Social Space and Animals

by Enzo

Vegans and omnivores have argued ceaselessly since veganism became an actual movement. Many of the seemingly convincing arguments around veganism come from the idea of ‘speciesism’ or the idea that putting humans at a higher level than animals is wrong. It is seemingly convincing because it puts the interlocutor at a disadvantage to say why animals can be killed for food but not babies or those in persistent vegetative states without falling back on the truism “well, we’re human.” Though I believe that steps should be taken to ensure animal welfare, I don’t think we need to accept the idea of speciesism to do so.

Some arguments for meat production fall under the idea that animals are not as smart as humans therefore they can be used as food. The vegan counterargument to this is that we do not eat children or those in persistent vegetative states. Some argue that pigs and cows are as smart as two year olds and therefore deserve rights on a similar level as humans, at least in the right to life. Even arguing that at least babies can grow into adults that are much smarter than animals doesn’t hold against the vegan argument.

“We cannot claim that biological commonality entitles us to superior status over those who are not members of our species. In the case of applying this to people with severe and profound cognitive disabilities, there is also a problem about saying who the ‘‘we’’ are. What is really important about saying ‘‘us?’’ Is it that we are all capable of understanding language, and perhaps even rational argument? In that case, I am not addressing those who are profoundly mentally retarded. Or is it that I am addressing all those who are members of my species?”

Peter Singer – Speciesism and Moral Status

Rhys Southan of Let Them Eat Meat, a blog about ex-vegans, tries to attack this problem by noting that just because something has sentience, or the ability to move and think, doesn’t mean that it can’t be killed. Which is a strange argument to make.

“Where vegans lose me is in the leap from “animals are capable of suffering” to “animals have a right to life.” Why do vegans equate an ability to suffer with having an inviolable reason to live? It’s intuitive to not want to cause pain to something capable of pain, but I’m not sure what this has to do with right to life if the life can be ended painlessly. How do vegans get from “these creatures move around and it hurts when we punch them in the snout” to “we can’t stun them and then kill them”?

But this doesn’t alleviate Southan from the speciesism argument. We can stun and kill animals, but what exactly differentiates an animal from a person? Why is it that we can stun and kill animals for food but not humans? And this is a question that Southan fails to answer because he doesn’t question his idea of what a human is.

A human is a constructed idea. That doesn’t mean that humans and monkeys and spiders are all the same thing. It means that the way we distinguish humans from monkeys is constructed through a discourse. Costas Douzinas notes:

“[B]ecause ‘human­ity’ has no fixed mean­ing, it can­not act as a source of norms. Its mean­ing and scope keeps chan­ging accord­ing to polit­ical and ideo­lo­gical pri­or­it­ies. The con­tinu­ously chan­ging con­cep­tions of human­ity are the best mani­fest­a­tions of the meta­phys­ics of an age. Per­haps the time has come for anthro­pos to replace the human. Per­haps the rights to come will be anthropic (to coin a term) rather than human, express­ing and pro­mot­ing sin­gu­lar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences instead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences of hitherto dom­in­ant identities.”

Although Douzinas was starting a conversation on the inability to regulate norms through the current discourse of human rights, rather than weighing in on the rights of animals, he points out an important problem in trying to define human-ness.

Do we base human-ness off of genetics? How much genetic difference constitutes human-ness? What combination of genes or set of combinations distinguishes people from apes? What about those with genetic abnormalities? Does the capacity for language, or spoken language, distinguish us? What about those incapable of speech? The lack of a definition of human makes Southan’s argument incomplete. What allows Southan to move from ‘we shouldn’t punch pigs in the snout because it hurts them’ to “we should be able to stun and kill pigs for food”?

Looking at how social space creates networks and relationships between humans and animals can solve this problem. Animals cannot enter into the social space in a similar way to humans. Humans, even children and those in vegetative states, occupy a different role in social space than animals. Animals are not sent to school for a number of years or given therapists to help them adjust to the living as an agent in human social space. Although there are pet psychologists, animals cannot interact or be interacted with in the same ways humans can. So the speciesism argument fails because it does not take into account how animals are constructed within social space. Animals are not on the same level as humans in the space we construct. But so too does Southan’s argument that animals can be killed because they aren’t human. Construction does not imply rigid destiny. We can change the way we interact and construct animals into our social space, but not completely. We can stop raising them and killing them for food. We cannot however, through natural (i.e. not technological) interactions teach animals to occupy the same role as children in our social space.