Yesterday, we podcasted about the dangerous effects of speciesism -- the idea that human beings have higher value than other animals. But, too often, we hear people, even in the animal advocacy community, say that human beings are superior. The head of a prominent local animal advocacy group, in the Bay Area, routinely rails against the absurdity of "speciesism" because "human beings are clearly superior to animals." Even more commonly, the idea of speciesism is not even discussed. One of DxE's key organizers, a long-time vegan, spent years working for "animal rights" with an express belief in human supremacy, and was never even asked to reconsider.
The most common reason used to justify the belief in human superiority is that we are more intelligent or aware than other animals. But a simple thought experiment shows why this view is wrong.
Suppose that explorers arrive in a previously unknown area of the Amazon, where a strange tribe exists. The tribe suffers from a rare genetic anomaly, whereby all of its people are physically and mentally stuck at the age of 3.
They laugh and they cry. They love and they hate. But they have no capacity for complex planning, or mental sophistication. So they live their lives as young children do -- on a moment to moment basis -- and they have no hope for ever developing beyond that.
If the explorers took these gentle children and murdered them -- for science, for food, or for fun -- would we say, "Oh but those children are not so intelligent, so the violence is ok." Or would we be even more horrified by the violence, precisely because the children had no capacity to fend for themselves?
I would submit that the argument against animal exploitation is even stronger than the argument against violence against this tribe because we could be quite confident that whatever awareness these children had, it was "less than" what a normal human has. We are comparing the same species after all, and presumably whatever the Amazonian children are missing, due to genetic anomaly, is not made up for in higher or richer awareness in other dimensions.
We cannot say that about other species. A dog may not be able to reason. But perhaps she delights in smells in a way that a less sensitive nose could never understand. Perhaps she enjoys food with a sophistication that a lesser palate cannot begin to grasp. Perhaps she feels loneliness with an intensity that a human being could never appreciate.
Richard Dawkins makes the very important point that cleverness, which we certainly have, gives us no reason to think that animal consciousness is any less rich or intense than human consciousness. Indeed, since cleverness is, in a sense, an alternative mechanism for evolutionary survival to feelings (a perfect computer would not need feelings), there is a plausible case that clever animals should be given less consideration.
But all of this is really irrelevant. Because the basis of political equality, as Peter Singer has argued, has nothing to do with the facts of our experience. Someone who is born without the ability to feel pain does not somehow lose her rights because of that difference. Equality is not a factual description, it is a normative demand -- namely, that every being who crosses the threshold of sentience, every being that could be said to have a will -- ought be given the same respect and freedom that we ask for ourselves, as "willing" creatures.