An activist on trial in Hawaii for rescuing and releasing dolphins who were in captivity tried to defend himself by claiming that he committed the lesser crime of “stealing” the dolphins in order to prevent the greater crime of animal cruelty. The judge laughed at his defense and pointed out that theft is a felony whereas animal cruelty is just a misdemeanor.
Most of us are raised to think of some animals as pets or members of our families, other animals as resources for food, clothing and entertainment, some as “pests” and others as irrelevant to our lives. In all these cases we are seeing them in terms of their usefulness to us as humans, rather than as individuals whose interest in their own lives is more important than our interest in using them. Even cruelty is considered acceptable if it helps us to use them for our wants and desires. Usually it is only “unnecessary” cruelty that inspires outrage.
It is taken for granted in most modern societies that the members of certain species of animals, such as cows, pigs, chickens, and sheeps, have the purpose of satisfying human desires. Almost no value is placed on the fact that they have lives, feelings and emotions that matter to them as well as to their families. We allow them to be treated in ways that we would never treat other conscious beings whose use does not benefit us.
Animal parts are commodities
Nonhuman animals are treated as raw materials for the production of commodities or for scientific use. You can go online and order mice alongside your other lab equipment. Cows, pigs and chickens are considered parts of farming systems, and farmers are always trying to get the greatest use possible out of them. Animals who are “damaged,” that is, too sick or injured to be used profitably, are killed in the least expensive way possible. For piglets who are raised for eating, this is usually done by slamming their heads against concrete and then throwing them in a bin to die.
Farmers talk matter-of-factly about how they produce higher-yielding cows to improve their farming systems and profitability:
According to law, nonhuman animals are considered things, not persons. They are the property of humans, and the interests of their owners take precedence over theirs. Even the most trivial interests of their owners – like making a bigger profit – are more important than the interest a nonhuman animal has in not suffering or being healthy or even staying alive. Although some animals are given some protection by anticruelty laws, the only meaningful protections are given to those animals who we humans prefer to see happy and healthy, like dogs and cats. But if someone harms or kills an animal on their own farm, they are considered within their rights as property owners, as long as the treatment is done in order to exploit the animals for a profit and not purely to make them suffer. If someone harms or kills an animal on someone else’s property, they are not charged with cruelty or murder. They are charged with damaging or destroying someone else’s property.
For the most part, animal welfare laws that regulate animal exploiting industries provide protections only to the extent that those protections are compatible with the ability of humans to pursue their own economic interests. The protections are limited to practices that lie outside of what’s considered acceptable behavior, rather than being based on what is necessary for the wellbeing of the animals involved. Because human interests take precedence, there are exemptions for many practices and certain animals are excluded. A good example is the Animal Welfare Act in the U.S. The largest exemption is for the largest human use of nonhumans: “The AWA regulates the care and treatment of warmblooded animals, except those, such as farm animals, used for food, fiber, or other agricultural purposes.” For animal experiments, the law applies only to how animals are treated before and after an experiment. It does not restrict what can be done during the experiment. Mice, rats and birds – who make up the majority of animals used in experiments – are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act. How? They are not classified as animals. It is made clear that animal welfare will be protected only to the extent that it does not interfere with human interests: “Nothing in these rules, regulations, or standards shall affect or interfere with the design, outline, or performance of actual research or experimentation by a research facility as determined by such research facility.”
Courts have consistently upheld the rights of animal exploiters to do things that judges have acknowledged as cruel and abusive (even using those words) as long as it is standard industry practice and it either does or might help them to exploit nonhuman animals efficiently. These practices include mutilation (dehorning, debeaking, castration, ear clipping, tail docking), intensive confinement leading to disease, injury, depression and anxiety, and depriving them of the opportunity to experience the outdoors, engage in natural behaviors, and live with their families or in normal social groups.
The human relationship to the animals we use as resources
Even when society demands changes to the law, the yuck factor is often more important than feelings of fairness, compassion or empathy. For example, in the U.S. it is illegal to slaughter horses for human food. It is not illegal to slaughter horses for pet food. Our laws and practices are based on human preferences, not the preferences of those whose lives are at stake. Dog fighting is illegal because we care about the suffering of dogs, not because dogs suffer more than other animals.
When there is public outrage over the treatment of other animals, it usually focuses on certain practices which are deemed unacceptable to humans, rather than being based on what the animals themselves are experiencing. For example, people were outraged when a soccer player kicked an owl who was a team mascot off the playing field and she died. But the same people who were so angered by that routinely eat the body parts and wear the skins of animals who were treated much worse for much longer before they were prematurely killed. Why? Because to many humans, the concern for the wellbeing of nonhuman animals is secondary to fulfilling our own desires. Most people would be angry about the owl, because there is no benefit to humans. But as soon as even the most trivial human interests are threatened – like the desire to eat someone else’s flesh – many humans are quick to call the suffering of the animals enslaved for human benefit “necessary.” But when we think about the common sense meaning of necessary, we see it does not apply to using nonhuman animals for food. It has been well established that most people can be healthy on a vegan diet, so our reasons for eating other animals are based on our desires and habits. And the interests of billions of others are subordinated to our desires every year.
But how we see our relationship to nonhumans is only part of the story. Another important consideration is all the things we don’t think of at all. A good example of this is the fact that so few people think about or question the dairy and egg industries. Being a vegetarian is considered highly ethical by most people. When we eat the flesh of other animals, we know we are eating the body parts of someone who had to suffer and die for our pleasure. But it’s easy to ignore the reality of how milk and eggs are produced. A lot of vegetarians are opposed to the killing of other animals for food, yet don’t ever wonder about how dairy and eggs get onto their plates.
And what do most of us think when we do think about it? Chickens don’t need their eggs, so it does no harm to take them. And cows need to milked. Right?
Not exactly. Cows and chickens used for dairy and eggs are commodified (turned into commodities) just like the animals used for their flesh. In order to keep producing milk, cows have to keep getting pregnant. And even with all the hormones pumped into them to increase their milk yields, they still don’t produce enough milk to feed their babies and humans. So who gets the milk? Humans, because the purpose of a dairy cow is to produce as much milk as possible for humans. Giving any of that milk to her babies would be an inefficient use of the dairy farmer’s property. So her babies don’t get her milk and are torn away from their mothers soon after birth. They are most often used for veal. But it is not only her babies who die prematurely. Once a cow is “spent “ and can no longer produce enough milk to be profitable – usually after about six years of her natural 18 year lifespan – she is also killed.
The egg industry is equally focused on getting the most out their resources. Only half of chickens on egg farms are useful to the farmers. They are the females who produce eggs. Any male chickens who are born are ground up alive (and often fed to their sisters and mothers), or are suffocated to death.
But what if they didn’t suffer so much?
We could ask the same question about humans. What if we could breed humans for food and treat them really well before we killed them? What if we killed them humanely before ripping off their skin to make jackets rather than skinning them alive? Would that be acceptable? Most of us would answer no.
So what is the difference between humans and other animals that makes this question seem reasonable when we ask it about nonhumans? Many different answers to this question have been proposed. Some common ones are:
They don’t have the same cognitive abilities as humans
They are not capable of entering into a social contract with humans or showing us any respect, so we don’t owe them anything
Nonhuman animals who are bred for food don’t have any meaningful social relationships
They don’t have any sense of the future, so death is not a harm to them
It is natural for species to compete with each other and kill each other for food
But when common speciesist arguments are examined, we see that none of them can be defended. If we are to apply our values consistently, there is in fact no difference between humans and nonhumans that is *relevant* to whether or not we should use other conscious creatures as resources. Any characteristic that is used to defend the superiority of humans over other animals also applies to some humans. Yet we would not call those humans inferior or use them as resources. So all the arguments in defense of devaluing the lives of nonhumans reduce to only one arbitrary characteristic: species membership. That is speciesism.