‘… despite many individual exceptions, Humanists have on the whole been unable to free themselves from one of the most central of these Christian dogmas: the prejudice of speciesism.’
Peter Singer, Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism
Sometimes the word ‘humanism’ provokes accusations that it is focused on the wellbeing of human beings alone, and it therefore excludes care or concern for other animals. In reality, most humanists believe that our choices about how to act must take into account the impact on non-human animals. A humanist might argue that a morality that attempts to prioritise welfare, and tries to base itself on reason, evidence, experience, and empathy, will include an unwillingness to cause animals unnecessary suffering. However, how far such obligations stretch is open to debate.
Darwin’s theory of evolution put paid to the notion that we are in some way special, that we hold some divinely-given position of privilege over the rest of the natural world. We are just another leaf on the tree of life. However, Darwin also showed us how closely related to other animals we are. The theory of evolution illuminated the truth that we are all part of one extended family.
‘To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.’
Peter Singer, Practical Ethics
The humanist philosopher Peter Singer popularised the term ‘speciesism’ to refer to the practice of privileging humans over other animals. For Singer, the requirement of reason to universalise our moral judgements does not stop at the boundary of our own species. If my suffering is to be avoided, then so is the suffering of all who can suffer, including non-human animals.
‘The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism. This means that all beings with the capacity to feel pleasure and pain should be included.’
Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle
Is there some relevant difference between us and animals? Is there something special about the dividing line between humans and all non-human animals? The evidence appears to show us that there is far more difference between, say, a chimpanzee and a snail than there is between a human and a chimpanzee. Some say it is our greater degree of intelligence that divides us from the animals, but Singer asks: ‘If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?’
The relevant question, for many humanists, is the one raised by Jeremy Bentham: Can non-human animals suffer? It can be hard to form definite conclusions about exactly what animals feel, but scientists are beginning to work out more precisely what animals experience and what causes suffering. Research into the brains of animals shows that their brains, nervous systems, and behavioral responses are quite like ours, and a great deal of the testing of medicines on animals is done because we assume that they are like us physically and psychologically. The more like us they are, the more they can suffer like us, and for many that means the more they deserve our care.
‘All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals.’
Evidence of animal suffering and empathy with their plight persuades many humanists that we should consider carefully how we treat non-human animals. What this means in practice will differ between humanists, particularly over questions around vegetarianism and veganism.
Question: How far do our responsibilities lie towards the wellbeing of non-human animals? Should we prioritise human interests over those of non-human animals?