March 3, 2004

Exchange with Damien Broderick on Vegetarianism, Personhood

Here's a recent exchange between myself and Damien Broderick about the politics of vegetarianism that eventually made its way to the wta-talk list (the article I'm referring to can be found here):

[George wrote in his original post:]

< Fascinating article, but I found parts of it disturbing, particularly the
suggestion that as long as non-[human] animals are treated and killed
humanely that it's okay to kill them. >
< It's a non-argument and one that smacks of speciesism. >

[Damien offlist to George:]

This recently invented word `speciesism' begs the core question itself,
doesn't it? As a sort of analogous back formation from `racism', it simply
doesn't work without lots of extra argument. Racism stinks because it's the
fallacious claim that groups of humans who differ superficially in skin
color (say) are different species, and hence can be treated differently,
even killed at will. But different species *are*, oddly enough, different
species; the argument has to be started again from another standpoint. What
your rhetoric seems to try for is the dubious claim that:

It's a speciesist argument and one that smacks of racism.

Of course it doesn't.

[George replied:]

Yes, of course, non-trivial differences exist between humans and the other
species. I am not suggesting that we should sweepingly ignore those
differences nor that we should offer blanket condemnations whenever any
non-human animal is harmed. That being said, I would say that trivial
differences do exist when it comes to the conscious experience of humans
and a number non-human animals, including some farm animals. For this
reason I have a hard time buying those arguments which unjustifiably and
arbitrarily diminish the value of the life that these creatures have.

And it pisses me off when no consideration or respect is given to the life
of a highly sentient, emotional, and experiential non-human animal -- so
yes, I'll use a word like speciesism because that's exactly what it is. The
article that I was referring to did exactly this; the author was fixated on
his observation that cows, for example, did not panic or show any stress on
the killing floor and that they died virtually instantaneously. In his mind
this made the whole thing okay. The fact that a conscious life had been
terminated didn't seem to bother the author at all because the death came
"humanely." Interesting that you make the racism analogy; as I was reading
the article I was imagining a commentator of 60 years ago rationalizing the
"humaneness" of gas chambers in the same way.

As for the word "speciesism," I must admit that when I throw a word like
that to the wta-talk list I make assumptions about this specific readership
and how they will interpret that word. Most of us here understand and honor
personhood ethics and I thought (hopefully not wrongly) that I didn't need
to qualify the term.


Yikes. You reckon a cow is a *person*?


I did *not* make `the racism analogy'; I specifically *denied* and
*repudiated* any analogy between killing black humans and killing cows,
which I felt was an analogy implicit in the term you used. I'm aghast
(really) to see you now explicitly paralleling murdering Jewish and other
humans in gas chambers with slaughtering animals raised for food.


A cow is no more or less a person than, say, a severely disabled human.
Personhood is not a binary designation or status, but is instead a sliding
scale of characteristics and capabilities. The quality of the cognitive,
emotional and sensory life that a cow leads is sufficient enough IMO to
fulfill a number of personhood criteria which should grant it civil
protections against such things as mistreatment and murder.


Because humans are capable of so much more than non-human animals (in so
many respects), we can assign a greater inherent "value" to human life
relative to other creatures. Thus, gas chambers are a greater travesty than
factory farms, but *both* are still wrong and the parallel between racism
and speciesism still stands. Moreover, the analogy -- in case you're
concerned -- doesn't lessen the value we ascribe to human life nor does it
artificially inflate the value of animal life; it merely highlights the
need to reject unfounded prejudices and the need to recognize, respect and
protect various types of sentient life.


I might end up persuaded that cows are persons, but it seems extremely
unlikely at this point. (I will readily accept that suitably conscious AIs
or extraterrestrial lifeforms or genetically `uplifted' animals must be so
regarded.) The argument for decent treatment and use of non-human animals
can surely be made without taking such a bizarre step.

Damien Broderick

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