This article1 develops an in-depth analysis of the speciesist ideology, emphasizing the role played by the idea of the “nature of beings” and unveiling the extent to which the arguments behind it are weak. It is the inaugural text of the French-speaking antispeciesist movement.
About two words
“Speciesism”: Speciesism is to species as racism is to race and sexism to sex: a discrimination based on species, almost always in favour of members of the human species (Homo sapiens).
“Animals”: language is not neutral, and in everyday usage this term denotes all animals except humans. We thus classify separately beings as similar as humans and gorillas while lumping gorillas together with oysters. In keeping with the fully justified scientific usage, I will use the term “animals” for all animals, including humans, and “non-human animals” for those who do not share our “higher birth”2.
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? Let us first ask: should we oppose racism? The answer to the latter question may seem obvious; but it isn’t obvious to everyone. Furthermore, it seems that those who do oppose racism don’t all do so for the same reasons. My position is that racism is wrong not because (almost) all humans are equally intelligent, or practice articulate language, or are social, and so forth. Both antiracism and antispeciesism are right because when a sentient being is oppressed he or she suffers, and because the suffering and happiness of any sentient being, that is of any being who may suffer and experience happiness, is of equal importance and must consequently be taken into consideration with the same weight.
I am no more a “defender of animals” than those who fought to end the enslavement of black people were “defenders of negroes”, as they were called by the racists. I defend all oppressed animals, human and non-human alike. I do this not as a whim, not as a personal calling, not because I “love” animals as others may love flowers. I defend all animals, and in particular non-human animals, because my intention is to defend all sentient beings, whoever they may be, considering that the only criterion that justifies taking into account a given being’s interests is that this being has interests, and that the phenomenon of sentience appears to be limited to animals, plants having no feelings or interests. I oppose speciesism as an ideology that serves to justify the abominable suffering and the death that nearly all humans inflict every day, knowingly and deliberately, upon billions of beings who are just as sentient as they are.
Racism and speciesism
Racist arguments are often nothing more than shoddy pretexts, but this doesn’t exempt us from the task of examining them. It is not enough to decry the evil racists. Unless our plan is to rub them all out, we must make them see reason. And when it comes to speciesism, the role of the villains is held by almost all humans, who use the same arguments as racists to justify the supremacy they claim for themselves.
Racism and speciesism are closely interwoven ideologies, and their similarity would be obvious to all were it not that most people who oppose racism are speciesists and therefore have a strong interest in not making the connection. Their wish to fight racism without undermining speciesism leads speciesists to do all they can to defend positions that are indefensible, but which they nonetheless present as the core of antiracism. Because animal equality is unthinkable for them, their aim is to found human equality against the other animals.
|God made white people superior.||God made humans superior.|
|We feed and protect our black slaves.||We feed and protect our livestock.|
|Black people feel pain less than we do.||Animals don’t know it when they suffer.|
|Black people don’t care so much about their lives.||Animals don’t know they’ll be killed.|
|Black people are childish.||Animals act only out of instinct.|
|Native peoples are constantly warring among themselves.||Animals eat each other.|
|All black people look the same.||Animals have no individual personalities.|
|Me, a racist? I have an Arab friend.||I love animals. I don’t eat horse meat.|
|Owning slaves is a personal choice.||Eating meat is a personal choice.|
What is racism?
What do people who oppose racism mean by “human equality”? According to the mathematical definition of equality, we say “Paul = John” if Paul and John are actually two names for the same person. This is obviously not what is meant by human equality. Black and white people are not equal, or identical, in particular by their skin colours since these are, by definition, different. The kind of equality that antiracists have in mind opposes the unequal treatment some people suffer because of their skin colour.
But the expression “unequal treatment” remains insufficiently clear. If I were a medical doctor, I would sometimes treat black and white patients differently – since dark skin shields itself from sunlight, the former have a lower risk of skin cancer in a given country than the latter. Accepting this fact is not racist. It would not be racist even if it happened to be the case that one skin colour had nothing but advantages over another. Anti-racism cannot be founded on the uncertain hypothesis that “Mother Nature” always apportions her favours evenhandedly between her “children”. In fact, as we will see, there is no reason for this to be true; indeed, more often than not, it is false.
It would be racist, on the other hand, to give more or less weight – regarding healthcare, for example – to the interests of black people than to those of white people. It would be racist to hold that the colour of someone’s skin justifies putting them at a disadvantage, which is to say, granting less importance to their interests.
If this was the position racists take, that is, if they held that a person’s skin colour determines the weight his or her interests should be granted, it would be easy to debunk. But this isn’t their position. A few years ago, I read about a white South African woman living in the days of Apartheid whose skin had turned completely black due to some disease. What shame she must have felt when meeting her white neighbours! To allow her to continue benefiting of whites-only buses and other segregated facilities, authorities issued her with a special card certifying that despite her being black, she was white.
This means that skin colour isn’t really what racists believe justifies discrimination. So what does? What is it that racism asserts? It is only possible to contradict an ideology if we know what it asserts, and the power of racist ideology probably owes much to the fact that it is never really made explicit, and therefore never really contradicted.
What is a black person?
For racists, it is essential that the boundary they draw leave them on the better side, permanently. Race is a good criterion in this respect, since anyone born white remains white, with few exceptions. But a boundary isn’t enough: by its definition it must also appear to justify discrimination. Skin colour is far too superficial a criterion. Substance and weight must be given to the idea of race itself. A black person has to be black all the way down to their bones. An individual’s race must be perceived as their deep truth, as their nature. Whether black or white, a black person born to black parents must be black. Of black blood. It is not really the colour of skin that justifies discrimination in the mind of the racists. They talk about colour, but what really matters to them is a person’s nature, of which skin colour is merely a sign.
If racism were based on real differences, its intensity would be proportionate to the degree of difference. Yet the violence of Nazi antisemitism shows that this is not the case. The almost complete absence of concrete differences between Jews and “Aryans” was simply perceived as a sign in itself – the sign of the Jews’ duplicity. In referring to “the Jewish nose”, the Nazis didn’t mean “the nose shape that as a fact is more commonly found among Jews than others”. The “Jewish nose” wasn’t simply a nose that Jews had, it was a sign of the Jewish essence, and it was this essence, this nature, that, in the eyes of the Nazis, justified murdering them.
Similarly, we sometimes say that a king is king because of the crown on his head, despite knowing that most often he doesn’t actually wear it and that the crown isn’t really the reason he is king. For a monarchist, he is king because he is of royal blood, of a royal nature; his crown is no more than a sign of this.
Anything can be the sign of a nature – that is, can be interpreted as such. This is why arguing with racists is so frustrating. Racists spend little time examining our arguments or producing any of their own that hold water; as they see it, all arguments are superficial because they deal only with signs and cannot be about natures, which are out of reach of all arguments. Skin colour, size (black people are either too short or too tall, depending on the region), accent, nose shape… racists are happy to discuss any of these, because they are really of no importance; whatever we may argue, natures remain untouched, out of reach.
As racists see it, it is the natures of beings that justifies discriminating between them, that is, literally, asserting their difference. Racists don’t need to posit inferiority since comparisons are impossible between beings possessing different natures. South-African Apartheid – “apartness” – was a system of separation: each in his or her “rightful” place. South-African racists denied that black people in their country were disadvantaged: since they were different by nature, such comparisons made no sense. Shantytowns were to black people as comfortable homes were to white people. As astonishing as this may seem, I’d be willing to bet that the slave traders of the 18th century also denied that they viewed black people as inferior; for all too often, however astonishing this may seem, I’ve heard meat-eaters (many anarchists among them, of course) deny that they see “animals” as inferior – “Not inferior, no. Simply different.”
Sexist discourse too is explicitly founded on the assertion of two different natures, the feminine and the masculine, and on praise for the Woman, the Mother, the Wife – whose joy and privilege it is to populate nations while washing saucepans. “But I love women!” (or “chicks”), proclaims the sexist.
From the common person’s “I’m not a racist, but…” to the New Right’s “celebration of diversity”, racism and sexism have always been founded on an assertion of different natures. And these ideologies are false, not because white skin “equals” black skin, but because such “natures” simply do not exist. But what makes them appear plausible to so many is that almost everyone secretly accepts the principle behind them and, I believe, does so because the survival of speciesism is at stake. To keep speciesism alive, everyone accepts the idea of an “animal nature” and, in spite of themselves, everyone therefore accepts the idea of a human nature. And this is the starting point of the intellectual gymnastics of those speciesists who oppose racism.
Same principle, same message: “I’m not speciesist” and “animals are not inferior, only different” or “being eaten is their natural purpose”. The sign of this nature is that they eat each other. And they’re happy about it; they smile in the pictures in front of butcher shops.
It is possible to be against racism but still be a sexist, and to be against racism and sexism but still be a speciesist. Here the reader may be thinking, “All of this is true, but the issue is different for animals. All humans are equal but animals are different.”
And how many they are, these differences between “man” and “animal”! Humans have done their best to churn them out one after another, as candidly asserted by this French champion of speciesism:
For a long time, moralists, philosophers and, more recently, researchers in the humanities were centrally concerned with denying the membership of humans to the world of beasts or, if nothing else, with identifying a specific dimension of humanity that could set it apart from its shameful family and its embarrassing proximity.
J.-M. Bourre, Diététique du cerveau
But as we all know, humans too are different from each other. The statement that they are equal asserts only that they are equal in nature; as opposed to “animals” who are different from us, not by the number of their legs but by their natures.
The “ability to reason”, it is said, is what separates humans from other animals. For speciesists, this “ability to reason” is the highest sign of human nature, and this is why – the only reason why – I will dwell for a moment on the issue of equality of intelligence among humans. Actually, I care very little about this question; unlike the speciesists, antiracist and racist alike, for whom it has been an unending battleground.
For the religious, intelligence is the sign of the presence of a soul, which defines human nature. But how does everyone else define human nature?
Pigs smile in front of butcher shops, showing that by nature, their role, their true calling is to change into ham.
What is a human?
The naturalistic view that attributes a nature to each being has repeatedly served to justify racism, sexism, war and more generally the established social order. “To be right-wing is simply to believe that humans possess an unchangeable nature” (extreme right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, quoted from memory). Christians view our souls as God-given; others believe that the natures of beings are attributed by Nature, by the god Nature that so many worship and whom environmentalists serve as priests. A being’s nature, according to this view, is what Nature gave it before birth.
But left-wing people cannot accept this claim about human nature as I have expressed it. They say “humans originate in Nature, but Nature has stepped aside, opening the way to the purely human, to historical, cultural and social determinisms. Man remains an animal in his animal functions, but in his higher functions, such as intelligence, he is radically other.”
Thus they define the nature of “Man” as the absence of a nature; “animals” on the other hand have natures – a nature for each according to their species, and consequently, first and foremost, all have the common nature of being an “animal”, that is, the nature of having a nature. And it’s no accident that this amounts to establishing human equality on the backs of other animals. Left-wing people oppose racism but care above all not to undermine speciesism. A sincere criticism of the notion of a being’s nature, as its profound truth and the role assigned to it by Nature – in other words, precisely, the step that they carefully avoid making – would undermine racism and speciesism too.
The speciesist antiracist is faced with the difficulty of justifying speciesism without justifying racism, of perpetuating the idea of birth-established natures, the idea that Nature gave humans the highest of births, that is the nature of being free (of having nothing “innate” above the belt). “Animals”, instead, receive the nature of being slaves to their instincts. Racists do not have this problem – white and black people, cats and mice, to each a specific nature, place and role in the harmonious natural and social order. It is much easier for racists than for those who oppose racism to campaign paternalistically in “defence of animals”, advocating for a better treatment of animals bred for the slaughterhouse.
To the battle cry of “Nature is on our side”, racist speciesists and anti-racist speciesists quarrel about “nature” and “nurture”, that is, quarrel over signs: do humans all have the same level of intelligence? And above all, are differences in intelligence innate? Is the hierarchy between humans what Nature intended? In search of signs, the Ancients examined the livers of heifers; today, we study our brains.
Faith makes people blind, so this debate rages on. But for anyone who can see, the answer is obvious: 1. Humans are no more equal in intelligence than in any other characteristic; 2. Like all characteristics of a living being, intelligence is the result of a conjunction of genetic and environmental factors, and genes can therefore cause differences in intelligence. These facts are actually common knowledge. And if they justify racism, then racism is justified and speciesism is too. If they don’t justify racism, then nothing justifies either racism or speciesism.
The signs that prove the presence of a soul, according to Abbé Bouvet in Premières Notions d'instruction religieuse et Leçons de choses religieuses (First Notions of Religious Instruction and Lessons on Religious Things), 1938, p. 66. How we know that the soul exists. We cannot see it or touch it, but its existence is certain. This is why: Let us compare a man and a monkey. We will find three main differences between them:
A man is intelligent; a monkey is not. Thus, a man learns to speak, write and count and then invents magnificent things, including house construction, railways, weaving and the telegraph. He is an artist: for example, a painter, a musician or a poet. Above all, he knows God and has a Religion. A monkey does none of these things. There are no monkey schools and monkeys have never invented anything: they all do the same things ever since they came into existence. They do not sing or draw. They have no religion. In short, they do nothing intelligent; they have no intelligence.
A man is free; a monkey is not. By his will, a man can freely choose what he wants; he can give up all pleasures to become a saint and please God. A monkey has no free will. If something pleases him, he jumps upon it; if something displeases him, he runs away from it. There is only one way to keep him from doing what he wants, and that is to hit him. Thus, a monkey does nothing freely: it has no freedom. Incidentally, think of how many children behave like little monkeys. To stop them from doing wrong, we must punish or threaten to punish them! A Christian child must think, “this is wrong, so I will not do it, even if I would not be punished if I did.”
A man is capable of love; a monkey is not. When a man loves another one, he is willing to suffer for him and even to die in his place. He no longer thinks of himself at all; he thinks only of his friend. A monkey, instead, seeks only to have fun with other monkeys; it would not consent to being beaten in their place. He has playmates, but no friends.
So these three great things – intelligence, freedom and love – show that man has within him something that animals have not. That something is a rational soul. In these three great ways, man resembles God, who is perfectly intelligent, free and loving. When God was creating man and said, “Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness”, he was therefore not thinking of man's body, but of his soul.
Humans are not equal in intelligence
I am not especially keen on defining intelligence. If anyone prefers not to enter such discussions on the basis that intelligence cannot be defined, then they should never invoke intelligence, be it to compare humans with other humans or humans with other animals. On the other hand, it is possible to discuss intelligence without needing a rock-solid definition. I don’t need to define precisely the notion “length of a neck” before comparing that of a giraffe to my own. And if we take the definition of the word “intelligence” at all seriously, it is clear that some humans are more intelligent than others.
Many humans are severely mentally disabled. Wishing to spare them from contempt, some might say that these humans are intelligent in their own ways. But it is not possible to say this while using the word “intelligent” with the meaning it has in arguments over the equality of intelligence between black and white people.
It is difficult to compare the intelligence of a cat to that of a dog, and similarly the intelligence of a mentally disabled human to that of a dog, but it is clear that regardless of the criterion you use, some humans are less intelligent than most dogs.
If humans’ intelligence is what justifies not treating them like dogs, how are humans treated when they are less intelligent than dogs? They are clearly not treated well, but not as badly as are treated non-human animals. People with mental disabilities remind us a bit too much of “animals”, just as that white South African woman was undoubtedly ashamed of looking like a black person. But for speciesists, whether they’re racists or antiracists, intelligence is only a sign, while what really matters is a being’s nature – disabled people are “nonetheless still humans”. The very idea of opening them up for research or slaughtering them for food – something done to millions of nonhuman animals every day – would provoke outrage.
The mere fact that some humans are mentally disabled is enough to justify the assertion made in this section’s heading. Here, the reader might wish to remind me that the discussion is about the intelligence of black versus white people. We tend to forget about people with mental disabilities, who are “marginal cases”, somewhat like we forget about non-humans: they don’t take to the streets to protest. But they are relevant to our argument. Racist and anti-racist speciesists alike argue about the intelligence of white and black people because as they see it, intelligence is what confers the right to respect. It therefore follows that in their view, people with mental disabilities are entitled to little respect.
For black and white people – or we might just as well say for French and Belgians – things are less obvious. The issue is necessarily about averages, since in terms of individuals the matter is plainly solved by the existence in both groups of individuals who are mentally disabled and of others who are not. But of what averages should we speak? We have IQ tests. We can dispute them and perhaps turn to other measurements but, except as a result of some unlikely coincidence, no two groups will ever end up with the same averages. We might discover some criteria that yield a higher average for black people than for white people, and others that produce the opposite effect. But unless we decide arbitrarily that the precise criterion designed to yield the same averages for both groups is for this very reason “the right test”, then whatever the meaning we give the word, we will have to accept this: that the intelligence of the two groups is not the same.
Genes cause differences of intelligence among humans
Nobody will deny that the difference in intelligence between a dog and a human has genetic causes, and that there is therefore a relationship between intelligence and genes; but regarding human intelligence, genes are magically expected to step aside. Yet here too, we know the opposite to be true – for there are the so-called “marginal cases”.
Many mental disabilities have a genetic cause. For example, a certain gene causes some humans to be born with phenylketonuria. Sufferers of phenylketonuria become profoundly mentally disabled and die young – unless they follow a restrictive diet that is now known to completely reverse the condition and allow them to develop as well as any typical human. This is the basis for my claim that like any other characteristic, intelligence results from a combination of factors that can be categorised, if so desired, as genetic and environmental. For people with phenylketonuria, we know of an environment (a certain diet) that allows their intelligence to develop normally; for other humans, or for dogs, we do not. But how can their nature depend on such a contingent fact? Is a person with phenylketonuria closer by nature to a non-phenylketonuric human or to a dog? Does their nature depend on their genes or their diet? Or is instead the idea of living beings having “natures” actually a complete illusion?
What about white and black people? Nobody denies that genes influence the pigmentation of dark skin. Many black people live in places with little sunlight, where their dark pigmentation can lead to an insufficient production of vitamin D and thus to a risk of rickets. Rickets may impede intellectual development. If this happens, the black people affected are less intelligent for genetic reasons, and the average intelligence of black people is lowered by genetic factors.
This is only a hypothesis, and if such an influence exists, it is probably weak. Vitamin D supplements would be enough to eliminate the problem. But this example remains relevant: if we are to prove that the genetic differences between white and black people have no impact on their average intelligence, we will need to eliminate every single causal path leading from their genetic differences to differences in intelligence – and it is highly unlikely that we could do this. In a few minutes’ thought I could come up with a dozen such causal paths, concerning black and white people, or French and Belgians for that matter. We would need to greatly trust Mother Nature’s goodwill and staunchly anti-racist intentions to believe that not one of these possible causal paths produces any effect, or that by some magic these effects cancel each other out exactly.
The assertion of “genetic equality” between groups of humans is false. And what is the point of defending it? What does it have to do with racism? Would racism be justified if by chance genes were responsible for pigmentation, which in turn was responsible for low vitamin D levels, which in turn was responsible for rickets, which itself was responsible for a lower intelligence? Does a level of intelligence become a nature whenever it is caused by genes?
Some might say that this is not what arguments over equality of genetic intelligence are really about. Indeed! Real genetics, the kind of genetics I’m talking about here, involves a cause and a sequence of consequences. The genetics people usually talk about is mythical genetics, in which our genes constitute our nature, our being, our truth, essence and destiny – unalterable and irremediable as Nature intended them to be. They see genetics as the “scientific” realisation of the age-old blood and birth mysticisms. This type of genetics does not exist, other than as a ghost in the minds of racists, sexists and speciesists who engage in arguments about whether the nature of black people is more “animalistic” than that of white people. They may well continue to argue about this between themselves for centuries to come. Black and white people alike are animals. There is no such thing as innate intelligence. There is only actual intelligence. Genes themselves are not intelligent; they have no desires or intentions, despite some thinly veiled attempts – the speciality of sociobiologists – to grant them a soul.
So what does all this mean?
As for intellect, all I can say is, if women have a pint and man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full?
African-American feminist Sojourner Truth, speaking at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio on May 29, 1851.
Why then do we place so much emphasis on intelligence?
Is it for its real and practical importance? We justify this focus by saying that physical strength is no longer of so much use today. Intelligence, in this view, makes an individual useful to the community and thus deserves to be rewarded by social consideration.
Are the people at the top of the social ladder really the most useful to their communities? I prefer to turn the explanation around and note that in a conflict-driven society, intelligence is a weapon. It is said that the emancipation of the oppressed will be the task of the oppressed themselves and there is unfortunately some truth in this. The successes of the civil rights movement in the United States owed much to the action of the black people and would not have been possible if they had the intelligence of chickens. More generally, the idea that black people are less intelligent than white people serves to demoralise them in their struggle for social equality.
Such inequality of intelligence, whether “innate” or “acquired”, would be bad news – it would make combating racism more difficult. But it wouldn’t make combating it unjust. In our culture, power is all too often viewed as “commanding respect”. African-Americans are no longer slaves while chickens still are. The intelligence of African-Americans partly accounts for their emancipation, but it isn’t what justifies it.
The sign that shows we have the right to eat animals, according to Charles Szlakmann in Le Judaïsme pour débutants, La Découverte, 1985. Judaism authorises meat consumption Because man, the why and wherefore of creation, is superior to animals. In animals, the head, digestive organs and genitals are all on the same level. In humans, the head is higher than the digestive organs and genitals.
Intelligence is power that “commands respect”; but first and foremost, it has a magical role to play: it is the main sign of being human. The sign of being a “black person” is black skin; the sign of being “an animal” is the absence of intelligence. And above all, humans care about keeping their status as humans. The enormousness of the suffering and misery that humans inflict today upon other animals is known to all. It is only by means of speciesism that we can dismiss this suffering as unimportant. Animals must remain totally “other”; for this, we humans must uphold our status as intelligent beings. And the very fact that intelligence is a tool for social advancement makes it a sign – society defines itself in contrast to non-human animals and sees social status as proof of humanness.
Many justifications are given for the treatment humans inflict on other animals: indeed, too many. For those who come up with such “reasons”, what is to be proven is a foregone conclusion. Speciesists churn them out, in rapid succession. It matters little that none of them hold water. In our deeply speciesist culture, each reason is cushioned by all the others, and it occurs to no one that the whole construction rests on thin air.
These reasons are not reasons at all but merely signs. Of course, nobody tries very hard to explain how exactly these signs are meant to justify human domination over non-humans. And it matters little that they all suffer the same flaw – that of either excluding some humans or instead of including some non-humans.
The signs are countless. Any characteristic can be used, so long as it somehow smacks of “superiority” and appears exclusive to humans. Tools were once “unique to humankind” until a bird was discovered who uses tools too. And since this bird shared this “unique” human behaviour, her life was declared sacred like that of humans… No, of course not. While roasting the bird, we declared, “only humans make tools”. But it later turned out that some chimpanzees make tools too, so this vein collapsed in its turn.
Another vein is that of language. It was said that animals had no language but, since dogs can howl, we switched to “articulate language”. Since then, some apes have been taught the sign language used by deaf humans, with syntax and all the rest (they’re not as good at it as we are, but the point stands), and this line of argumentation too was abandoned. Care was taken to avoid specifying spoken language because unlike those with severe mental disabilities, the deaf and dumb can stand up for themselves.
In any case, how is an absence of language meant to justify massacre? I have been told that if a being cannot tell us that they’re suffering, we cannot know that they are. And yet all mammals display the same signs of distress as humans – it would be surprising if such similar phenomena did not have the same cause. Hardly any scientific research would be possible if we required our objects of study to have the gift of speech. It has also been said that if a being cannot conceptualise their suffering, the suffering does not exist and is “purely physical”. Yet feminists have shown that for centuries, women suffered in silence because the concepts to express what they felt did not exist. A decisive step towards their emancipation was forging the concepts to think about and state what they were experiencing. Before that, was their suffering “purely physical”?
Other reasons given include “animals know, while humans know that they know” (Teilhard de Chardin), “animals are not self-aware” and “only humans have unique personalities”. False, vague or both, none of these hold up to even the simplest scientific scrutiny. But of what consequence would it be if they were true? Is knowing that you know or self-awareness or the possession of a unique personality what gives life its value? These are the undefined things – the natures – that are used to justify massacres, whether of chickens or Jews.
And then there is “animal instinct” in contrast to “human reason”. This way of presenting the problem testifies above all to humans’ crass ignorance of other animals, to the fact that our knowledge of them is made up of rehashed stereotypes. Racists too generally know nothing of the people they disdain, but racist and speciesist fables are just that: fables, ways of expressing the inexpressible, a purported nature.
A modest proposal
We could easily raise human children from birth in isolation, separating them from other humans and depriving them of sensory input. They will then develop none of these so very noble “exclusively human” traits. Raised under such conditions, which are equivalent to those inflicted on calves raised for veal, they could be subjected to the same fate, because “that is what they were made for” (or they “they have never known anything better”). For why should we care about the fate of such non-social beings who are unable to speak or use tools, have no emotional ties to others and do not even… “know that they know”? If you find such a proposal outrageous, I agree with you. But if you don’t believe that what we do to calves is equally outrageous, then you are a speciesist. You don’t want this to be done to humans, for the sole reason that they belong to your species. What arguments could you then oppose to racists who don’t want such a thing to be done to those of their race?
“Natures” screen us from reality
Why should we care about the fate of a given being? What is it that determines whether we should refrain from harming it?
We can choose to answer “Nothing”. We can, if we wish, kill or torture any being whatsoever. Or we can choose to torture only black people or right-handed people, if we wish. We can also choose to torture ourselves; but we rarely do this. Why? Because it would make us suffer, which goes against our interests.
To avoid harming others means to decide to extend the consideration that we have for our own interests to the interests of others. Ethics is nothing more than that. And what should determine whose interests are to be granted consideration? The interests of white people only? Why theirs? Those of intelligent beings only? Or of social beings? When we take our own interests into consideration, we don’t first consider whether we are intelligent or social beings. That is irrelevant. Pain hurts, whether one is a social being or not.
It is the real consequences of reality that we must consider. The intelligence of a being matters in many ways, but has nothing to do with whether or not it is wrong to harm it. What does?
It is the real consequences of reality that we must consider. The fact that a being can suffer is part of reality and has the consequence that we should avoid making it suffer, whatever the other characteristics of this being. This is the foundation of non-racist, non-sexist, non-speciesist ethics.
If a being is sentient, that is, if it can suffer and enjoy, its suffering and enjoyment have the same importance as those of any other being. Any difference in the importance given to the interests of two beings is necessarily arbitrary since it is founded on something unrelated to the reason why we should take these interests into account, which is simply that they exist.
Suffering is suffering and enjoyment is enjoyment: this is the only equality that should matter. If rocks could feel pain and pleasure, we would have to take into consideration their interests in not feeling pain and in experiencing pleasure – whether each rock had a “unique personality” or not. If, as is probably the case, rocks cannot feel pain or pleasure, there is nothing to take into consideration.
In practice, what should we do? Those of us who don’t eat meat are often taunted for ignoring the lives of plants, but the same people who opportunely show sympathy for plants are themselves responsible for killing 10 times as many plants as we are, to feed the animals whom they raise in misery and kill for their meals. But however this may be, we have contempt for neither plants nor for rocks. Contempt is a racist attitude in itself. It consists in holding the being’s nature as inferior, that is, is about something unreal. Instead, we must consider what is real. The sentience or non-sentience of a being is real. What matters, therefore, is determining which beings are sentient, that is, which beings can suffer.
How do we know whether plants and rocks can suffer? This question is a difficult one to answer in principle, but in practice it is easy to reach some simple conclusions. Anyone with a non-speciesist point of view will at least agree on one point: the capacity for suffering of birds, fish and other non-human animals is just as plausible and likely as that of humans. This leads us to the most important and simplest of implications: we should fight against their oppression3.
David Olivier is co-founder of the magazine Les Cahiers antispécistes, of the Veggie Pride march and of the annual meetings called Les Estivales de la Question Animale. He is a theoretician and a grassroots egalitarian activist. Co-author of the Manifesto for the Abolition of Apartheid International. Holder of a PhD in fundamental physics, he is currently working on the idea that sentience can be explained by the properties of matter, a matter yet to be proven. His personal page: http://david.olivier.name/fr/david-olivier
- This article by David Olivier is a slightly modified version of a text published in April 1991 in the magazine Informations et Réflexions Libertaires (Anarchist Information and Reflections), in the section “Antispeciesism”. It was also published in the magazine Les Cahiers antispécistes (“The antispeciesist notebooks”) n°5 in December 1992 and was finally published in 2017 by the Presses Universitaires de France (PUF) in a compilation book entitled La Révolution antispéciste.
Translated from French into English by Elisabeth Lyman, with further edits by Holly James and David Olivier.
This article was also translated into Portuguese by Beatriz Medina and published by Les Cahiers antispécistes.
It was also translated into Spanish by Julia G., with further editing by Marcela Jiménez Hennessy and Yves Bonnardel, and published by the Colombian online magazine Crisálida – Revista de Pensamiento & Acción por el Fin del Especismo.
- “Higher birth” is an allusion to the speech of the nobility in the Ancien Régime (old French monarchical regime), which distinguished the nobles, the “well-born”, of good lineage, from the villains, who were not born into a lineage “of worth”.
- The original version of this article  concluded with “which determines the first and simplest consequence: we should stop eating them”, but it was modified with the author’s permission.