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Oct 23, 2006
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A subject that teaches us a lot about ourselves
SPECIESISM I Whether or not it's the equivalent of racism or sexism, discussing it is discussing what it means to be human

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The B.C. Ministry of Education, it seems, has literally gone to the dogs. It wasn't enough that a new Grade 12 social justice course will probe discrimination against gays and lesbians; the ministry is now considering a Vancouver Humane Society proposal to add "speciesism" to the curriculum.

The society's Lesley Fox explained that speciesism -- the differential treatment of beings on the basis of their species -- is akin to racism and sexism and consequently deserves inclusion in a course concerned with oppression and discrimination.

This naturally led many people to conclude that the ministry is for the birds, that instead of emphasizing the three Rs, B.C. schools will soon be teaching their charges that we should treat cows the same as we treat dogs, even though it's damnably difficult to get a cow to roll over and play dead, except in an abattoir.

Despite the skepticism, though, a discussion of speciesism is among the most important discussions that could take place in school. And this is not primarily because it might lead future generations to treat animals better than we do, although that would be an unqualified good.

No, the reason schools, and society in general, ought to grapple with the concept of speciesism, rather than dismissing it out of hand, is because it tells us a lot more about ourselves than about non-human animals. Indeed, a discussion of speciesism is ultimately a discussion about what it means to be human.

Humans have always thought of ourselves as exceptional, but in recent centuries we've been knocked from our pedestal. In the early 16th century, Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus made short work of our belief that the physical universe revolved us, but we nevertheless continued to believe that we're at the centre of the moral universe.

In more religious times, this was easy enough to accept, since all and only human beings possessed an immortal soul, thereby establishing a qualitative difference between humans and non-human animals.

Even philosophers who didn't rely on explicitly theological premises were able to separate man from other animals because man is the "rational animal." So Immanuel Kant, in explaining his famous "categorical imperative," argued that thanks to self-consciousness, we must treat humans as ends in themselves. Animals, on the other hand, lack self-consciousness and so can be treated as means to an end.

But as science, and particularly biology progressed, it became more and more difficult to hold to the notion of human exceptionalism. Other animals were discovered capable of engaging in what were previously thought to be uniquely human, rational behaviours, such as tool-using and even rudimentary language.

The difference between humans and other animals therefore seemed quantitative rather than qualitative, a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. Indeed, the theory of evolution told us that all living things share a common ancestor, and that humans are apes -- great apes to be sure, but apes nonetheless. And more recent evidence further shatters our notion of human exceptionalism, as it confirms that we share more than 98 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees.

Against this backdrop it's unsurprising that the spectre of speciesism has gained currency in our culture. Coined by British psychologist and former animal researcher Richard Ryder in 1970, speciesism received its most extensive formulation in Australian philosopher Peter Singer's seminal work, Animal Liberation, in 1975.

Before considering Singer's philosophy, it's worth looking at the work of 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham, one of the founders of utilitarianism, which holds that morally right actions are those that produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, argued that when considering the treatment of animals we should ask not whether they can reason or talk, but whether they can suffer.

This fits in neatly with Bentham's utilitarian philosophy, since causing animals to suffer would reduce the sum total of happiness among all living creatures and would therefore be an immoral act. Interestingly, though, Bentham sanctioned killing animals for food because, he argued, animals will probably suffer less by being slaughtered in an abattoir than by dying in the wild as a result of diseases or attacks by other animals. Nature, after all, is a cruel mistress.

In any case, Singer builds on Bentham's philosophy by advancing "preference" utilitarianism. Singer admits humans and animals have different intellectual abilities, but he argues that these differences in no way permit us to give less consideration to animals' interests or preferences, particularly their interest in avoiding pain.

In support of this view, Singer notes that when we speak of equality among individuals or races, we aren't making a descriptive claim -- we aren't suggesting that all people have exactly the same abilities. Rather, equality is a normative concept -- it refers to the moral stance we take toward people, to the idea that we ought to treat their interests with equal consideration even though they may have unequal abilities.

To do otherwise -- to give less consideration to members of other races based on their putative differences -- is to engage in racism. And Singer concludes that to give unequal consideration to animals' interest in avoiding pain is to engage in the equally morally repugnant practice of speciesism.

This is not an altogether easy argument to answer, since it requires us to find some human characteristics that make us more morally valuable than other animals to justify giving our interests greater weight than the interests of animals. And as we have seen, science has gradually eliminated many of the characteristics that separated us from the animal world.

Nevertheless, most philosophers who dispute Singer's conclusions argue that humans are more than the sum of their genes, and maintain that humans' "superior" cognitive capacities do make us qualitatively different from animals. And they return to the Kantian notion that humans are uniquely rational, self-conscious beings, members of a moral community, whose enormous accomplishments have made life better, not only for themselves, but for animals as well.

Humans have also made life worse for many animals, of course, and this argument doesn't excuse that or suggest that humans can treat animals any way they like. It only suggests that we might be justified in giving more weight to human interests than animal interests in certain circumstances.

In any case, whatever the strengths or weaknesses of this argument, there is one counter example that must be addressed. Singer notes that not all humans are rational -- the mental functioning of infants and people with profound intellectual disabilities may be no higher than that of some animals.

If we wish to distinguish humans from animals on the basis of our superior cognitive abilities, Singer continues, we must recognize that certain humans would not be included. To do otherwise would be to judge beings not on their intellectual capacities, but on their membership in a certain species. And that, of course, is the very definition of speciesism.

This leads us to a further question: Is speciesism necessarily a bad thing, the equivalent of racism or sexism, or can it perhaps be justified? I don't pretend to have the answer to this question -- or to any of the questions raised here -- and I don't know anyone who does.

But that's precisely why we need to have a discussion of speciesism in schools and in the community, for the welfare of all animals, including humans, depends on the answers we supply.

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Posted: Oct 23, 2006 9:33am


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