April 25, 2006

The myth of our exalted human place

I'm still stewing about Spiked Online and their misguided mission to malign the animal rights movement. In particular, I'm upset at Chris Pile's assertion that animal rights activists are acting misanthropically by putting the welfare of animals on par with those of humans.

It's similar to Wesley Smith's argument that transhumanists, like animal rights advocates, are demeaning humans by ascribing personhood characteristics to non-humans (in the case of transhumanists, they're anticipating existence outside of the evolved human form and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine minds, whereas animal rights folks are acknowledging the personhood of gorillas, elephants, whales and dolphins. Ultimately, however, transhumanists and animal rights advocates are on the same wavelength in that they support the idea of non-anthropocentric personhood). In his article, “The Transhumanists: The Next Great Threat to Human Dignity,” Smith declares that humans “are not just another animal in the forest,” and that “human life has ultimate value simply and merely because it is human.”

Of course, the argument that humans have value because they're human is not really an argument at all. Rather, it's a rhetorical tautology devoid of any substance – except for what it reveals about the person making the argument.

Like Pile, Smith believes that humans occupy a special metaphysical or exalted space somewhere between the beasts and gods. Even when framed in secular language, the allusion to religious sensibilities is inescapable and one that informs an indelible part of this ideology. Along similar lines, the whole idea of 'dignity' arose during the time of aristocracy, a period when the nobility accredited their 'blue blood' as the essence which separated them from the lesser members of humanity.

Consequently, those arguments that bemoan the demise of human dignity are conspicuously promoted by those who steadfastly cling to these notions as they have been reconstituted and manifested by 21st century concerns. I'm speaking, of course, of inhibitions against ascribing personhood to non-humans. This speciesism, or what James Hughes refers to as human-racism, is one of the worst prejudices of our time.

Today, our gods and kings have been replaced by reason and liberal democracies. As a society, we have grown increasingly tolerant and accommodating to minority groups and those without power. We no longer enslave the 'other' and relegate our women to second class citizenry for fear of undermining human dignity. Similarly, as we are coming to recognize the psychological and emotional workings of non-human animals, we stand to take our morality and ethical commitments to the next level.

At the very core, though, what the speciests cannot bear is when an animal's life is 'put ahead' of a human's. More accurately, what they find repugnant is the thought of a human death when a cure could have been developed through animal experimentation -- the underlying assumption being that an animal's life does not have the same value as a human's. To the speciest, the animal's suffering is either not really happening (i.e. the misconception that animals don't really feel things the way people do), or that its suffering is a justifiable sacrifice in the name of science or in helping more 'worthy' human lives.

These rationalizations are the result of human arrogance and a mass hallucination among those who condone and perform the work; they operate in total denial, deliberately choosing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that animals get frightened and can experience pain the same way we do. There's also the 'blame the victim' mentality. In 2004, for example, PETA recorded the conversations of Covance technicians as they were restraining monkeys: "Goddamn...I'm gonna knock you out...you litte bitch...you little hateful ass, you."

There is no doubt that much scientific and medical advancement has occurred as a result of animal experimentation. But this is tainted knowledge, much like the tainted knowledge acquired by the Nazi doctors who tested on human subjects. Nazi doctors weren't so much sadistic as they felt their work was justified. Much like we have devalued the life and well-being of non-human animals, the Nazis de-valued an entire race of people.

Without a doubt many lives could be saved today if we allowed the inhumane testing of human subjects. But what a repulsive and abhorrent idea! It for this exact same sense of repulsion and abhorrence that we cannot continue to allow cruel experimentation on animals. Denying the individual psychological experience of each and every animal that is experimented upon is a gross breach of our reason and moral sensibilities.

And contrary to what Spiked Online, Chris Pile and Wesley Smith believe, animal rights activists are not misanthropic. In fact, they're quite the opposite. It's not just animals whose well-being they consider, it's a concern for all creatures capable of conscious experience and complex emotion.

Consequently, it is when we consider the well-being of both human and non-human animals that we become truly humane.

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Anonymous said...

Thought-pieces like this one (very well written btw :-) make me feel guilty for eating meat. Yes, I could become a vegetarian, but: even in Nature, one animal eats another.

Michael Anissimov said...

Shortly after we can cheaply manufacture indistinguishable steak replacements and flesh out the animal perception of pain, millions of educated people will come out and say that killing animals for meat was wrong all along.

Anonymous said...

I'm totally against deliberate cruelty to animals, but this 'speciest' terminology is throwing me a bit. Surely we can observe the vast differences between humans and every other life form we know of. How do you justify humans eating animals for food, or all the animals displaced or extinct by humans? We all implicitly value humanity over other life just by existing as we do, undisputed at the top of the food chain. We shouldn't feel guity for that, any more than the wolf should feel guilty for killing its prey. Of course its not a magical covenant with god, its just the way things have turned out.

Martin Striz said...

Excellent, George. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Although, to Anonymous, as a person who has performed surgery on dozens of mice and euthanized perhaps a hundred, a must say that I don't consider myself to be acting immorally. Morality and rights should be granted in proprotion to sentience. Gratuitous pain should always be avoided, but if we can extend the lifespan of primate- and human-level sentients by sacrificing low-sentient animals, I consider that an acceptable trade off.

On the other hand, I would recommend life imprisonment for the murder of a chimpanzee or gorilla.

Unknown said...

Manual Trackback. This post is cited in Blogmandu, Roundup for Apr 23 - 29, 2006.

In a post titled “The myth of our exalted human place,” George of Sentient Developments writes about the experiences that all sentient beings share AND about those in denial about what considerable pain is visited upon non-human animals by humans. George concludes his post, “it is when we consider the well-being of both human and non-human animals that we become truly humane.”

Eric said...

With respect to Martin Striz's hierarchical worldview, I disagree.

However, if we can begin to address this dilemma by agreeing that non-human primates deserve personhood and the attendant rights, then we'll at least be making some progress.

It'll still be speciesism, but the need to preserve -- or better yet, revive the population of -- our endangered relatives like orangutans is a bit more desperate at the moment than genetically engineered mice anyway...

hazelfaern said...

I really enjoyed this post -- it includes a number of thoughts I've tried to express myself, if, perhaps, not as eloquently as you have here.

To Eric, who commented above me, I'd want to ask how one goal negates the other? We'd never say, for instance, that women's rights take away from civil rights or the needs of indigenous peoples feeling the pressure of our industrialized society. In fact, I believe we'd say that considering a broad range of needs creates a foundation for a truly humane philosophy. Why would a consideration of the needs and welfare of lab mice impede the progress of awareness regarding the needs of higher level primates?

I believe the real issue is that when we ascribe greater value to any living creature over another, we set up a dangerous mentality -- primarily, that might makes right, secondarily, that superficial differences can be used as an excuse to degrade other living creatures and take whatever we want from them.

Avian Mooch, or a Really Angry Cow said...

I have some things to say, other than that I am now in love with you.

Even in Nature, one animal eats another.

Uh, horses, anyone? Cows? The various other strictly herbivorous species in the world?

Surely we can observe the vast differences between humans and every other life form we know of.

Sure. Humans are the only ones that speak, specifically, English. However, the "differences", other than guaranteed physical differences, are not so sure. Other animals have been shown to have complex communications with one another; how do we say that this is not language? If this is language, how do we say that they cannot do many of the other previously taken for granted "human" things we do, like anticipating the future?

As it is, there are very few mental differences seen that should not be immediately written off as being humanocentric.

How do you justify humans eating animals for food, or all the animals displaced or extinct by humans?

Uh, we don't? We're fighting against that, in fact.

We all implicitly value humanity over other life just by existing as we do,

I disagree. I certainly don't, just as I don't value animal life more than human life. This is a cultural bias that you have subscribed to as universal, but it's not.

undisputed at the top of the food chain.

The term "food chain" is wrong and misleading. If anything, in a healthy ecosystem what should be occurring would be better described as a "food web", and humans certainly are not participating in one (see massive destruction of environment).

We shouldn't feel guity for that,

Denial, rationalisation. Yes, we should feel guilty for that, just as a sexist should feel guilty for putting one sex above the other; they don't, of course, but that's because they're bigots, like you are.

any more than the wolf should feel guilty for killing its prey.

First, a wolf is a he or a she, not an it. You clearly show your bigotry with this line.

Second, a wolf does not systematically raise and torture other beings, stripping them of everything that makes their lives worth living (social interaction, affection, sunlight, etc.)

Of course its not a magical covenant with god, its just the way things have turned out.

"Nature" as an excuse is no better than "god" as an excuse.

Now, for the author of the blog.

You yourself either seem to subscribe to the "only humans = people" mentality, or you slipped up in this post. Surely if humans do not inhabit a "sacred space", as it were, animals are just as entitled to the title of "person" as we are?

Anonymous said...

Loved this post & couldn't agree more - thank you!