Dawkins vs. Descartes


Speciesists, following the discredited 17th century beliefs of Rene Descartes (who, in the name of science, purportedly nailed live animals by their paws onto boards and cut them open to reveal their beating hearts), often say that human life and experience are more sophisticated, profound, or otherwise valuable than the life and experience of non-human animals. “An animal may have pain,” the bigots say. “But that pain is qualitatively different from what a human feels. “

Yet Richard Dawkins, perhaps the foremost biologist of our era, points out the fallacy of this position.   

[W]ould you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?
Isn't it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn't it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?
At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.

For hundreds of years, human beings justified the subjugation of women, of minorities, of disabled citizens, and of many others, on the grounds that they were “less intelligent” and “inferior" beings. We rightly look back on this violence and subjugation – the human radiation experiments on disabled children, for example – with horror. Yet when it comes to animals, those ugly rationalizations rear their heads once again. 

But the truth is simple: no matter whether we are big or small, strong or weak, smart or dim... all of us have the right to be safe and free. And it is our pressing duty to spread the message of species equality far and wide, until animal liberation becomes a reality. 

Note: as a few commentators have pointed out, Richard Dawkins apparently continues to eat animals, while expressly comparing this failure of moral integrity to "anti-slavery advocates" in the 19th century who failed to give up their slaves. The lesson? Do as he says, and not as he does. Because Dawkins, like so many others, is not sufficiently motivated by sound reasons, alone, to do the right thing.