Image © Jo-Anne McArthur
Humans are killing trillions of nonhuman animals per year, and this behaviour is worsening global health and environmental threats like pandemics and climate change. We rationalize this behaviour in part by viewing (many) humans as rational and all nonhumans as nonrational, when in fact all animals are partly rational and partly nonrational. We also view some animals as captive and domesticated, and others as free and wild, when in fact all animals are now at least partly captive and domesticated. In order to treat animals as they deserve to be treated, we must learn to view them differently: as individuals with morally relevant interests, needs, and vulnerabilities, struggling to adapt in a world reshaped by human activity.
Humans are currently killing nonhuman animals all over the world. We kill more than 100 billion animals per year in factory farming, and we kill 1-3 trillion animals per year in industrial fishing. We also kill many captive animals for research, medicine, entertainment, and other such purposes. And we kill many wild animals by destroying natural habitats and creating human settlements and food, energy, and transportation systems that accommodate members of our species much more than members of other species. The result is that we are causing or allowing countless nonhuman animals to suffer and die for our own benefit, and we are also driving many species to extinction and many ecosystems to collapse.
Our treatment of animals is, in turn, contributing to global threats that harm both humans and nonhumans. Factory farming, deforestation, and the wildlife trade all substantially increase the risk of pandemics, and factory farming and deforestation both substantially increase the threat of climate change. And when viral outbreaks, fires, floods, and other such disasters occur, humans are not the only victims. Many nonhumans die directly in these disasters, and many others die indirectly, due to an increase in human violence and neglect. For instance, we “cull” animals during viral outbreaks to prevent the spread of disease, and we “exterminate” nonhuman climate refugees to protect “human” property from “invasive species.”
These realities raise difficult questions about how we see animals. First, our ways of thinking and talking about animals can have implications for our treatment of them. When we see animals as “lesser than,” we become more likely to harm and kill them. Second, our ways of treating animals can have implications for our ways of thinking and talking about them. For instance, when we transform the world through deforestation, development, pandemics, and climate change, can we still say that many animals are “wild” and “free,” or must we instead now say that all animals are at least partly “captive” and “domesticated”?
What follows for how we should treat animals moving forward? I will suggest, firstly, that we should change our ways of thinking and talking about animals so that we can more clearly see that they merit respect and compassion. I will then suggest, secondly, that we should change our ways of thinking and talking about animals so that we can more clearly see how human activity is impacting them. Finally, and more speculatively, I will suggest that we should learn lessons from this discussion for other ways of thinking, talking, and behaving. We might one day interact with sentient beings who are not animals at all. We should prepare for this possibility by moving beyond not only a human bias but also an animal bias.
Part of why humans exploit and exterminate nonhumans at such high rates is that we see them as “lesser than.” In particular, we see humans as having highly complex cognitive and sensory abilities, and we see most nonhumans as having either no cognitive or sensory abilities at all or, at least, highly simplistic ones. This way of seeing other animals both supports, and is supported by, our ways of thinking and talking about other animals. For instance, we refer to humans as “agents” who act “rationally” and nonhumans as “creatures” who act “instinctively.” We call humans “he,” “she,” or “they” and (most) nonhumans “it.” And when we want to mark humans as “lesser than,” we use dehumanizing language that compares them with “mere” animals.
These ways of seeing, thinking about, and talking about animals are bad, not only because they contribute to our oppression of other animals (and, via dehumanization, to our oppression of other humans) but also because they misrepresent reality. On one hand, humans are not as rational as we like to think. Granted, we sometimes decide what to do by making judgments about reasons, but we also sometimes decide what to do through habit, instinct, and other such processes. And even when we decide what to do by making judgments about reasons, these judgments are shaped by our perceptions, emotions, and other such states. In short, humans are animals too, and we share many ways of thinking and acting with other animals.
Many animals have a much more sophisticated set of interests than we previously appreciated.
On the other hand, many nonhumans are more sensitive – as well as more rational – than we like to think. Fifty years ago, many experts believed that nonhuman animals either have no interests at all or, at least, have only a narrow and weak set of interests. But we now realize that nonhuman animals are much more complex than that. Not only can many animals – at the very least, all vertebrates and some invertebrates – consciously experience pleasure and pain, but they can also do much more than that. For instance, they have the ability to learn, remember, communicate, solve problems, and make and act on plans. As a result, we now realize, many animals have a much more sophisticated set of interests than we previously appreciated.
To correct these mistakes and improve our treatment of both humans and nonhumans, we need to partly collapse our ways of seeing, thinking about, and talking about each other. On one hand, we need to embrace the reality that humans are, in many respects, much less rational than we like to think, and, on the other hand, we need to embrace the reality that nonhumans are, in many respects, much more sensitive and rational than we like to think. Granted, it would be a mistake to collapse these categories entirely: There are still important differences between humans and other animals that we should track through our language. But we currently overstate the differences and understate the similarities, and we need to strike a better balance.
At present, we commonly make a distinction between domesticated and wild animals, as well as between captive and free animals. According to the former distinction, an animal is domesticated to the degree that humans influenced their evolution, and an animal is wild to the degree that humans did not influence their evolution. And according to the latter distinction, an animal is captive to the degree that humans control their behaviour, and an animal is free to the degree that humans do not control their behaviour. For example, we commonly think, the animals who live in our homes tend to be both captive and domesticated, the animals who live in forests tend to be free and wild, and the animals who live in our cities tend to be somewhere in the middle.
Many people think that these distinctions have implications for our treatment of animals. In particular, many people think that our moral duties to captive and domesticated animals are different from our moral duties to free and wild animals. On the one hand, we have a duty to help captive and domesticated animals more, since these animals are more vulnerable and dependent on us, and we are more responsible for their predicament. On the other hand, we have a duty to leave free and wild animals alone more, since these animals are less vulnerable and dependent on us, and we are less responsible for their predicament. Meanwhile, we have a combination of these duties to the “liminal” animals who exist in between these extremes.
Our influence on animals, both at the individual level and at the population level, is increasingly pervasive.
But even if we accept these distinctions, we might need to apply them differently moving forward. After all, we now live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch in which humanity is the dominant force on the planet. Increasingly, humans are at least partly influencing the evolution of most if not all animals, and are at least partly controlling the behaviour of most if not all animals. In some cases our influence is direct, such as when we impact animals through deforestation and development, and in other cases our influence is indirect, such as when we impact animals through human-caused climate change. Either way, our influence on animals, both at the individual level and at the population level, is increasingly pervasive.
In light of our influence on the planet, we might need to partly collapse our ways of seeing, thinking about, and talking about domesticated and captive animals, on one hand, and wild and free animals, on the other hand. In particular, we might need to accept that most if not all animals are now at least partly domesticated and captive, and, consequently, that we now have at least a weak moral duty to help most if not all animals to the degree that we can. As with humans and other animals, it would be a mistake to collapse these categories entirely – there are still important differences between, say, dogs and wolves that we should track. But once again, we currently overstate the differences, and we need to strike a better balance.
At present, many people aspire to create a world with universal human rights. According to this view, all humans should have basic moral, legal, and political rights, simply in virtue of our shared humanity. When we consider how many humans are still deprived of basic rights, we can see how important this aspiration is. But when we consider how many nonhumans are still deprived of basic rights too, we can see how exclusionary this aspiration still is. The idea that all humans should have rights is good, but the idea that only humans should have rights is bad. And when we base the idea of universal rights on membership in the species Homo sapiens, we invite both this good consequence and this bad consequence at the same time.
For this reason, many animal advocates now aspire to create a world with universal animal rights. According to this view, all animals should have basic moral, legal, and political rights, simply in virtue of our shared animality. This aspiration is more inclusive than the aspiration toward universal human rights: It implies that all human and nonhuman animals should have basic rights, independently of which biological categories we happen to occupy. Granted, to the degree that we have different interests and needs, we might have different rights accordingly. But in general, we should all have basic rights that reflect our basic interests and needs. And this will require treating many animals much better than we do.
The idea that all humans should have rights is good, but the idea that only humans should have rights is bad.
But even if we think that this aspiration toward universal animal rights is a step in the right direction, we might still wonder whether it goes far enough. After all, humans share the world not only with other animals, but also with other living beings, such as plants. And while plants might or might not have the ability to experience pleasure or pain, they do have the ability to learn, remember, communicate, and act intelligently. Moreover, moving forward, we will likely also share the world with other kinds of beings, such as artificial intelligences. Plausibly, sufficiently advanced artificial intelligences could have many of the same abilities as animals or plants, and if and when they do, we will once again be responsible for their predicament.
Given these possibilities, we should ask whether an aspiration toward universal animal rights will impede further progress in the same way that an aspiration toward universal human rights has done. If the answer is yes, then we might have reason to move beyond both of these categories now, to pave the way for further progress. For instance, maybe instead of aspiring toward universal human or animal rights, we should aspire toward universal rights for all sentient or living beings, human or nonhuman, animal or nonanimal. That way, even if we focus mostly on human and animal rights for now, we can at least be framing this work in terms of broader values that will make further progress easier rather than harder when the time comes.
Jeff Sebo is Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University. His new book Saving Animals, Saving Ourselves: Why Animals Matter for Pandemics, Climate Change, and other Catastrophes is published by Oxford University Press.