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The Case for Animal Liberation

When feminist Mary Wollstonecraft published her 'Vindication of the Rights of Women' in 1792, her views were widely regarded as absurd. Now they are accepted. If the arguments for women equality are sound, why should they not be applied to other animals?

Be an angel to the cows, set them free

Men and women are similar beings and it is argued they should have similar rights (although this view is not yet universally accepted worldwide, it is the "ethically correct" view); animals differ greatly. For instance, women have the right to vote because they are just as capable as men of making decisions, whereas cats and dogs are incapable of understanding the significance of voting and therefore cannot have the right to vote.

There are obvious and significant differences between humans and other species, and these differences must give rise to some differences in their rights. However, the differences that exist between men and women are equally undeniable. It is just as ridiculous that a man has the right to an abortion, as a dog has the right to vote.

The extension of this basic principle of equality does not require a case for equal or identical treatment and equal rights, it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different species leads us to different treatment and different rights.

The Justifications for Discrimination Against Other Animals

The mere fact that a person is, say, black or a woman does not allow us to infer anything about that person's intellect, moral or other capacities. This is partly why racism and sexism are wrong. Some blacks are superior to some whites, and some women superior to some men, in all the capacities that could conceivably be relevant to a basis for discrimination. Likewise, we could find an animal that is more than a match for any infant or innumerable handicap sufferers, for any capacity we could care to think of.

Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the reforming utilitarian school of moral philosophy, incorporated the essential basis of moral equality into his system of ethics by means of the formula "Each to count as one and none for more than one".

Thomas Jefferson, when arguing for the abolition of slavery, famously stated "Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the property or person of others". If possessing a higher degree of intellect does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?

It is sometimes argued that because animals are a food source to us, then this gives us the right to deny them equal consideration. This is a totally flawed argument. Consider cows in Hindu societies, pigs in Islamic or Jewish societies, or any animal species that you don't eat. These animals are not eaten, yet they are not granted equal consideration either. The fact of whether an animal is a source of food is redundant. Let's not forget too that in many societies in Africa, South America, Asia and the Pacific in the past few hundred years, humans were a food source to fellow humans too. Yet that fact didn't stop us granting rights to all humans, even though they were a food source to some people.

The final corner of retreat is usually to say "We are humans and they are animals, and that's all there is to it; we are entitled to rights and they aren't". This line of reasoning doesn't cut it either. What unique facet of human kind is it that we hold in such high regard that other beings must have to be worthy of our equal consideration? Would we consider Lucy, the Australopithecine of 3.1 million years ago, to be human and therefore worthy of rights? If not, how about a Homo Erectus of 500,000 years ago - human enough now?

Looking for an acceptable degree of human likeness is totally arbitrary. No two humans are the same, there is no human genome. Following that course of justification could lead to some humans not making the grade! Besides being the most bigoted, self-serving and arrogant form of discrimination available, it really is abhorrent that the world's grantors of rights are the only ones to receive them. Applying that logic to any other aspect of social behaviour will lead us right back to the dark ages, the Arian master race or imperialism.

So the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, edibility, human likeness or other similar matters of fact. This is because equality is a moral idea not an assertion of fact.

Bentham also stated "It may one day come to be recognised that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the Os Sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the caprice of the tormentor. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line (the demarcation for the allowance of discrimination)? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full grown horse is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant child of a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, 'Can they reason'?, nor 'Can they talk'?, but, 'Can they suffer'."

The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is the pre-requisite for being granted interests. It would be nonsense to say that it is not in the interests of a pebble to be kicked along the road. A pebble cannot suffer as it has no central nervous system. To mark the boundary of interests by any other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin colour?

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And do Animals Suffer?

Which suffers more, a fully grown cow that is bled to death for Halal meat, a chimpanzee that is tortured for medical purposes, a 6 week old aborted human foetus, or a brain-dead road-crash victim that is put to sleep? ...

A horse suffers at the slaughter house

Even the smallest allowance to animal welfare considerations is an implicit acceptance that animals do suffer, feel pain, and are worthy of our consideration. Otherwise, why do we worry about animal welfare at all? So if we accept that animals do suffer, then how can we defend a right to deny them consideration equal to ourselves?

It is probably true that comparisons of suffering between members of different species cannot be made precisely, but precision is not essential. Even if we were to only prevent the infliction of suffering on animals when it is quite certain that the interests of humans will not be affected to anything like the extent that animals are affected, we would be forced to make truly radical changes in our treatment of animals that would involve major shifts in our diet, farming methods, scientific experimental procedures, wildlife and hunting, trapping and wearing furs, and areas of entertainment such as cockfighting, rodeos, bullfights, zoos and circuses.

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We are All just Animals

'Speciesism' is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of one's own species and against those of other species. Perhaps the less accurate term 'Animal Racism', with its appropriate and familiar connotations, is a more useful term. Most human beings are 'specists' - they take an active part in and accede to practices that require the sacrifice of the most important interests of members of other species yet only promote the most trivial interests of our own species.

Without movements for social change and equal rights, we would still have:

  • Human slavery
  • Cannibalism
  • Child labour
  • Female subjugation
  • Racial segregation
  • Experiments on orphans and the poor

The last great moral leap for us to make is to liberate animals. So become an animal rights activist and advocate veganism.

Written by Sheldon Hey, based on the work of Australian professor Peter SingerOpens in a new window, Princeton University

External links: Animal Liberation FrontOpens in a new window

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