12/21/09

Super-Egalitarianism


My forthcoming book urges respect for animals, but not equality.  How's that?  How could it make sense to reject equality, if I mean to raise the status of animals?

I argue against equality not just because I think that's the right position, but because I think assertions of equality get in the way of elevating the status of animals.  Anything that sounds at all like "cats are people too" makes people think animal advocates are on the lunatic fringe.

Here's a bit of super-egalitarianism from the book Speciesism by Joan Dunayer.  Suppose field mice occupy a field where developers want to build.  She argues that the land belongs to the mice like Native American land belonged to Native Americans.  Removing the mice would violate their right to property, she says.  How about gently relocating them? No, she writes, that would deprive them of autonomy. It also might interfere with the rights of animals in the new territory.

What to do?  Just don't build.
Land currently inhabited by nonhumans and humans can remain cohabited, but humans shouldn't be permitted to encroach farther into nonhuman territory...If humans don't want to be more crowded in already-"developed" areas, they can practice zero population growth. (p. 146)
First thought: this sort of thing makes the animal rights movement look ridiculous.

Second thought :  what if she were right?  What if it really were morally impermissible to build on land already occupied by mice (or ants--she says insects have the same rights as mice)?  If we were really convinced of that, I think we would simply change our minds about morality.  We wouldn't think people really have to do the right thing--we'd adopt a new view that morality is just for saints.

Third thought:  why say all of this about the mice?  I think Dunayer operates throughout her book with an incorrect notion of what "speciesism" means.  Here's what she proposes as a test for whether someone is a speciesist--
The test for speciesism is simple: If the victims were human, would you be speaking and acting as you are?  If not, don't speak and act that way when the victims are nonhuman. (p. 73)
This can't be right.  Imagine an analogous defintion of "sexism"--it would say that it's sexist ever to speak and act differently toward men and women.  That's obviously not the case.   For example, we think that women can terminate a fetus but not men.  That's because of an ethically important difference: fetuses are carried by women. It's not sexist to recognize real and morally important differences between men and women and it's not speciesist to recognize real and important differences between humans and animals.

Speciesism, as I would define it, is bias based on species and nothing more.  By abjuring speciesism, we do not automatically abjure making distinctions or attaching ethical import to those distinctions.  Of course, there's no guarantee those distinctions will make sense.  We can be wrong about some type of line drawing.  But we're not automatically being speciesist just because we're drawing lines.

So about those mice. It's not automatically speciesist to think we can build where mice already live, but not build where Native Americans already lived.  There could be a perfectly good reason to grant property rights to Native Americans but not to mice. But what's the reason?

Or is the question just too ridiculous?

5 comments:

amos said...

It's not a ridiculous question, but I would priorize Native-Americans over mice because I'm a human being and human beings are a priority for me. That probably has a biological basis and while I know that the fact that something has a biological basis does not make it good, I don't see why in this case it makes it bad. As a matter of fact, I would distrust a person for whom mice are a priority over his or her fellow human beings. He or she lacks loyalty or commitment or fellow feeling. There's something wrong with him or her, although I suspect that in many cases, people say that kind of thing because they want to sell books or epater our so-called bourgeois complacency.

Jean Kazez said...

In some cases where you attempt to adjudicate a human-animal conflict I bet you side with the animal. So if you side with humans in this particular human-mice conflict, it doesn't necessarily come from a bias. You could actually have good reasons to settle things that way....though it may not be easy to say what they are.

Wayne said...

Utility.

Taylor said...

"Equality" needs defining. For Peter Singer it means equal consideration of interests. For Tom Regan, it means having the same right not to be treated merely as means to the ends of others. Neither of these versions of equality implies that non-humans ought always to be treated in the same way we ought to treat humans. Both Singer and Regan give preference to the interests of (normal) humans over the interests of non-humans in situations of irreconcilable conflict.

Australian philosopher John Hadley makes a plausible case for granting property rights to wild animals in "Nonhuman Animal Property: Reconciling Environmentalism and Animal Rights", Journal of Social Philosophy 36 (2005): 305-15.

Jean Kazez said...

Taylor, In this post I am talking about "super-egalitarianism," not the more modest egalitarianism of Singer or even Regan. For what it's worth--I wouldn't characterize Regan as you do. He doesn't give preference to the interests of normal humans in just any situation of "irreconcilable conflict," but in certain very special types of situations--the "prevention case" for example. His egalitarianism is much more robust than Singer's.

I haven't read the Hadley article--sounds interesting.