Book Review: SpeciesismBy Joan Dunayer
2004 Ryce Publishing (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Distributed by Lantern Books (www.lanternbooks.com)
Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD
In her 2001 book, Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, Joan Dunayer shows how the English language promotes speciesist attitudes, encouraging people to view and talk about nonhuman animals as “its” rather than hes and shes, along with many other injustices. In her new book, Speciesism, Dunayer critiques speciesism, which she calls a “a failure, in attitude or practice, to accord any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect.”
Arguing that sentience, the ability to experience, should be the criterion for full and equal moral consideration of any animal, human or nonhuman, Dunayer argues that the animal advocacy movement is riddled with conceptual loopholes that preserve the status quo.
She challenges the privileging of beings whose mental life fits the profile of a philosopher gazing in the mirror. Not only is there a wealth of evidence showing that nonhuman animals, including insects, have rich and varied lives, including, in many cases, “perceptual powers that we lack”; but virtually all nonhumans are better eco-persons than we are. On the basis of reason and ethics, it makes sense, says Dunayer, to “value benign individuals more than those who, on balance, cause harm. In utilitarian terms, a chicken’s life is worth more – not less – than the life of the average human, because chickens are far more benign.” But human vanity being what it is, such logic seldom prevails.
Dunayer’s main target of attack is animal welfarism. “’Welfarist’ campaigns reinforce nonhumans’ property status,” she says. They “signal that enslaving, killing, or otherwise harming nonhumans can be morally acceptable.” An example is the campaign to replace, with less cruel methods, the torturous paralytic electrical “stunning” of 25 million chickens each day (in the US alone). This campaign thwarts the goal of liberating chickens from human domination and creating a vegan world. The only difference between United Poultry Concerns, PETA, and animal slaughterers, according to Dunayer, is that “PETA and UPC staff won’t commit the murders themselves.”
The same is true of working to ban battery hen cages and get stores to carry only “free-range” eggs. While acknowledging the difference between a welfare philosophy that supports exploiting animals as long as it’s done “humanely,” and an animal rights philosophy that includes campaigns designed to reduce animal suffering in pursuit of animal liberation, Dunayer argues that “Instead of working to reduce the human-inflicted suffering of some hens, we should work to end the human-inflicted suffering of all hens.”
But many groups who work to reduce the suffering of hens on factory farms are working to end the human-inflicted suffering of all hens. United Poultry Concerns urges people unstintingly to go vegan (we do not promote “free-range” products), while simultaneously urging institutions in a position to reduce animal suffering to do so. Nor are we merely trying to reduce the suffering of “some” hens. For all that Dunayer charges people to consider nonhumans as individuals, she seems oddly indifferent to the billions of individuals in dire need of relief now. Three hundred million hens in US battery cages each year is not just “some” hens. Neither is nine billion “broiler” chickens, turkeys and ducks who are being systematically tortured to death in US slaughterhouses each year. Should animal advocates sacrifice billions of actual birds, turn our backs on them, in the name of an ideal future that is nowhere in sight? Is this a valid conception of our choices?
Speciesism contains this model exchange. Welfarist: “If you were a hen, you’d prefer a larger cage to a smaller one.” Dunayer: “Yes, but I’d want emancipation incomparably more.”
Yes, but what if you (not the abstract you, but the actual you) could only hope for a larger cage in your lifetime: would you – do you think a hen would – reject the extra bit of comfort and space short of full emancipation – that is, full emancipation of Hypothetical Other Hens?
Dunayer writes: “If I were in a Nazi concentration camp and someone on the outside asked me, ‘Do you want me to work for better living conditions, more-humane deaths in the gas chamber, or the liberation of all concentration camps?’ I’d answer, ‘Liberation.’. . . I’d regard any focus on better living conditions or more-‘humane’ deaths as immoral.”
But is the choice so patently either/or? In real prison situations, inmates are ready to sell body and soul for a stale crust of bread – anything! If I were in a concentration camp, I don’t know that I wouldn’t forego the possibility of full emancipation sometime in the future for a little cup of coffee, a reduction in the amount of lice or number of beatings, a less painful death, in the here and now. Stupid maybe, but what did the political machine bosses offer the grateful suffering multitudes in early 20 th-century New York City that the social theorists alone could not deliver? “There’s got to be in every ward somebody that any bloke can come to and get help. Help, you understand; none of your law and justice, but help.” *
The point is that law, justice, and help for animals in the form of rescues and interim relief measures are all needed. They do not cancel each other out. As animal rights activist/author Norm Phelps writes in his review of Dunayer’s book (www.satyamag.com/jan05/phelps.htm), “There is absolutely no evidence to support Dunayer’s claim that working for ‘welfarist’ reforms retards liberation. Historically, the notion that the road to social change lies in strict submission to an elegant orthodoxy has always led, not to the utopia that was promised, but to failure, disaster, or both. Witness the Puritan Revolution of 1640, the French Revolution of 1789, and the appallingly brutal communist experiments of the 20 th century. Real improvement has always come from reformers who were able to keep their eyes upon the prize while moving toward it one inconsistent step at a time.”
This is not an invitation to sell out or cop out, to buy eggs on the sly or eat them in public to prove you’re not holier than thou, but to keep animal rights work and faith, as Phelps says, “empirically based.” I recommend Dunayer’s book with the caveat that in her skewed portrayal of a select group of animal rights people and organizations that she hammers away at, Dunayer is not trustworthy. Her enmity towards some of her colleagues to whom she owes unacknowledged debts is so strong that it subverts her aspiration to be a leading voice for justice and respect for all animals. In the case of activists she hates, some animals are plainly less equal than others.
*Christopher Ketcham, “Meet the New Boss,” Harper’s Magazine, December 2004
Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. www.upc-online.org