This article1 asks what the antispeciesist revolution would bring to progressive endeavors. What fundamental, civilizational changes would it bring?
“Our defence of the sentient beings that are at the very bottom of the exploiting chain gives our demand for justice a worth which is more universal than that of any demand made by any exploited human group – or class – in the past: it makes of our struggle for equality the struggle for equality”
Paola Cavalieri, 19902
Growing awareness of the animal rights question makes me feel hopeful that we’re on the cusp of an ethical revolution of an unprecedented scale. Its logical outcome – animal equality – could well begin to break down the ideological conditions that have produced the forms of discrimination, oppression, exploitation and domination responsible for the most horrific atrocities committed in human history. Up until now, our ethics have continued to be based on belonging to certain groups and on our hierarchical vision of the world. The animal equality movement marks a departure from this outdated logic and its disastrous consequences. This departure makes it possible for us to imagine changing the world in the broader sense of the term. And we wouldn’t have to stop at revolutionising the small section of the world that is human society. We could go way beyond that and, hopefully, revolutionise the whole world.
Towards ethics based on reality
There is innate value in the feelings of every sentient being. The feelings, emotions and desires that each individual experiences are always important to them; these things are never a matter of indifference. The subjective states of a living being are both real and important at the same time. They are necessarily connected to (positive or negative) facts and values, whether pleasant and desirable (physical pleasure, satisfaction, wellbeing, etc.) or unpleasant and undesirable (physical pain, emotional distress, etc.). These feelings have real meaning for those who experience them, regardless of the significance they might have for an outside observer. Refusing to acknowledge their existence or give them importance is like refusing to acknowledge the reality beyond the walls of one’s own house just because the windows and doors are closed. Put simply, we have to ask ourselves what we are going to consider important in our world. Only by taking into account the subjective states of sentient beings, the only factors in this world that have any inherent value, can we legitimately claim that our morals are realistic and universalist3.
Equality is a fundamental concept in ethics: from an objective (impartial) point of view, the interests of others are just as important as our own interests. It is therefore necessary to (do our best to) take them into consideration as if they were our own. What’s more, equality is a minimum ethical requirement: if the importance of subjective states lies in their positive or negative nature, it follows that we must try to reduce suffering in the world and increase the pleasure every living being on the planet experiences over the course of its life. Ethics logically implies a desire to change the world.
As an arbitrary type of discrimination, speciesism completely disregards the requirement of giving equal consideration to the interests of all. The very fact that our language does not account for the fact that humans are animals (and that these two categories are instead considered binary opposites) provides sufficient evidence that these are political rather than biological categories. In most situations, “they are animals” is not a statement grounded in biology; but a political sentence. In fact, it’s more common to hear: “they’re just animals”4.
Our societies are founded upon several other categories: gender, race, age and community, which we have attributed specific essences to, making liberal use of naturalistic arguments – although these are based more on political and historical criteria than biological ones. (Incidentally, basing such arguments on biological criteria would not make them any more relevant.) Today, this is most evident in categories of peoples and races; it is less obvious with gender and age. The ideologies associated with these categories legitimise relationships of domination and apparently make it possible to get around the requirement of equality.
In recent years, various works in the fields of philosophy, the history of ideas, psychology and (political) sociology have demonstrated that sexist, racist, ageist5, ableist6 and speciesist ideologies have several common features. Not only do these ideologies work in a relatively similar way7, but more significantly, they also appear to be cut from the same cloth8. To a certain extent, this has always been evident, not least because these ideologies constantly refer to one another. The link that connects them all is contempt: black people are regularly compared to monkeys, Jews or “Arabs” to rats or vermin, colonised peoples are considered to be childish (“big kids”), Jews to be effeminate, women to be infantile, while children are compared to small animals or people with mental disabilities, and so on. All are considered to be primitive to a greater or lesser extent and capable of little more than expressing their specific “nature” (as a black person, woman, child, etc.).
Attempts to rationalise and develop each of these ideologies into their current forms began around roughly the same time: from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards. Each ideology was constructed as a different branch of the same core humanist ideology, founded on the contrast between the domination of Humanity (defined by control of one’s own mind and discipline over one’s own body and material things) on the one hand, and on the other, a natural order, composed of “natural elements” that each fulfil a pre-determined function. Within this framework, dominant groups fall under the category of Humanity, while the dominated are considered to be bound to Nature. This opposition stems from a humanist-naturalist ideology: an illusory division of reality into two opposing worlds: Humanity and Nature. This ideology creates a separation that is fundamentally speciesist in nature, as animals are prime examples of beings that are bound to Nature.
Given that this ideology is the very foundation our civilisations are built upon, it is rarely explicitly named and therefore constitutes a blind spot in contemporary political thought.
The various discriminatory ideologies in our society also appear to be connected from a socio-psychological perspective. This point has been explored in detail in a pioneering study carried out by Jonathan Fernandez, who highlights very strong correlations between racist, sexist and speciesist views. Statistically, the more sexist a person is, the more likely they are to be racist and speciesist, and vice-versa. Conversely, the less speciesist a person is, the less racist or sexist they are likely to be9. Kimberly Costello, Gordon Hodson, Kristof Dhont and Cara MacInnis have also demonstrated in several social psychology studies that the more emphasis people place on the human/animal distinction, the stronger their tendency towards “dehumanisation” and “animalisation” of marginalised human groups is likely to be. Likewise, the more people consider animals to be similar to humans, the more tolerant they are likely to be towards humans different to themselves10.
This “convergence of oppressions” culminates in the emblematic dominant figure, in which the identities of “male” and “human” (but also “adult” and “white”) merge to create a single multi-faceted identity11. Several commentators have noted that this exemplary figure of Modernity – the rational human who is master of himself, represented by the white, adult male – is always defined as the opposite of animality, femininity, childhood, etc.12 In short, humanist ideology posits that reason is what enables individuals to “control” themselves (their bodies, impulses, etc.), a control that is said to represent “ownership of the self”, a pre-requisite for accessing ownership of other things and individuals that are declared irrational – and as such, become appropriable.
Ethics in disguise
Up until the modern era, ethics presented itself in various guises, whether under the banner of religion, mysticism or identity. As such, morality continued to be associated with obedience to a divine mandate or respect for a natural order: submission to a formidable entity endowed with great kindness and wisdom, yet pitiless and cruel. The path towards religious/social acceptance always required the glorification of a powerful entity, reified and proclaimed divine and natural or social, whether it be a nation, a society, a race or humanity itself. The feeling of belonging to an order, a community, something larger than ourselves, gave us an identity and a sense of self-importance. The fundamental importance placed on belonging to a certain religion, race or gender, or to humanity, etc. saddled individuals with various corresponding basic identities which were paired with specific virtues or obligations (Christian, masculine, feminine, civilised or human virtues, for example). Of course, living in society as, say, a Christian or human also involved conforming to behaviours expected of a Christian or human (or for that matter man, woman, adult, child, white person, etc.). As such, belonging and social conformity were tied to moral obligations. (Incidentally, the words “ethical” and “moral” initially referred to anything that was “habitual or customary” – coming from the Latin “mos”).
But for the last few decades, there has been a tendency to regard ethics as a field independent of anything else; we do not feel obliged to dress it up or to try to rationalise our (bad) habits. Modern ethics seems to be capable of breaking with our infatuation with those traditional “higher values” that people felt obliged to refer to, even for the best part of the 20th century. Now, we can finally begin to turn our attention to the lowly material realities that were once considered unworthy of our attention: ourselves. Our vulnerable, permeable bodies, visited by pain and suffering, desire and revulsion. Reduced to simple, ephemeral individuals, we feel wretched when faced with the infinite majesty of formidable entities (God, Nature, the Cosmos), the all-encompassing magnitude of community (societies, nations, races) or the venerable perfection of ideals and values (such as Humanity and Liberty), before which we have lain prostrate for so long. Societies founded on relationships of domination and violence require us to worship fantastical entities (usually imaginary) so we feel entitled to exploit, torture and kill.
Lifting our gaze to ethereal abstractions has always enabled us to trample upon the concrete interests of any and all13. Totalitarian ethics aim to replace any consideration we give to individual interests with consideration for fabricated, fictional entities such as Nature or the Nation, presenting these as realities and values in their own right. This is why it is important that the real, singular world takes precedence over fiction, generalisation and abstraction: we, humble vermin of all kinds, are the only things that matter on this Earth. And every one of us matters. The rest of the world only has a relative value to us; it can only hold value in relation to us.
We have undoubtedly internalised a very deep contempt for ourselves as a result of so stubbornly refusing to see ourselves as having innate value14 and our constant need to position ourselves beneath these omnipresent entities we see as powerful and eternal15. Despite all this, modern human life is said to be sacred and our fundamental rights are proclaimed inviolable. But this sanctification of humankind has required us to imagine ourselves as members of an extraordinary community of individuals with free will “created in the image of God”. At the same time, we have had to animalise animals, to consider them as beasts, in order to place ourselves on a pedestal by contrast and enable us to feel like their masters. We have had to resort to this play-acting so that we might dare to accord ourselves any kind of importance. Unfortunately, this play-acting has been bloody in nature: we have used other animals (and other dominated groups that we have also animalised) as stepping stones to help us to reach the top – a summit created essentially by piling up their suffering and their corpses.
But it is not because we are beings with free will, while animals are poor, mechanical creatures, that we should recognise in ourselves a special “human dignity”. What truly gives our lives value – and should really be enough reason for assurance that our interests will be taken into consideration – is the fact that we are sentient beings. Are we not, as sentient beings ourselves, the measure of all things?
Rejecting categories and hierarchies
Humans are not God’s gift to Earth and our violence is not fundamentally different from the violence that occurs among other species. But we have made significant progress as a group in terms of the effectiveness of our violence, which makes us particularly fearsome16. Nevertheless, over the last three millennia, the circle of our moral consideration has expanded considerably17 and the violence humans have mutually inflicted on one another has significantly reduced: even taking into account both world wars, the rate of homicide was 40 times lower in the 20th century than in the 14th century18.
Yet, this moral progress is far from consistent. In recent times, for example, modern racism, which appeared in the 18th century19, has been used to justify the slave trade, colonisation and forced labour. Today it goes hand-in-hand with Franco-African neocolonialism20, generating in urban areas a sort of neo-indigenate of immigrants and their descendants, who are considered “second-zone” citizens21.
Without a doubt, this moral development has a lot to do with the extension of political affiliations: the focus has progressively shifted from more limited affiliations (clans, estates, etc.) to categories such as race, nation and humanity. The scope of domination has in fact expanded. Today, as in the past, individuals have to be recognised members of the same body to be recognised at all. As such, we are only ever taken into consideration as members of a common group or community, or as individuals possessing a common essence.
To base ethics on categories is to deny that individuals have any importance as individuals in their own right. It means only taking into account their interests based on their position in relation to the community they belong to or their standing within that community. Outside of these groups, individual interests are not taken into account, or only to a certain extent. The interests of members of the dominant group on the other hand are prioritised and recognised as fundamental rights – including, in many cases, the fundamental right to own those who do not belong to the dominant group. This is how traditional patriarchal ethics grants males total power over non-males; the catch is that this kind of ethics is only interested in men for as long as they are considered to represent masculinity.
The notion of belonging to specific categories is inextricable from hierarchies. Categories grant different values and statuses to different individuals. Fundamental social categories distinguish individuals in both senses of the term: they simultaneously differentiate between and attach a comparative (positive or negative) value to individuals. These categories invariably create a hierarchy: women and men are presented as complementary categories that are proclaimed equivalent or “equal”, yet sexism remains omnipresent. This hierarchy is based on essences, on “beingness” (it is what is known as “ontological”). Masculinity is worth more than femininity, which means its representatives are worth more than women22. In fact, masculinity is defined in opposition to femininity, so the value of men is directly proportionate to women’s lack of value. The more deeply misogynist a man is, the higher opinion he has of himself in contrast. Men therefore have to constantly safeguard the prestige that their own masculinity confers them by demonstrating how “worthy” of it they are, in particular by making sure they always differentiate themselves to maintain their rank. (Even though women have acquired the right to wear trousers, wearing a skirt remains a dishonourable thing for a man to do.) Unfortunate are the men who are not able to live up to their name (the one that gives them their place in the clan of men); they certainly know about it when other men turn against them and they too find themselves among the victims of this dirty little game of gender.
Equality (including “animal” equality) entreats us to stop playing this game of hierarchies altogether. It does not advocate taking the interests of all sentient beings into account on the basis that “a rat is worth the same as a human, which is worth the same as a chicken, which is worth the same as a fish, which is worth the same as a shrimp”. Instead, it takes a more radical stance, putting arguments based on the “value of beings” to rest in favour of simply considering each individual’s interests as important in their own right. This reversal of perspective marks a clean break from the essentialism inherited from antiquity (and later from Christianity) by refusing to recognise any kind of hierarchy based on essences that supposedly grant a special dignity to certain individuals. There is no such thing as inherent value (no living beings are simply “superior” to others). Not only does value exist exclusively in comparative terms, it also only makes sense to make evaluations based on pre-determined criteria. Which is superior, the chimpanzee or the human? Is a chimpanzee superior (in absolute terms) to a human because it has a better visual memory or because it is able to retrieve a peanut from a tube? How is it possible to go from making comparisons based on defined skills, to taking undefined values into consideration, if not by creating imaginary hierarchical essences that these skills are supposed to demonstrate or reveal?
There is no longer any basis for a representation of the world based on these hierarchical essences and it is high time that we put them to rest. It no longer makes sense to ask whether a rat is worth the same as a human. Not only does it not matter, the question is also absurd; it no longer has any conceivable meaning. The question is inappropriate because today, regardless of what we may think of rats, whether we like to think of them as superior or inferior to crayfish or humans, we are beginning to realise that the shared interests of both rats and humans (an interest in not dying a slow death after being poisoned, for example) are of equal importance – and should therefore be recognised as such23.
In the same way, the animal question encourages us to stop basing our arguments on category membership. The only reason to use the “animal” qualifier in “animal equality” now is for clarification – to distinguish it from equality that only takes humans into account. In reality, (animal) equality is a form of universalism, while human equality, for as long as it only takes humans into account, is a form of speciesism, a kind of species chauvinism and communitarianism. Equality is a form of universalism as long as it takes us all into consideration in the same way, without distinctions of any sort and regardless of membership, status, category, or degree to which we are subject to the rules of a particular community.
It is not because sentient individuals belong to the category of animals that their interests should be taken into account, but because they feel everything they experience and consequently, attach value to the things that happen to them. Equality is not, therefore, about creating and promoting a new imaginary category or essence – that of “animality”; it is about taking into account individuals for what they are (for what they experience), regardless of the categories they might belong to.
In the 1930s, during the Second Sino-Japanese war, Japan’s Unit 731 carried out chilling vivisection experiments on humans:
Vivisection was carried out on prisoners. Some were boiled alive, others burnt with flame throwers, frozen alive, subjected to transfusions of horse blood or even sea water, electrocuted, killed in giant centrifuges, or exposed to X-rays for extended periods of time. Some prisoners were completely dehydrated (in other words, mummified alive). They were dehydrated until they finally died, weighing less than a fifth of their original body weight. The effects of hydrogen cyanide, acetone and potassium were also tested on them. Some prisoners were starved and deprived of sleep until they died. Others were subjected to decompression experiments.24
Inoculation and syphilis treatment experiments were also carried out on a massive scale until prisoners died, in the hope of finding treatments for soldiers who had been infected during the systematic rape of Chinese women. All of these experiments were carried out to support the war effort and to ease the suffering of these same soldiers: worthy, active members of the glorious Empire of the Land of the Rising Sun. This reasoning, based on social categories, psychologically and morally enabled researchers to tirelessly inflict unspeakable suffering on the subjects of their experiments, whom they considered to be subhuman, animal-like individuals. These prisoners were simply not lucky enough to be members of the main group of individuals responsible for the structure and organisation of Japan during the 1930s.
The fact that we ourselves are humans makes us recoil at the horror that the victims of vivisection experienced – because those victims were human. It also prevents us, however, from completely identifying with animal victims, despite the fact that the suffering they experience (or at least their physical suffering) is very similar. An American survey from 2007 suggests that those questioned place over 10,000 times more importance on human suffering than on animal suffering. On average, they would be prepared to make up to 11,500 farm animals suffer to relieve the suffering of a single human being25.
Disdain and/or hostility towards those that are not members of a certain group are key to the social processes of belonging. It is possible to analyse most of the moral horrors that have been carried out over the course of human history in the context of the ethical and political systems they come from, based on the categories they belong to and their place in hierarchies26. These social systems are, without a doubt, indicative of a strong tendency among humans. But whether this is a deep-seated inclination or just one of many possible tendencies that has been proliferated as a result of “historical selection”27, when the extent of the potential ethical and political harm these systems can cause is this alarming, the least we can do is fight their principles and do everything in our power to move onto something better.
Liberating ourselves from Humanity
“I believe that all the tragedies we have seen, starting with colonialism, followed by fascism and finally the extermination camps, were all carried out not in opposition or contradiction to the so-called humanism we have been practising for several centuries, but, I would say, as part of its natural extension.”
Claude Lévi-Strauss, 197928
When I talk about “humanism”, I’m referring simply to what has been humanity’s prevalent ideology for the last five centuries. As the French Larousse dictionary explains, humanism places “humankind and its values above all other values” and sees “humankind and everything related to it as the centre, the measure and the higher purpose of all things”.
Today, the criterion of humanity acts as the fundamental ethical and political criterion and humanism has a good reputation. Since the victory of the Allies in 1945, humanism has been described as the “last bulwark against barbarism.” And yet we forget that the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries extolled a humanism that was aggressively sexist, racist and ageist, with tendencies towards eugenics and a willingness to exterminate entire human populations. This was a humanism that would rarely shy away from extreme measures. All the evidence suggests that Nazism was not simply a historical accident that inexplicably occurred on the fringe of an otherwise progressive humanism29. The same humanist ideology went hand in hand with patriarchal guardianship over women and children, transatlantic slave-trade and slavery, the constitution of colonial empires and the establishment of various forms of apartheid, including the relegation of anyone considered out of the ordinary to asylums, the prevalence of ableism and more recently, confinement of “minors”30 to schools and the relegation of the elderly to homes31.
It has only been since the end of the Second World War that the idea of humanism implying human equality has been (painstakingly) spread on a global scale. Until then, it was largely considered a given that inequality and elitism were inherent to the idea of humanity, even if these were only based on the distinctions between civilised/primitive and men/women. Humans stood out among other animals because of their intellectual abilities, which were an indication of their greatness. Ultimately, it was these abilities that gave them this specific dignity. But if a hierarchy of beings featuring humans and other animals was to be established to determine which animals were superior and which inferior, it was almost inevitable that this also would lead to degrees of value being established for different humans. In French and English, a human being is the only being worthy of the qualifier – there is no such thing as an ape being. An ape is not really a being. It is a lesser individual, less valuable, a lesser being. In the same way that some beings are considered lesser beings, some humans are considered lesser humans. This expression demonstrates how the very concept of human is one of value; the term is not so much descriptive as it is fundamentally evaluative (i.e. normative).
As we have seen in various times and places throughout history, there are many of these lesser humans among us: children, slaves, women, people of colour, primitives, Jews, Roma or Slavic peoples, foreigners, etc. They are all considered lesser humans or less human. Not to mention the runts of society, mistakes of nature left behind by an evolution that placed us at the top of the pile: diminished beings who include disabled, ill-adapted and mentally inadequate people of all kinds32. Not to mention deviants and criminals, who express their humanity in a way that the zeitgeist deems unacceptable and are renounced or condemned as a result. Animals, for their part, are entirely non-human right from the outset; even if some of them are (somewhat) similar to humans, the only real degree of difference that exists is between them, because there is a gulf separating them from us. We are people, while they are (practically) things.
To be fully and properly human means one has the privilege of being treated by others as an equal, a “peer”. Those who fall under this category know perfectly well how “others” (non-peers) are treated and go to great lengths to ensure they remain as human as possible. There is a whole host of behavioural codes to follow: don’t mess around or make yourself look stupid, don’t pick your nose or be sloppy when you eat, don’t walk around naked or engage in any sexual or scatological activity in public, don’t be selfish or above all “irresponsible”, don’t be poor or homeless, don’t rely on the welfare system… and it “goes without saying” that you shouldn’t kill just for pleasure, especially not humans, and you certainly shouldn’t go around devouring them whenever you feel like it. Until recently, appearing to take sides with animals was also a big faux pas. The list goes on, and anyone is free to add to it. The Archbishop of Manila, for example, said a few years ago that condoms are “fit only for animals, not for human beings.” In fact, distinguishing ourselves from animals, whatever we might mean by that, seems to be something of a categorical imperative.
In the same way men have to prove their masculinity, humans have to prove that they are worthy of being considered human and must preserve humanity’s aura of respectability, grandeur, dignity and sacredness. As sovereign individuals, we should never, for example, let ourselves be “dominated”, and certainly not by our bodies or emotions: the transition to adulthood, the social age of self-ownership, occurs when we supposedly know how to suppress emotional outbursts, control our bodily movements and feelings, master the rules of social life, etc. This is why it very suddenly becomes so shameful for a child or teenager (or worse, adult) to wet the bed, have impulsive reactions when afraid, or to be unable to stop themselves from crying or blushing. Sexuality also poses a problem, as it can be experienced as a surge of desire or pleasure – of bodily urges.
When we have to constantly keep a tight rein on ourselves in this way, to police ourselves, to be controlled, regulated, civilised and humanised, we also end up evaluating others based on how well they submit to the same orders. Over the course of the last few centuries, all humans who have come to be defined according to this standard of humanity as insane, bestial, stupid, irresponsible or immature have been confined to specific places where their “differences” can be treated using the appropriate measures33. Gradually, normal humans (those who have managed to pick up the behavioural codes laid out for humanity) have found themselves increasingly troubled when they come across the village idiot type, that delusional figure who acts compulsively, speaks “too” loudly, doesn’t know a thing about table manners, is unable to hold polite conversation, lacks modesty, and so on. These traits (or defects) betray an imperfection in a person’s humanity and are due cause for worry and disgust.
Humans who do not correspond to what we have decreed completely and essentially human are relegated to a grey area. They do not express the dignity of humanity; if anything they diminish it. Degenerates, monsters, barbarians, runts… their existence is practically an insult, a challenge to the order of things, to the natural, universal hierarchy of beings. They degrade our (great) humanity. They do not seem to do this on purpose and we no longer dare directly challenge them on it. And so we feel uneasy and are unable to look them in the eye.
It’s no coincidence that we rarely see people with disabilities (whether physical, mental or social) in public spaces – and the reactions they encounter hardly encourage those who have been allowed to walk freely to do so34. It doesn’t take long for people to start stripping these abnormal people of the humanity they have so charitably been given. Taking this logic even further, the Vichy regime let some 40,000 people with disabilities die of hunger, lack of medicines and heating (not to mention mistreatment) in asylums. These lesser humans were also the last to receive their ration books35.
Our humanist societies remain fundamentally elitist (ableist/able-normative), even if they no longer admit to it. We may well shout from the rooftops that all humans are equal but we still strongly believe that intelligence, reason, moral responsibility and control over one’s own body are all essential, given that these are the factors that distinguish us from other animals and that a hierarchy of beings exists that places humanity right at the top (but in doing so still places certain humans slightly lower down on the scale than others)36.
The loss of one’s humanity
While things that are considered natural are said to be inherently so – they are not supposed to become anything different – human nature (i.e. the humanity of humans) is not considered to be inherent. Rather, each of us is responsible for developing at least part of it ourselves. As we might expect, not all of our respective versions of humanity are created equal37. If, as humans, we earn our dignity, we can just as easily prove unworthy of it. We can even make ourselves inhumane; there are, after all, degrees of humanity and inhumanity. As generic humans, standard incarnations of humanity, we are supposedly attributed infinite value. But as individuals, specific incarnations of humanity, we act as the bearers of this badge of honour, which we can either tarnish or allow to shine in all its glory. We have been given the title of “person”, but we are now required to be a person “worthy of the name”38.
I have already explained, in relation to masculinity, that the criterion that allows a dominant group to establish itself is the same one that lets it evaluate its members and keep them “in line”. If we do not make good use of our humanity (of the freedom and responsibility that characterise us as humans), we lose all or some of the special consideration that it grants us. We lose the “respect we were once due”. As we all know, individuals that are perceived to be “guilty” of something or said to be “criminals” are always treated extremely badly. Not only are they sentenced to a punishment, which is to say we deliberately seek to make them suffer, but they are also subjected to incessant humiliation and denied their rights, both by prison guards and the prison administration – and this despite the fact that modern law theory states they are only supposed to be deprived of their freedom39. For a long time now, the general consensus has been that prison is not resolving the social problems it is supposed to, and is often even a “school for crime”40. If in spite of this we decide not to opt for less cruel alternatives, it is almost certainly because inflicting suffering on convicts is also a way to degrade them, to demonstrate their “lack of dignity”. Inflicting suffering demonstrates degradation and makes people inferior: they are no longer treated as equals and their interests are no longer taken into account (anyone who is unworthy or undeserving can potentially be subjected to abuse). A sentence is defamatory: once a person is sentenced, they become a human to hold in contempt. Ultimately, these methods are far from a rational approach to resolving wrongdoing and distributing whatever reparations might be due as a result.
The category of humanity is a social and political category like any other, as ridiculous and arbitrary as the clan of men, the group we call adults or the French nation. Like any category, it creates a binary opposition: our “humanity” is defined primarily as the opposite of “animality”. It gives us a statutory place among those who have the right to decide whether non-members (non-humans) live or die. Last but not least, as with any community that is imposed upon us, it makes us a member, a part, an element – which is to say we do not belong to ourselves41.
Today, “Humanity” is ultimately our true owner. We belong to it. Our societies and nations, the current (real-life) representatives of Humanity on Earth, decide for us if we should go to school, if we should be imprisoned or sentenced to death, if we are free to commit suicide or instead must die a slow death in hospital if we get cancer. Society, acting in the name of humanity, supposedly has the legitimacy to forcibly educate us and then train and control us by constantly evaluating our performance.
Our fellow humans, other “members” of our genus, have decided that if they do not have total control over their own lives, we should not be able to have control over ours either, and that we too must submit to their prerogatives and judgements. We very quickly lose any goodwill we might have the moment the common laws of humanity are broken – the moment someone “refuses to follow the rules”. As such, these hostile relationships, conditional and reactionary, full of indignation and resentment, prevent any satisfaction of our fundamental need to be accepted, to be appreciated “for who we are” as individual beings. In fact, in the hands of our modern societies and their members, the concept of humanity is a powerful weapon against individuals whom they consider to be their citizens. The doublespeak term used to describe this is social “contract”. This term, associated with an opportunely brandished idea of individual responsibility42, leads to individual internalisation of judgement and pressure. Not only are we often hostile towards one another, we also often lack kindness towards ourselves43.
These socio-political mechanisms should be examined and, I think, rejected. Adhering to the principles of humanity or masculinity has its consequences, in the same way that conforming to the Japanese or Aryan regimes would have had its consequences if Hiro Hito or Hitler had won their wars. These identities and affiliations are tied to horrific systems of domination, social orders that are imposed by coercion rather than collectives that emerge from the free association of individuals. The moment we claim to have “human dignity” of any sort, we must be aware of what this claim implies about any living being who is not entitled to make it – and the fact that it binds us to an imperative of humanity by implication44.
Our humanity does not confer any rights and neither should it impose anything. Whether we are humans or not, whether we are humans to a greater or lesser extent (whatever we might mean by this) has no logical connection to the way we should treat one another or the extent to which we should take our respective interests into consideration.
The myth of species is just as bad as the metaphysical myth of race or essentialist theories of gender. It leads to the same dispossession and the same alienation of “us” and the same expropriation of “others”. The concept of a superior (or chosen) species is just as much a hindrance to equality and consideration for the interests of all as the concept of a superior (or chosen) race.
Towards an antinaturalist and antispeciesist world
If we free ourselves from the bonds of categories and hierarchies and take an ethical – or benevolent – approach to the world around us, we can become aware of what matters to others and what others experience. Notions of Humanity and Nature should seem as outdated to us as theories that claim our world is governed by the planets and the stars. What’s more, if we choose not to submit to a myth, we have no reason to support the notion that what are generally referred to as “the laws of Nature” should be respected, nor should we necessarily “conserve” them. There is no clear argument whatsoever for preserving the world as it is. What is extremely important, on the other hand, is that the interests of all humans and other living beings – interests in living under optimal conditions – be taken into account. We should therefore continue to change the world, making it “better”, more habitable – and not only for a small clique of happy elites, but for all of its inhabitants.
The movement for animal equality is in fact simply a movement for equality. It is a political movement that fights for the right to base our collective priorities on ethics. Fighting to give each individual’s interests equal consideration is part of a universal set of morals, so the resulting politics are necessarily universalist, too. This approach requires us to leave behind our narrow focus on defending our own interests as individuals or communities and extend our scope to ensure that the interests of all others, particularly those who are not members of our societies, are given the same consideration as our own interests.
This is why the animal equality movement is not content to remain a counterculture that is more or less tolerated by an unequal, violent civilisation that hypocritically creates an animal welfare ministry. It aims instead to change civilisation; to ensure that solidarity with all sentient beings on Earth becomes one of the guiding principles of the world we are creating – and will continue to create in the future.
Most humans do not acknowledge that life on our planet is miserable for the vast majority of its inhabitants. Many attempt to distort reality into an imaginary world of pre-existing harmony that we can one day commune with. According to this line of thinking, the world is not a mass grave; rather, it is a vast, idyllic community that we can be at one with. In this fantasy, paradise (lost) is generally depicted as a thing of the past. As Georges Moustaki sang, “There was once a garden we called Earth”. But alas, no such garden has ever existed anywhere other than in our dreams. Victor Hugo wrote in Les Contemplations that “animals run no risk of going to hell; they are already there”. He was undoubtedly thinking specifically of the animals that are directly dominated by humans, but his formula applies to the vast majority of sentient beings that live on our planet. Almost all animals die long before they reach reproductive age due to deformities, disease, hunger, thirst, accidents or because they are eaten by parasites or predators.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of animals are not mammals that only have three or four offspring at a time: to give just one example, every bluefin tuna that manages to reproduce will lay some tens of millions of eggs per year45. Of these tens of millions, some tens of thousands at most will become fish larvae. Even before industrial fishing was invented, stabilisation of the tuna population meant that only two of these would statistically end up reproducing. What about the others? Did they endure great suffering before dying? Did they die a quick death or were they confined to a crevice, petrified in the throes of death?
Now, humans have become the first population on Earth able to collectively question their own predation and to be able to imagine, systemise and rationalise their empathic urges. If the Earth is to become a garden one day, it will be our doing. If harmony is to exist one day, this will not be limited to the imaginary or illusory; it will be necessary to build it concretely, practically. The increase we are currently seeing in our power to act as a group, as “humanity”, demonstrates how our responsibility46 comes from the power we acquire. For better or worse, the more power we have to act, the bigger our responsibility. If we do not have the power to change anything on Mars, we do not have any responsibility for what happens there. Whenever we are able to intervene, whether we like it or not, we become responsible, either for what we do ourselves or for what we allow to happen that we could otherwise prevent or improve.
If we only had ourselves to take into consideration, it might make sense to stop accumulating power and settle for a quiet – and undoubtedly happy – life. But we are beginning to understand that for hundreds of millions of years, countless numbers of beings living among us have been suffering terribly and that it is now up to “us” humans to stand at the forefront of the immemorial fight for a better life for all animals. Animals have always had to fight against “nature”, i.e. against their environment and the hostile conditions that they find themselves in, to secure a decent life for themselves and their kin. This is history in the making: a story of all living beings being freed from the tyranny of having to struggle to survive and the torment of need and fear to escape from scarcity, insecurity and the potential threat from those around them – the relentless effort to glean a few moments of peace and happiness47.
Ultimately, thanks to their capacity for imagination, communication and organisation48, humans are collectively succeeding in bringing about an unprecedented change in society and considerably improving safety and wellbeing for the majority of their kind49. In any case, it really is up to us to create the ethical, political and technological conditions that will make it possible to change life on Earth. Unless there is a drastic change, neither dolphins nor elephants will be in a position to do it. Or at least not alone50. Élisée Reclus, 19th century French geographer, anarchist and vegetarian argued that humans are “nature becoming aware of itself”51. Humanity is in control of the planet. Yet it is not aware of the control it wields. Today, humans are not even consciously in control of their own destinies; the vast majority of their activities and the way in which their societies are run are determined by economic imperatives that are imposed on them. To establish conscious control, it is necessary to create political conditions that will finally give those who want it a real, collective say in the goals they want to achieve and the means by which they are prepared to achieve them.
Ethics, politics and, in particular, animal rights are fundamental issues. They concern all present and future sentient beings on our planet, whether they are dominated by humans or not. For the myriad individuals whose lives are miserable and deaths unenviable, these are extremely urgent and absolutely vital questions. The stakes are colossal. The animal equality movement opens up a gaping void of questions but it also draws our attention to some very new (and some age-old) perspectives. It is likely to generate a wave that will sweep away much of the structure of our world as we know it.
Yves Bonnardel has been an anti-speciesist activist since the early 1990s. He also fights for youth rights, against adult domination and against the idea of nature. He is an activist against France’s neo-colonial policy in Africa, and against the penal system, against discrimination based on nationality, etc. He is committed to the equal consideration of the interests of all, and the reduction of suffering on this planet.
- This article by Yves Bonnardel was published in 2018 under the title “Les animaux à l’assaut du ciel” in the collective work La Révolution antispéciste, by Les Presses Universitaires de France, whom we thank for their agreement to publish the translation carried out by Holly James.
- Paola Cavalieri, “Reflections”, published in 1990 in Between the Species.
- This is referred to as objectivity in ethics or realist meta-ethics and is the stance currently supported by Peter Singer. See also Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- This idea was developed by Loïs Boullu in his seminar “Human supremacy: animal exploitation as the cause and consequence of a political system” [in French], Estivales de la question animale, 2017.
- Ageism is age-based discrimination, mainly against “minors” and those we refer to as the “elderly” (or “the aged”), though as we will see, it also affects adults who are “of age” and therefore deemed to be fully responsible.
- Ableism sees those with disabilities as “diminished individuals” and constantly describes them in terms of deviation from a perceived “norm” for humanity.
- Yves Bonnardel, “Et si l’humain valait l’homme ? Sexisme et spécisme : rapports d’un dominant” (pdf), in Daniel Welzer-Lang (ed.), Nouvelles Approches des hommes et du masculin, Toulouse: Presses Universitaires de Toulouse le Mirail, 1999. This article analyses the role that consuming bodies of individuals from dominated groups in society (both as meat and sexual objects) plays in building a dominant identity (human or male) and creating symbols of (human or male) domination.
- See, for example, Elsa Dorlin, La Matrice de la race. Généalogie sexuelle et coloniale de la Nation française, Paris: La Découverte, 2006, and Christine Delphy, Classer, dominer. Qui sont les « autres » ?, La Fabrique, 2008. See also “What is Speciesism?” and “The Myth of Species” by David Olivier, which provide a detailed analysis of the similarities between racism and speciesism.
- Jonathan Fernandez, “Spécisme, sexisme et racisme. Idéologie naturaliste et mécanismes discriminatoires” (“Speciesism, sexism and racism. Naturalist ideology and discriminatory mechanisms”), in Nouvelles Questions Féministes, 34/1, June 2015 (special report entitled “Imbrication des rapports de pouvoir”).
- For other studies, see also Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson, “The Human Cost of Devaluing Animals”, New Scientist, 2895, 34-35, 2012; Kristof Dhont, Hodson, Costello and Cara MacInnis, “Social Dominance Orientation Connects Prejudicial Human–Human and Human–Animal Relations” (pdf), Personality and Individual Differences, 61-62, 105-108, 2014. A non-exhaustive list of studies on this subject is available here (in French).
- Notice how this convergence has made it possible to develop an entire system of insults based on the idea that certain groups in society are bound to Nature. See also Yves Bonnardel, “Sale bête, sale nègre, sale gonzesse… Identités et dominations. Analyse du système des insultes”, Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 12, April 1995.
- A number of eco-feminists have critiqued this idea of the dominant figure. See, in particular, Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, London: Continuum, 1990 and Jeanne Burgart Goutal (who also outlines the positions of Jacques Derrida), “Déconstruire le “carno-phallogocentrisme” : l’écoféminisme comme critique de la rationalité occidentale”, in PhænEx 11, no. 1, spring/summer 2016. See also antispeciesists Christiane Bailey and Axelle Playoust, “Féminisme et cause animale”, Ballast, no. 5, November 2016 (“Feminism and animal rights“, on this site).
- Several studies have shown that religious beliefs do not promote altruism. See for example Hervé Morin, “Les enfants d’athées sont plus altruistes que ceux élevés dans une famille religieuse”, Le Monde, 5 November 2015. The study, carried out by psychologist Jean Decety in Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, the USA and South Africa, demonstrates that a non-religious upbringing promotes generosity and compassion among young children.
- The modern education system, by keeping young humans under guardianship for a long time and depriving them of any say in their own lives – or any opportunity to test out their strengths – continues to promote self-criticism and a lack of self-confidence.
- The process is paradoxical: it has us create fictitious entities and deem them sacred, putting them outside of and above us, with the ultimate aim of allowing ourselves, by believing in them, to pick up whatever measly crumbs remain of the disproportionate importance we have granted them.
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Vintage Books, 2015.
- Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle. Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking, 2011.
- Pierre Sigler, “Le progrès moral”, seminar given at Estivales de la question animale, 2014 (on the Estivales website), based on Steven Pinker’s book, op. cit
- Colette Guillaumin, L’Idéologie raciste, Paris: Gallimard, 2002 [L’Idéologie raciste: genèse et langage actuel, 1972].
- François-Xavier Verschave, France-Afrique: le crime continue, Éd. tahin party, 2000, and Jean-Paul Gouteux, Un Génocide sans importance. La France et le Vatican au Rwanda, Lyon: Éd. tahin party, 2007.
- Various, On est toujours là ! Cinquièmes rencontres nationales des luttes des immigrations, Lyon: Éditions Tahin Party, 2016.
- Masculinity is the expression of an extremely violent social system of domination. In 1990, Nicole-Claude Mathieu wrote: “The UN recently estimated that women supply two-thirds of the hours worked by all humanity, yet they receive one-tenth of global revenues and own less than one percent of the world’s property. This disparity therefore benefits men.” Talk given at the conference “Femmes, le mauvais genre?” Lausanne, 1990, text reproduced in “‘Origines’ ou mécanismes de l’oppression des femmes?” Nicole-Claude Mathieu, L’Anatomie politique 2, La Dispute, 2014, p. 181. The (patchy) numbers supplied by the UN 2010 report “The World’s Women” are much higher (about 40%), but the situation remains tragic. Male domination also has immediately lethal consequences: see Titiou Lecoq, “En France, on meurt parce qu’on est une femme”, Slate.fr, 23 June 2017.
- What I am saying here does not contradict David Oliver’s article “On Superiority”: the equality that he critiques is precisely the equality of value of living beings (an ontological equality), which I am contrasting to the equality that takes into consideration the interests of all.
- A brief description drawn from Peter Williams and David Wallace, Unit 731: Japan’s Secret Biological Warfare in World War II. Berkeley: Free Press, the University of California, 1990 (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_731).
- Jayson L. Lusk, F. Bailey Norwood and Robert W. Prickett, Consumer Preferences for Farm Animal Welfare: Results of a Nationwide Telephone Survey (pdf), Oklahoma State University, Department of Agricultural Economics, 2007.
- Some informative books and articles on this topic: Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe, La Férocité blanche. Des non-Blancs aux non-Aryens, ces génocides occultés de 1492 à nos jours, Albin Michel, 2001, which recounts five centuries of racist white imperialism; Joanna Bourke, “Les femmes dans la guerre-monde”, in Alya Aglan and Robert Frank (eds.), 1937-1947: La guerre-monde, vol. II, Gallimard, 2015 (on the thousands of sex slaves used by the Japanese army); Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York: Lantern Books, 2001; Florence Burgat, L’Humanité carnivore, Seuil, 2017.
- It’s quite possible that social constructs (such as the patriarchy) have spread among societies because they provide an evolutionary advantage; we might think, for example, that societies based on male dominance, which were more violent and less egalitarian, became more powerful and therefore supplanted others. But as historical conditions change, what applied in the past no longer necessarily applies today.
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Entretien avec Jean-Marie Benoist”, Le Monde, 21-22 January 1979, p. 14.
- An idea developed in Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence. New York: The New Press, 2003.
- For more on age-based discrimination, see Yves Bonnardel, La Domination adulte. L’oppression des mineurs, Breux-Jouy: Éd. Le Hêtre – Myriadis, 2015.
- Suzanne Weber, Avec le temps… De la vieillesse dans les sociétés occidentales et de quelques moyens de la réhabiliter, Saint-Georges-d’Oléron: Éditions Libertaires, 2003.
- See also Yves Bonnardel, “À propos des handicapés”, Pour l’égalité animale, no. 4, February 1998.
- Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2009. Translated by J. Khalifa.
- “From the 1860s to the 1970s across the United States, [certain laws] made it illegal for ‘unsightly’ or ‘disgusting’ people to be in certain public spaces”. This applied in particular to people with disabilities. See Sunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden. Animal and Disability Liberation, New York: New Press, 2017.
- See Max Lafont, L’Extermination douce, Paris: Éditions de l’AREFPPI, 1987.
- Academic selection processes and IQ tests are also considered markers of excellence. Those who obtain diplomas are said to deserve the highest salaries and positions of power.
- Yves Bonnardel, “Cette liberté qui nous subjugue”, Temps critiques, no. 8, December 1994, and “Pour un monde sans liberté. Liberté, normalité et responsabilité dans le jugement”, published on the Mouvement Abolitionniste des Prisons et des Peines website.
- The etymology of the word “person” comes from the Latin persona, from the verb personare (per–sonare: “talk through”) used to describe a mask, a fictitious stereotype of a person.
- See also the International Prison Observatory or the French anti-prison journal L’Envolée.
- Nicolas Carrier and Justin Piché, “Des points aveugles de la pensée abolitionniste dans le monde universitaire. Enjeux récurrents et émergents”, in Champ pénal/Penal Field, vol. 12, 2015, “Abolitionnisme – Abolitionism”, note 8.
- I would like to stress here that I don’t necessarily believe I have to belong to myself. Only in a world in which property is omnipresent does it makes sense to speak of “ownership of the self”. But in this kind of world, being able to recognise property allows us to not be the property of others, which is crucial.
- The concept of responsibility is undefined and used in an extremely arbitrary way; a child is deemed responsible (and punished in consequence) if they disobey but is declared irresponsible once again if they attempt to claim any rights for themselves. See La Domination adulte, op. cit., p. 171-180.
- See also the video of David Olivier’s talk “Les humains aussi sont des animaux. Pour sortir de l’éthique du Moyen-Âge”, at the second World Day for the End of Speciesism on 28 August 2016 in Geneva.
- It is easier to reject the idea of human dignity when one is on the dominant side of humanity (an able-bodied, middle-class white man) than when one’s dominant status (as a human) is constantly called into question, for example for those who fall under the categories of women, black, Arab, mentally disabled, etc.
- IFREMER, “Le thon rouge Atlantique”, press release from 12 December 2016.
- I am not referring to the type of responsibility/guilt with which we might answer the question: “What have we done?” but rather a responsibility that is focused on the future and attempts to answer the question: “What do we do now?”
- This idea was developed by Agnese Pignataro in “L’Histoire animale, ou l’alliance des êtres intelligents contre la nature”, 2017 (available from academia.eu).
- Yuval Harari, Sapiens, op. cit.
- On the contrary, it may be the case that the living conditions of the majority of impoverished humans have deteriorated over the last century. For the last few decades, this has been the case for women around the world, who make up 70% of the world’s poor. This alone is a considerable ethical and political issue.
- In the great science fiction classic from the 1950s, City by Clifford D. Simak (New York: Gnome Press, 1952), dogs impose a universal ban on murder in a far-off future.
- Élisée Reclus, L’Homme et la Terre, Roques: FM/Paris: La Découverte, 1982 .