Treating Humans and Nonhumans “Like Animals”

It is often the case that, when a human is mistreated by other humans, the claim is made that the victim was treated “like an animal.”

What is meant by this expression is that the victim has not been treated with any recognition of their moral value. They have been treated exclusively as a means to an end. Their interests have been ignored. They have been treated as a thing.

The problem is that most of us have no problem in treating nonhuman animals as things. Most of participate directly and indirectly in treating animals as things — we use animals for food and other purposes, despite there being no need to do so and despite there being a considerable amount of evidence that animal agriculture is harmful to the planet and to our health. Indeed, most pandemics are the result of humans exploiting nonhumans.

So we object to humans being treated like animals but we do not object to animals being treated like animals. In doing so, we ignore a very large elephant in the room — our treatment of nonhuman animals as things provides a template for our treatment of humans as things. All we need to do is to analogize humans to nonhumans and our treatment of them as things becomes justified.

If you look at the history of discrimination and injustice, you will find in virtually every single case a cultural effort to reduce humans to nonhumans as the pretext for then treating the former as things, as we do the latter. Efforts to justify race-based slavery and racism depended on depicting people of color as subhuman, as did efforts to justify anti-Semitism, as do efforts to justify misogyny and violence against women.

We dehumanize those whom we want to harm unjustly. And the reason for that is transparently simple. If you want to get support for any campaign against any group of humans, the recipe is simple: characterize them as subhuman. Then, anything goes. We can ignore their moral value because they have none — they are like animals.

Promoting the idea that we should think about women in the way that we think about beings we kill and eat.

Does rejecting the idea that animals are things mean that we think that humans and nonhumans are equal? Yes and no. No, in that there are certainly differences between humans and nonhumans that would make talking about giving to nonhumans the sorts of rights we accord to humans nonsense. For example, it would be absurd to talk about giving nonhumans a right to vote (although it might result in our having a better class of political leaders). But yes in the sense that all sentient beings — beings who are subjectively aware and value their lives — should hold one right: the right not to be treated as things. If we recognized that one right with respect to nonhuman animals, it would undercut the main theoretical foundation of injustice and discrimination against humans as well.

We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. President Donald Trump (May 18, 2018)

Although Trump later claimed that he was talking about gang members, his statement remains that many immigrants are subhuman, particularly given his statements that Mexico is sending criminals and rapists into the U.S.

Characterization and objectification of others as subhuman places other humans outside the universe of moral consideration. If a human is a criminal, that person can be held accountable, punished, rehabilitated, educated, and understood. Once labeled as subhuman, we are no longer responsible for our own attitudes and behavior. That is corrosive of moral society.

I am not saying that, in a world in which we rejected the idea that animals are just things with no moral value, there would be no violence against humans. I am saying that the theoretical basis that we have used to justify that violence would no longer be there. That would not eliminate all violence but it would make it ever so much harder to justify. It would involve a paradigm shift in our thinking about the very justification of violence.

There are some who claim that, if we reject the status of animals as things, we denigrate humans. That position ignores how treating animals as things facilitates treating humans as things, and represents nothing more than anthropocentrism.

So the next time someone objects to a situation involving one in which the human has been treated like “an animal,” ask yourself whether that event was less likely to have occurred if we did not think it acceptable to treat animals as things. The answer should be clear.

Gary Francione’s most recent book, Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals will be published in January by Columbia University Press.

Gary L. Francione is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers University and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lincoln.

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