Author:  Benedict O’Connell 

From human humility to abolitionism: anti-slavery and animal liberation

In recent years consciousness around animal ethics has heightened and veganism has been popularised in part due to health movements in food consumption and social media figures and celebrities publicising their Veganuary adventures. It’s now common to see filtered images of appetising plant-based lunches on Instagram, or advocation of veganism in poignant soliloquies from social influencers. The diversity and availability of vegan foods is a far cry from stories of vegans in the seventies having to ‘milk’ their own soya beans to avoid a dry cereal breakfast. Some commentators have puzzled at why vegans might want to eat things that resemble dead animals (vegan burgers, sausages etc) when they are so opposed to eating actual dead animals. But if we think about it, it’s probably for the same reason that people prefer to commit mass murder in simulated killing computer games as opposed to in real life; you get the experience without the associated suffering.

Whilst it’s encouraging to see people eating fewer or no animal products from an animal ethics perspective, we must also remember the limits of movements towards veganism. As a practice it does not have to challenge despotic leaders, great wealth inequality or human slavery and it is not the sole antidote to the problem of animal suffering. Sustained change with regards to our relationship with animals requires not simply a lifestyle shift but a transformation of values; there is a distinction between the lifestyle and habits of veganism and a coherent philosophy of animal liberation that leads to veganism.

It may be that our future provides the opportunity for ethical meat consumption. I say this tentatively because this will be contingent upon many things. For instance, how would the stems cells used in lab-grown meat be ‘harvested’ from living animals? Would animals still be bred and genetically engineered to produce the best types of cells to be used in lab meat production resulting in growth abnormalities and functional deficiencies? These processes may cause all kinds of unnecessary suffering.

In his 1909 science fiction novel, The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster imagines a dystopian future in which humans live underground and rely on a machine to fulfil their needs. Individuals live in isolation and communicate via ‘the Machine’. Forster’s early 20th century vision feels increasingly prophetic with many of our interactions with friends and family being conducted through our ‘machines’; through Facetime, WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Forster describes the protagonist of his story, Vashti, who has become fully enculturated into the ways of the Machine: “Above her, beneath her, and around her, the Machine hummed eternally; she did not notice the noise, for she had been born with it in her ears.” The institution of animal use for a plethora of products operates on a similar level. We tacitly accept it as being common sense, as necessary, to use animals in the manner in which we do —  as testing apparatus, for sustenance, for entertainment —  rarely questioning this system, this covert ‘noise’.

Humans and other animals

Philosopher Mary Midgley (1919-2018) explores our attitudes towards animals by imagining what might happen if alien anthropologists from another planet came here to planet Earth to study our customs and habits. Midgley explains that they would find something odd about the way in which we categorise the living things around us. They would note that we use the word ‘animal’ to classify a wide range of creatures from the killer whale to the capybara and that we also include ourselves in this grouping. But they would also note that the most prevalent use of the word ‘animal’ is to contrast all these other organisms with our own single species, speaking of animals as distinct from humans. The latter use of the term ‘animal’ is part of a complex web of fictions and falsehoods that humanity spins itself to elevate the human onto a pedestal clearly above and separate from other animals.

Another aspect of this cognitive dissonance centres around what we say and what we do with regards to animals. Many believe it to be morally objectionable to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals but at the same time the amount of suffering we subject them to can in no way be thought of as necessary. Our definitions of necessity when it comes to the use of animals are largely skewed because we have already deemed it acceptable to own and use animals and so have organised society around doing so. Our claimed ‘necessary’ use of animals may reflect a vague approximation of the boundaries of necessity gained through enculturation rather than a strict definition of requirement. Just because we have consumed animal products for our whole lives, or used animals in various ways just as countless generations and societies before us have done so, it does not mean that these practices are essential to the lives of those living in a modern industrialised setting. The argument from tradition cannot, in itself, justify animal use.

In the seventeenth century the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) asserted that animals were merely automatons or machines. What led him to this conclusion were two beliefs: firstly, that everything that is made up of matter is governed by mechanistic principles, and secondly, that human beings alone are endowed with a soul by their creator, God. According to Descartes, animals were not capable of experiencing pain, they merely gave off the appearance of experiencing this sensation. He explained that animals work by the same principles as a clock and if their actions are notably more complicated then it is because clocks are machines made by humans, whereas animals are infinitely more complex machines, made by God. Descartes’ view of animal physiology led him to conduct a series of experiments on dogs which included nailing them up to boards by their paws to cut them open and examine their inner workings.

Our knowledge of the physiology of animals has changed significantly since the time of Descartes. It was Descartes’ belief that human beings were in possession of a special something, a soul in his case, which set them apart from other animals and gave them the right to use animals for their own ends. Descartes’ reflections on what makes an animal in comparison to a human represented a wider philosophical trend. As Tascón and Ife (2008) explain, the rationalist, enlightenment projects of figures like Descartes, amongst other such as Hobbes and Locke, triggered a methodological change whereby things could be categorised into different material classes with various divisions and subdivisions. This process was viewed as applicable to animals and plants but also to humans.

Parallels with the anti-slavery movement

What I hope to do here is provide some common threads between the animal liberation movement and the anti-slavery movement. What I don’t wish to do is compare the scales of suffering faced by animals and human slaves as some commentators have, rather clumsily, done before. It is not useful to compare atrocities in terms of scales of suffering; we must recognise and address them and realise that each has its own specific set of injustices and contextual factors rather than drawing false equivalence such as some recent attempts to compare the plight of animals to the suffering of the Jews in the holocaust. What we should be doing, however, is looking for thematic links, considering how structural domination and oppression occurs and from what human sentiments it arises in whatever guise.

The overwhelming majority of societies across the world believe it to be acceptable to treat animals as property. Generally human beings deem it justifiable to use animals for food, clothing, testing apparatus and ingredients in toiletries and cosmetics as they perceive animals to be incapable of rational thought, missing possession of a soul, lacking comprehension of what is happening to them; most basically, they are deemed different to us. But these differences ought not to play a role in our judgement as to whether or not animals are worthy of moral consideration. Animals may not fully understand the pain they are subjected to, or be able to articulate their opposition to it, but nevertheless suffering is something they seek to avoid as inferred from their behaviours (yelps, writhing etc) and what we know of their biology and physiology.

What often arises within a dialogue on property and ownership is the issue of slavery; this typically being understood as the system in which one person is the property of another. Many similarities can be drawn between the movements opposed to the liberation of human slaves and those opposed to the liberation of animals. These arguments have often consisted of trying to pick out a physical characteristic of the enslaved group with the hope of illustrating how it would justify our disregard of their interests. In the case of human slaves this characteristic was, more often than not, race; some claimed black people were better suited to manual work as they were stronger, or less capable of rational thought. The work of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century was one attempt to abstractly categorise humans with the result of races being distinguished as distinct categories. According to Linnaeus, Homo Sapiens could be divided into four continental categories based on skin colour and psychological characteristics. Homo sapiens europaeus were said to be active, acute, and adventurous, whereas Homo sapiens afer were described as crafty, lazy, and careless. The faux-science of Linnaeus was used by many to justify the ownership of black slaves with slavery advocates frequently using language that placed black people in a category nearer to animals than their fellow humans. This ontological distancing was evoked references to a more ‘bestial’ and ‘depraved nature’ of black people. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who famously seldom had a good word to say about anyone) sent a message to Linnaeus: ‘Tell him I know greater man on earth’. It seems a surreal irony and almost paradoxical that Rosseau, the man who wrote that ‘man is born free but is everywhere in chains’, professed wild adoration for the man whose taxonomy was used by many as their intellectual underpinning of the institution of slavery. Linnaeus’ work was seen as far more controversial by the Church at the time of its conception for its positioning of humans as a type of animal (thereby reducing their divine status and the notion of being fashioned ‘in the image of God’) rather than his efforts to racially categorise humanity.

The process of otherising and aiming to show that the disregarded group in question is not enough ‘like us’ to consider their interests is mirrored in debates on the moral worthiness of animals. Animals are said to be incapable of rational thought or speech and therefore unworthy, or less worthy, of moral consideration. But the irregularity in this way of thinking is clear as the overwhelming majority of people would not believe an individual with severe mental impairment, who demonstrates no signs of capacity for rational thought, or anybody thought to be incapable of clear communication, to be of less moral worth than another human being who is capable of rational thought and speech. Just as race ought not to be the foundation of our moral considerations of others, disability or level of ability should not be either.

The only reason left for giving humans a greater level of moral consideration than other animals is species. To give preference to one being over another purely because they belong to a certain species category is discriminatory. It is ‘speciesist’ (coined by Richard Ryder, 1970), a form of discrimination analogous to racism or sexism, that arises when one judges an animal as inferior solely on the basis that they hold different physical characteristics to oneself. As the human slave was not ‘born to serve’, as those who were pro-slavery maintained, the animal does not exist on this earth for human purposes; animals are not here to be used as resources. Just as speciesism is prevalent in the exploitation and abuse of animals (insofar as those responsible justify exploitation by appealing to physical differences that are irrelevant for moral worthiness), racism was present in the exploitation of black slaves. Their status as mere property was rationalised by their masters as being justified due to a claimed physical or intellectual difference to white people. As mentioned previously, those who justified slavery often aimed to show that black people were more akin to animals by claiming that humanity was defined by a specific quality or set of qualities such as reason, culture, manners. From this it followed that anyone said to be lacking these qualities was ‘subhuman’ and this process of otherising was utilised to fuel moral disregard.

Two emergent strands within the anti-slavery movement, also found in the animal liberation movement, are welfarism and abolitionism. Welfarists in the anti-slavery movement claimed it was morally acceptable to own slaves given one met their basic welfare requirements whereas abolitionists campaigned for their full emancipation arguing it was morally unacceptable for an individual to own a human being regardless of how they treated them. In the animal liberation movement, welfarists claim that it is acceptable to use animals but it must be undertaken ‘humanely’ with abolitionists arguing that animal ownership and use is never justified (though it may be in extreme and exceptional cases). Anti-slavery abolitionism was a more profound challenge to those in power; to their domination over slaves. It’s important to note that some abolitionists in the 19th century had vested interests in maintaining structures of domination and slavery as an institution, a point explored in the works of writers like Olaudah Equiano. The abolitionist movement was not necessarily wholly benevolent, or ideologically pure. Even some of those considered the most radical white abolitionists clung onto an unquestioned commitment to the economic and moral arguments for free labour. Their antislavery position could not think beyond the market and as a result even when slavery was abolished, their ideological positioning resulted in emancipated slaves facing meagre economic opportunities. Whilst these aspects of the abolitionist movement are vital contextual components of anti-slavery history, I want to look at abolitionism here as the philosophical commitment to complete emancipation and an ideological alternative to welfarism rather than looking at specific historical abolitionists and the frayed and fractured nature of the abolitionist movement against slavery.

Due to the positioning of anti-slavery abolitionism the establishment set out to stifle the movement by deeming those involved in it as ‘utopian’ or ‘radical’ and guilty of emotive posturing. The ways in which abolitionists in the animal liberation movement are often referred to by those in power is similar. As in the case of slavery as well as animal liberation, those in power, whilst being heavily influenced by corporations, have adopted welfarist policies, appearing to address the growing concerns of citizens about the welfare of animals whilst also maintaining a position in which they can control and continue to draw considerable profits from animal use. The main issue in both the case of human and animal slaves is that the use of them as resources generates masses of wealth. These forms of exploitation in a profit-driven society become even more difficult to challenge. The economist Adam Smith provided a frank analysis that slavery was abolished for the simple fact that the work done by the free person in the end came cheaper than that done by the slave — the free person did not have to have their welfare maintained, be clothed and fed. The same shift is unlikely to happen in the case of animals any time soon with businesses and corporations keen to incarcerate animals with a view to using them to generate as much profit as possible through the intensive harvesting of their products, or rearing of them to be killed for meat.

Welfarism treats the interests of animals as secondary to those of their owners and simply does not meaningfully take into account the ability to suffer of the individuals in question, be they human slaves or animals. A society cannot expect fair treatment to be given to those who are owned by others. In balancing the interests of property and property owner, the property owner will always have a marked advantage as their interests will trump those of the individual who is owned. The welfarist position does not provide meaningful consideration, just like in the times of widespread human slavery meaningful consideration did not consist in beating slaves less or giving them more food whilst still holding them captive and paying them nothing for the work they did. This is where the welfarist position is limited, in that it fails to tackle the property status of the oppressed group.

In summary: Rejecting human chauvinism

In approaching the animal ethics issue, many are operating within a moral framework of minimising suffering but as long as animals are treated as and widely regarded to be owned property, it’s impossible to minimise their suffering, because their interests will be treated as secondary to those that own them. Essentially, owner and owned must be decoupled; the suffering of the owned can never be hoped to reach its full potential minimisation until this state of ownership is abolished and animals are afforded meaningful moral consideration.

The growing tendency towards veganism and rejecting animal products (as far as is practically possible) is an important part of animal liberation but we should also consider the wider relationship between humans and other animals. Part of this comes in recognising that we as human beings are just one of many species on this planet who suffer, and it is the interests of those other beings who also suffer we ought to consider in our moral judgements.

The universe does not exist solely for our homosapien desires to be satiated, for us to use at will its resources and life forms to benefit our own ends. Recognition of this could spark a radical transformation of the relationship between humans and other animals; but it will require a new degree of human humility.

Full version originally published in Epoché Magazine, August 2019 issue:

Selected sources:

Carey, Brycchan (2005) British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Francione, Gary L. (2000) Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Gray, John (2003) Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals London, Granta Books.

Midgley, Mary (2003) The Myths we Live by, Routledge.

Singer, Peter (1975) Animal Liberation London, Pimlico.

Tascón, Sonia & Ife, Jim (2008) Human Rights and Critical Whiteness: Whose Humanity?, International Journal of Human Rights, 12:3, 307-327, DOI: 10.1080/13642980802069609