Why humans? Do animals matter?

By | 6 Sep 2014

Portrait of David Hume (Scottish Enlightenment philosopher 7 May 1711 - 25 Aug 1776) by artist Allan RamsayAt a freethinkers’ event I attended some time ago, I got into a conversation about the terms that we the irreligious use to refer to ourselves.

When someone put the term ‘rationalist’ forward as the best label, I half-joked that I saw myself as more of an empiricist. In fact, I realise that modern rationalists don’t follow René Descartes in his rejection of non-deductive sensory perception as a basis for knowledge, though the distinction obviously has great significance in the history of philosophy. The term ‘sceptic’ has likewise shifted significantly, though the rejection of absolute knowledge has been retained.

I mentioned that I identified primarily as a Humanist, and described what I thought of as the advantages of the term. Somebody retorted that they considered the term to be ill-fitting because they were concerned with the welfare of animals, which they felt that humanists largely ignored.

Back then, I was genuinely surprised by this objection – it had occurred to me that Humanism was superficially anthropocentric, but I always assured myself that this was just short-hand for a worldview concerned with the well-being of all creatures.

Australian philosopher Peter Singer, in the same year that he was named Australian Humanist of the Year (2004), wrote an article for Free Enquiry (24, no. 6) entitled ‘Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism’. The term ‘speciesism’, coined by Richard D. Ryder and used by Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins and others, refers to the tendency of humans to favour our own interests over those of other species arbitrarily, as though we enjoy some obvious supremacy over the rest of nature. Singer’s opening paragraph encapsulates his contention well:

During two millennia of European history in which Christian dogmas could not be questioned, many prejudices put down deep roots. Humanists are, rightly, critical of Christians who have not freed themselves of these prejudices – for example, against the
equality of women or against non-reproductive sex. It is curious, therefore, that, 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. So is the ‘human’ in humanism simply speciesism?

In my understanding of the term, there is good reason for the focus on the ‘human’ in Humanism. Despite the existence of humanistic strains of thought within different religions, the idea of Humanism conflicts with the supernaturalism that holds up scriptures, prophets, ‘signs’ and such as the means by which ethics and knowledge are revealed to humankind. Humanism, by contrast, is informed by our place in and perception of the natural world, which is subject to reason, argument and inquiry. Human ethical and cognitive faculties are thus placed in direct contrast with the supernatural, not with the rest of nature.

There is, however, a sense in which I believe the distinction between humans and the rest of nature to be warranted, at least provisionally. We humans are the ones currently engaging in ethical reasoning, so we are the agents who are called upon to act ethically. That is not to say that other animals don’t have a sense of right and wrong – studies suggest otherwise – but our ability to examine and express claims about ethics is something that we owe to our skills of abstract reasoning and communication through language. While what we call Humanism is a philosophy that could theoretically be intelligible to other sapient creatures – if and when we encounter any, and once language barriers have been overcome – it is humans who bear the burden of moral self-awareness and towards whom moral and ethical arguments are directed for the time being.

When it comes to things such as self-awareness and the capacity for pleasure and suffering, the difference between humans and other creatures appears to me to be merely one of degree. This is why, in my opinion, consistency demands that Humanists take animal welfare into consideration. The extent to which we do this is obviously going to be something that is intensely debated, and our moral findings may well be at odds with much that we currently take for granted. But as moral beings we have a responsibility to stand up for those who are incapable of standing up for themselves.

It is worth noting that Peter Singer entitled his paper ‘Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism’, which advocates redeeming rather than abandoning Humanism. For Singer, then, there is no inherent conflict; merely a prejudice to be overcome, like the many other prejudices that Humanists have historically fought against. Confronting our own prejudices can be difficult and uncomfortable, but rationality and ethical consistency require that we do so.

Peter Singer is right to object when human needs and interests are held up by Humanists to the exclusion of the rest of nature. But when we discuss the relative weighting of these needs and interests and the best ways to fulfil them – as Humanists surely have done, and will continue to do at length – we will be employing human moral faculties, and for now these are the best we can hope to call on.

Copyright © 2014 Sam Mason-Smith