The Marriam-Webster Dictionary defines discrimination as:
“the process by which two stimuli differing in some aspect are responded to differently”
In other words, discrimination simply means treating certain things differently.
When we discern between various categories, we need some basis on which to do so. If I go to the clothing store and buy a warm acrylic sweater rather than a light T-shirt, I probably have a reason for doing so. Perhaps my discrimination between warm and light clothing is based on the observation that it is currently mid-winter, and that warm clothing is better suited to my needs.
Discrimination on the basis of certain criteria can become problematic when the criteria in question is irrelevant. If I am on the board of admissions for a university, which criteria will I use to decide whether or not you should be admitted? If I use your marks as the basis for my decision, then that is relevant discrimination. Your academic achievement (or lack thereof) is relevant as to whether or not you deserve to be admitted. If, on the other hand, I choose to deny you admission because you are a girl, or becuase I don’t like your religion, then that is irrelevant discrimination – which is wrong. Your gender and religious beliefs have nothing to do with whether or not you deserve to be admitted.
Prejudicial discrimination, then, is the use of irrelevant criteria to deny (wholly or partially) membership in the moral community. Racism uses race; sexism uses gender; homophobia uses sexual orientation, etc.
Speciesism: Discrimination on the Basis of Species
Non-humans are not similar to humans in every respect. For example, they cannot use human language, or make informed choices about which political candidate is better suited to running the country. So there is nothing irrational or prejudicial about denying them the ‘right’ to an education, or the ‘right’ to vote.
Like us, however, non-humans are sentient, or subjectively aware. They are individuals (somebodies as opposed to somethings) with a sense of self and a capacity for suffering. If I kick a pig in the stomach, he or she will feel (and react to) the pain with the understanding that the pain is being imposed on him or her personally – that the pain is not happening out there somewhere. Whatever other characteristics he or she does or does not have, a sentient being, by definition, has an interest in not being subjected to violence. Sentience is therefore the only relevant characteristic when it comes to the capacity to be harmed.
Our current relationship with non-humans is predicated on the assumption that they are resources existing for our use. This allows us to disregard any and all non-human interests (no matter how vital) for any and all human interests (no matter how trivial). From the moment that we breed them into existence, to the various ways in which we rob them of basic comfort and autonomy throughout their short and miserable lives, to the final moment, when we sentence them to pre-mature death - the ‘domesticated’ non-human is stuck living his or her life on someone else’s terms.
The ownership of another sentient being is problematic precisely because it requires that a someone be treated as if they were a something. If I owned you, then every decision about your life (and death) would be made by me, to suit my own purposes. If I felt that whipping you would stimulate you to work harder, I could whip you to my heart’s content. If I decided that it would benefit me to have you constantly giving birth, I could have you raped repeatedly. If I decided that the cost of keeping you alive outweighed the benefit I derived from your work productivity, I could feed you to a bunch of hungry tigers. Of course, if I wanted to, I could also choose to be a ‘kind’ or ‘merciful’ slave owner. But the economics of slavery (in both the human and non-human contexts) militates strongly in favour of brutal treatement – and more importantly, ‘gentler’ treatment would not resolve the basic injustice of being owned by someone else, which is what allows them to decide how to make the best use of their property in the first place.
Non-humans may not have a concept of ‘slavery’ or ‘exploitation’, but that is irrelevant. Because they are sentient, our ownership and exploitation of them, which involves torture and killing, harms them in various ways. The principle of equal consideration requires that we give equal weight to equal interests. Every sentient life is a self-contained world of subjective observations and emotions – an individual who cares about what happens to him or her, and to whom (by virtue of his or her sentience) torture and death (which are integral components of non-human slavery) are harmful. Granted equal sentience, the species of an individual is no a more a relevant criterion on which to deny relevant interests (such as the interest in not being owned by someone else) than is race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, etc.
Killing Animals vs. Making Them Suffer
An oft-repeated fable in the speciest mythology is that, because non-humans lack human-like cognition, a death is not harmful for them in the same way that it is for a human. A comfortable life and relatively quick and painless death, it is said, would constitute a “humane” or “non-abusive” use of animals. Unfortunately, this idea is mis-guided on a number of levels.
First of all, the legal system of just about every country on the planet is based on a person-property dichotomy. There are moral persons (somebodies), whose interests are procted via ‘rights’, and there is property (somethings), which has no value other than its market value to its owners. Putting any sentient group in the ‘property’ category will always result in the interests of that group being traded away at the slightest whims of those in the ‘persons’ category. That fact, combined with the pressure on agribusiness to mass produce affordable animal products for the multitudes, means that our treatment of non-humans – even in the ‘happiest’ of humane delusions – will always amount to conditions that can only be described as a Descartian nightmare.
But even if, contrary to the fact, it were possible to use and kill animals painlessly, such use would still harm them. A sentient being can interact with the world around him or her, and have subjective experiences that he or she personally enjoys. Even in the absence of philosophical notions of ‘self’ or about what it means to be alive, depriving a sentient being of the opportunity to continue living deprives them of their interest in continuing to seek experiences that are personally enjoyable to them. A painless death is a harm to any sentient being, in the same way that going blind would deprive someone with eye-sight of their interest in continuing to see. Granted equal sentience, all animals (human or non-human) value their own lives immeasurably, even if no one else values us. For the purpose of being treated as someone else’s resource, or being killed, we are therefore all equal.
Lastly, it should be noted that our domestication and dominion over non-humans – even if it could be made painless and did not involve killing – is fundamentally abusive and exploitative at every step. We breed genetically-manipulated animals into existence and force them to live in a state of permanent vulnerability (they could not survive independently in the wild) so that we can exploit them. For example, we have bred sheep to have unnaturally wrinkly skin (which is bad for their health) so that they will “produce” more wool per animal. We have bred hens to lay a hundred times more eggs than they would in nature, even though laying an egg depletes her body of nutrients. Although non-human slavery involves torture and killing, the ownership and exploitation of vulnerable sentients is itself abusive and inhumane. Talking about “humane” or “non-abusive” animal use is like talking about “compassionate” or “non-abusive” child molestion - an oxymoron if there ever was one.
The claim that all sentient beings have equal inherent value is likely to raise some eyebrows. Surely, if I were in a lifeboat and could only save one of either a family member or a non-human, I would choose my family member over the non-human?
That is, of course, a no-brainer. In a situation of genuine conflict, I would choose my mother over a chicken. Although killing a sentient being is always problematic, no choice made in such a scenario could ever be perfect. I could only save one individual, and I have kinship ties with my mother that I do not share with the chicken. However, if the chicken were replaced by a human that I didn’t know, I would still choose my mother over him or her. Most people, if they are honest, will admit to choosing their mother (or child, spouse, etc) over ten other humans.
If, however, a decision had to be made about whether to use my mother or a chicken (or another human being) as someone else’s resource, then my personal bias would become irrelevant. The fact that I prefer my mother over someone else (whether that ‘someone’ is human or non-human) does not make it OK to kill and eat the second party, or to use them in a painful bio-medical experiment. Like my mother, they value their own lives immeasurably, irrespective of whether or not anyone else values them. For the purpose of being treated as some else’s resource, all sentient beings are therefore equal.
Let’s look at another example. Suppose that I am in a lifeboat, and I can only save one of either an elderly person, or a young child. No choice made in such a scenario could be perfect – someone would have to die. All other things being equal, I might decide to save the child, given that he or she theoretically has a longer life ahead of them than the elderly person. But even if I have a policy of choosing young people over the elderly in such scenarios (for precisely that reason), it would not make it OK to kill elderly people and make leather jackets out of them, or to use them as unconsenting subjects in biomedical experiments.
If I am in a lifeboat scenario and have to choose between a human and a non-human, and I do not know (or have emotional ties) to either one of them, I can choose either one of them. I may nevertheless choose the human over the non-human because I decide, being human myself, that I know what death would mean for the human in a more accute way than that of the non-human. But even if that were the case, it would not say anything about the (im)morality of treating non-humans as resources for humans in non-lifeboat scenarios.
The institution of non-human slavery fabricates unnecessary conflicts between humans and non-humans. We breed animals into existence to use as our resources – we drag them into the lifeboat scenario - and then we sit around scratching our heads, wondering what morality requires of us. Hint: morality requires that we give equal weight to equal interests. It requires that we recognize the right of every sentient individual to not be the property of another. The recognition of this one basic right would lead to the abolition of all animal use.
Towards the abolition of non-human slavery
In his book, Introduction to Animal Rights, lawyer and animal ethicist Gary Francione introduces a character called Simon the Sadist, who enjoys blow-torching dogs. Simon is otherwise a nice, law-abiding guy; he just has this kink. He has no real reason for doing this, other than his personal enjoyment.
Any sane human being on the planet would agree that what Simon is doing is wrong. Why? Because we all agree that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals – and that personal enjoyment, convenience, or habit/tradition don’t cut it.
But our uses of animals are not necessary. We don’t need to eat animal products:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
We eat, wear, and otherwise exploit animals because we enjoy it, and because it’s convenient and traditional. Anyone who is not a vegan is participating in the unnecessary and killing of animals that, by their own admission, is no different from what Simon does to dogs.
Veganism is the only the rational, coherent response to accepting that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals. More to the point, embracing veganism – not as part of a 9-5 flexitarian lifestyle, but as a moral and political act - represents the principle of abolition applied to your own life. It is your recognition that animals are somebodies rather than somethings – and that they should be treated as such. It is the refusal to participate in violence against the vulnerable.
The road to abolition is paved with veganism. Go vegan, and educate those around you in creative, non-aggressive ways about why they should do the same. They will convince and influence others, who will convince and influence more people yet, and so on.
Together, we can change the world.