What is Speciesism?

Par David Olivier Whittier

This article was originally published in French in the journal Informations et Réflexions libertaires (IRL) in April 1991 (n°87) and subsequently in the n°5 issue (1992) of the Cahiers antispécistes. Finally, it was reprinted in 2018 in the collective work La Révolution antispéciste.

Header accompanying the article when it appeared in the Cahiers antispécistes:

The article reproduced here is a slightly modified version of a text published in April 1991 in the journal Informations et Réflexions Libertaires, in the “Antispeciesism” section we ran there.

Rational argumentation about speciesism, though necessary, is frustrating. Our opponents do not bother to look for arguments that hold water, and they do not bother to examine ours. For them, speciesism needs no rational justification. I recently had to almost beg (faced with an anarchist, incidentally): “Please tell me, why, give me one single argument, why you consider that the suffering of battery hens is necessarily a secondary issue...?” Her only answer: “For me, that's the way it is.” (verbatim). Why? Because! The evident character of speciesism and the fact that the vast majority of humans are among the oppressors are the main obstacles facing the anti-speciesist.

So again we have to be on the side of those who suffer contempt and oppression – while knowing that contempt spreads off onto whoever defends the victims. There was a time when the white defender of “negroes” could be treated as a “negro”. It is relatively easy today to be antiracist or anti-sexist in France, at least verbally; this was not always the case. Today, at least in left-wing circles, it is antiracism and anti-sexism that have come to be seen as self-evident and in need of no argument. Faced with a version of antiracism which, when asked “Why?” could answer only “Because!”, the Nouvelle Droite (“New Right”) had its work cut out in its endeavour to appear by contrast as those who think.

However, worldwide, and all along history, it is racism, not antiracism, that, much like sexism and speciesism, has been and remains the dominant view. Interethnic oppression and massacres have been and remain commonplace throughout human history. If today many peoples can appear to side with antiracism, it is mainly because they face the dominant racism of our time, that of Western culture, which erases their differences, and ultimately, their culture, for the better or for the worse. We know full well that the Kanak culture of New Caledonia is on the whole sexist, but – hush! – let’s not say that out loud! We must instead “respect their culture as it is.” How is shielding someone from criticism “respect”?

Faced with the immense prevalence of racism, sexism and speciesism, we must not be content with expressing outrage or repeating that our beliefs are “self-evident”; we must instead develop ideas and arguments, and accept to side with the “niggers”, the “chicks” and the dogs.

Read time: 30 min.

My Position

I argue that there can be no reason – except the selfish desire to preserve the privileges of the exploiting group – for refusing to extend the basic principle of equality of consideration to members of other species.

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 1975

Should we oppose speciesism? Should we oppose racism, for that matter? Is it so obvious that we should? Perhaps, but it is not so obvious for everyone nor it is obvious that all who oppose racism do so for the same reasons. My belief that we should oppose racism is grounded not in the idea that (almost) all humans are equally intelligent, or that they possess an articulated language, or that they interact socially and so on. The reason we should be antiracists and antispeciesists is the fact that an oppressed sentient being suffers and that the suffering and happiness of each sentient being, that is of whoever can suffer and be happy, is of equal importance and must be given the same weight in our decisions.

I am no more a “defender of animals” than those who fought against the slavery of black people were “defenders of negroes”, as they were called by racists at the time. I defend all oppressed animals, whether human or not. I do so not by whim, not as a calling, nor because “I love animals” as others “love flowers”; I defend all animals and in particular nonhuman animals because I am intent on defending all sentient beings, whoever they may be – because the sole relevant criterion for taking into account the interests of a being is it being sentient and hence having interests – and because it is very probable that only animals are sentient, plants being devoid of feelings and hence without interests. By opposing speciesism, I oppose an ideology that serves as justification for the hideous suffering and death that nearly all humans inflict knowingly, deliberately and daily upon billions of beings just as sentient as they are.

Racism and Speciesism

Racist arguments are often just pretexts; that doesn’t mean that we should not examine them. Simply decrying racists as bad guys will get us nowhere; unless we plan to kill them all off, our aim must be to convince them. Also, in the case of speciesism, the “bad guys” are almost all humans, who wield the same arguments as racists to justify the supremacy that they have granted to themselves over all others.

Racism and speciesism are closely intertwined ideologies, and their similarity would be obvious to all were it not precisely that antiracists are almost always speciesists and prefer not to recognize the link. These antiracists strive to combat racism without endangering their own speciesism, and this leads them to an all-out defence of untenable positions which they nonetheless insist on as essential to antiracism. Because they cannot imagine all animals as equal, it is on the backs of nonhuman animals that they strive to found the equality of all humans.

The French first!Humans first!
God placed whites above all others.God placed humans above animals.
We feed and protect the negroes.We feed and protect animals.
Negroes have thicker skins.Animals don’t suffer consciously.
Negroes attach little value to their lives.Animals don’t know that they will be killed.
Negroes are like big children.Animals only act on instinct.
The natives war with each other.Animals eat each other.
All negroes look alike.Animals have no individual personalities.
Me, racist? I have an Arab friend.I love animals, and I don’t eat horse meat.
It is a private matter whether a man beats his wife.Eating meat is a personal choice.

What is Racism?

When antiracists speak of human equality, what do they mean? Mathematically, if we say “Paul = John” it means we have two names for the same person. This is not what we intend when we say that white and black people are equal, since they are precisely not equal, or identical, if only by their skin colour. When they demand equality, what antiracists oppose is the unequal treatment that people suffer because of their skin colour.

Yet the expression “unequal treatment” is still not precise enough. If I was a doctor, I would sometimes treat black and white patients differently: since black skin absorbs less harmful sunlight, black people in a given country have a lower risk of developing skin cancer. It is not racist to note this, any more than would be racist to acknowledge, if it happened to be the case, that a certain skin colour has on all counts advantages over another. Antiracism must not depend on the assumption that by some quirk of “Mother Nature” all her “children” always receive an equal share of her gifts; indeed, this type of assumption, we shall see, has no reason to be true and happens most often to be false.

However, it would be racist to deem less or more important the interests – such as the interest of enjoying good health – of black people than those of white people. It would be racist to say: someone's skin colour justifies disadvantaging them, that is to say, granting less importance to their interests.

If this was the real position of the racists, that is, if it was founded upon mere skin colour, it would be easy to debunk, but this is not the case. I read a story some years ago of a black white South-African woman under Apartheid. A certain disease had made her skin, previously white, turn black. What shame she must have felt in front of her neighbours! To board buses and other places designated for white people, she had a special card made by the authorities stating that she was white even though she was black.

So it is not skin colour that, in the minds of racists, justifies discrimination. What is it then? What does racism actually say? To contradict an ideology, we have to know what it is that it states. The force of racist ideology certainly owes much to the fact that it is never clearly stated, and so cannot be really contradicted.

What is a Black Person?

It is very important to racists to be on the right side of the divide they posit and to be certain to remain there. Race is good for this, since, exceptions aside, whoever is born white will remain white. But asserting a divide is not enough; it must appear to justify discrimination. Skin colour is too shallow a feature; it is necessary to flesh out the idea of race itself. A black person must be black to the core. The race of individuals must come to be seen as their fundamental truth, as their very nature. A person born of black parents, whether herself actually black or white, must be a black person. Must be of “black blood”. Racists do not justify discrimination on the colour of a person's skin. They may talk about colour, but what they really have on their minds is the person's nature. Skin colour is but a sign of that nature.

If racism were based upon real differences, greater differences would mean more intense racism; but the violence of Nazi antisemitism shows the opposite. The near absence of any visible differences between the Jews and the “Aryans” was viewed instead as just another sign of treacherousness. The Nazis, when talking about the “Jewish nose”, were not referring to “the shape of the nose that Jewish people happen to possess more often than others”; the “Jewish nose” was not simply the nose that Jews have; it was the sign of a Jewish essence, and it was this essence, this nature, which in eyes of the Nazis justified their murder.

We say also that the King is king because he wears a crown, even though we know that he does not wear it all the time and that it is not the crown that makes him a king. To a royalist, the king is king because he is of “royal blood”, of a royal nature; the crown is only a sign of this.

Anything can be the sign of a nature, that is can be interpreted as such. This is why discussions with racists are so frustrating. They do not bother to analyse our arguments and to build any of their own that would hold water; in their view, all arguments are superficial because they can only concern signs, not natures. Natures are beyond the reach of arguments. Colour, height (black people are too small, or too tall, whatever may be the case), accent, nose shape, all this the racist is willing to discuss, because it is irrelevant: whatever may be said of the signs, the natures remain unquestioned.

For a racist, it is the nature of beings that justifies discrimination. Discrimination is, literally, the assertion of difference. There is no need to assert inferiority; between beings of different natures, comparisons are impossible. Thus, South African Apartheid is simply defined as separate development: everyone in the right place. The South African racist will deny that black people are disadvantaged: being by nature different, such comparisons are deemed meaningless. Slums are to blacks what comfortable houses are to whites. I would bet a lot that the slavers of the 18th century would themselves have denied they considered black people inferior; for I have heard, as surprising as it is, many meat-eaters denying that they viewed “animals” as inferior – “Not inferior, just different!”.

The sexist narrative too is based on asserting differing natures, one female and one male, and on praising the Woman, the Mother and the Wife, whose happiness and honour are the foundation of nations through dishwashing. “I love women!” says the sexist (or “chicks” or “birds”).

From the common person's “I'm not a racist, but…” to the New Right's “praise of diversity”, it has always been in the notion of a difference of nature that racism and sexism have found their roots. These ideologies are wrong, not because white skin “equals” black skin, but because such natures simply do not exist. But these ideologies strike so many as plausible because, secretly, almost everyone accepts their core principle, and they accept it, I believe, because they must if they want to remain speciesists. Speciesism depends on the notion of an animal nature, which in turn depends, whether one likes it or not, on that of a human nature. This is the source of all the intellectual acrobatics of all those antiracists who absolutely want to remain speciesists.

Photo of a stand in front of a butcher shop.
Pigs smile in front of butchers shops, showing that their role, their intimate calling and nature is to change into ham.

Same principle, same discourse: “I'm not speciesist”, “Animals aren't inferior, just different”, and “Their natural role is to be eaten”. The sign of this nature is that animals eat each other. And they are happy that way: hence the depictions of smiling pigs on the windows of butcher shops.

One can be antiracist while being sexist just as one can also be antiracist and antisexist while being speciesist. The reader can want to object at this point: “What you say is true, but does not apply to animals; for in fact humans are equal, while animals are different!”.

Indeed, there is no lack of differences between humans and “animals”! No trouble has been spared to list them, as this author candidly acknowledged:

For a long time the prime task of moralists, of philosophers and, more recently, of researchers in the field of humanities has been denying that Man was part of the world of beasts, or, at the very least, finding some specific dimension which might remove him from his shameful family, and erase its embarrassing proximity.

Jean-Marie Bourre, La Diététique du cerveau, éd. Odile Jacob, 2000, p. 109.

But humans too are different from one another, as everyone knows. When they are said to be equal, it can only mean that they are equal in nature. And that they differ from “animals”, not by the number of their paws, but by their nature.

“Reason”, it is said, “is the preserve of man”. “Reason” is the main sign put forward by speciesists, and it is for that, and only for that, that I will linger on the issue of equality of intelligence – a matter that otherwise concerns me little. It does however concern very much speciesists, whether racist or antiracist.

Some see intelligence as a manifestation of the soul and define human nature as the possession of a soul. But for those who don't believe in souls, what is human nature?

What is a Human?

The purported nature of beings is used to justify many things: racism, war, the established social order. “To be on the right wing is to believe in Man’s unchanging nature” (Jean Marie Le Pen, quoted from memory). Christians hold that our souls come from God; for others, the nature of beings is given by Nature, from that god called Nature that everyone worships and whose priests are the environmentalists. The nature of a being, in this view, is the totality of what is “innate”, that is, all that was given by Nature before birth.

The left cannot accept as such this discourse on human nature; they will say: “OK, humans come from nature, but nature has stepped aside, leaving free reign to the specifically human – to History, to Culture, to Society. Man remains an animal, in his animal functions; but in his higher functions, such as intelligence, he is radically different.”

Thus, as they see it, the nature of Man is to have no nature; “animals”, instead, have a nature: each animal has a particular nature according to its species, and thus animals all together have an animal nature, that is, the nature of having a nature. And it is no accident that this amounts in practice to founding human equality on the crushing of other animals, for people on the left oppose racism, but above all wish to uphold speciesism. A sincere examination of the notion of the nature of a being, of the idea of some fundamental essence that Nature somehow assigns to each being, would necessarily undermine racism – but also speciesism.

Those who are both antiracist and speciesist face the problem of justifying speciesism without justifying racism. They must uphold the idea of a nature given by birth and that Nature has endowed humans with the highest of births. But this nature is that of having no nature, the nature of being free (of being a blank slate, at least above the belt). Animals, instead, are given the nature of being slaves to their instincts. Such reasoning is not a problem for a racist; black and white humans, cats and mice, each of these beings has its own nature and assigned place within the natural and social harmony. A racist can, much more easily than an antiracist, campaign paternalistically in “defence of animals”, for better treatment of slaughterhouse animals.

Under the banner “Nature on our side,” speciesists, both racist and antiracist, debate “nature vs. nurture” and bicker over signs: are all humans equally intelligent? And most importantly, for them: are the differences in intelligence innate? Is the hierarchy between humans something wanted by Nature? In their quest for signs, the ancients interpreted the bowels of cattle; today we study our brains.

Belief can blind and this debate may last forever. Yet for whoever can see, the answer is clear: 1. Humans are no more equal in intelligence than in any other way; 2. Intelligence results, as do all other characteristics of living beings, from a conjunction of genetic and environmental causes, and therefore a difference in genes may cause differences in intelligence. These facts are common knowledge. If they justify racism, then racism is justified and so too is speciesism. On the other hand, if they do not justify racism, then nothing justifies either racism or speciesism.

A page from a catholic textbook.
Click to enlage.

Those signs that prove the presence of a soul, according to Abbé Bouvet in Premières Notions d'instruction religieuse et Leçons de choses religieuses (“Elementary Notions of Religious Education and Religious Science Lessons”), 1938.

Translation of the text:

How do we know that the soul exists. — We neither see it nor can we touch it. But it certainly exists. This is why:

Compare a man and a monkey. Between them, we find three major differences:

1. The man is intelligent, the monkey is not — Thus, a man learns to speak, to write, to count; he then invents beautiful things: house building, railways, weaving, telegraph… He is an artist: a painter, a musician, a poet… Above all, he knows God and has a Religion. — A monkey does none of these things. There are no monkeys' schools; monkeys have never invented anything: they all do the same things ever since they exist. They neither sing nor draw; they have no religion. In short, they do nothing intelligent; they have no intelligence;

2. The man is free; the monkey is not — By his will, the man can choose freely what he wants; he can renounce all pleasures in order to be saintly and please God. — A monkey has no free will. If something pleases him, he jumps on it; if something displeases him, he runs away. To keep him from doing what he wants, there is only one way: to hit him. Thus, a monkey does nothing freely: it has no freedom. — Incidentally, note how many children behave like little monkeys: to keep them from doing wrong, we must punish them or threaten to punish them! A Christian child must think: this is wrong, so I will not do it, even if I will not be punished!

3. The man is capable of love; the monkey is not — When a man loves another, he is happy to suffer for him and even to die in his place. He does not think at all of himself; he thinks only of his friend. — A monkey, instead, only wants to have fun with other monkeys; he would not be beaten in their place. He has fellows, but no friends.

Now these three things: intelligence, freedom and love show that man has within himself something that animals lack. This is the rational soul.

By these three things, man resembles God who is perfectly intelligent, free and loving. So it was referring to man’s soul, not to his body that God said when he created him: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.”

So what is the most perfect man? It is neither the strongest,...

Humans are not of Equal Intelligence

I am not particularly fond of defining intelligence. Whoever prefers not to speak of differences in intelligence because the notion is unclear is free not to do so, but then should refrain equally from comparing the intelligence of humans to that of other humans and that of humans to that of nonhumans. But there is no reason either for the subject to be taboo, and one may wish to do such comparisons, even without having perfect definitions at hand, just as one can compare the length of the human neck to that of a giraffe even without having a perfect definition of the length of a neck. Now it appears that whatever way one may wish to define intelligence, certain humans are more intelligent than others.

Many humans have a deep mental handicap. Some people say, in a misguided attempt to protect these humans from contempt, that they are intelligent in their own ways. However, if one wishes to say this, this form of intelligence could not possibly be the same as the one at stake in discussions about the equality of black and white people.

It is difficult to compare the intelligence of a cat to that of a dog, and similarly in some cases to compare the intelligence of a mentally handicapped human and a dog; however it remains that, in many cases and whatever criteria we refer to, certain humans are less intelligent than most dogs.

If human intelligence justifies not treating humans like dogs, how do we then treat humans who are less intelligent than dogs? Not very well, assuredly, but better than we treat nonhuman animals. The mentally handicapped make us uneasy by reminding us of “animals”, just as that white woman felt ashamed of her black skin; but to speciesists, whether racist or antiracist, intelligence is a mere sign. What really matters is the nature of a being: mentally handicapped people “are humans in spite of all”. It would appear outrageous to even imagine cutting them up for research or slaughtering them for food – which is what we do every day to millions of other animals.

The existence of mentally handicapped people is enough to justify the title of this section. Some may say that the debate is only about the intelligence of black and white people. We easily forget the handicapped, “marginal cases”, a bit like we forget nonhumans: they don't take to the streets. Their case is nevertheless significant: if speciesist racists argue with speciesist antiracists about the intelligence of blacks vs. whites, it is because they see intelligence as linked to the right to respect. It follows that, to them, the mentally handicapped are entitled only to contempt.

Concerning blacks and whites – or French and Belgians, for that matter – things are less clear. Comparisons can only be made on a statistical level; concerning individuals, there is nothing to debate since in each group some are mentally handicapped and others are not. Now, what would statistical comparisons tell us? We can consider IQ tests and debate their validity. Nonetheless, whatever tests or criteria we apply, we will never obtain, save some highly improbable coincidence, the same averages on both sides. By some tests, blacks may appear more intelligent on average than whites, or it might be the other way around. However, unless we contrive a test precisely to obtain the same IQ in both groups and dignify it as the “right test”, we will have to accept that, whatever the meaning of the word, the intelligence of any two groups is not equal.

Genes Cause Differences in Intelligence Among Humans

No one would dispute that the typical differences in intelligence between a dog and a human have genetic causes, and therefore that there is a link between intelligence and genes, but it is among humans that we would want genes to step aside. However, we know very well that they are still there: for there are the above-mentioned “marginal cases”.

Many mental handicaps have genetic causes. An example is phenylketonuria. A certain gene gives rise to this disease, which causes deep mental disabilities and early death – except that, today, we know how to tune the child's diet in a way that allows him to develop normally. Hence my assertion that intelligence results, as do all traits, from a conjunction of causes that we can classify, if we so wish, into genetic and environmental. For humans born with phenylketonuria, we know an environment (a diet, in this case) that makes their intelligence develop; for other humans, and dogs, we do not know such an environment. But how does this change their nature? Is the nature of a human with phenylketonuria closer to that of a typical human or to that of a dog? Does his nature depend on his genes or his diet? Or isn't the very notion of the nature of beings a delusion?

And what of blacks and whites? Trivially, genes influence a human's skin pigmentation. Many black people live in places where there is not much sun and hence may produce insufficient vitamin D in their skin and have a higher risk of rickets. Rickets in turn may inhibit intellectual development. In this particular case, some black people will be less intelligent because of their genes, and the average intelligence of black people will be lower because of this genetic trait.

This is a hypothesis, and the factor in question, if it exists, is probably weak. A vitamin D supplement would solve the problem. Nevertheless, this example is still relevant: if one wants to demonstrate that genetic differences between black and white people do not affect at all their average intellect, we need to eliminate every possible causal path by which genes might affect intelligence – and it is this that is completely unrealistic. In ten minutes, I could think of ten such possible paths, either for blacks vs. whites or for French vs. Belgians. One would need to have great trust in the staunch goodwill and resolute antiracism of Mother Nature to believe that not one of these reasons can effectively come into play, or that they, magically, all cancel out.

The idea of “genetic equality” among groups of humans is false. And what is the use of definding such a notion? What does this have to do with racism? Would racism be justified if it happened to be that genes affected pigmentation which in turn increased the risk of vitamin D deficiency and consequently rickets which lowers intellect? Does the level of intelligence become a nature just because it happens to be caused by genes?

Someone may say that this is not what we mean when we discuss the genetic equality of intelligence. Indeed! The genes I have been discussing are the real genes, which mechanically lead, through a cascade of consequences, and in conjunction with the environment and chance, to certain effects; but the genes people have in mind are the mythical genes, those that they believe form our nature, the truth of our being, our essence; our unalterable fate prescribed by Nature. On genetics we project the “scientific” crystallisation of our mystical lineages, of our blood and our birthrights. We thus invent a kind of genetics that does not exist, except in the minds of racists, sexists, speciesists and so on, who all want to argue amongst themselves about the natures of white people and black people and about whether the latter are more or less animal-like by nature than white people. They will argue about this for centuries! Black people are animals, just as are white people. Also, there is no such thing as innate intelligence; there is only real intelligence. Genes are not intelligent and have neither will nor intention, despite the thinly-veiled attempts, particularly by sociobiologists, to lend them a soul.

So What?

They talk about this thing in the head (...) What's that got to do with women's rights or Negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?

Sojourner Truth, a black feminist, speaking at a feminist convention in the United States of America in 1850, quoted by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation.

Why do we afford intelligence such importance?

Is it for its real, practical importance? We justify this emphasis on intelligence by noting that physical force is no longer so useful. An intelligent person, by contrast, is viewed as useful to society, and thus deserves to be rewarded with money and social standing.

Are those on the higher steps of the social ladder more useful to their community? We can look at it the other way around: In a conflicted society, intelligence is a weapon. It is often said that “the liberation of the oppressed will be the work of the oppressed themselves”, and unfortunately, there is some truth here. The liberation of African-Americans owes much to their own initiative and action, which would not have been possible if they had had the intelligence of chickens. Thus, the idea that black people are less intelligent than whites may have a demoralising effect on their struggle for social equality.

Such an inequality of intelligence, whether “innate” or “acquired”, would be bad news for antiracism, rendering their struggle more difficult. However, it would not make their struggle unjust. Our culture is a bit too quick to equate might with right. African-Americans are no longer slaves, chickens still are. While the intelligence of black people explains in some part their liberation, it is not what justifies it.

Picture from an introductory book to Judaism.

The sign that shows that we are allowed to eat them; from Ch. Szlakmann, Le Judaïsme pour débutants (“Judaism for Beginners”), éd. La Découverte, 1985.

Translation of the text:

Judaism allows us to eat meat.

In effect, Man, the purpose of Creation, is superior to animals.

Animals have their heads, viscera and genitals all on the same level.

Men have their heads higher than their viscera and genitals.

Our intelligence enables us to “force respect”, but its greatest role is magical: it is the main sign of humanity. Just as the blackness of a person's skin serves as a sign of her being a black person, a lack of intelligence serves as a sign of being a nonhuman. Humans above all care about their status as humans. The ocean of suffering and misery that we impose today on other animals is widely known. It is only through speciesism that we manage to keep it at a distance. Nonhuman animals must remain completely alien; they are dumb and we must be intelligent. The fact that intelligence serves as a means for climbing the social ladder confirms its role as a sign; society defines itself against nonhuman animals, and social status serves as proof of humanity.

A Plethora of Signs

Many justifications are put forward for what humans do to other animals; indeed, far too many. For those who produce them, the conclusion comes first, justifications follow. They churn them out, one after the other. It matters little how shaky each one is; in our deeply speciesist culture, they lean on each other and no one notices that they are no more than a house of cards.

These arguments are merely an accumulation of signs. No one seriously bothers to show how they might justify human dominion over other animals. No one cares either that they all have the same defect: either they leave out some humans or they include some nonhumans.

There are countless examples of such signs. Any trait will do, as long as it can appear “noble” and specifically human. Tool use was the preserve of humanity until we found a bird who uses tools too. Since the bird had this “uniquely human” trait, we declared her life sacred like that of a human. No, I'm kidding! While eating the bird, we declared: only humans make tools. But some chimpanzees make tools too, so we had to drop this argument altogether.

Another theme is language. We said that animals have no language, but, as dogs can bark, we made it more specific: they have no articulated language. But then someone taught apes to use sign language, with syntax and all. They aren't as good at it as we are, but the idea is there. So we have abandoned this line too. (We haven't insisted that the language must be voiced, to avoid angering the deaf.)

And how is an absence of language supposed to justify a massacre? I have been told that if a being cannot express her suffering in words, we cannot know that it exists. Yet, all mammals show the same signs of suffering as humans and it would be surprising if two such similar phenomena did not have a similar cause. Little science would be possible if we demanded that its objects be endowed with speech. Also, it is said, “Suffering that is not conceptualized does not exist, except on a purely physical level”. Feminists have documented that, for centuries, women have suffered in silence because of the lack of concepts to express their plight. A decisive step in their liberation was when concepts were created to convey what they underwent. Before this, was their suffering “merely physical”?

Then it is said: “An animal knows, a man knows that he knows!” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin); “Animals are not self-aware!”; “Only humans have a unique personality!” These assertions are all either false, vague or both and none would withstand the simplest of scientific examinations. But again, what would it change? Is it our knowledge that we know, or that we are “self-aware” or have a unique “personality” that gives our lives value? But it doesn't matter that all this is false or vague; it is the natures that justify our massacres, be they of chickens or of Jews.

There is also “animal instinct” as opposed to “human reason”. This way of posing the problem highlights humans' lack of basic knowledge about other animals, a void filled by jumbled stereotypes. Racists also generally know nothing of those they hate, but these racist and speciesist fables are exactly that – fables, a way of expressing the ineffable: the beings' purported natures.

A Modest Proposal

It would be quite possible to raise, from birth, human children in a form of relational and sensorial isolation such that they would develop none of the noble qualities that are “unique to man”. Brought up in conditions similar to those that are imposed on calves, they could then be subjected to the same fate, “because that's what they were made for” (and “that's all they have ever known”). Why would we care about such non-social beings, incapable of speaking and using tools, with no emotional bonds and who don't even know that they know? You may find the suggestion outrageous; so do I, but if you find it outrageous but don't find what we do to calves raised for veal just as outrageous, then you are a speciesist. You do not want this to be done to a human, because humans are of your species. What can you then seriously object to a racist, who cares only for those of his race?

Natures vs. Reality

Why should we care about the fate of any being? What matters in deciding that we should refrain from harming it?

We might decide that nothing matters. We can, if we wish, kill and torture whomever we want. We could also decide to torture only black people or right-handed ones. We could even choose to torture ourselves; but that we do rarely. Why? Because it hurts, it is against our own interests.

To refrain from harming others is to extend the consideration we have for our interests to those of others. It is this very notion that underlies ethics. And what determines whose interests we are to take into account? Those of white people only? Why them? Of intelligent beings only? Or only of those who are social? When we take into account our own interests, we do not ask ourselves whether we are intelligent or social. This has nothing to do with the issue. Pain is pain, whether we are social or not.

To each real thing its real consequences. The intelligence of a being can matter in many ways, but there is no connection between her intelligence and how wrong it is to harm her. So what matters in this case?

To each real thing its real consequences. If a being is sentient, the consequence is that we should not harm her. This is independent of any other characteristics that the being may have. This is what a non-racist, non-sexist and non-speciesist ethic tells us.

If a being is sentient, can suffer or feel pleasure, his suffering and pleasure matter as much as those of another. Any difference in the importance we give to the interests of two beings is necessarily arbitrary since it is based on some characteristic which has no relation with the reason why we take these interests into account: the plain fact that they exist.

Suffering is suffering, pleasure is pleasure: this is the sole equality that matters. If stones could suffer or feel pleasure, we should take into account their interests not to suffer and to feel pleasure – regardless of whether each stone has a “unique personality”. If stones don't have these faculties, as they most probably do not, there is nothing to take into account.

What should we do in practice? Often those of us who do not eat animals are accused of looking down on plants. Those who with a derisive grin express their sympathy for plants actually eat indirectly ten times more plants than we do, by having them fed to the animals they make lead a life of misery while waiting to be slaughtered. But in fact, we have no contempt for either plants or stones. Contempt is a racist attitude in and of itself. Contempt means judging a being's nature as inferior to one's own; while what really matters is what is real. Whether an animal is human or not, his sentience is real. What matters is to know: who is sentient, who can suffer?

How can we know that plants or stones do not suffer? It's a question that is difficult to solve in a principled way, but in practice, a few simple conclusions are easy to reach. I will speak of these in my next article, but those of you with a non-speciesist view will agree with me on this: a bird's, a fish's and a nonhuman mammal's capacity to suffer is as real and certain as a human's. From this follows the first and most simple consequence: we must cease to eat them.