Humans are animals

By David Olivier Whittier

This text was initially published in issue #9 of Cahiers antispécistes (1994).

It had been written in response to a letter received by the Cahiers antispécistes from the group AIDA, letter that can be read (in French) here.

An English translation by Pierre Querinci appeared in the British journal Arkangel, n°16 (1996) (PDF here; extract archived here). The present translation has been revised by the author.

Read time: 21 min.

Five years ago when I wrote the article "La moindre des choses",*in the booklet Nous ne mangeons pas de viande pour ne pas tuer d'animaux1 I did not expect my readers to get the impression that I no longer cared about fighting racism and sexism. The recent letter** sent by the group AIDA2 to the Cahiers antispécistes asks me to return to that article and read it again. This I have done; and I still don't see how I can have been so seriously misunderstood. However, it has also reminded me of a certain mindset that I had at the time, a mindset that may well be close to the way certain members of AIDA feel today and that may explain in part their attitude. This is the starting point from which flow the following reflections.

In that 1989 article, I wrote: "I have spent a large part of my life fighting at their sides against racism and sexism, against the oppression of Kanaks and so on. I should still like to feel motivated to do so today, but I cannot. There is one small point that keeps nagging at my mind (...): how can they demonstrate against a murder when they kill so easily each day? (...)"

This passage, which seems to have been misunderstood by those who criticize us, was intended to express not an indifference towards the struggles against racism, sexism etc., but rather a tension between, on the one hand, my wish to participate in them and, on the other hand, my feelings towards the persons with whom I would be involved. Faced with the enormity of the violence inherent to the oppression of non-humans I find it difficult, as others do, not to be put off, sickened even, by the attitude of those who devote themselves, often generously but so exclusively, to human problems while at the same time deliberately and gratuitously participating in the butchery of non-humans.3

This profound uneasiness easily translates into hostility and even hatred towards meat-eaters. These negative feelings themselves warrant criticism; a point I return to below. This can go even farther. For a long time, when first I became an animal rights activist, I was no longer able to feel any empathy, not only towards meat-eaters campaigning against human suffering, but also towards human suffering itself, towards the suffering with which campaigners of recognized causes are routinely concerned. I felt only annoyance or hostility, or at best indifference, towards children with muscular dystrophy, victims of famine, exploited workers, deported immigrants and raped women, and this not because these humans eat meat like everyone else, but simply because they were, being humans, the objects of the selective sympathy of "right-thinking" persons. Every human being, however unfortunate he or she might be, I saw only as part of the globally privileged category to which the human species belongs.

This is what I felt, but it is not what I believed. Despite my feelings, I have never believed that human suffering deserves indifference or hostility; this kind of resentment – as should be immediately clear to all – is absurd and unjust. An individual may well belong to a globally privileged category without thereby necessarily being privileged him or herself. Even if s/he is, the privilege is of necessity relative and does not render the suffering unimportant. There is always someone less fortunate than oneself; the existence of worse fates than mine does not render my pains unimportant. It is true that it is sometimes difficult to keep a cool head. If I were a black South African, I would probably find it hard not to feel hatred towards all whites, even towards white newborns. It is natural, too, that someone dying of AIDS in the Third World, where prevention is ridiculously underfunded, should feel anger towards the obscene Telethon which raises large sums for a handful of French patients, and that this resentment should spill over onto those patients themselves. Such feelings are natural, but that does not make them right. While it is natural for an animal activist to feel as I have described, it is never justified for us to allow ourselves to base our political judgements on these feelings.


In point 4. of its response, AIDA tells us: "the sufferings inflicted on animals are incomparably more numerous and intense than those on humans. More numerous, yes, but more intense, no. There is no reason to believe that the suffering inflicted on non-human individuals is always more intense than that of human individuals. I would much rather be born an elephant in Africa, even destined to be shot by a poacher after a period of happy life, than a child dying of malnutrition, or even a rich child with myopathy. I'm not even sure that the fate of the human populations that kill elephants in Africa is not itself more dramatic, in terms of the number and intensity of their sufferings, than that of the elephants themselves; my being an animal liberation activist does not imply that I should automatically choose, between improving the fate of these elephants and that of these humans, to favour the former.

On the other hand, AIDA is right to say that the sufferings inflicted on non-humans are, globally, much more numerous (see, for example, the figures for slaughter in France that we reproduce on page 31 of this issue), and their intensity is often comparable to that of the worst human suffering. This would be one reason to choose, if we had to make such a choice, to give higher priority to the liberation of non-human animals. But I insist that this is a global judgment. Individuals are equal, i.e. an equal amount of suffering by one or the other is equally important, regardless of the group to which they belong. If a choice has to be made to help one or the other of two groups, numbers must be taken into account; but numbers qualify groups, not individuals. We are not to say that the suffering of one individual is more important than that of another when they suffer equally. That there are ten times as many pigs slaughtered as calves does not make the suffering of one calf less important than that of one pig!

I have insisted on this point because I believe we have here an essential ingredient of animal liberation: individuals are to count for what they are, not as representatives of a more or less arbitrarily formed group – be it that of humans, or non-humans, or black humans, or left-handed humans, or of those born on a Tuesday. Like any liberation movement, animal liberation is obliged to start out from existing categories; we speak of animal liberation as if the category of (non-human) animals mattered as such. But like any liberation movement, the aim is to do away with these categories as criteria for discrimination. AIDA's attitude of putting nonhumans first, and of putting human problems on the back burner just because they concern humans, implies instead reinforcing the human/nonhuman boundary established by the very ideology we are opposing.


An important difference, one may say, between humans and other animals is that the former, when they eat meat, are oppressors, and therefore do not deserve our concern. This vengeful sentiment, which lumps humans all together, is again reflected in AIDA's statements: "for us, all humans (...) who exploit and eat animals are the same", asserted their August press release; and further on, "for AIDA, only those humans who do not exploit animals have value" – in other words, very few of them. As I said, this is a natural way of reacting, but is not a right way. Did my nature change, that day when at 29 I stopped eating animals? Did I deserve all all my woes before that day, but not since? Again, this seems absurd to me. If I hadn't had favourable personal circumstances, I probably would never have become a vegetarian; if I had had to fight for my survival in a barrio in Rio, I wouldn't have considered certain things. I wouldn't have been right to continue eating meat, but that is what I would have done. I don't see how humans can radically change their essence following accidental circumstances.

This discussion, some will say, is pure abstraction, is the kind of vain intellectual masturbation in which we are known to indulge4. We must instead struggle, say the authors of the August statement, “for the concrete and physical liberation” of non-humans. What is missing is a more concrete and physical explanation of how they propose to go about it. How will we achieve the “concrete and physical” liberation of the eight hundred million chickens that the French eat every year? By throwing open the cages? Or by economic sabotage performed by a handful of masked activists? This is absurd. The only way is to convince at least a large part of the humans who today eat meat to stop doing so; which means, to weigh on their ideas. Castigating meat-eaters is of practical interest only if it can lead them to change; and if they indeed can change, it means that their essence is not defined by their behaviour. Both in practice and in theory, it is not the individual meat-eaters who should be berated, it is their acts. These individuals, whether we like it or not, we must view as potential allies. If all we feel towards meat-eating humans and their difficulties is hostility or indifference, how can we bring them to change? If we do not start out from the compassion and concern they have for their fellow humans, where will we find in them compassion and concern for non-human suffering? Also, if we reject intellectual activity, how will we achieve the major cultural change that is needed to end speciesism?

To hold, as AIDA does, that animal liberation should take precedence over human struggles is all very well in theory, if ever one must choose between the former and the latter; but in practice, do we have to make such a choice? It seems clear instead that human misery is one of the major obstacles to animal liberation. The more humans are oppressed, the more they themselves tend to oppress. This was the case, among humans, in Germany after the First World War, in Vietnam after the Americans departed, in Algeria after the French departed. It can be seen every day in the violence of the poverty zones in the United States and South America; it is to be feared that it will be the case again in South Africa. Closer to home, it is the case every time an exploited worker comes back home and beats his kids, his wife and his dog. It seems to me that it is difficult to convince humans who live in the most abject poverty to stop oppressing non-humans. Let it be clear: my point is not that in such cases “humans remain more important”. It's just that, as they say, a hungry stomach has no ears. It should have ears, but the fact is that it doesen't.

Thus the struggle against the oppression suffered by humans has both a direct importance – the importance of this suffering itself – an indirect importance, because of its necessity for animal liberation. It sometimes occurs to me that the best way to advance animal liberation in the long run might be to forget about it and to concentrate on improving the human condition. But that would be a mistake too; because I also think that, conversely, one of the best things one can do today for human liberation is to fight for animal liberation: to use a formula that, admittedly, proves nothing, but which sounds good and sums it up, I would say that a species that oppresses others cannot itself be free. Speciesism is a lie that humans tell themselves, and exposing this lie can only help them move forward. And as there are still very few of us who are denouncing this lie, this is certainly where our effect can be strongest.

All this is very complicated, some may say, perhaps even cynical. Human liberation would be a mere means to an end, namely animal liberation, and animal liberation, itself, a means for human liberation... It's that, contrary to a well-established political tradition, both among those “leftists” that AIDA opposes and among AIDA itself, I don't believe that liberation, whether human or animal, will come about tomorrow morning5. Between now and then, many steps will be made. If you want to walk to a place, whether your “priority” is to bring there your left foot or your right foot, you must move both. You won't get far if you follow the AIDA, which says in substance, “we must get our left foot there first, the right foot will be for later”6.

This should not prevent us from reminding people, now and then, as a matter of principle, that since the suffering of a non-human is as important as that of a human, and since the former are much more numerous than the latter, the liberation of the former is in itself more important; but it should prevent us from viewing as in agreement with our own struggle the action in favour of animals of those who consider that certain individuals – because they are human and Jewish or Arabic or black or anything else – deserve to be oppressed. I have no hatred for far-right activists, but I don't see how we can think that we can advance the struggle for equality for all individuals by associating with them. I don't see what we would gain, concretely. I don't see how we can expect the public to grasp anything in the message of animal liberation if we don't repeat as a principle that the oppression of a human individual is as serious, no more and no less, than that of a non-human. The issue is not whether we have a personal preference for an anti-racist vivisector or a right-wing vegetarian – for a left-footed or a right-footed paralytic – it is with whom we will be able to walk towards our goal7.


A common element in the negative feelings I am criticising here, and which I have, as I have noted, experienced myself, is hostility towards humans – leading to a kind of reverse speciesism. This is understandable when one considers that humans have the capacity to understand their actions, and despite that do not; while the cat, when playing with a mouse, is innocent because she is irresponsible.

The notion of responsibility is complex, and I will not enter a discussion about it here. I will say only that while I believe it very important that everyone should conceive of themselves as responsible for their actions, in the sense that no one else takes the decisions for them, and that I believe it very important to insist on this – by insisting that every meat-eater, for example, is the one who chooses that the animals will be raised and killed – I give, on the other hand, only limited practical value, and no theoretical value, to the “punitive” aspect of responsibility, i.e. to the notion of guilt. To say that I was guilty at the time I ate meat will not change by one ounce the amount I ate; if I ate it, it is because, in some way, the circumstances in which I was, the degree of intelligence and courage I had, resulted in my doing what I did. Full stop. In the same way, hating and despising the evil meat-eaters doesn't change anything at all for the animals, has no concrete result, except for the pleasure you may derive from feeling above others.

The attitude I prefer, and which has come to bring me a modicum of serenity in my dealings with meat-eating humans, is to view them with the same indulgence as I do non-humans – as I view cats, for example. Their actions are sometimes horrible; they are sometimes terribly sad, when you consider how easy it would be for them to do otherwise. But at the same time they are not inherently evil. They are often kind and caring. Like us, they have a lot of twisted beliefs, which they hold on to; they hypocrites on many counts, and they only half try not to be. Unlike cats, they are open to discussion – sometimes with a bit of a kick up the backside; so let us try to push them in the right direction.

I also see an anti-human attitude in the often-expressed idea that the only thing that matters to animals is to be "left alone". Implicitly, and even explicitly, there is here the idea that humans can only harm animals; that ours is a perverted, evil species (there are a multitude of myths about this – that only humans kill their fellow creatures, that only humans kill without vital necessity, that only humans are cruel, etc.). Of course, in the case of factory farming, it would be better to leave non-humans to their own devices. But I don't see why we should forget that in “nature” too, animals often suffer intensely, from disease, starvation, emotional deprivation, and predation by others. I see no reason why suffering should no longer matter when it is not inflicted by humans; and I suspect that this is an even greater mass of suffering than that resulting from animal husbandry, etc. It is not on our immediate agenda for humans to address this suffering, as long as they continue to cause gratuitous suffering themselves. But for me, in a way, turning all humans into vegetarians is still only a first step; this is also why such a result is of greater value if it is based on an anti-speciesist awareness, than if it is comes about as a mere fashion, or as a mere health fad.

Humans are, whether we like it or not, in control of the planet. This is the outcome of random evolution; if it wasn't us, it might come to be some other species in a few million years. But we happen to be in that position8. Hence “human-human” politics concerns more than humans. Humanity's mental health, its capacity for benevolence, matters for the happiness of all: for the happiness of humans and for that of non-humans. Unfortunately, this mental health is not at its best. To make it better, I do not see the point of associating, in the name of a mythical quick result, with people whose ideas are, for an essential part, diametrically opposed to our desired goal, whose ideas instead foster hate and desolation.


* "The least one can do", in the booklet Nous ne mangeons pas de viande pour ne pas tuer d'animaux ("We do not eat meat so as not to kill animals"; 1989). The article and most of the booklet are available (in French) on this site.

1. Collective publication (it is not my booklet), published by éditions Y. Bonnardel, 1989, available for 18 F postage paid at the address of the Cahiers antispécistes lyonnais.

** «AIDA et l'apolitisme», right-of-answer letter by the association AIDA published in the Cahiers antispécistes #9 (1994).

2. When in this article I mention the members of AIDA who authored the above answer, I am thinking of Éric and Christophe Moreau. If I am wrong, I apologize, but I do have reasons. If I am right, I don't understand that they should be shy about it.

It is also possible that in this article I ascribe to these authors, whoever they are, feelings and ideas that they do not really hold. These are however feelings and ideas that are, I believe, widespread enough among animalist activists to justify my discussing them.

Also, a misunderstanding gave the Moreau brothers the impression that we were calling them fascists. Someone answered the question of whether he would accept to work with the Moreau answered in substance "I don't work with fascists", intending to express that since AIDA accepts to work with fascists, working with AIDA might lead him to work with fascists. So let us be clear that despite our disagreements, we have no reason to call the Moreau themselves fascists.

3. The waters are muddied somewhat by the fact that there are also many humanists who really do not care about the fate of human beings - their fate being of less concern to them than upholding the species barrier as a moral barrier. It is such people who ask, as F. Reynaert did in Le Nouvel Observateur (29-10-1992, p.18) "How far shall we reach in negating humanity if, today, we demand for cattle the same solicitude as was granted yesterday to Blacks?"

4. AIDA's statements frequently suggest, always with nasty little “incidental” remarks, that we only do the Cahiers antispécistes lyonnais for our “intellectual pleasure”. This is aggressive and unfair. Everyone has indeed, in addition to their sincere and highly proclaimed objectives, other more “down-to-earth” motivations, which too are real but which one may tend to prefer to keep to oneself; this is as much true for the activists of AIDA as it is for us. In my case, there is indeed a certain intellectual pleasure, the pleasure of acting on the world, that of meeting famous people, that of being known, that of typing on a keyboard, and also, that of a cheap feeling of moral superiority – this last pleasure being, I believe, the most criticizable. There is also the motivation of making friends. For some people in AIDA, it would seem that we should go as far as possible into asceticism and take no pleasure in this world as long as there are suffering animals – except for the pleasure of feeling morally superior, of being part of the small elite of those rare humans who “have value”. What concrete and physical goals will such an attitude achieve, apart from driving away almost all potential activists?

The existence of secondary, personal motivations does not disqualify the motivations that are put forward. What is important is to make sure that there are no contradictions, or that they don't get in the way. For my part, I think that the pleasure of trying to show the potential intellectual fecundity of challenging speciesist ideology contibutes to attracting influential intellectuals. On the other hand, part of the point of this article is that indulging in the pleasure of isolating oneself on a contemptuous pedestal above the concerns and sufferings of mediocre, sinful humanity is not conducive to animal liberation.

5. The English literature of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) is full of calls for concrete action to save animals today. But how many animals do we really believe we can save today? Similarly, how do the authors of the above AIDA text really believe they can transform an omnivorous humanity into a vegetarian humanity? As I see it, this kind of concrete, radical attitude, opposed to "useless talk", an attitude that is rife in revolutionary circles as it is in AIDA, compensates for and masks a despair among these persons, an unconscious disbelief in the real possibility of a radical change, be it in the short or the long term. Everyone knows that saving animals in the short term is possible only to a very limited extent. But if instead we really believe, even without certainty – as is my case – in the long-term possibility of a radical change, concerning the thousands of billions of animals that will otherwise be quite as concretely raised and slaughtered by our descendants, it seems to me that this is the direction in which it is most worth struggling. This implies thinking differently, perhaps in a more abstract way, but with the aim of achieving equally concrete results in the long term. This does not rule out concrete actions when it is possible to save animals today; it does not even rule out doing only that, if that is what one feels most able to do; but there is no reason for those who want to take these actions to belittle and hinder those who believe that something else is possible. Instead, they may consider how concrete action could also contribute to the long-term goals.

6. I insist that this convergence concerns the various liberation struggles in the long term, and stems from their profound unity of logic. In the short term, however, there is no reason why what benefits one oppressed group should also benefit others. It is pure coincidence that, for example, vegetarianism is in the interest of both farm animals and third-world humans. So much the better; but there is no reason why there should be some kind of cosmic harmony that brings the interests of all the oppressed together every time. The Second World War, for example, was a catastrophe for humans, but benefited wild animals who lived in France during the Occupation, when hunting was banned.

7. Again, I emphasise that this is true for long-term projects. If the issue at hand is rescuing an injured person on the road, I see no reason to refuse anyone's help. I may well then have practical preferences, depending on the case: if the injured person is a black human, I prefer an anti-racist vivisector; if it is a chicken, I prefer a right-wing vegetarian. Françoise and I have long helped a lady who looked after street cats; we have always regretted her antisemitism, the fact that she eats meat and that she votes for the far right; yet we have always found her dedication to cats admirable. We have never feared associating with her for immediate purposes; but it is quite another thing to accept to work with this kind of person for animal liberation!

8. It will be claimed that I am being speciesist here, by putting humans in charge. But for one thing, it is not me who puts them in charge: it is, for the present period at least, a plain fact; also, this difference is about moral agency – about the fact that humans are, generally speaking, better capable than individuals of other species to act on their environments according to their intentions, and also to generalize their spontaneous benevolence through ethical reasoning. As moral patients, I grant no special status to humans, whose joys and sorrows are no more or less important than those of others. The aim of anti-speciesism has never been to deny the factual differences that may exist between individuals of different species.