ferry used this expression during his appearance on Repères.
37. On this subject, see L.W. Sumner, “Subjectivity and Moral Standing” in Bowling Green Studies in Applied Philosophy, vol. viii, 1986.
38. The naturalistic fallacy consists of trying to deduce what should be from what is. See the interview with Regan (in French) in Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 2, January 1992.
* Singer has since changed his opinion on this subject. See Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
39. On sociobiology, see Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology – Are Our Morals in Our Genes? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
40. Or more specifically, in the case of Peter Singer, preferences – a nuance that Ferry failed to catch.
41. Since the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, physics itself is no longer sure whether it has an “objective” goal.
43. Steve F. Sapontzis, who does not believe in the objective nature of moral values any more than Singer does, reached the realisation that animal liberation is a moral necessity simply by taking common moral values to their natural conclusion. See Sapontzis, “Moralité de tous les jours et droits des animaux” (in French), Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 3 (April 1992), and Paola Cavalieri, The Animal Question: Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights (translated by Catherine Wollard). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
44. Here, in keeping with Ferry's tendency to systematically confuse legality and morality, I will say that having legal personhood is a moral characteristic.
45. It is clear that in reality, some humans are less well protected from suffering and death than some non-human animals. It is better to be born a dog in a kind, well-off human's home than a poor human in a certain developing countries. Nevertheless, we can say that, apart from very rare exceptions, no human is ever as brutally and actively exploited as the non-humans that are raised for meat, eggs or lab experiments. Moreover, if we find it scandalous that the fate of certain non-humans is better than that of certain humans, we are demanding a very extreme application of speciesism: for the fate of the most miserable human to be better than that of the most fortunate non-human. The far right indulges in an analogous delusion when it makes an issue of the simultaneous existence of unemployed French citizens and employed immigrants – which is to say they want no immigrant to be employed until all the French are!
46. See also Luc Ferry: “The most fundamental ethical requirement among Moderns [is] that of altruism” [p. 15].
47. “We are absolutely better than animals because we are able to give their interests some consideration; so we won't.” Stephen Clark, The Moral Status of Animals, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
48. See for example, in Singer's Animal Liberation, chapter 1: “With the most intensive care possible, some severely retarded infants can never achieve the intelligence level of a dog.”
50. The frequency of spontaneous fission, the average number of neutrons emitted, their effective absorption section and the probability of induced fission.
51. Here, I am using Jared Diamond's classification of our species among the chimpanzees.
52. The nuclear fission analogy is of course a simplistic one. In the case of an animal population, especially a human one, it may be that several stable states can exist. After a period of cultural instability, the population will end up in one of these states, but there is no way of predicting which one it will be. We can thus use the term “culture” in a restricted sense, to the extent that the customs of this population do not depend only on its genes and environment. This way of seeing things may possibly save peoples without history in the eyes of those who are absolutely determined to attribute them a culture, which they consider the prerequisite for “human dignity”. On the contrary, we cannot say how long humanity's current cultural explosion will last – whether it will quickly reach an “end of history” or keep on going almost to infinity. Ferry prefers the latter hypothesis [p. 138], but I believe it is clear that for any “end of history” to be qualified as a “happy” one, the world would need to be very different from the way it is now.
53. All of Ferry's arguments could be repeated identically, with the same validity, if we applied the term “humankind” to what it usually refers to, but leaving out my local grocer and including his cat. The typical “human” would not be changed by this, and the historical evolution of this “humankind” would also be untouched. But Ferry would grant all of these “humans” except one – the cat – legal personhood. Why? Because of its species. This is where we can clearly see that arguments of free will, history, etc. serve only to hide the reference to the purely biological.
54. Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981, pp. 82–83.
55. See also Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 1–13.
57. Ferry says he does not base his ethics upon interests – a concept that is too narrow-minded and selfish (!) for him [p. 40] (and also uncomfortably close to the English-speaking world!). The dominant are generally in the habit of draping a defence of their own interests in the noble clothing of dignity.
58. Ferry speaks here as if “marginal case” humans always become marginal (“human being reduced (...)”, “they no longer show (...)”) and thus turns a blind eye to cases of humans born with severe mental disabilities. Ferry is probably thinking mainly of the problem of ageing [p. 17], which he addresses without proposing a solution. As long as we are young and socially active, we can still live under the illusion of being, as a human individual, an analogon of eternally dynamic humanity, analogon being the rather obscure term that Ferry applies to animals as compared to humans [p. 46]. But when we grow old and approach death, the analogy becomes less clear.
59. Despite the human catastrophe that the French Revolution was – the philosophy of human rights did not exclude human hate.
60. The humanist affirmation of the exclusive value of humans contrasts with the value of God, but not with the value of non-human animals, which were already excluded. What makes Ferry partially right is that environmentalists do try to re-establish the pre-eminence of the divinity Nature.
61. Summa Theologica (written 1265–1274), as cited in Peter Singer, Animal Liberation. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (first published in 1975), p. 195.
63. Avatar: in Hinduism, the manifestation of a deity, notably Vishnu, in human, superhuman or animal form (Collins English Dictionary). Could Luc Ferry be an incarnation of Vishnu?