Think it’s barking mad to eat a dog but you have no beef with the meat industry? Editor-in-Chief Lucy Dunn assesses the phenomenon of speciesism.
“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” proclaimed Napoleon famously, in Orwell’s Animal Farm. An allusion to government corruption, perhaps there is some bearing of it in our own lives, on a far more literal level.
When I first heard that in certain parts of the world, dogs, cats, and even hamsters were killed for human consumption, I was horrified. “Imagine eating a dog?!” I thought, aghast, tearing into the chicken casserole my dad had made for dinner. When I learned about prions at uni, the terrifying infectious agent that diseased the brains of people who ate people, causing their rapid deterioration, losing control of their limbs, mental state, and eventually ability to look after themselves - a tradition in 1950s Papua New Guinea that unfortunately does still occur across the world - again, I was horrified. Even taking eating another person out of the equation, as hard as that is to overlook, the prion-brain-disease stuff sounded pretty freaky. “Imagine deliberately eating something that puts you at greater risk of catching diseases?” I considered, shaking my head, to turn back to my notes on salmonella.
"'Imagine eating a dog?!' I thought, aghast, tearing into the chicken casserole my dad had made for dinner."
We draw lines at certain levels in Western society. No people, no cats, no dogs, and no hamsters. Farm animals make the cut: anything pastorally reared is fair game, it seems. Fish are fine, but you obviously wouldn’t fling your pet goldfish out the bowl to fill up your sushi. There are ethical and health-related reasons for this cited but, as suggested earlier, these reek of double standards. Why is it we hold different animals to different rules, then? How do we justify this morally?
The term “speciesism” was coined by Richard D Ryder in the 60s, following the social revolutions beginning to appear against racism, sexism, and classism. Confused about why the revolutions had stopped only at pursuing equality for humans, Ryder started writing about the need to ensure equality for “nonhuman animals”. Ryder summarised his snappy Oxford-circulated flyer saying: “If we believe it is wrong to inflict suffering upon innocent human animals then it is only logical to extend our concern about elementary rights to the nonhuman animals as well.”
“If we believe it is wrong to inflict suffering upon innocent human animals then it is only logical to extend our concern about elementary rights to the nonhuman animals as well.”
Such a statement combines the biological basis that animals have, like humans, functioning nervous systems, with the philosophical thought that suffering is a function of the nervous system. These two notions are tied together with the universal belief that to cause another suffering is wrong. It is important to note that most people fighting for gender and racial equality would find the straight comparison of sexism or racism to speciesism offensive, as there is a “moral and social importance” to these struggles that “animal rights can never have”.
There are a number of stances on speciesism: some people stand by the fact that when faced with a difficult decision, we would react in a speciesist way, for example: saving a baby from a burning building over a dog. A minority of people can be classed as “pure” speciesist, where they believe that prioritising even the most arbitrary of human needs over the care of animals is fine (elephant ivory for furniture, or use of animal fur being two common examples). Singer, an acquaintance of Ryder, says that the “mere difference of species cannot in itself determine moral status”, arguing instead for a “graduated view” of the value of life that applies to both humans and animals. The arguments are vast and relatively varied, but even if it is “natural”, why is that the case? And with the “superior intellect” of humans, should we be doing more to push against this?
"The arguments are vast and relatively varied, but even if [speciesism] is 'natural', why is that the case? And with the “superior intellect” of humans, should we be doing more to push against this?"
I can’t profess to fully understand the philosophy, but I know from my own experience that both emotion and ingrained beliefs have played into my own level of speciesism. Emotion because of the connections we form with our own pets, and the culture around that: we fawn over cockapoos and Tiktoks of fat cats, but we don’t look at chicken breeds in the same way, and why would we? We have been brought up with the distinct categories of “pet” and “farm animal”, classing sheep and cows in one group whilst dogs and cats remain in the other, through nursery, school, and language classes. We are conditioned to treat one group with affection, whilst the others we see merely as hundreds of replicas of the same, easily disposable because their individualistic qualities are lost in the subgrouping. That’s not our own fault either: our attitudes are down to a mix of traditional (and arguably, outdated) methods of sourcing food, our education systems, and capitalism: the meat and dairy industries have a vested interest in ensuring we don’t start humanising farm animals.
"The meat and dairy industries have a vested interest in ensuring we don’t start humanising farm animals."
There is truth in the “natural” nature of speciesism in terms of saving people from burning buildings, but Ryder makes an important point in his descriptions of animal suffering. We are not usually faced with the option of one for the other in daily life; instead, we are actually given a “best of both worlds” situation. There are so many non-animal alternatives to foodstuffs, furnishing materials, and fur that the issue of choosing one species over the other need not feature so frequently. Gradually chucking the fish for falafel, teriyaki chicken for tofu, or semi-skimmed for soya makes you part of the move towards levelling out the equality across a number of nonhuman species. It’s maybe not a complete philosophical solution, but it could be part of the practical one.
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