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Speciesism

[Photo: Chimp by Frank Wouters]

My friend writes the Buddhist blog, Unknowing Mind. Recently he has published a series of posts regarding the emotional lives of non-human animals based on his reading of the book When Elephants Weep by J.M. Masson. His posts discuss a number of stories presented in the book which suggest that non-human animals experience feelings and emotions which are typically considered to be exclusive to humans, such as love and grief. Being an animal lover myself, and I think most pet lovers would agree, I have no doubts that animals do experience emotions. I won't claim that these emotions can be compared to human emotions, as it is impossible for me, or any other person, to definitively know. However, as my friend stated in his posts, it is also impossible to claim that human emotions are static from person to person. How do I know that what I intend to express when I say, "I love you," is the same as what you wish to express when you tell someone you love them? It's impossible to ever measure such an intangible entity. Therefore, how is it possible to claim that non-human animals do not experience some form of emotion when we have no reliable method to measure the assertion?

I believe that in many Western cultures, in particular our own, it is a widespread belief that aniamls are not capable of feeling and experiencing emotions. I also believe that this unfortunately successful meme contributes to the lack of respect for non-human life that permeates our society (the lack of respect for human life in our society is a topic for another day...). It seems that our culture favors a view of speciesism when weighting the importance of human life over non-human life. I think the following quote from Richard Dawkin's book, The Selfish Gene, sums up my sentiments very well (page 10):

"The feeling that members of one's own species deserve special moral consideration as compared with members of other species is old and deep. Killing people outside war is the most seriously regarded crime ordinarily committed. The only thing more strongly forbidden by our culture is eating people (even if they are already dead). We enjoy eating members of other species, however. Many of us shrink from judicial execution of even the most horrible human criminals, while we cheerfully countenance the shooting without trial of fairly mild animal pests. Indeed we kill members of other harmless species as a means of recreation and amusement. A human fetus, with no more human feeling than an amoeba, enjoys a reverence and legal protection far in excess of those granted to an adult chimpanzee. Yet the chimp feels and thinks and -- according to recent experimental evidence -- may even be capable of learning a form of human language."

A number of assertions by Dawkins in the above quote may abhor many people. However, I find myself in total agreement with him. Why is it that our culture considers human life, no matter in what form or developmental stage, as superior to that of our non-human co-habitants of the planet? Is it simply because of speciesism? Does our feeling of superiority stem from the fact that many cannot understand nor empathize with non-human life?

What do you think? Do you believe that there is an imbalance in the level of respect our culture holds for human life versus non-human life? Do you believe non-human animals feel emotions? Are human emotions superior to non-human emotions?


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I think my thoughts are well known. :)

This is kind of a big topic to me.. and I'm not sure how to adequetly get across what I think, without linking in a bunch of larger world-view beliefs that I hold. Trouble is, all of that is way beyond the scope of what this question is supposed to be about.. so it's a hard one to answer simply :) Plus, there's two sides to this.. why does the world act the way it does? and why do *I* act the way I do towards the world?

Why is it that our culture considers human life, no matter in what form or developmental stage, as superior to that of our non-human co-habitants of the planet? Is it simply because of speciesism?

I think across the planet, there's an us/them distinction made constantly. You don't often find packs of wild dogs and alligators roaming the countryside together in harmony. Why? Is it natural to be speciest? How do they even know who they're supposed to be with? Humans have technology at hand to let us see ourselves from the outside.. be it mirrors, photos, art, and general self awareness that lets us know what we look like.. but dogs? crocs? A grander sense of belonging seems pretty easy for us to establish and fulfill.. it's less clear to me how the animals do it.

Part of us/them is defining the reason why you're like the rest of your own kind.. why you belong, and why "they" don't. Out of our higher something(?), we make some pretty interesting additions to "us", that I don't think occurs out in the animal kingdom. Our pets are part of our family. Our boy/girlfriends, coworkers, neighbors, etc.. all get added in as part of our inherent group of people/animals that demand our support and protection. You're by nature responsible for defending them from the "others" that don't belong. And their definition changes not because of an actual change to them as an entity, but your perception of what they are.. A stray dog isn't allowed to rummage through my condo.. Neither is a stray person looking for cash. But, when I adopt the same dog a week later, or unknowingly befriend the criminal and invite them over for tea, their title changes.. nothing else does. Still, the distinction matters. When another stray animal fights mine, it's clear to me who to protect.

It happens on much larger scale depending on events, though. In the days following september 11th, every person on the street was your new best friend. The country became "us". And "they" were surely going to pay for what happened. Nothing was different about the guy on the bus, and not a single thing was different about our new enemy; but still, in our minds, we gained a new superiority, and people whose lives we respected before changed into "costs" of the war on terror.

Back to the question.. I don't think we promote the immediate/inherent addition of animals (in general) into "our" family, at a cultural level. Certain animals? Absolutely. All animals? Not so much. Whereas it's pretty strongly enforced through religion and other teachings that people are always superior.. That the difference between taking a human life, and taking an animal's life, is a huge one. Where people pause, is when they've let the animal in question into, or the person in question out of, their family. To me, my dog may have a higher right to its life than a convicted killer has to hers, for instance.

Because they're not immediately given a place in our culture's family, I don't think folks can help but feel that animals don't deserve the same level of protection. Not relative to those "in" our culture. It's not to say they don't deserve any, or "should/may" be mistreated, but they aren't given the same status by comparison to "us".

Does our feeling of superiority stem from the fact that many cannot understand nor empathize with non-human life?

I think that has everything to do with it. Without an identifiable reason to treat them as equals, they stay in that "them" group, unless they're individually added into our own families, granting them special priviledge above the others of their kind. We'll cull whole herds of animals at a time, talking about population control (for the good of their livilihood, we say).. whereas you don't often see folks getting licenses to kill (insert your own ethnic group here, i'm sure as heck not gonna)s because their population has gotten out of hand, and can't safely live or work to support their current numbers. That you're making the lives of those who survive better is -not- an argument that'll fly. :)

What do you think? Do you believe that there is an imbalance in the level of respect our culture holds for human life versus non-human life?

I do.. but within my own personal world view, I'm not sure I'd fix the imbalance the same way you would. I don't believe human life has any higher "right" to life than the animals have.. the 'why' is part of an entirely different topic, and this isn't really the place for it.. :) But I will say that I think we grant much -much- higher respect for human life than it naturally deserves. I don't think we're different enough from them.

Do you believe non-human animals feel emotions?

There's no reason for me to think they don't; certainly nothing that I can point to that shows -why- we do, and they don't. That's the piece that I think I'd need to get there from here... what's so special about our ability to feel emotions that precludes them from being able to..?

Are human emotions superior to non-human emotions?

Are they the same? superior? This is the sad state of affairs we're in, I think.. without a line of meaningful communication, I don't know how we'd ever be able to tell. And I'm not sure you'd want to know! Do you want to find out that the grief your dogs feel when they're home alone all day is 5 times as bad as when we're apart from each other? I miss you when you're gone. But I'm not emotionally devestated. :) I think it's easier for us to treat them like we do, not knowing. I have a pretty huge problem with zoos and things like that because of this sort of thing... but, for as long as I don't know if the animals mind, I'll still go, and look, and ooh, and ahh and all. I still think about it everytime I go. Do you?

Thanks for your well thought out comments, LV7. You make some compelling points and raise some interesting questions.

You indicated that you felt that human life is granted much higher respect than it naturally deserves. I agree, especially when viewed in the grand scheme of the planet and in light of the fact that humanity is a relativly new, and most likely fleeting, inhabitant of the planet. However, I also feel that a view of human superiority is more predominantly present and precipated in Western cultures and religions. Do you agree? Do you believe that a shift in consciousness needs to occur in our culture (wish I had an answer of how to go about it...)? How do we foster a new attitude of respect for the entire planet, for all forms of life that inhabit it?

I share your opinion about zoos. I guess we can never definitively know if the animals are worse off due to their containment -- but I guess one thing is for sure, they are most definitely not in their natural environment. Such as the polar bears residing in Chicago. However, if you feel that way, why do you continue to patronize the establishments?

The book, The Story of B by Daniel Quinn, is an interesting read which tackles some of these issues.

I also feel that a view of human superiority is more predominantly present and precipated in Western cultures and religions. Do you agree?

I wouldn't be able to say. I don't know how other cultures and religions rank the value of human life over animal life against one another. In Afghanistan? Finland? Thailand? Costa Rica? I literally have no idea, so it'd be a tough stance for me to take, not knowing. Each have their own major spin on cultural and religious beliefs, and pulling just this aspect out might be hard to do without understanding the rest..

Do you believe that a shift in consciousness needs to occur in our culture? How do we foster a new attitude of respect for the entire planet, for all forms of life that inhabit it?

I think you'd have your work cut out for you.. and from my perspective, no clear requirements to even measure yourself against to figure out how you're doing. How will you know that you've made a difference? I can appreciate your discomfort with the speciesism that's prevelant now, but I don't know if changing it makes things better, for us, or for them. Like I said in my other post, I think you'd need a better line of communication to know if your changes were making their lives worse, or better, or if they even noticed you'd made a change at all. I keep thinkin about that Timothy Treadwell guy, who turned from our society, focused on becoming better friends with wild foxes and bears. I'm not sure the animals were on board with this new friendship, and one sunny October day in 2003, the bears had had enough, and ate him. He set out to be one with nature. ...

I share your opinion about zoos. I guess we can never definitively know if the animals are worse off due to their containment [...] if you feel that way, why do you continue to patronize the establishments?

Well.. why does a guy go anywhere? 'cuz a girl wanted to go. :) I do feel bad when I'm there.. that's honestly true everytime I've been. There's some argument to be made that my patronage helps them feed and tend to the animals they're taking care of.. more money in hand than they'd have if I didn't go, right? And if I campaigned out front, to ask folks to realize how awful it might be for the animals inside, and I successfully turn hundreds (thousands? I'm very convincing!) of people away, is the zoo forced to cut back their expense budget? Certainly they won't lower salaries before lowering other costs, just to be sure the animals' needs are held in a higher regard than their own.. right?

Mostly, I don't know what our society would look like if speciesism went away. If it was an equal crime to hunt animals as it is to hunt humans, and if they were paid an equal salary for equal work, and granted the right to live and eat wherever they wish, etc.. :) I don't know if overpopulation would cause both groups harm.. don't know the impact to the balance in nature (is that why we're here? is it our "part" to do what we're doing? how would we know?), etc. Would I be willing to make an opposite change later if it wasn't working out? What argument would you make -for- speciesism, if you had to re-convince our culture that it was what we should've been doing all along?

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