A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (1/4)
This semester I am following a course called Critical Animal Studies at Lund University. In this course, we discuss the topic of animals in society from a critical perspective. More straightforward: we discuss how we, human beings, massively engage in the oppression, exploitation, and domination of animals. Apart from the relevance of this course for my research and the political stances I take in my writings, this course had a very big impact on my personal life.
For these reasons I am sharing a series of four blog posts on my main takeaways of this course (let me know if you want to have the full reading list!). Moreover, we all inevitably participate in this oppression of animals and stimulate its continuation by the choices we make on a daily basis. Therefore it might be relevant for you to read along, discuss these topics together, and form your own critical stances. Let me throw in a quote by philosopher Jeremy Bentham to get started: “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” (Bentham, 1988, originally published in 1789).
One term that kept coming back throughout the course was speciesism. In one of the readings it was carefully explained like this:
“Speciesism is the view that the interests of members of the human species are more important than the interest of non-human species. Thus, humans are justified in using non-human species in ways that depreciate the interests of non-humans in favor of the interests of humans. As with racism – where the interest of one race are valued more highly than the interests of another race, and sexism – where the interests of males are valued more highly than the interests of females, in speciesism the interest of humans is more valuable than the interests of non-humans.” (Mosely, 2009, p. 2)
Mosely continues to explain how this view is very deeply rooted in the morals and values we usually consider the norm in western society. In our culture, ethical values and ideas have been largely derived from frameworks from both philosophy and religion. In religion, it is usually assumed that men are born as higher creatures (other animals are placed under man’s domination). Likewise, the woman was created from man, to serve as helpmate and companion. In philosophical traditions, speciesist views were largely based on animals’ presumed incapability of reasoning: animals cannot reason, therefore they are inferior (Aristotle), animals have instrumental, but no intrinsic value (Aquinas), animals are no members of the moral community because they are machine-like, lack the ability to speak, reason, and act autonomously (Descartes).
However, some scientists and philosophers (such as Bentham, Mill, and Singer) have challenged these assumptions, by arguing for what we all know by now: humans and animals share the ability to feel things like pain, suffering, emotions, and pleasure. Animals are sentient individuals. Following ethical logic it is therefore morally wrong to ignore suffering caused by humans, solely for habits that are unnecessary to our survival (such as meat eating, entertainment (in zoos, fighting, circuses, etc.), experimentation, and farming). Exactly… we do not need these things to survive, so how can we morally justify the suffering we cause? (for references on this topic see: Pick, 1993; Noske, 1997; Best, 2005; Burt, 2006; Marino, Bradshaw, and Malamud, 2009.
Arguments like, “we deserve better treatment because we are smarter or stronger”, quickly break down, since we still strive to prevent the unnecessary suffering of new-born children, disabled people, or the elderly. So what we are left with at the end is speciesism: we justify our arguments for causing animal suffering, solely because we classify humans, ourselves, as more important (much like the logics of slave-owners, Nazi’s, or misogynists, but more about that later).
Through intellectual reasoning and logic we come to a shocking revelation: what if we were wrong? What if the norms we have created, and widely accept, are built on mistakes? What if we are confronted with unjustified suffering everywhere, on a massive scale, and everyone is participating? If we conclude that speciesism is not justifiable, our thoughts about nearly everything in our lives will find change.
The documentary called Speciesism deals with these questions in a very elegant way. Without the need for disturbing footage, the filmmaker discusses the logic of the arguments we have used to justify the elevation of humans above all other species. I would highly recommend you to spend 90 minutes of your life watching this enjoyable and thought provoking film. As the reviews say:
“For those unfamiliar with speciesism, there may be no more enjoyable introduction to this fascinating subject than Speciesism: The Movie. For those familiar with the topic, and searching for a way to introduce friends and family to the deeper questions, this film may be the perfect solution.”
Also, please talk to me if you have watched this film and you would like to know or discuss more!
Taking a non-speciesist approach
But what does all of this exactly mean for my research and personal values? In 2011, when I started doing my research about animals, play, and technology, researcher Clara Mancini released a manifesto called Animal Computer Interaction. This has marked the starting point for a recognized and growing research field that seeks to include animals as actual participants and/or users in the technology we develop. In this widely cited document she advocates for taking a “non-speciesist approach to research” (Mancini, 2011, p. 72). Explained as giving animals and humans equal consideration, respect, and care and protecting animals from suffering (Mancini, 2011). But what does it truly mean to take a non-speciesist approach?
If we want to contribute to improve animal welfare with our research, can this be framed within a society that is already deeply entangled in animal oppression, or does this have to start from its roots? If our entire society is built on speciesist norms, how can we escape this as researchers?
The field of Animal Computer Interaction seeks to help the animal, and yet its outcomes (mine included) consist of projects that largely stimulate and support institutions that could be questioned within a non-speciesist approach. These include things like animal enabled technology in zoos that exist for human entertainment, farms that exist for consumption, the use of assistant animals for human purposes, and domestic animals that are owned by someone. These projects seem to emphasize the need for treating animals better, but aren’t we allowing ourselves to continue to rely on speciesist norms?
Our research work (as well as the personal decisions we make in daily life) can have a big impact for the animals and humans in society. But if a non-speciesist approach already starts by not bringing your laptop to work in a leather bag (yep, I felt the need to change my bag), or not participating in projects that rely on – or stimulate – animal oppression, how can we start tackling the speciesism issue at its core? And how can the field of design help with this? I hope that asking these questions could be a start in itself. So let’s use our voice to discuss these relevant issues, instead of avoiding them, as ignorance will only lead to further alienation.
Next post I will discuss how we could look at similarities with other forms of oppression (such as racism, sexism, or classism) to think about our relationships with animals and inform our research.
The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our camping trip last summer on a Dutch island called Terschelling, where we met some beautiful animals.
Bentham, J. (1988). The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Baird, R. M, Rosenbaum, S. E. (eds.), New York, NY: Prometheus Books.
Best, S. (2005). Genetic science, animal exploitation, and the challenge for demovracy. AI & Society, 20(1), 6-21.
Burt, J. (2006). Conflicts around Slaughter in Modernity. In the Animal Studies Group, Killing Animals, p. 210-144. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Mancini, C. (2011). Animal computer interaction: A manifesto. Interactions, 18(4), 69-73.
Marino, L., Bradshaw, G., and Malamud, R. (2009). The captivity industry: The reality of zoos and aquariums. Best Friends Magazine, March/April 2009, 24-27. Available at http://www.english.gsu.edu/pdf/CaptivityIndustry.pdf
Mosley, A. (2009). Expanding the moral circle: From racism to speciesism. Available at http://www.smith.edu/pholosophy/expanding_moral_circle.htlm
Noske, B. (1997). Domestication Under Capitalism + The Animal Industrial Complex. In Noske, B., Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, p. 11-39. Montreal, CA: Black Rose Books.
Pick, D. (1993). The Perfect Abattoir. In Pick, D., War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, p. 178-188, London, UK: Yale University Press.