Treating Humans and Nonhumans “Like Animals”

Gary L. Francione
4 min readMay 30, 2020

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.

A German leaflet distributed to the Russian army in 1942. Jews were often depicted as rats.

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…

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Gary L. Francione

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