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Animal Equality
by Joan Dunayer

When I was writing Animal Equality, a friend questioned the book's title. Did I really mean to say that all animals are equal? Yes, I did. Like human equality, animal equality doesn't mean equal abilities. It means that all animals have an equal right to moral consideration and legal protection. And by "all animals" I mean all sentient beings, every creature who can feel. It's reasonable and right to treat any creature with a nervous system as sentient. Reasonable because of the shared ancestry and physiological similarities of all nervous systems. Reasonable because creatures with a nervous system act as if they feel. Right because we should give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to moral consideration. Because all beings who can feel need protection, all beings who can feel are entitled to rights. The sole criterion for rights should be sentience.

Some animal rights theorists disagree with that. In his new book Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, lawyer Steven Wise argues that the animals "most deserving" of legal rights have "certain advanced mental abilities." According to Wise, an animal is entitled to basic rights if they can desire, can act with the aim of getting what they desire, and have some sense of self, however dim. In my view, all sentient beings probably satisfy these criteria. They ingest food and do other things, such as hide themselves or flee, that indicate some sense of self, some sense that it is they who need food, it is they who are in danger. But Wise actually has stricter criteria in mind. He requires that animals demonstrate human-like mental abilities in situations contrived, or at least observed, by professional researchers, such as laboratory experimenters.

For example, Wise treats mirror tests of self-recognition as indicators of whether or not an animal is self-aware. In the standard mirror self-recognition test, a researcher places a red mark on the forehead of an anesthetized animal. If, when the animal awakens and looks into a mirror, they touch the mark, they're assumed to have self-recognition because they identified the image in the mirror as their own. Wise admits that some animals have failed mirror self-recognition tests apparently because of visual rather than cognitive difficulties, such as the mirror's being too small for their body size. When the test has been modified, members of their species have passed. The mirror self-recognition test requires that nonhuman animals recognize themselves using humans' primary means of recognizing individuals: sight rather than, say, smell or feel.

Wise's approach is beset with practical and ideological problems. First, his approach makes it impossible for most animals ever to obtain legal rights. He requires that a sense of self be proven (his word). Given that there are millions of animal species, this would mean endless research. Indeed, in his book, Wise repeatedly calls for more research. He heavily cites experimentation on animals held captive in laboratories. Based on such research, he grades animals on their supposed degree of autonomy. Reserved for humans, a score of 1 signifies the highest level of autonomy. To qualify for basic legal rights, an animal must receive an autonomy score of .7 or higher. As determined by Wise, so far only six species "clearly" qualify for rights: humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and bottle-nosed dolphins. With less confidence, Wise also advocates rights for African gray parrots and, provisionally, African elephants. He warns: if a mirror self-recognition test is given to some African elephants and they fail, he'll drop their species' autonomy score to .68 or lower, ousting African elephants from the category of those who qualify for rights. "We do not know enough" about "most species" to determine whether they possess sufficient autonomy for basic rights, Wise says. Apparently, "most species" are out of luck until "we," actually he, does know enough.

In his first book, Rattling the Cage, Wise completely dismissed the idea that insects might reason. I told him I knew of much evidence that honeybees and other insects reason. He requested references.
The evidence I supplied included the following: When a honeybee colony requires a new hive site, honeybee scouts search for a cavity of suitable location, dryness, and size. Each scout evaluates potential sites and reports back, dancing about the site that she most recommends. A honeybee scout may advertise one site over a period of days, but she repeatedly inspects her choice. She also examines sites proposed by others. If a sister's find proves more desirable than her own, the honeybee stops advocating her original choice and starts dancing in favor of the superior site. In other words, she's capable of changing her mind and her "vote." Eventually colony members reach a consensus.

More evidence: Researchers at Princeton University showed some captive honeybees food placed on a boat in the middle of a lake. When the honeybees were released to return to their nearby hive, they communicated the food's location to their sisters. No bees set out to the food. Then the researchers moved the food to the lake's far shore. Again they showed the location to captive honeybees. Again the bees flew back to their hive and told their sisters where to find the food. Guess what? This time many other bees promptly set out, flying over the lake to the food. Honeybees have a mental map of their environment. A water location, in the middle of a lake, didn't make sense. But the new location--on land--was plausible. Honeybees assess the information they receive and believe or disbelieve depending on its plausibility. To his "amazement and horror," Wise found such evidence compelling. He now credits honeybees with the ability to reason.

Well, he shouldn't have been so surprised. The ability to reason has survival value for insects just as it does for humans. However, although honeybees apparently form opinions and change their minds, understand concepts such as "same" and "different," communicate information such as the direction and distance to a food source using a system of abstract symbols, and show other evidence of reasoning ability, they don't qualify for rights according to Wise. Why not? Because, he says, they're invertebrates. If they were vertebrates--like us--he'd grade them .75 or .8, and they'd qualify for rights. Too bad, honeybees.

Similarly, although the African gray parrot Alex "has demonstrated extraordinary mental abilities for an animal with a walnut-sized brain," Wise doesn't place African gray parrots among the animals who incontestably deserve rights. They're too evolutionarily distant from humans, he says. Their cognitive abilities may have developed independently of ours, along a different ancestral line. So, even if African gray parrots possess the abilities in question, they shouldn't receive full credit for them if the origin of those abilities differs from the origin of our same abilities. That's like saying that my 1998 Honda Civic is better than yours because yours came from a different dealer. Less closely related to humans doesn't mean less intelligent, even if we define intelligence as human-like intelligence. Octopuses apparently have more human-like intelligence than frogs do, but we're far more closely related to frogs.

When Wise condescendingly refers to a parrot's "walnut-sized brain," he's the small-minded one. Humans pride themselves on possessing a large brain, but elephants and many cetaceans have bigger, heavier brains than ours, with more nerve cells. For their body weight, many small birds and mammals have heavier brains than we do. The brains of many small vertebrates show greater neural density and interconnectedness. Larger brains are not necessarily more efficient or powerful than smaller brains.

Wise advocates assessing the intelligence of nonhuman animals by giving them tests designed for human children, even though, by his own admission, tests designed for children may not be valid for nonhumans. Comparing nonhumans to human children insults nonhumans. Some birds, such as Clark's nutcrackers, can remember thousands of soil locations in which they've buried seed. What test designed for children, or even adult humans, possibly could reveal that? If captive adult gorillas and bottle-nosed dolphins seem to resemble human children, it's because certain humans choose to view them that way and because they've been placed in stultifying environments that allow scant expression of their natural adult nonhuman abilities.

According to Wise, the more a nonhuman's mind appears to be "simpler" than a child's--or "just different"--the weaker their claim to rights. Equating "different from humans" with "lesser" is the essence of speciesism. Biologically, men differ from women and every individual human differs from every other, but the differences aren't morally relevant because all humans, provided that they're sentient, equally need and deserve moral consideration. The same is true of humans and nonhumans. The differences aren't morally relevant to the issue of basic rights.

Wise's arguments are riddled with contradictions. Using a man with an IQ of 10 as an example, Wise notes that some humans have "little" autonomy. At the same time that Wise acknowledges a wide range of human autonomy, he treats nonhuman autonomy as basically constant across any particular species. In Wise's scheme, if Alex the African gray parrot shows sufficient human-like intelligence to qualify for rights, all African gray parrots qualify. If half a dozen African elephants fail mirror self-recognition tests, no African elephants will qualify for rights. In reality, mental capacities and other traits vary widely within nonhuman species, just as they do among humans.

Wise defends his emphasis on autonomy on the grounds that judges think in terms of autonomy. No they don't, not unless a particular case raises the issue of autonomy. And even then, judges don't treat sentient humans who apparently have little autonomy as things without rights. As Wise himself notes, courts regard humans with an IQ of 10 as having rights. Judges consider the well-being of young children and other humans who lack sufficient autonomy to make important decisions regarding their own welfare. In such instances, the court or a guardian makes the decision, with consideration given to the individual's best interest. Whether or not bottle-nosed dolphins are autonomous, when dolphins acquire rights humans will have to act as their legal guardians. A dolphin can't ask the court to liberate them from an aquaprison or laboratory. Humans have to do that. Given that nonhuman animals can't plead their own case or state their preferred fate in a court of law, what's the point--moral or legal--of attempting to assess their degree of autonomy?

Wise says that he assesses nonhuman autonomy in terms of human intelligence because "the law measures nonhuman animals with a human yardstick." The law doesn't measure nonhuman capacities. It measures nonhumans' financial and, to much lesser extent, emotional value to humans. It regards nonhumans as property. And isn't the goal to change the way the law views nonhuman animals?

Wise fails to provide any cogent, logically consistent reason for his severely restrictive autonomy criteria. Nor does he provide any evidence that the sort of radical change needed to emancipate nonhumans can come about through judicial opinion rather than legislation. Wise repeatedly compares nonhuman enslavement to the former enslavement of blacks in America. Well, judicial opinion didn't free blacks. Judicial opinions repeatedly reinforced blacks' property status as slaves. Legislation freed blacks. And it freed all of them, not just those with the whitest skin, not just those who would have scored .7 or higher in whiteness.

We need to create the same kind of moral outrage that American abolitionists created about black enslavement, until the groundswell of public opinion forces legislation that recognizes sentience as the basis for rights. If some individual judge rules that a chimpanzee is a rights-holder because the chimpanzee shows human-like intelligence rather than because the chimp is sentient, we'll have set the wrong kind of precedent. We don't want a few nonhuman animals to be regarded as honorary humans. We want to get rid of humanness as the basis for rights.

Philosopher Peter Singer has praised Wise for supposedly answering the question "Where should we draw the line?" with regard to which beings should receive the moral consideration vouchsafed by legal rights. The answer always has been far simpler than Singer or Wise would have us believe. The line should be drawn between all sentient beings and all insentient things. If a creature has a nervous system, it's reasonable to assume that they can feel. If they can feel, they need protection--that is, legal rights. End of story.

Actually, Singer doesn't believe that any animals, including humans, should have inviolable rights. He believes that an individual's well-being or life can be sacrificed to the "greater good." In other words, you can enslave me, or a cow, if that enslavement will substantially improve or prolong the lives of others. You can vivisect me, or a mouse, if (you really have to stretch your imagination for this one) vivisecting me or a mouse will save numerous lives. Although Singer has advocated moral consideration for all sentient beings, he doesn't consider all animals equally entitled to life. In fact, he's referred to some animals, such as fishes, as "replaceable." Abusers do the same thing: they speak of "replacement calves," "replacement sows"... In Singer's view, because most humans have social ties, a "high degree of self-awareness," and a "vivid sense of their own existence over time," most humans have richer, more valuable lives than fishes, chickens, and most other nonhumans and are, therefore, more entitled to live.

Like Wise's arguments, Singer's are muddled. First, chickens and many fishes actually do form deep, lasting relationships when permitted to do so. Second, the traits cited by Singer as increasing the quality of a life also can decrease it: social ties cause grief as well as joy; thoughts of past and future cause regret and fear as well as satisfaction. Third, we can't know a nonhuman's degree of self-awareness or calculate how richly they experience life. Is the pleasure that a dog feels running through a meadow, or a lizard feels basking in the sun, or a condor feels soaring at great height more or less than the pleasure that a musician feels listening to a Mozart concerto? No one can say. In fact, to some extent, it depends on the individual dog, lizard, condor, and musician. Fourth, Singer's disrespect for chickens, fishes, and so many other nonhuman animals is inconsistent with his own espoused philosophy, which values benign individuals more than those who, on balance, cause harm. By that measure, chickens and fishes are worthier than most humans, who needlessly cause much suffering and death (for example, by eating or wearing animal-derived products). Fifth, it's simply unjust to discount individuals--nonhuman or human--because they're unloved or less "self-aware" than others. Equitable laws don't accord less consideration and protection to humans who lack social ties or seem not to reflect on their past and future. Nonhumans deserve equal justice.

The fact is, Singer sees only some animals as individuals--those ostensibly most like himself. A failure to see individuals different from one's self as individuals is the essence of all bigotries. Just as racists see individual humans as embodiments of a particular race, speciesists see individual nonhumans as mere species representatives. Speciesism's hallmark trait is denial of nonhuman individuality. In reality, no animal is replaceable. Both physically and mentally, every sentient being is unique. Every lobster, every crow, every housefly is an individual who has a unique life experience and never will exist again. But that's not how abusers see it. For example, the flesh industry. In the flesh industry's view--and that of flesh-eaters--chickens, fishes, and other nonhumans can be killed by the billions each year provided that others of their species remain available for future killing. Essentially, Singer has the same view.

By requiring that nonhumans demonstrate human-like traits, and by ranking nonhumans accordingly, Wise and Singer perpetuate the notion of human supremacy. This notion harms humans as well as nonhumans. For centuries, whites have figuratively identified blacks with supposedly inferior nonhuman animals, calling them "monkeys" and "beasts." The Nazis called Jews "animals" and "vermin." A belief in a hierarchy of higher and lower beings underlies all notions of human inferiority: the alleged inferiority of blacks, Jews, women, foreigners... If there's no hierarchy of living beings, no one can be denied equal rights and protection on the grounds that they're less human, or subhuman.

Even if every nonhuman lacked the capacity for human-like reasoning, nonhumans wouldn't be inferior. Why equate human characteristics with superiority? Because we possess them? In the same self-aggrandizing and otherwise-arbitrary way, a superb singer could say, "I can remember intricate melodies and sing them beautifully. The ability to do that signifies superiority." Then vocally gifted humans, many songbirds, and perhaps other nonhumans such as humpback whales would be at the top of the hierarchy. At the bottom of the hierarchy would be those creatures who have absolutely no singing ability, such as Britney Spears. Because human culture features verbal language and technology, speciesists tend to assess intelligence in terms of these capacities. However, if we define intelligence as evidence-based perception undistorted by bigotry and myth, humans compare unfavorably to other animals. While despising nonhumans as mindless, members of "the rational species" riot over the outcomes of soccer games; smoke, eat, and drink themselves to death; poison the air, water, and soil on which they rely; believe that other religions are false but theirs is true; and pay to see movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Even by conventional human standards, a mature brook trout is in many ways more cognizant than a newborn or senile human, and the average pigeon or rat possesses greater learning and reasoning ability than many humans with mental disabilities. If no nonhuman animal can solve complex equations or write a philosophical treatise, neither can most humans. Some humans can't use numbers or words at all.

With regard to basic rights, an individual's degree of intelligence is morally irrelevant. Degree of intelligence is simply an excuse for depriving nonhumans of liberty, well-being, and life. The excuse is inconsistent. Although human persecution based on race, gender, or some other biological characteristic commonly entails much talk of inferiority and superiority, few people would welcome laws that protected humans in proportion to their abilities. In a democracy the law protects all human animals, whatever their degree of intelligence.

A democratic society deprives humans of freedom only if they're believed to have knowingly wronged others. Most nonhumans do not seriously injure or kill except out of immediate and direct survival need, as when a lion kills prey. They are innocent of serious wrongdoing. Because nonhumans who do cause needless harm may have no sense of wrongdoing, they too should be regarded as innocent (just as humans who can't distinguish right from wrong aren't held accountable for injuring or killing another human). In contrast, most humans are guilty. Whereas predators kill to survive, sport hunters and fishers wound and kill for fun. Whereas nonhumans rarely prolong the act of killing, bullfighters, vivisectors, and other humans routinely torture to death. Each day, flesh purveyors kill millions of birds, mammals, and fishes for profit. For mere convenience and taste, consumers eat the remains. Directly or indirectly, most humans routinely, knowingly participate in the needless infliction of suffering and death. While boasting of "human kindness," our species treats nonhumans (and often humans) with extreme injustice and cruelty.

Among humans, justice is based on innocence and guilt, and a person is presumed innocent unless compelling evidence indicates otherwise. Why doesn't the same principle apply across species? Why don't nonhuman animals--who are innocent--enjoy a legal right to freedom and life? Speciesism rests on a double standard. We need to continually expose that double standard.

We need to end the current property status of nonhuman animals. Today, most so-called "animal" laws legitimize abuse: they simply set standards for the imprisonment, enslavement, hurting, and killing of nonhuman animals. Like the laws that codified norms of black enslavement in America, such "animal" laws should be abolished. Instead, we need laws that will prohibit humans from violating nonhuman rights. Ideally, the same laws that protect humans would protect nonhumans, extending to them all applicable rights currently reserved for humans.

How can we persuade legislators to enact the laws that we seek? By persuading the public. We need to convince the public that vivisection, food-industry enslavement and slaughter, and other forms of speciesist abuse are morally wrong--atrocities, in fact. To do that, we need to continually expose the suffering and death that these practices inflict, as well as the bigotry, illogic, and injustice of denying nonhumans rights.

Challenge those who accept and participate in speciesist abuse: "If we don't have the moral right to hurt or kill humans except under extraordinary circumstances such as self-defense, what gives us the right to routinely hurt or kill nonhumans? If you think it's wrong to vivisect a human, whatever their mental capacity, why don't you also think it's wrong to vivisect a rat? If you wouldn't kill a human and eat their remains unless you were starving--or not even then--why will you eat the remains of a slaughtered pig?" If a person responds, "I just care more about humans, and I don't see anything wrong with that," press on: "Unless you're unjust, you wouldn't advocate that members of your family, or your gender, or your race have more rights than other humans. Then, why do you think it's acceptable for members of your species to have more rights than other animals? Would you want your rights to depend on your belonging to the favored group? If you don't value the life of a rat or pig, the rat or pig does."

When we argue for animal rights, we argue against all forms of speciesist abuse. If instead we argue based on, say, veganism's health benefits or vivisection's scientific invalidity, we have to argue issue by issue, even food by food or experiment by experiment. Also, such arguments are harmful insofar as they suggest that it's morally acceptable to harm nonhuman animals if harming them benefits us. The health argument suggests that it would be fine to eat flesh if flesh were healthful. The science argument suggests that it would be fine to vivisect if vivisection were great science. So if you use health, scientific, and other non-animal rights arguments, please make sure that you also emphasize that the practices you oppose are morally wrong.


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