What follows is the transcript of a presentation by Norm Phelps, a founding member of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, at a Compassionate Action for Animals conference. The transcript was originally hosted on Their Lives, Our Voices, but for some unknown reason was taken down. I liked the aritcle and wanted to reprint it here. Note that I do not necessarially agree with the entire article. Also note that I do not have formal permission to reprint this, and will comply with any takedown request.
Good afternoon. I want to start by thanking the folks at Compassionate Action for Animals for putting this conference together and for giving me the opportunity to participate. It’s a great conference, and I hope you’re all enjoying it as much as I am.
One struggle, one fight: human freedom, animal rights. That’s a chant you don’t hear as much as you used to, probably because our tactics have evolved away from the heavy reliance on demonstrations and marches that defined the early days of animal rights. But even so, I know very few animal rights advocates who don’t believe that human rights and animal rights are inextricably tied together.
Before I go any farther, I want to explain what I mean by human rights. I will use the term in a very broad sense, to include human rights narrowly defined—freedom from oppression by unjust political regimes or by insurgents against established regimes, but I also include as human rights campaigns wider movements such as civil rights, women’s rights, gay, lesbian, and transgendered rights, children’s rights and so on, as well as still broader campaigns, such as those against poverty and hunger, against diseases like malaria and dengue fever; campaigns for trade unionism, for universal health care, and other campaigns intended to end inequality—political, social, economic—that inflicts suffering on disadvantaged human beings. I also include the environmental movement, since in my experience, with the exception of deep ecologists, most environmentalists want to preserve the environment for the benefit of human beings.
At any rate, the same compassionate impulse that led us to support animal rights leads us to support liberation for oppressed human beings. There is a unity of suffering that erases the differences between genders, races, and species. We all belong to the commonwealth of sentient beings, and it is to this commonwealth that we owe our loyalty. The abhorrence of suffering and the dread of death are not the exclusive attributes of any one species, or even of some supposedly “advanced” aggregation of species, such as mammals or vertebrates; they are the common property of all sentient beings.
Purely subjective experiences, such as suffering and joy, fear and comfort, cannot be measured on any transpersonal scale. And so, there can be no question of ranking sentient beings according to some supposedly “objective” scale of consciousness, and deciding that some—let’s say human beings, to take the most commonly cited example—have moral priority over others because they are supposedly “more aware,” or have a “richer” interior life. Joy and suffering are entirely subjective, individual experiences. Their only valid measure is their intensity and importance as these are experienced by their subject. The chicken’s pain is as agonizing to the chicken as my pain is to me. It fills her consciousness, hijacks her life, and destroys her peace in the same way and to the same degree that my pain fills my consciousness, hijacks my life, and destroys my peace. And for that reason, avian pain must be accorded the same level of moral concern as human pain. Similarly, the life of the lobster is the only life he has; it is everything to him. And it is as precious to him as my life is to me. And for that reason, crustacean lives must be accorded the same level of moral concern as human lives.
Morality is absolutely egalitarian or it is immoral. No sentient being is more important than any other sentient being. The proper goal of all ethics is to ease the suffering and extend the lives of others, without regard for their race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, wealth, social standing, species, their ability to use language or make tools, whether they have an endo- or exoskeleton, a centralized or decentralized nervous system, or any other characteristic apart from their sentience. Sentience is the tripwire that activates morality, and as Austrian animal rights philosopher Helmut Kaplan points out, “There is clearly one single moral principle for both animals and human beings, one single moral principle that shows us our proper relationship to both human beings and animals.” This moral principle, Professor Kaplan tells us, is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
This view, expressed by Doctor Kaplan in his 2003 book “The Universal Ethical Principle,”1 was first stated some twenty-five hundred years ago by the ancient sages who created the very concept of morality. The idea that exploiting and murdering nonhuman animals for human benefit is morally wrong first appeared as part and parcel of the same movement that gave birth to the idea that exploiting and murdering human beings is morally wrong.
The creation of this new ethical worldview, a worldview in which ethics was based on morality rather than on ritual purity—as had been the case prior to this—and in which all sentient beings were included on an equal basis, happened in three different places—India, Israel, and Greece—almost simultaneously. This radical transformation in human thought occurred during the uniquely fertile and creative period that 20th century German philosopher Karl Jaspers dubbed “the Axial Age,” the period between roughly 800 and 200 BCE in which human thought pivoted, as if rotating on an axis, and headed off in an entirely new direction, following a trajectory that—I hope—has yet to run its course.
During this Axial Age, Lord Mahavira (the founder of Jainism), the Buddha, the anonymous sages who created Hinduism as it has existed for the last two-thousand years, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, and the Latter Prophets of Judaism all taught an ethic based upon empathy and compassion and applied that ethic equally to human beings and nonhuman animals. To phrase it anachronistically, but accurately, animal rights and human rights originated simultaneously as part of the same movement and represented, at their inception, coequal applications of the same principle. One struggle, one fight might well have been a motto of Lord Mahavira, the Buddha, the Hindu sages, Pythagoras, and the Latter Prophets.
And yet, when modern scholars and religious leaders—at least in the West—consider the Axial Age, they invariably overlook the inclusion of animals in the morality of the great sages. Karen Armstrong, a spiritually oriented scholar and writer who has written a number of excellent books on the history of religion, recently published a comprehensive interpretive history of the Axial Age entitled, appropriately enough, The Great Transformation. Amazingly, Dr. Armstrong all but ignores the central role that nonhuman animals played in Axial Age ethical throught. She makes the bizarre claim that animal sacrifice played an essential role in the development of modern morality, but does not tell us that many of the great Axial Age teachers applied their revolutionary moral principles to our treatment of animals on the same basis that they applied them to our treatment of other human beings.
Given this moral blind spot in our society, perhaps it should come as no surprise that activists in the various human rights movements have lost the connection with the ancient beginnings. They no longer see the unity of suffering and the moral parity of all sentient beings that was taught by the Buddha, Pythagoras, and the Prophets. And so, they fail to see the unity of oppression. In fact—with shockingly few exceptions—human rights activists are every bit as deeply implicated in the slavery and slaughter of nonhuman animals as are the oppressors of humans that they campaign against.
I am aware, for example, of no major secular human rights organization that insists that only vegan food be served at all of its functions. Human rights activists think nothing of serving fried chicken or pate de fois gras at their dinners, but if PETA were to throw a banquet and serve human drumsticks or fattened human liver paste, these good folk would be horrified.
Why is this so? The short answer, of course, is speciesism. But the short answer begs the real question, which is, Why are most human rights activists speciesist, when speciesism would appear to contradict the core beliefs that motivate their activism?
Part of the answer is that they have simply absorbed speciesism from the general society: from their families, from their schools, from the media, etc. etc. And that is plainly true. But that answer still begs the question, and leads us to ask: Why haven’t the empathy and compassion that infuse their human rights activism inspired them to see beyond the speciesism that they grew up with and that surrounds them everywhere? Animal rights is simply the final frontier in the grand enterprise of creating a society that protects and nurtures all who live within the ambit of its power. It would seem that human rights activists should be our strongest supporters, a conclusion that is reinforced by the fact that it was shared by the sages who created the moral values on which human rights are based.
But human rights activists are not our strongest supporters. Most of them aren’t our supporters at all. And to understand why, I think we have to look away from the history for a moment and consider what modern social justice movements do and what they do not do. Social justice movements empower their constituencies. The abolition movement gave Africans living in Europe and the Americas freedom, a certain degree of control over their own lives. The civil rights movement gave African-Americans legal equality, a greater degree of control over their own lives. The women’s suffrage movement empowered women in the political arena, while second wave feminism gave women greater social and economic freedom.
What social justice movements do not do is disempower their advocates. Which is to say that the advocates of a social justice movement—with a few individual exceptions, noteworthy because they are so few—are not drawn from the ranks of those who will be disempowered by the movement’s success. The abolition movement was comprised of blacks and of whites who were not personally invested in slavery. You can count on your fingers the number of Southern slaveholders who supported abolition with anything more than meaningless lip service designed to preserve their reputations outside the South while they continued to benefit from owning slaves. In the same way, the civil rights movement was carried forward by blacks and by whites (primarily in the north, midwest, and west) who did not see themselves as benefitting from legal segregation. There were very few Southern white landowners (who benefitted from the sharecropper system) or Southern white businessmen (who benefitted from cheap black labor) swelling the ranks of the civil rights movement. Turning to second wave feminism, this movement was advanced by women and by men who were not heavily invested in the social and economic inferiority of women. Wife-beaters, pimps, and sweatshop owners—not to mention corporate executives (who liked having a cheap workforce to perform administrative and menial tasks) were not out there marching with feminists. The ranks of the trade union movement have never been swelled by corporate executives and wealthy stockholders. And to cite one last example, loggers, miners, petroleum workers, commercial fishers, and the executives of the companies they work for do not form the backbone of the environmental movement.
The point is this. Most people join social justice movements because they believe that they personally or members of a group that they identify with will benefit from the success of the movement. A good number who are not particularly affected one way or the other join out of a moral sense—simply because it is the right thing to do. (Although this is easy to lose sight of sometimes, morality is still a powerful motivator.) But only the rare individual will join a social justice movement that they believe will disadvantage them in ways that they consider important to their lives, health, comfort, enjoyment, relationships, or convenience.
And now we get to the heart of the matter. The various forms of human oppression: African slavery, legal segregation, the oppression of women, the exploitation of workers, and so on, divide the human race. They create a beneficiary class and a victim class, and in so doing generate their own opposition. Animal slavery and slaughter is the only injustice in human history that does not divide the human race in this way. It is the only injustice in history that does not generate its own opposition by creating a human victim group. Quite the opposite: animal slavery and slaughter unites the human race by offering something for everyone. Everyone benefits—or is perceived as benefitting—from animal abuse and murder. Whether you’re talking about tasty steaks and chops,; the wool business suits, silk blouses and silk neckties that are expected in many office settings; stylish and comfortable leather shoes; a cure for cancer, AIDS, or MS; or if you just enjoy taking the kids to the circus or SeaWorld, there is hardly anyone who does not derive some benefit—material, social, or psychological; real or perceived—from animal slavery and slaughter.
As individuals and as a society, we are more heavily invested—both in terms of its pervasiveness and in terms of its cultural, economic, and psychological importance—in animal slavery and slaughter than any human society has ever been invested in any other form of injustice. The injustice of animal slavery and slaughter not only does not divide us, it draws us together to defend the crime from which we all benefit. We will ignore the most obvious truth and believe the most absurd lie if it will help us defend and extend the crime to which we think we owe so much. Speciesism differs from other varieties of prejudice, such as the racism and sexism after which it was named, in that it creates no human victim group, unites rather than divides the human population, and benefits, at least potentially, every human being on earth.
The consequence of this is that animal rights is radically different from any social justice movement in history in a way that makes other social activists resistant to our message. Animal rights disempowers everyone who commits to living in accordance with its principles. Not just in terms of our physical enjoyments, but socially and psychologically as well.
For example: We all suffer from an innate urge to feel superior to someone else. In my thirty year career as a personnel specialist for the federal government, I observed at first hand, over and over again, a disturbing but nearly universal phenomenon. Employees were less concerned about the absolute amount of their salaries than whether they were paid more or less than the people working around them. No matter how high or how low their rank on the pay scale, everyone wanted the agency to acknowledge that they were superior to at least some of those who worked at a similar level. An important component of racism and sexism is that—independently of any material benefit they may or may not confer—they allow whites to feel superior to blacks and men to feel superior to women. Speciesism allows all human beings to feel superior to animals, and the importance of this would, I think, be hard to overestimate.
This was brought home to me—with a disconcerting twist—some years ago by an African-American co-worker. He was the civil rights officer for our agency, and before coming to work there, he had had a long and honorable history in the civil rights movement. We were workplace friends, and when he learned that I was an animal rights activist, he expressed deep disappointment. “Animal rights,” he told me, “is just another way for white people to say that black people are no better than animals.” He was massively, tragically mistaken. But in the context of his experience of 20th century America, he was not being irrational. As Charles Patterson has chillingly described in Eternal Treblinka, the comparison of people to animals is a classic racist technique for devaluing a victim group. Telling people that there is no one to whom they can feel superior, not even animals, can be devastating in a society with a blatantly racist and sexist past that even today shapes our national life far more than we like to admit. It is a measure of the moral insight and political courage of Dick Gregory and Coretta Scott King that they stand out from nearly all of their comrades in the first rank of the civil rights generation by their espousal of ethical vegetarianism.
The fundamental lie of our society is that hierarchy is essential to order and stability. Apart from animal rights, most social justice movements do not really challenge this lie at any profound level. They pay lip service to moral parity, but their real goal is to elevate their favored group in the hierarchy while leaving the principle of hierarchy intact.
This is the primary challenge facing the animal rights movement, first vis a vis other social justice movements, but also in dealing with the public at large: to undermine the notion of moral hierarchy and replace it with a commitment to moral parity. (This, incidentally, is also the primary difference between animal rights and animal welfare. Animal rights insists on moral parity for all sentient beings; animal welfare maintains the moral hierarchy in which humans are superior to animals, but simply tries to smooth down the rougher edges of our relationship to our supposed inferiors.)
And so, in the face of this challenge, the greatest challenge ever faced by any social justice movement, how should we proceed? Specifically, how should we attempt to convince the advocates of human and environmental social causes that there really is only one struggle, one fight, and we are all in it together and we are all in it equally?
First, we should not give up. Although other social justice movements have a strong component of selfishness, as I have just described, they also have a strong component of altruism and genuine compassion, which for reasons of time I have not dwelt on. It is to that altruism and compassion that we must appeal. It has been my experience that only the two extremes of the intellectual spectrum—philosophers and scientists on the one hand and the marginally educated on the other—try to deny that the pain of animals is as severe to them as our pain is to us. The overwhelming majority of people trust their observation and intuition and recognize that animals feel pain and fear death just as we do.
(But since I have said that, honor is due. Academic philosophers like Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Andrew Linzey, Stephen Clark, Carol Adams, Stanley Godlovich, Roslind Godlovich, and a host of others played a critical role in the creation of the animal rights movement, a role comparable to that played by Enlightenment philosophers in the creation of human rights movements. Without them, we would not be here.)
In the coming years, the task of winning over the human rights communities will become easier for two reasons. First, science is beginning to see the light. Cognitive ethologists and evolutionary biologists are demonstrating that the interior lives—both intellectual and emotional—of all manner of sentient beings, from mammals to insects, are far richer and far more like our own than most of us ever imagined. This will strengthen our sense of kinship with nonhumans and break down barriers between human rights and animal rights. Today, the most important work in animal rights is no longer being done by philosophers, but by scientists like Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, Jeffrey Masson, and Frans de Waal. We are witnessing a revolution in the scientific understanding of animal consciousness that is a true paradigm shift—on a par with the revolution in astronomy that took place during the age of Copernicus and Galileo. And the implications of this for animal rights and for the unification of the human rights and animal rights movements are tremendously encouraging.
Second, as historically disadvantaged human groups, such as African-Americans, become more secure in their first class citizenship, they will become more likely to turn their attention to other causes, including animal rights. A generation of African-Americans that grows up with Barack Obama as president will be far less likely to see animal rights as a way of saying that blacks are no better than animals than a generation that grew up seeing Bull Connor turning police dogs on African-American demonstrators. In this sense, animal rights is very much dependant upon human rights, and as animal rights activists we should always support human rights campaigns not only because it is the right thing to do—which it is—but also because people who are secure in their rights and freedoms are more often inclined to work for the rights and freedoms of others; and they are in a position to do so more effectively.
But although we should support human rights campaigns, we should be careful not to support campaigns that reinforce animal slavery and slaughter. Fighting third world hunger, for example, is a worthwhile and important human rights cause. But some of the groups in the forefront of that campaign, such the Heifer Project International, actively promote animal agriculture. These groups sacrifice animals for human beings. They represent an hierarchical, speciesist approach to human welfare that I believe no animal rights activist should support. We either believe that humans and animals are of equal moral worth or we don’t. Unfortunately, our society is organized in such a way that it is not always possible for us to act on this belief, but where we do have the freedom and ability to do so—as in denying our support to organizations that promote animal agriculture—we surely should.
We should also be wary of entering into alliances with human rights groups unless those groups make a clear, public, and upfront commitment to the moral importance of animals. The massive imbalance of power between humans and animals necessitates, at least for the time being, a single-issue emphasis for the animal rights movement. Up until recently, there has effectively been no vision for animals, and until the animal rights vision—which in its modern incarnation is barely thirty years old—has been thoroughly integrated into the public discourse, it will be extremely difficult to establish alliances with human rights movements that do not carry a grave risk of betraying animals, a risk that in most instances I would regard as unacceptably high. When a human issue comes into conflict with an animal rights issue (as, for example, in the case of using animal agriculture to combat human hunger in the third world), the human rights group will betray the animals every time. (Based on its track record, I consider ecofeminism an exception to this rule; more on that in a moment.)
At the present historical moment, the battle that needs to be won is for widespread recognition of the moral equality of animals; until that is accomplished, alliances with human rights groups will tend to function like yellow caution flags in an automobile race; they will lock everyone into the relative positions that they held when the flag was raised. If animals are at the back of the pack (as they are), they will stay there because we will have traded away our ability to propel them forward independently. Our task now is to establish the principle of moral equality for animals; then will come the opportunity to forge grand alliances. In the meantime, we must not sell the animals’ birthright for a mess of pottage. Which is to say that we must not compromise the principle of moral parity for small, limited concessions by human rights groups.
Not that I would spurn help for animals from individuals or groups whose primary interest is an anthropocentric issue (women’s rights, economic justice, racial justice, whatever), but I would not make alliances with such groups or movements a part of AR strategy until the power and awareness imbalance has been rectified. And so, I think our posture vis a vis human rights movements should have three aspects. The first is patience. Animal rights is gradually working its way into the mainstream public dialogue—in the academic world, it is progressing more rapidly—and its entry into the public and academic discussion will slowly nudge human rights movements in our direction. For the most part, this is probably a generational issue. A younger generation of human rights activists, who went to school and came of age in the era of animal rights, may have to move into positions of leadership in human rights movements before large-scale progress can be made.
The second is that we must engage the human rights movements—politely and respectfully; we are trying to win people over, not score debating points—in a conversation based on the commonalities of our movements. Both human rights and animal rights are grounded in empathy and compassion for suffering sentient beings, and we need to keep this fact as much on the radar screen of human rights groups as possible. Here, the work of ethologists and evolutionary biologists will be invaluable to us in encouraging human rights activists to recognize the common plight of human and nonhuman animals. Human rights activists can decline to support animal rights only to the extent that they fail to recognize that animals have interior lives similar to our own, and that they abhor suffering and dread death just as we do. And it is in demonstrating—over and over for as long as is necessary—the realities of our close kinship with nonhuman animals that we will make progress for animals within the human rights communities.
In carrying on this conversation, it is absolutely vital that we stay focused on the moral issue. Environmental or human health arguments for veganism concede de facto the moral priority of human beings, so while it is fine to use these as supplements to our moral argument, as a way to get the attention of the anthropocentric activist communities, we must always keep the moral argument front and center. There may be reasons other than morality for doing things that liberate animals, but there is no reason except morality for granting animals rights, and we must never lose sight of that fundamental fact.
Arguments based on human or environmental benefit are also treacherous in ways that we cannot always foresee. Scientists are already developing methods—based on feeding regimes and genetic engineering—to eliminate the emission of greenhouse gases resulting from factory farming. When they do so, as they will, one of our main environmental arguments against animal agriculture will have been undercut.
Finally, we must ourselves support human rights issues—after all, those commonalities I have been speaking of cut both ways. Humans are animals, too. Henry Bergh, the great nineteenth century campaigner for animal welfare, was persuaded to campaign for child welfare when someone told him that “a small animal” needed his help. The “small animal” turned out to be a human child being abused by her family. This does not mean that we must reflexively take the politically correct position on every human rights issue. Many of these issues are questions on which intelligent people of good will can differ. But it does mean that we must show the same compassion for human beings that we show for nonhuman animals.
But at the same time, as I said a moment ago, we should be leery of entering into alliances with human rights groups, at least until the consciousness of human rights activists in regard to nonhuman animals has been raised considerably, and in the course of that process, we must stay focused on the moral issue.
At some time in the future… I don’t know when, certainly years, almost certainly decades—when the full moral importance of nonhuman animals has become a mainstream belief—a unified “sentient rights” movement will emerge. Exactly what it will look like, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball. But there is a movement active today that I believe provides us with one highly credible model for a sentient rights movement, and that is ecofeminism. As defined by many of its leading voices, advocates like Carol Adams, Marti Kheel, Josephine Donovan, Greta Gaard, pattrice jones, and too many others to name, ecofeminism builds a sophisticated theoretical matrix, grounded in empathy and compassion, that encompasses all sentient beings. It stresses the commonalities between its two primary beneficiary groups, human women and nonhuman animals, and makes the unity of suffering and the unity of oppression major themes in its discourse.
The time for it is not yet here. But I have absolute faith that at some point in the future there will be a unified sentient rights movement. And when I try to contemplate what that movement might look like, I turn to ecofeminism.