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An Unequal Right to Life – by Joan Dunayer, New-Speciesist Philosophy, SPECIESISM pages 94 – 98

An Unequal Right to Life – by Joan Dunayer, New-Speciesist Philosophy, Speciesism, pages 94 – 98

Pluhar doesn’t accord all sentient beings – or even all mammals and birds – an equal right to life, She writes, “It is morally preferable for a human to kill and eat a fish than to slaughter and barbecue a chicken (let alone a calf, a monkey, or another human). It is also better to eat clams than fish.” Especially given that a calf’s remains will feed a human considerably longer than a chicken’s or clam’s, such an ordering certainly isn’t equality. Once again, this is an old-fashioned hierarchy of animals. Why is it worse to kill a human or monkey than to kill a chicken? Pluhar claims that the answer lies not in animals’ intelligence but their “capacity TO CARE about what happens” to them. At the same time, she belittles chickens’ intelligence and indicates that they DO care what happens to them: “One does not have to be tremendously bright to prefer pecking corn to having your head chopped off.” Despite her denial, Pluhar’s hierarchy is based on human-like intelligence: animals who ostensibly possess more of that intelligence are more entitled to live.

Regan, too, values humans more than other animals. Forced to choose between saving a human and saving a nonhuman, we should save the human, he says. Why? “The sources of satisfaction available to most humans are at once more numerous and varied than those available to animals [sic].” In other words, human lives are richest.

Regan imagines four normal adult humans and one dog in a lifeboat that can support only four individuals. If anyone is to survive, someone must go overboard. In Regan’s view, it would be morally right to kill the dog because life offers more “opportunities for satisfaction” to humans than to dogs. As discussed earlier, that premise is speciesist and lacks factual support. A dog may have MORE opportunities for satisfaction than a human. Some dogs have a sense of smell three million times more sensitive than ours. We can’t even imagine the richness of their olfactory experience. If canine pleasures do tend to be simpler than human ones, they may easily be more satisfying and abundant.

Like Singer, Regan contends that this view is “not speciesist” because it isn’t based solely on species membership. It’s speciesist because it’s based on the assumption that human lives ordinarily have more value than nonhuman ones. The difference between the old-speciesist view that the life of any human matters more than the life of any dog and Regan’s view that the life of a NORMAL human matters more than the life of any dog is one of degree, not kind.

As expressed by Gary Francione, “our intuition” tells us that we “should” save a human over a dog if we know nothing about the two individuals except their species. “We regard it as morally preferable to choose the human over the animal [sic],” he writes. Saving the human accords with “our absolute preference for the human.” I have no such absolute preference, and I don’t regard saving humans “morally preferable.” All sentient beings are equal, so saving the dog is just as moral as saving the human.

Francione compares choosing the human in “all” such situations to a physician’s choosing to give the only available pint of lifesaving blood to a healthy human rather than a terminally ill one. The analogy isn’t apt. Life expectancy is morally relevant in choosing between two individuals (at least, between two humans, whose sense of time we can most easily surmise); species per se is not.

Nonhuman emancipation wouldn’t mean that “we will no longer be required to save the human,” Francione comments. Required to save the human? Yes that view is compatible with nonhuman emancipation. However, it isn’t compatible with animal equality. It’s speciesist. We aren’t morally obligated to choose the dog. It would be perfectly moral to flip a coin.

According to Regan, “no reasonable person” would disagree with saving a human rather than a dog. What’s more, he considers it morally right to save one human rather than a MILLION dogs. What happened to his insistence that all subjects of a life equally possess basic moral rights? Apparently, that doesn’t apply with regard to the most basic of all: the right to life.

Regan’s inegalitarian right to life also clashes with his statements about innocence and guilt. “The murder of the innocent is wrong even when the victims do not suffer,” he states; only the guilty forfeit their inherent “right not to be harmed.” A dog is innocent. Is the same true of most human adults? Humans who eat flesh are parties to an “unjust practice,” Regan notes. Because he believes that birds and mammals are persons, he must believe that humans who eat flesh from slaughtered birds and mammals are parties to murder. If, in a crisis, I don’t know the extent of a human’s guilt (for example I don’t know if they eat flesh) and I possess no other morally relevant information regarding the particular dog and human, I have no solid basis for saving a dog rather than a human, or vice versa. However, whereas a dog is innocent, an adult human is likely to be guilty., involved in the unjustly inflicted suffering and death of nonhumans. Therefore, by Regan’s own standards the dog is the lifeboat occupant most entitled to live. (The same would apply to Pluhar’s human, monkey, chicken, fish, and clam: if the human is guilty, any of the other animals are more, not less, entitled to live.)

Someone might object that human flesh-eaters aren’t guilty because, although they do wrong, they aren’t AWARE of doing wrong: they’ve been enculturated to regard flesh-eating as morally acceptable. Most human adults who eat flesh know that it comes form killed animals. Most also know that they can be healthy without eating flesh. They eat flesh because they want to and their society allows them to. They knowingly participate in needless harm, so I consider them morally accountable.

Anyone who regards such flesh-eaters as innocent would have to regard Americans who owned human slaves and Germans who participated in the Holocaust as innocent. Like most humans who eat flesh, these wrongdoers were indoctrinated to participate in systemic abuse. Further, Germans who refused to participate risked imprisonment, torture, and death. What perils confront humans who refuse to eat flesh? Not “fitting in” with flesh-eaters? If most members of a society condone harm, that doesn’t exonerate the participants. If it did, most crimes against humanity couldn’t be viewed as crimes. The Nuremberg Trials would have been unjustified acts of revenge.

Rowlands shares Regan’s views on innocence and guilt: wrongdoing can reduce someone’s “moral entitlements” and warrant “punishment.” Nevertheless, he too believes that humans are more entitled to live than dogs. In fact, he calls it “ridiculous,” “absurd,” and not “sane” to consider killing a dog as wrong as killing a human. Faced with a situation in which we can save only a human or a dog, “we all know that the right thing to do is save the human.” I’m living proof of THAT statement’s falsehood.

In addition to being, in general, more innocent than humans, nonhumans within human society are less free to determine their own fate. If a dog WERE in a lifeboat, it would be extremely unlikely that their choice placed them in that desperate situation. Most likely, some human would be responsible for the dog’s being present. This is further reason to consider it right to save the dog over a human.

If however, we have no personal information on any of the lifeboat occupants, we simply must choose. Because all sentient beings are equal, we’re perfectly entitled to save the dog over any of the humans. It’s no more acceptable to kill a healthy dog than it is to kill a healthy human. Indeed, for the reasons I’ve given (innocence versus guilt, as well as the dogs lack of choice), it might be less acceptable.

If Regan believes that humans have a greater right to life than other animals because they have more “opportunities for satisfaction,” then, to be logically consistent, he must also believe that the most intelligent human in the boat has a greater right to life than any of the other humans.

Regan states, “All subjects-of-a-life, including all those nonhuman animals who qualify, have equal inherent value.” However, he espouses views inconsistent with that principle.

Unlike old-speciesists, new-speciesists endorse basic rights for SOME nonhuman animals, those ostensibly most similar to humans. To new-speciesists, the moral rights of humans trump the same rights of nonhumans.

New-speciesists see animalkind as a hierarchy with humans on top. Assessing superiority in human-biased ways, they consider most humans superior to all nonhumans. Typically they rank chimpanzees, dolphins, and other select nonhuman mammals higher than other nonhumans. They also rank mammals above birds; birds above reptiles, amphibians, and fishes; and vertebrates above invertebrates.

As Sapontzis notes, moral progress occurs when egalitarian views replace such hierarchical ones. Supposed superiority isn’t relevant to basic rights. A superior aptitude for technology, verbal language, or anything else doesn’t entitle someone to greater moral consideration or greater legal protection.

In terms of their right to justice, all sentient beings are equal. Intentional harm to a moth or crab is no less wrong than intentional harm to an innocent human. All animals not only have a moral right to life and freedom from abuse; they have an EQUAL right.

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Comment by Stijn Bruers on December 27, 2010 at 19:13

I'd like comment on this. I see three different forms of equality, and one form of inequality. Consider the lifeboat dilemma. First, I personally have more emotional feelings for most humans, so there is no emotional equality. I would save my child over yours, save your child over the dog,... That is because of my feelings of personnal connection, empathy,... This is the emotional inequality. However, I would tolerate your choice to prefer the life of the dog or the life of your child. And you should tolerate my choice to save my child instead of your child or the dog. This is what I call tolerated choice equality. In that sense, my child, your child and the dog are equal. Second, Regans inherent value (I prefer the term intrinsic value, as the opposite ofe instrumental value) refers to the right not to be used as merely means. So even if I prefer to save my child, that does not imply that I'm willing to use your child or a dog to save my child (by using the organs of your child, or doing experiments on the dog to find a cure to save my child). This is intrinsic value equality (I also often say that it's about the basic right not to be used as mere means, so I can also call it basic right equality). This equality is not in conflict with emotional inequality, so Regan is not inconsistent on this point. Finally, there is another type of equality: equal consideration of quality of life. This is intended by Singer or Rowlands (it uses a veil of ignorance reasoning). It simply means that one unit of quality of life (well-being) is the same for my child, your child or the dog. (But it might be the case that a being as less units of quality of life: for exemple I'd prefer to save a happy person instead of a depressed person in the lifeboat dilemma, and from behind the veil of ignorance, one can also argue to save a mentally healthy human instead of a mentally disabled human or a dog)

To conclude: I think that if I meet these three forms of equality, then there is no discrimination (speciecism,...), even though I might have an emotional inequality to prefer saving one being over another. For more information, see:


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