Many people will accuse a vegan of caring more about the rights of animals than the rights of humans, and this is simply not true. It’s sort of an equal amount of caring to be honest. You see, we tend to see the world as made up of beings – we’re all sharing one planet together, and everyone and everything should be allowed to live happily and without harm. Therefore most vegans, if not all, will grimace and groan at the notion of speciesism; this is, after all, where animal cruelty seems to stem from – humans thinking that, because they’ve managed to become top of the food chain in their urban environment, it somehow means they can treat other species with nothing but cruelty and contempt. Power begets corruption, it seems.
Speciesism, in case you are unaware (like I was mere months ago), is the assignment of different levels of power and rights to one species dependent on their specific qualities as a species. It is a term coined by British psychologist Richard R. Ryder in 1973. In his book Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research (1975) he states:
"I use the word 'speciesism’ to describe the widespread discrimination that is practised by man against other species ... Speciesism is discrimination, and like all discrimination it overlooks or underestimates the similarities between the discriminator and those discriminated against."
In short, it is a form of discrimination. Think of it this way. For centuries, humans have divided themselves into sub-sects dependent on different qualities of our own ‘humanity’ – race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, amongst hundreds of others. These divisions caused wars, and still do. Racial discrimination led to slavery, religious discrimination has resulted in holocausts; it’s all around us in the history books and on the current news. People believing themselves to be of higher worth removed the rights of people deemed of lower worth. Speciesism is another sub-sect, another forced removal of rights from living, feeling beings simply because people have decided they are of lesser worth. And how do we measure worth? Well, by usefulness to us as humans, of course. We love to exploit lesser beings, and lesser humans. Where less worthy humans were able to rise up through political protest and eventually acquire their own equal rights, animals are without this platform. They can’t speak out against the injustices done against them. But does that make them any less deserving of the right to live? If a child is born deaf, and blind, and dumb, do we discard it as useless? No. We go out our way to accommodate them; we have specifically developed programmes for these children to live fulfilling lives - and rightfully so. No one person should be measured by what they can offer to society, and neither should the rest of the inhabitants of this world.
But this is exactly what we do with animals. We measure their worth by what we feel they can offer to society. Are they edible? Then over-breed them and send them to the slaughterhouses. Do they produce goods which are edible? Then over-breed them, force them to overproduce these goods, take these goods and send the animal to the slaughterhouses when they’re all used up. Do they produce or possess goods which can be manufactured into clothing, fashion items and other household products? Then over-breed them, strip them of these goods, send them to the slaughterhouses or dispose of them if inedible. But what of those animals that are cute, cuddly, or demonstrate the ability to show a form of affection towards a human? Well, over-breed them, sell them as stock and put them in the home for companionship purposes. After all, just as we need to eat and cover our bodies in clothing, we also require a basic need of companionship and to feel loved. All animals can offer love, affection, companionship, but we only choose to accept this from animals which fit into our home lives and which fit the criteria of cute and/or cuddly. After all, who wants an ugly, un-cuddly pet?
Of course, many people will and do support speciesism, either actively or unconsciously. Humans are capable of self-awareness, of logical, rational and philosophical thought, of creating and inventing, seemingly more so than other animals. Because of this, people believe we are naturally superior. But what I’m hopefully conveying here is that, even if we are superior in many ways, does that give us the right to exploit those we have deemed inferior? I certainly think not.
Richard D. Ryder coined another interesting term more recently that more eloquently echoes what I have been discussing. In an article featured in The Guardian, entitled All beings that feel pain deserve human rights: Equality of the species is the logical conclusion of post-Darwin morality (August 6 2005), he wrote:
“Our concern for the pain and distress of others should be extended to any 'painient'—pain-feeling—being regardless of his or her sex, class, race, religion, nationality or species. Indeed, if aliens from outer space turn out to be painient, or if we ever manufacture machines who are painient, then we must widen the moral circle to include them. Painience is the only convincing basis for attributing rights or, indeed, interests to others.”
This blog entry is by no means exhaustive. There are many angles, arguments and subtext in which to take into account. Hopefully, I’ve provided a decent overview of speciesism. Here are a couple of useful links if you feel inclined to read further.