speciesism; human exceptionalism

From: Debbie E.
Sent on: Monday, December 30, 2013 10:45 AM
Shermer omits birds and fish; he's not fully versed in sentience.

Where Do Nonhuman Mammals Fit in Our Moral Hierarchy?

By Michael Shermer, Scientific American

 cow illustration

Image: Izhar Cohen
The case for exploiting animals for food, clothing and entertainment often relies on our superior intelligence, language and self-awareness: the rights of the superior being trump those of the inferior. A poignant counterargument is Mark Devries's Speciesism: The Movie, which I saw at the premiere in September 2013. The animal advocates who filled the Los Angeles theater cheered wildly for Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer. In the film, Singer and Devries argue that some animals have the mental upper hand over certain humans, such as infants, people in comas, and the severely mentally handicapped. The argument for our moral superiority thus breaks down, Devries told me: “The presumption that nonhuman animals' interests are less important than human interests could be merely a prejudice—similar in kind to prejudices against groups of humans such as racism—termed speciesism.”

I guess I am a speciesist. I find few foods more pleasurable than a lean cut of meat. I relish the feel of leather. And I laughed out loud at the joke about the farmer who castrates his horses with two bricks: “Does it hurt?” “Not if you keep your thumbs out of the way.” I am also troubled by an analogy made by rights activists that animals are undergoing a “holocaust.” Historian Charles Patterson draws the analogy in his 2002 book Eternal Treblinka, and Devries makes visual reference to it by comparing the layout of factory-farm buildings with that of prisoner barracks at Auschwitz. The flaw in the analogy is in the motivation of the perpetrators. As someone who has written a book on the Holocaust (Denying History, University of California Press, revised edition, 2009), I see a vast moral gulf between farmers and Nazis. Even factory-farm corporate suits motivated by profits are still far down the ladder of evil from Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler. There are no signs at factory farms reading “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

Yet I cannot fully rebuke those who equate factory farms with concentration camps. While working as a graduate student in an experimental psychology animal laboratory in 1978 at California State University, Fullerton, it was my job to dispose of lab rats that had outlived our experiments. I was instructed to euthanize them with chloroform, but I hesitated. I wanted to take them up into the local hills and let them go, figuring that death by predation or starvation was better than gassing. But releasing lab animals was illegal. So I exterminated them … with gas. It was one of the most dreadful things I ever had to do.

Just writing those words saddens me, but nothing like a video clip posted at freefromharm.org. Appropriately described as the “saddest slaughterhouse footage ever,” the clip shows a bull waiting in line to die. He hears his mates in front of him being killed, backs up into the rear wall of the metal chute, and turns his head around, seeking an escape. He looks scared. A worker then zaps him with a cattle prod. The bull shuffles forward far enough for the final death wall to come down behind him. His rear legs try one last time to exit the trap and then … Thug! … down he goes in a heap. Dead. Am I projecting human emotions into a head of cattle? Maybe, but as one meat plant worker told an undercover usda inspector who inquired about the waste stench: “They're scared. They don't want to die.”

Mammals are sentient beings that want to live and are afraid to die. Evolution vouchsafed us all with an instinct to survive, reproduce and flourish. Our genealogical connectedness, demonstrated through evolutionary biology, provides a scientific foundation from which to expand the moral sphere to include not just all humans—as rights revolutions of the past two centuries have done—but all nonhuman sentient beings as well.



This article was originally published with the title Confessions of a Speciesist.

And from Lori Marino;s Kimmela Center Projects section:  (She was the neurologist interviewed in Blackfish)

“I Am Not an Animal”

This project explores how the psychological dynamics of our fear of death shape our relationships with other animals, leading to our need to claim superiority over them in ways that are often exploitative and abusive.

Despite the enormous growth of the animal protection movement over the last 50 years, the situation for animals in almost every area has deteriorated.* Numerous approaches and strategies have been tried, but advances have been marginal, and have been outweighed by enormous setbacks. For instance, we are currently facing mass extinctions, more vivisection, and more factory farming on a global scale. Clearly something is being overlooked in seeking better protection for nonhuman animals.

We claim that these dynamics have to be understood in order for humans to enter into a healthier and more respectful relationship with the other animals.

In 1973 cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death. Becker’s central thesis was that when we humans are reminded of our own mortality (even unconsciously), we tend to deny our mortal animal nature and any equality with the rest of the animal world. Instead, we are driven to claim superiority and human exceptionalism in an attempt to transcend our mortality.

Scientific studies on Terror Management Theory (how we deal with the anxiety of mortality awareness) show that reminders of our own mortality create a strong psychological need to proclaim that “I am not an animal” and, thus, drive the need to dominate, exploit and abuse other animals.

This Kimmela project includes two main components. First, we are working on a theoretical paper to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, in which we discuss the evidence for this general claim and propose that it is an important factor in our fraught relationships with other animals. We presented an earlier version of this work at the Ernest Becker Foundation Meeting in 2012 to much acclaim.

Second, the Kimmela Center is collaborating with Jeff Greenberg and Melissa Soenke in the Department of Psychology at University of Arizona, where they are conducting studies on how mortality awareness affects attitudes toward nonhuman animals. We intend to use these findings to better identify the factors and contexts in which humans try to disconnect themselves from other animals by exploiting them as resources rather than recognizing them as sentient beings in their own right.

In accordance with our mission to apply science to animal advocacy, these findings will provide opportunities for deeper glimpses into our relationships with other animals and help us to determine how animal protection efforts and messaging might be made more effective.

References: Marino, L. and Mountain, M. The denial of death and our relationship with the other animals. Ernest Becker Foundation Meeting, Seattle, Washington (October, 2012).

* Note: One major exception in this negative trend is for homeless pets in most Western countries. But this a classic “exception that proves the rule” in terms of how we relate to companion animals compared to other species.

Back to top



This email message originally included an attachment.

People in this
Meetup are also in:

Sign up

Meetup members, Log in

By clicking "Sign up" or "Sign up using Facebook", you confirm that you accept our Terms of Service & Privacy Policy