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Autumn 2004 - Act•ionLine

by Lee Hall | Autumn 2004

Raising the Bar — Speciesism by Joan Dunayer

“Speciesism,” explains Dunayer, entails “a failure, in attitude or practice, to accord any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect.” The book title adopts the term coined in 1970 by psychologist Richard Ryder, who saw the animal rights movement as a logical extension of the moral movement which, in the later half of the 20th century, addressed injustice and inequality in human society and was increasingly concerned with the environment. “After the attacks upon racism and sexism,” explained Ryder, “it seemed only logical to attack speciesism.”

Having examined the evidence and concluded that there is no scientific basis for viewing animalkind as a hierarchy with humans at the top, Dunayer’s book calls for full ethical consideration to the interests of any conscious animal. Dunayer argues that all should be accorded basic legal rights, including rights to life and liberty.

Dunayer adroitly dispels previous assertions that individuals have to be mammals or have spinal columns as humans do, or that they have to prove that they can recognize themselves in mirrors, in order to win freedom. It is enough, for Dunayer, that an individual is able to think or feel.

Of course, powerful calls for rights grounded in the simple ability to feel pleasure and pain, regardless of the individual’s human-like physical or intellectual characteristics, have already been made, and Dunayer gives due credit to that work. Yet some of the same authors who advocate nonhuman rights have stopped short of giving the same weight to the basic interests of nonhuman animals that they give to humans. Some have focused on allowances for picking “us” over “them” in emergencies. In one of the more memorable conflicts, normally presented as the lifeboat question, the philosopher presents the reader with a hypothetical lifeboat from which either a human or another animal must be tossed in order for the boat to stay afloat.

There is, in my view, value in continuing to tussle over this issue as Dunayer does. This is because the “emergency” scenario will, in the future, come up in the course of everyday life. Consider this: Corporations, according to our modern law, are legal persons. They are born, die, and have emergencies as well — often. When a conflict arises between the survival of a corporation and the survival of a sentient individual, should a corporation, which is essentially a collection of humans who get together in search of profits, automatically have the right to bolster its own viability at the expense of a feeling, breathing individual’s life?

Without a continual stream of profit, a corporation might fail in its duty to shareholders, and be unable to sustain itself over time. A business may well claim its survival is at stake in a given transaction, for property owners’ interests are deemed, and will continue to be deemed, immense stakes. After all, wars are fought over them. If a company’s a person, money is personal survival and that trumps the very life of any animal who isn’t a legal person. An oil company’s profit will frequently prevail over entire communities of wolves, seals, birds, and others. With corporations now considered legal persons, every nonhuman animal is endangered.

Advocates for animal rights will, at some point in the very near future, need to grapple directly with the new realities of corporate personhood as well as conflicts related to our rising population. Regarding the latter, as land is taken up for a burgeoning human community, nonhumans tend to be moved, killed, or otherwise controlled.

Joan Dunayer’s proposal would fashion a legal obstacle to this pattern, as freed nonhumans would be seen as owners of their eggs, milk, honey, pearls, nests, and hives. And they would have a claim to the natural habitats in which they live, so that emancipation from property status could be effectively enjoyed.

Serious consideration of Dunayer’s argument entails seeing the value of natural space and thinking in terms of leaving some earth for other animals to freely enjoy. For without space for all sentient beings to live and be free, animal rights theory is, so to speak, merely academic.

Speciesism by Joan Dunayer ISBN 0-9706475-6-5 Published October 2004 by Ryce Publishing (Derwood, Maryland, U.S., 2004) and available through Amazon.com Paperback; 214 pages. $18.95

This review and commentary is based on an advance uncorrected proof of the book.

Lee Hall

Act•ionLine Autumn 2004

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