Animal Equality

Par David Olivier Whittier

This article appeared in the issue #0 of Cahiers antispécistes (September 1991). Its aim was to clarify the purpose of the journal, which was still unknown (unimaginable) in France.

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Machine translation pending revision.

It is difficult to argue a truism, as anything that can be said about it is superfluous in advance. If a tautological sentence does not convince any sensible person of its truth, then what argument, what other development can? And it is not because of its complexity, but rather because we feel it to be tautological, that we have difficulty in arguing the animal equality position.

The anti-speciesist thesis is this: equal interests are equal. The equality it defends is the assertion that when two beings have interests of equal magnitude, equal importance, then said interests are equally important, equally great, regardless of any other characteristic possessed by those beings, from their skin colour to their intelligence.

The meaning of the word interest may be discussed; the meaning I give it is the interest of every sentient being in not suffering, in experiencing pleasure and happiness, and in continuing to exist for this reason. The identity I suggest between the greatness and the importance of an interest may also be contested. The importance of an interest is the strength with which that interest matters. It depends on the intensity and duration of the suffering it is intended to avoid, or the pleasure it is intended to provoke; it does not depend directly on the intelligence of the being whose interest it is, any more than on the number of its chromosomes. And an interest that matters is, unless it is paralysed, an interest that pushes one to act. The size of an interest thus corresponds to the importance given to it when a decision has to be made.

If in our actions we take into account the interests of anyone other than ourselves, it cannot be according to our own interests – otherwise it is still our interests that we take into account. If we claim that it is right to take into account an interest other than our own, it can only be on the basis of the fact that it is an interest, and not on the basis of the relationship that the being whose interest it is has to us, nor on the basis of the relationship that this being has to our interlocutor. This is what makes racism and sexism unjust. An act cannot be just or unjust depending on whether the perpetrator and the victim belong to the same group or not. It is not the fact of being white, nor the fact of talking to a white person, that can suddenly make the proposition true: “It is right to enslave black people”. And so is speciesism unjust. It is not the fact of being human, nor the fact of having only humans as interlocutors in the literal sense, that can make the enslavement of non-humans just.

Among the animals: humans. Two consequences, then, of animal equality:

1. The interests of all non-human animals must be taken into account with the same weight as if they were human interests. We are not asking for non-human interests to be taken into account in the interstices of human interests. We are asking for equality.

2. Animal equality implies human equality, and the interests of all humans must be taken into account equally, whether those humans are white or black, male or female, born in developed or Third World countries; and this is far from being the case even today. But anti-speciesists do not have to justify themselves by pointing out that they “also” care about humans. If you are fighting for equality for black Americans, you don't ask “What are you doing for the Kurds?”, or “What are you doing for the chickens?”

The anti-racist struggle has spent a lot of time and energy trying to demonstrate the actual equality of intelligence, or capacity for work, or cultural capacity, of different kinds of human beings; so much so that it suggests that the equality it claims is that.

There is little in these pages to praise the intelligence of “beasts”. We will not say, like so many others, that “in the end” they are more, or as, intelligent as we are. That is not our point.

We cannot claim that black people should be respected as much as white people because they are as intelligent as they are, without suggesting that humans who are less intelligent than others deserve contempt. One cannot claim to base the equality of human races or genders on the equal possession by these groups of any capacity without justifying discrimination against those humans who do in fact possess these capacities to a lesser degree. Antispeciesism is opposed to contempt, and fights for a justice that is not that of the strongest or the most intelligent.

What about plants? The equality of A and B is not contradicted by the assertion that C, too, is equal to A and B. Just as animal equality does not contradict human equality, the equality of living things would not, if it were true, contradict animal equality. Yet “plants” are often put forward as an objection to our theses.

This is in fact an ad hominem argument; the equality of living beings is supposed to be frightening, because it would be difficult to act accordingly. The argumentative value of the objection is nil, although its psychological value may be strong.

That said, I do not believe in the equality of living beings; or, more precisely, I believe in the equal importance of the interests of all beings that have interests, but I do not believe that plants, or bacteria, for example, have interests; I do not believe them capable of either pleasure or suffering, I believe that the magnitude of their interests is null. I don't despise them; I just don't think they are concerned by our actions.

I don't want to argue this here; the question of the sentience of plants is important, but technical, as is, for example, the question of the criteria for non-sentience of a human in an irreversible coma. One can replace “animals” with “beings with interests”; the meaning, for me, will be unchanged.