by Peter Tatchell for the Ecologist
Abusing animals is no more justifiable than abusing people, writes Peter Tatchell. The moral touchstone is sentience, not species, and the ‘humans first’ ideology of speciesism is analogous to homophobia, racism & misogyny. Cruelty is barbarism, whether inflicted on humans or on other species. We need to recognise and accept our common animal nature.
Since we humans are an animal species, it is obvious that human rights are a form of animal rights; and that animal rights include – or should include – the human species.
“We accept that we have a special responsibility to protect weaker, more vulnerable humans. Surely the same reasoning applies to other weaker, more vulnerable thinking, feeling creatures?”
Sadly, not everyone sees it this way. Many view humans and other animals as totally distinct: drawing a clear, sharp line between animal rights and human rights.
That’s not my view. Sentience is the bond that unites all animal species, human and non-human. I accept our shared animalism and advocate our shared claim to be spared suffering and accorded inalienable rights.
It is true that other animals are less intelligent than humans and lack our mental-physical skills and our capacity for culture and conscience.¹ But this is no justification for abusing them. Just as we do not sanction the abuse of humans – such as babies and disabled people – who lack these highly developed capacities.
We accept that we have a special responsibility to protect weaker, more vulnerable humans. Surely the same reasoning applies to other weaker, more vulnerable thinking, feeling creatures?
There is, in my moral universe, no great ethical gulf between the abuse of human and non-human animals or between our duty of compassion towards other humans and other species.
Indeed, I see a link between the oppression of non-human animals and the oppression of human beings because of their nationality, race, gender, faith or non-faith, political beliefs, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Speciesism is analogous to homophobia, racism and misogyny
The different forms of human and other animal oppression are interconnected, based on the similar abuse of power and the infliction of harm and suffering. They cannot be fully understood separately from one another.
How we mistreat animals parallels how we mistreat people. Cruelty is barbarism, whether it is inflicted on humans or on other species. The campaigns for animal rights and human rights share the same fundamental aim: a world without oppression and suffering, based on love, kindness and compassion.
Speciesism is the belief and practice of human supremacism over other animal species. It is prejudice, discrimination or violence in favour of human beings; variously involving the exploitation, incarceration, mistreatment or killing of other animals by humans.
This humans-first ideology of speciesism is analogous to homophobia, racism and misogyny. A form of prejudice, domination and oppression, it is incompatible with a humane, civilised society.
We humans are an animal species. We know about pain and suffering. So why do most of us hold high-handed attitudes towards other animals and accept their abuse in medical laboratories, farms, zoos, circuses and sports events?
It does not follow that our highly sophisticated intelligence and material development gives us the right to lord it over other species. Just because we have the capacity to do so, does not mean that we should. On the contrary: our brain power and conscience give us a special responsibility of stewardship over the Earth and all its beings.
We must start thinking in a new way …
My thinking has been influenced by the Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, and his ground-breaking book, Animal Liberation. In my mind, it is one the most important books of the last 100 years. It expands our moral horizons beyond our own species and is thereby a major evolution in ethics.
Singer challenges human chauvinism. By viewing non-human sentient beings as ‘other’, we allow ourselves the ‘excuse’ to look down on and mistreat them; including to insult, exploit, abuse, dominate or even kill those ‘other’ beings. We stop seeing them as living, thinking, feeling creatures.
Anti-animal prejudice runs deep. Bigots often disparage other people with speciesist epithets. They accuse them of acting ‘just like a beast’ or ‘worse than an animal.’ This bigotry echoes the vile insults that black people are ‘savages’, women are ‘bitches’ and that LGBT people are ‘perverts.’
Before we can liberate the millions of oppressed humans and billions of exploited animals we need to free our minds and start thinking in a new way: to consciously eliminate the mentality of subjugation and entitlement that allows us to passively acquiesce or, even worse, actively participate in the cycle of abuse against other sentient beings – human and non-human.
Animal liberation is in the same ethical tradition as women’s, black and LGBT liberation. It is about ending the suffering that flows from a supremacist mindset and power relations of domination.
Surely, in the twenty-first century, the time has come to emancipate non-human animals, just like we previously emancipated humans through abolishing slavery, male-only suffrage and anti-LGBT laws?
We have a moral duty to stop abusing other animal species. They aren’t really that different from us humans. Vertebrates share much of our DNA and our capacity for thought, feelings, emotions, sociability, language, altruism and empathy.
We need to recognise and accept our common animal nature. If we did that, the excuses and rationalisations for treating other species badly would fall away.
¹I love this piece and totally endorse everything Peter says – except for the statement: “It is true that other animals are less intelligent than humans and lack our mental-physical skills …” Intelligence is a human construct. Some nonhumans display remarkable intelligence even by that human-centric standard, while others show their own special intelligences that we can scarcely understand or lay claim to ourselves. As for mental-physical skills, many if not all of the 7.77 million species on our planet could give humans a good run for their money.
If you haven’t already done so, please sign the Declaration of Animal Rights
Peter Tatchell is a British human rights campaigner, originally from Australia, best known for his work with LGBT social movements. Tatchell was selected as Labour Party Parliamentary candidate for Bermondsey in 1981.
Event: Peter Tatchell’s keynote address ‘Human rights ARE animal rights’ takes place at Veggie World London at 2pm on Saturday 8th April, Kensington Town Hall, West London. Advance tickets available online: £8 for adults and £6 concessions.