Equality – Should It Apply to Animals?
If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors - James 2:9
“Us” and “them”.
“He” and “it”.
“Human” and “beast”.
Without even a second thought we use language that non-consciously makes the assumption that there are two groups; humans, and animals.
We use language that non-consciously makes the assumption that the Golden Rule of treating others how you would want to be treated if you were them applies to humans but there is an unspoken assumption that the Golden Rule of treating others how you would want to be treated if you were them does not apply to animals.
Humans are viewed as “precious and irreplaceable” while animals are viewed as replaceable “things”.
Without a second thought, we assume that we are the only species that is unique. We assume that we are the only species who is self-aware.
We assume that we are the only species that uses tools. We assume that we are the only species that uses language.
All the while, we are completely oblivious to the fact that other animals have these exact same attributes.
In the back of our minds, we might think that animals were placed here on earth to satisfy our every need.
Animals were meant to entertain us, provide us food, give us shelter, and be experimented upon.
After all, it is believed, animals are our property and they are simply resources to be used for human gain.
At least, that is what I subconsciously thought.
That was until I became educated on the issue and I had a change of heart.
As a normal twenty first century American, I accepted the idea of equality.
Although other people were different from me, they deserved to be treated equally. It would not be justified for me to claim that I should have more rights than my neighbor because I happened to be born with higher intelligence than him.
It also would not be justified to claim that I should have more rights because I happened to be born as a white male. If I happened to be born as a female, or if I happened to be born as an African American, I would never want someone to discriminate against me simply because I looked different or because I had a different skin color than someone else.
My sexist ancestors failed to practice the idea of equality because they discriminated against women simply because they happened to be born as women.
My racist ancestors failed to practice the idea of equality because they discriminated against African Americans simply because they happened to be born with black skin. At a young age I realized that just because people were different from me, it did not entitle me to treat anyone differently than I would want to be treated if I was them.
These people deserved the same rights just as much as I did. Although realizing the absurdity of racism and sexism is by no means an intellectual breakthrough for our generation, it certainly was an intellectual breakthrough for previous generations.
It seems like common sense to our generation only because millions of people fought against injustice and allowed moral progress to continue to march on.
Although most people today accept the concept of “equality”, they do not believe in a literal meaning of the word “equality”. For example, humans come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Some people are smarter than others, some people are better looking than others, some people are bigger than others, and some people are more gifted than others. When people believe in “equality”, they do not believe that people are literally equal in every respect.
This is clearly not the case. Instead, what is meant by “equality” is that everyone should have their interests counted equally. In other words, “equality” is the idea that all people should be taken into account and have their interests counted equally regardless of what abilities they possess.
If a person just happens to be born with black skin, their interests should be counted just as equally as a person who just happened to be born with white skin.
Since skin color is a non-morally relevant criterion, both whites and blacks should have their interests given equal consideration. The exact same idea applies to sexism. Since gender is a non-morally relevant criterion, both women and men should have their interests counted equally.
Before we dismiss a concept like racism or sexism as outdated and irrelevant, we should remember that our ancestors, many of whom who were incredibly intelligent and enlightened individuals, discriminated against African Americans and women without a second thought.
That is just what you did because the collective consciousness had not developed very far at that time.
For example, Thomas Jefferson died owning slaves.
Benjamin Franklin bought and sold slaves as if they were mere commodities. The status quo has an unbelievable control over our actions without us even consciously knowing it.
Although the status quo allowed racism and sexism without much of a repercussion against the oppressors, racism and sexism was responsible for a massive amount of suffering.
Now that we know what mistakes our ancestors made, what if our generation was making the exact same mistake? What if we were using the exact same error in logic that got us into the mess of believing that racism and sexism was a morally valid concept?
There is not a single doubt in my mind that our generation is making the exact same mistake that our ancestors made when they believed that racism and sexism were God given morally valid concepts.
While the shape and form of the social justice issues of our day might be slightly different than previous generations, the underlying pattern and the underlying error in logic is identical.
If we believe in the idea of “equality”, as most people today believe, then we believe that how intelligent someone is has no bearing on what rights they receive.
If I happened to be born with high intelligence and someone else happened to be born with a mental handicap that made them have low intelligence, it would not follow that I could use that person as means to my own ends.
That person, even though he has low intelligence, is deserving of just as much consideration of his interests as I am deserving of consideration of my own interests. Similarly, infant humans are not self-aware and will not become self-aware until around two years of age.
Even though a baby might not be self-aware, this does not give me the right to fail to take into account his or her interests.
This brings us to an interesting question. If possessing a higher degree of intelligence and possessing self-awareness does not permit a human to use another human as means to his own ends, how can it permit a human to use another animal for that same purpose?
If we believe in the idea of equality and we believe that we should not take advantage of other humans just because they are not as smart as us, why do we believe that we should take advantage of other animals that are not as smart as us?
If we believe in the idea of equality and we believe that we should not take advantage of other humans just because they are not self-aware, such as in the case of babies, why do we believe that we should take advantage of other animals that are not self-aware?
This would mean that I am being inconsistent in how I apply the concept of equality.
We do not stuff children or mentally handicapped humans in factory farms, we do not experiment upon children or mentally handicapped humans, and we do not wear the skin of children or mentally handicapped humans.
If the idea of equality does not allow me to ignore the interests of humans who are “less” than me, why can I ignore the interests of animals who are “less” than me?
The logical response to this would be to attempt to show that humans and animals are not the same.
Not only do humans differ from animals, but they differ in morally relevant ways. There is no denying that humans and animals differ. We cannot always treat pigs the same way we would treat humans.
The pig would have no desire to be taught how to read books like the human child would while the human child would have no desire to root in the mud like the pig would. However, there are situations where the interests of the pig and the interests of the child are identical.
For example, both the child and the pig have an interest in not being harmed. Since both the pig and the child can feel pain, both have a desire to live without pain.
Since all sentient life on earth has evolved the desire to live, both the pig and the child, as individuals who are conscious and aware of the world, also have an interest in continuing to live.
The key point is not that both the pig and the child have the same interests (because this is clearly not always the case), the key point is that for those interests that they have in common, equal consideration should be given to both of them.
Since animals and humans are all capable of suffering, it is a requirement for us to give animal’s equal consideration of their interests. There is no morally valid reason why we can ignore the suffering of an animal.
Equal consideration of interests is not the same thing as equal worth.
Most humans have a greater awareness of the world, they have an enhanced ability to remember the past and ponder the future, and they are more self-aware than most animals.
This means that humans are worth more than animals.
It is easy for people who do not understand this important distinction to get lost in the details. No one, that I am aware of at least, is saying that humans are not worth more than animals.
Morally relevant criteria (greater self-awareness, greater capacity for remembering the past and anticipating the future, etc.) are all examples of reasons why humans are and should be given more worth.
What this does not mean is that in any given situation, humans must always be victorious over animals.
Many times people will say that humans should always be given precedence over animals. If humans are worth more than animals then this seems like a perfectly valid statement.
However, it only takes a couple seconds of pondering the implications of this belief to see that this belief is misguided:
If I am in minor discomfort and an animal is in excruciating pain, the pain of that animal is more important than the pain that I am experiencing.
Even though I am worth more than the animal, I must give that animal equal consideration of his interests and I must compare his interests to the equal consideration of my own interests.
When I compare the minor discomfort of my own pain to the excruciating pain of that animal, clearly, the animal’s pain is more important than my own pain.
If I were to claim that a doctor should work on me first and I should have precedence over the animal (even though the animal is going through excruciating pain while I only have minor discomfort), then I am not using morally relevant criteria to decide who the doctor should be helping.
When someone uses non-morally relevant criterion, such as when we ignore the pain of an animal simply because we are human and they are an animal, then we are being speciesist.
By refusing to speak out against speciesism, we are making the exact same error in logic that our racist and sexist ancestors made.
Imagine that you lived a couple hundred years ago where everyone around you was racist as heck but you had the foreknowledge to know just how ignorant racism is.
What would you do?
Would you try to keep your mouth shut and just let the status quo continue with its racist ways?
Would you scream from every roof top until every single person in the entire world understood the ignorance of racism?
This is the dilemma we will be faced with as we learn just how terrible speciesism is for God’s children.