The following commentary appears on pages 14-15 of the Sept.-Nov. 2005 issue of Vegan Voice.
"I am a speciesist myself and make no apologies for that," Peter Milne writes in "Disagreeing with Speciesism Theory" (June–August 2005 Vegan Voice). No doubt, he never would announce with equal pride, "I’m a racist." Feminists and gay-rights advocates don’t declare themselves sexists and homophobes. In sad contrast, people who consider themselves advocates for nonhuman animals tolerate, even espouse, the very bigotry that they should be combating: speciesism. What is speciesism? A failure, on the basis of species, to accord anyone equal consideration. It’s speciesist to deny anyone equal consideration either because they aren’t human or because they aren’t human-like. Nonspeciesists advocate equally strong basic rights—for example, to life and liberty—for all sentient beings.
According to Milne, vegans are speciesist because they "discriminate" between plants and animals. By definition, to discriminate against members of any group means to discount their interests. Being insentient, plants have no interests; therefore we can’t discriminate against them. "We pass judgment that plant lives are less significant than animal lives in the realm of feeling and emotions," Milne states. Plants’ feelings and emotions aren’t "less significant"; they’re nonexistent. "Some tests indicate that plants have a basic consciousness," Milne says. No tests that scientists regard as valid. Milne’s claim that it’s speciesist to eat plants but not animals is sheer nonsense.
In Milne’s view I exclude plants (and other organisms without a nervous system) from equal consideration because I don’t recognize "differences in the consciousness of different species." As someone whose graduate research in psychology focused on nonhuman cognition, I’m well aware that the consciousness of every sentient being differs from that of every other. Along with his belief that plants are conscious, Milne’s preposterous claim that insects live "constantly in fear of being devoured or killed in some other way" shows his dearth of scientific knowledge. Milne’s worldview is religious rather than based on evidence and logic. He believes in a hierarchical "Kingdom of God". (That phrase evokes a male, anthropomorphic deity.) Milne ranks humans above other animals, nonhuman mammals above birds, birds above reptiles, and reptiles above insects and arachnids. (Even his use of personal names assigns higher and lower status: except when he gives full names, he refers to Peter Singer as "Singer", in keeping with professional courtesy, but refers to me as "Joan".)
Milne draws this false analogy: plants differ from animals as insects differ from mammals. Plants and animals differ in a way crucial to the issue of basic rights: animals are sentient; plants aren’t. Insects and mammals differ in ways irrelevant to basic rights: both are sentient. Like mammals and unlike plants, insects should have rights to life and liberty because they can experience life and liberty.
Insects are "not as important" as humans and other mammals, Milne contends. Insects of numerous species pollinate a vast array of plants that provide food to countless animals, including humans. In general, humans have little or negative value to most other humans (especially those with whom they directly compete) and highly negative value to most nonhumans. In what sense, then, are insects less important? They’re less important to Milne, who simply is expressing personal preferences. He’s missing the point: personal preferences don’t justify discriminatory treatment.
Most vegans value their own lives, the lives of their family members, and the lives of nonhuman mammals more than they value the lives of ticks, fleas, or poisonous snakes, Milne notes. Most vegans and other humans also value their own lives and the lives of their family members more than the lives of other humans. So what? That doesn’t mean that some humans should have more rights than others. Nor do Milne’s preferences mean that mammals are more entitled to life and liberty than insects and other nonmammals.
"I don’t think we are going to get far by advocating that a spider’s life is as precious as a human being’s," Milne comments, misrepresenting my argument. I’ve never indicated that we’re obligated to consider a spider’s life as precious as the life of a human, a moth, a trout, or anyone else. What I’ve stated is that "a spider has as much right to life" as any other sentient being. I’ll repeat: Milne has failed to grasp the crucial difference between what he or any other human personally values and what constitutes a fair, valid criterion for equal consideration and protection. The only such criterion is sentience.
"Humans have the highest consciousness," Milne asserts. In some ways other animals’ mental lives are less sophisticated than ours, in some ways more sophisticated. It’s presumptuous and narcissistic to declare our type of consciousness the best. Evolutionary reality conflicts with Milne’s notion of a linear progression in consciousness from plants to humans. Nonhuman intelligence doesn’t correlate with biological relatedness to humans, even if we define intelligence as human-like intelligence. For example, octopuses apparently possess more human-like intelligence than frogs, but we’re far more closely related to frogs. Animals don’t evolve toward humanness but toward greater adaptiveness in their ecological niche. A centipede or snail embodies as long a period of evolution as a human: since the beginning of life on earth.
Milne regards reptiles as lesser than mammals. Although we have reptilian ancestors, we didn’t descend from reptiles of any species alive today. The first turtles, lizards, crocodiles, and snakes appeared after the first mammals. The notion of higher and lower beings lacks scientific validity. In an 1858 letter, Charles Darwin expressed his intention to avoid referring to some animals as "higher" than others. As stated by neuroscientist William Hodos, ranking species in some linear order that suggests evolutionary progress has "no scientific status." Most importantly, supposed superiority isn’t relevant to equal consideration. Like human equality, animal equality means equal protection, not equal abilities or merit.
Milne especially values animals who show capacities for social relationships, abstract reasoning, and complex communication. Numerous animals other than mammals and birds show those capacities—including invertebrates such as honeybees. Again, however, such capacities shouldn’t bear on equal protection. Under the law the most reclusive, unloved humans have the same basic rights as the most social and cherished; humans unable to reason abstractly and use language have the same basic rights as those able to conceptualise and articulate with brilliance. Sentient beings (and only sentient beings) can suffer. For sentient beings (and only sentient beings) death ends all experience. All sentient beings have an equal right to be protected from needless, human-inflicted suffering and death.
Milne questions, "Does this mean that if I kill a flea that [sic] is on my dog then I am as morally reprehensible as I would be if I killed the dog, or a human? This type of logic is going to be seen as ridiculous by the average person, including myself." The "logic" is Milne’s, not mine. As he acknowledges, I don’t object to killing parasites when they can’t be removed benignly. Except that we shouldn’t interfere in natural relationships among free-living nonhumans (for example, predator–prey relationships), we have a moral right to kill an animal who is invading someone’s body. Killing parasites is justifiable defence of self or another, such as a dog. A right to liberty includes a right to bodily integrity.
Milne finds it inconsistent that I don’t disapprove of killing in self-defence or to avoid starvation. "Sounds like she is valuing the life of one being over another," he says. Yet again he’s confusing valuing one life more than another with failing to give equal consideration. It isn’t speciesist to value some individuals (nonhuman or human) more than others. It is speciesist to deny any sentient being an equal right to life. If a lion leaps at my throat, I’m entitled to kill the lion, but I’m equally entitled to kill a human attacker. If I’m starving in the Arctic, I’m entitled to kill and eat a polar bear, but I’m also morally entitled to kill and eat a human. In such rare circumstances a human’s right to life genuinely competes with someone else’s equal right to life. If I have no other food source, I—like a polar bear—must kill prey if I want to survive. There’s nothing speciesist about that.
"Are we going to have monkeys on murder charges for killing insects?" Milne asks. In Speciesism I state, "Laws restrict human behavior." I make it very clear that nonhumans should be protected, but not accountable, under the law. That isn’t a double standard. The law doesn’t hold young children or mentally incompetent human adults accountable when they needlessly injure or kill others. Similarly, because nonhumans who inflict apparently gratuitous harm may have no sense of wrongdoing, the law must regard them as innocent.
Milne admits to being confused as to what is and is not speciesist. He’s so confused that he thinks it’s speciesist not to allow a crocodile onto a railcar with human passengers. Such a policy doesn’t deny crocodiles equal consideration. It simply considers all passengers and recognizes that a crocodile would pose a serious threat to others. What is speciesist is to have the crocodile in captivity in the first place.
Partly because Singer and I define speciesism in different ways, Milne dismisses the concept as too confusing to be helpful. If Milne had bothered to read Speciesism before writing about my alleged views, he’d be less confused. As I explain in the book, Singer defines speciesism as prejudice against all nonhuman beings. By that overly narrow definition, species-based prejudice against some—even most—nonhuman beings isn’t speciesism. In contrast to Singer, I define speciesism as species-based prejudice against anyone. Whereas Singer advocates rights to life and liberty only for humans, other great apes, and possibly other mammals, I advocate such rights for all sentient beings. By his own definition Singer isn’t speciesist. By my definition he is.
The concept of speciesism is young and continues to develop. Our understanding of, and sensitivity to, speciesism will increase, but the same is true of sexism, racism, and other forms of human-directed prejudice. Just as the concepts of sexism and racism have been vitally important to advancing human rights, the concept of speciesism is vitally important to advancing nonhuman rights.
To Milne, speciesism has a "dark side" (as opposed to its light side?) but isn’t "terrible" or "as reprehensible as racism." The vast majority of living beings are nonhuman. By far, speciesism causes more needless suffering and death than any other form of prejudice. Fishing, food-industry captivity and slaughter, hunting, vivisection—all such abuse of nonhumans is speciesism in action. Speciesism underlies all the cruelty and injustice toward nonhumans that Milne deplores. Until many more people recognize and reject speciesism, that cruelty and injustice will continue on a massive scale.
Joan Dunayer is the author of Animal Equality (2001) and Speciesism (2004).