equalism – for a fairer world

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Equalism: an animal rights perspective

Welcome to Neal Bedwell. He wondered why we had not listed Speciesism in our list of Social GRACES. They are equalisms that apply to only human animals. Here he sets out a case for equalism to apply to other animal species too.

In brief

Neal argues that many non-human animals possess the same qualifications for basic Rights as do ‘marginal case’ humans, who currently benefit from such Rights – i.e. those humans who, although too young or too mentally incapable to grasp moral concepts, are recognised as being aware of their lives and able to suffer whenever their physical and mental integrity is desregarded. To recognise basic Rights in such humans but to deny them in equally morally qualified non-humans is Speciesist.

Speciesism is responsible not only for the suffering and deaths of billions of Rights-qualifiying individuals every year, but also provides the analogue for those hierarchical structures of oppression within which humans abuse each other.  Consequently, extending our equalist sensitivities to other animals, not only addresses our current morally inappropriate species prejudice, but also improves our thinking and awareness for human-related equalist issues too.

Now read Neal’s fuller argument that has persuaded us to give it an equal place in our equalism blog here!


Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 11.08.54Although much as has been written on the subject of equalism, both on the equalism.org.uk website and elsewhere, it is not easy, it seems, to reach a unified definition of the term.  The subject material may simply be too broad, and any given definition too susceptible to the subjectivity, and area of interest, of the individual attempting to define it.

In light of that, I should make a confession here. I have only recently become acquainted with the subject of Equalism and I am finding my way, like so many of us when encountering new things, step by step. My background in Animal Rights advocacy has led me here by a series of discoveries, and it is those discoveries which have formed my firm belief that the philosophy underpinning Animal Rights has the potential to contribute significantly to ‘equalist thinking’, as I am beginning to understand it.

Defining equalism

So what is equalism?  One definition, for me, in its broadest, simplest sense, is about giving everyone an ‘equal place at the table’, in order to fulfil, without avoidable harm to themselves or others, their autonomously derived, biological, emotional and social needs. But who do we mean by ‘everyone’? And what does ‘equal’ mean in a complex world inhabited by individuals with so many competing and conflicting interests?

There are probably almost as many different answers to these two questions as there are people to answer them. However, a blunt comment posted on the ‘tumblr’ forum by someone called ‘maeve’ seems, to me, to sum up the essence of what equalism should be about in terms of practical application…

I defend everyone from hurtful generalisations. That’s what makes me an equalist. I honestly don’t care who the hell you are. I want to make sure you’re not hurt. Okay?”

When reading the word ‘everyone’ in Maeve’s statement, we may picture many things in our mind’s eye. We may visualise, for example, all those unfortunate individuals caught up in cycles of poverty, or those terrible images we have all seen on television of famine and war ravaged countries, dispossessed families forced out of their destroyed homes with nowhere to sleep and no food to eat, or we may picture those who suffer in abusive relationships, or those who have been imprisoned simply for speaking their mind in countries which oppress all freedoms, or perhaps those who fall into a religious, societal or biological group (female, male, black, white, gay, straight etc) and are persecuted simply for that reason. In other words, anyone whose individual dignity is trampled upon by the act of treating ‘them’ as if they don’t matter.

Any or all of these are images our minds may, indeed should, produce when we see that word ‘everyone’ in the context of Maeve’s statement.

However, there is another group of sufferers so often missing from those mental images … that of non-human animals. Should they be there? The answer must surely be yes, as I will explain.

Why and where should we include non-human animals

The reasons for inclusion are perhaps best answered by next turning our attention to our second question – what do we mean by ‘equal’?  For equalism to work, one thing we must surely do is accept that identically equal treatment is not always relevant, and that sometimes we need focus only on the concept of ‘appropriate consideration’.
Who do we mean by everyone

By way of some examples, as they pertain to non-human animals, it is meaningless, in fact absurd, to suggest the need for an equal Right to vote, or to a decent education, because these things are not relevant to non-human animals. These kinds of Rights, guaranteeing an individual the ability to do something, within the context of our society, we call ‘Positive Rights’, and for non-human animals, they simply cannot meaningfully apply.

By contrast, the form of Rights for which many non-human animals already qualify (morally) is that of Negative Rights. This refers to the Right to not have something imposed upon the Rights-holding individual against their will and without their consent.

That many non-humans qualify morally, yet are not afforded those Rights in law, is essentially one of prejudice; namely Speciesism.

So why do non-human animals already qualify for equalist inclusion respecting their Negative Rights? To answer that question it is important to examine why we humans already have such Rights.

Numerous moral arguments have been offered as to why humans should, and do, have Negative Rights. One useful term in understanding the rationale for non-human inclusion, is set out by the philosopher Tom Regan in his book ‘The Case for Animal Rights’. This centres on a term Regan calls ‘subject-of-a-life’.

Regan’s ‘subject-of-a-life’

Tom Regan argues that merely by the fact of each of us ‘experiencing’ our own lives to the extent of possessing our own internal, autonomous will, and being capable of acting upon it, in however simple a form, it must follow that ‘what happens to such an individual, matters to that individual’, and whenever that will is deliberately and avoidably thwarted, the individual can suffer unjustly. To allow this would be immoral.

Capabilities such as rationality, intellect, intelligence or the ability to understand the world at an advanced level, are not pre-requisites for being a subject-of-a-life, and cannot therefore be considered morally relevant to qualifying for Negative Rights.

It is not necessary to possess moral understanding in order to be a subject-of-a-life, and for what happens to an individual to matter to that individual. Anyone who has spent time with human babies, severely mentally handicapped humans, or many ‘higher-order’ non-human individuals can attest to this, from empirical observation alone. Regan refers to subjects-of-a-life without moral agency, as ‘moral patients’.

If we accept Regan’s logic, it must then become clear that species membership is not a morally relevant criteria to the attribution of Negative Rights, and that any individual who is a ‘subject-of-a-life’ must qualify, irrespective of age, height, eye colour, gender, race, religion, mental capacity, species, or any other morally irrelevant characteristics we might suggest.

It must further follow that those who are capable of recognising the very concept of Rights to begin with (in other words all moral agents), are morally bound to honour those Rights in everyone who qualifies. To not do so, as a moral agent, would be immoral.

Summarising Regan’s argument then (the basis of Animal Rights Theory), we can say that….

  1. In the case of Negative Rights [the Right to non-violence/non-persecution from other individuals, against the Rights-holder’s will] there are no genders, no races, no species, as those categories are all morally irrelevant to qualification. For the possession of Negative Rights, all that is required is to be a subject-of-a-life.
  2. Whatever additional Positive Rights other social or biological groups may or may not be entitled to, every subject-of-a-life qualifies, on moral grounds, for Negative Rights.
  3. Some subjects-of-a-life are moral agents (i.e. they are morally capable) and some are moral patients (i.e. they are morally incapable, or amoral).
  4. Within the community of individuals who are subjects-of-a-life, it is the moral imperative of all moral agents to behave morally toward each other and toward moral patients.
  5. Moral patients are, by definition, incapable of moral understanding and so must be absolved of all moral responsibility.

The only exceptions to this must, logically, be in cases of self-defence. Given that the primary purpose of Animal Rights philosophy is to maintain the Negative Rights of as many subjects-of-a-life as possible, it must follow that in the event of any threat to one individual’s Negative Rights by another, self-defence (and/or defence from others on behalf of the victim) is, by definition, necessary and justified. This of course accepts only the use of the minimum possible force required to negate the original violence whilst still respecting, as much as possible, the Negative Rights of the aggressor to also not be harmed.

This is Regan’s view, and it seems, to my mind, difficult to refute on any logical, moral basis.

Francione and Singer

Another, very similar view, is expressed by the Animal Rights proponent Gary Francione. Francione follows Regan’s line of reasoning but adopts the language of sentience as a criteria for Negative Rights, by doing so he also appears to encompass a more physical (and hence broader) group of individuals; namely any individual who can feel physical pain.

In essence their differences are largely semantic. Experiencing (in some cases only) physical pain is simply another criteria by which we can say “what happens to the individual matters to that individual”. It represents only a minor difference in the scope of which individuals are included.

Another well-known advocate for non-human animals is Australian born philosopher Peter Singer, a Utilitarian. Rights per se are not a Utilitarian concept. Instead, Singer promotes a policy of equal consideration based on the minimisation of suffering, suggesting, in the words of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham…

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

If they can suffer, their preference to avoid such suffering must be considered when dealing with them, irrespective of who, or what they are?

In its simplest terms this is the same as saying “if they can suffer, they must be a subject-of-a-life”, beyond that it is simply a question of how we implement our moral imperative to act on that realisation. There is no difference when it comes to recognising the need to do so in the first place.

While there is insufficient space to analyse each variation here. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this discussion, that they are in agreement on the basic premise: that many non-human animals already qualify (and always have) for the same ‘provisions’ as humans, whenever it can be said that “what happens to them matters to them”. The bodies they inhabit have no more moral relevance than they would for any other biological group.

Some complications

One point of interest worth discussing, is how wild animals fit into this ethical framework. For wild animals to survive it is of course necessary for many of them to either cause, or suffer, death or injury amongst themselves. Is Animal Rights philosophy then to suggest that we human moral agents must intervene to provide victim defence every time one wild animal attacks another?

Given that we should undoubtedly attempt to prevent human moral patients from harming others, e.g., we prevent children from hitting each other, why shouldn’t we do the same for non-human moral patients?

Animal Rights Ethicist Donald Graft addresses this matter in his co-authored “Animal Rights FAQ”…

A first answer to this dilemma entails considering that predators must kill to survive; to stop them from killing is, in effect, to kill them. Of course, we could also argue that intervening on a massive scale to prevent predation is totally impractical or impossible, but that is not morally persuasive.

Next, suppose we accept that we should stop a cat from killing a bird. Then we realize that the bird is the killer of many snakes. Should we now reason that, in fact, we shouldn’t stop the cat?

The point here is that humans lack the broad vision to make all these calculations and determinations.

On top of all this is the fact that intervening to stop predation would destroy the ecosystems upon which the biosphere depends, harming all of life on earth.

Over millions of years, the biosphere has evolved complex ecosystems that depend upon predation for their continued functioning and stability. Massive intervention by humans to stop predation would inflict serious and incalculable harm on these ecosystems, with devastating results for all life.

Even if we were to accept that we should prevent predation (and we don’t accept that), it would not follow that, just because we have failed to do so, we are therefore justified in exploiting moral patients ourselves.

For example, when we fail to stop widespread slaughter of human beings in foreign countries, it does not follow that we, ourselves, believe it appropriate to participate in such slaughter. Similarly, our failure to prevent predation cannot be taken as justification of our exploitation of animals.”


Another frequently identified complication here is deciding what level of consciousness is needed for any given individual to qualify as a subject-of-a-life. Whether comparing the various developmental stages of a foetus (be it human or non-human), or the full adult consciousness of a range of fully developed individuals (particularly if the individual cannot tell us themselves when, how – or if – they “experience” life in a morally relevant way).

Notwithstanding, as Graft points out, it would be a poor standard of morality if we were to use lack of perfect knowledge as an excuse to do nothing. We are morally obligated to try our best. As our scientific knowledge improves so too can our moral judgements, but first we must act in relation to the many circumstances we already know to qualify for Negative Rights, but which are currently having those Rights disregarded.

Anthropocentric Rights View       Animal Rights View

No choice

The same arguments would have some bearing in those parts of the world where humans have no choice but to live under many of the same dictates of nature as do non-humans, remembering that the key is simply to respect Negative Rights in as many cases as possible. A man who can maintain the lives of his entire family for a day by killing an antelope (if that is his only realistic option) has respected the Negative Rights of an entire family at the cost of overriding those of a single antelope. If the only alternative is to save the antelope and let his family die, then killing the antelope, although regrettable, is in line with Animal Rights philosophy.

The only point of note here is that, in the event of an alternative becoming easily available in which it is not necessary to either kill the antelope or allow his family to starve to death, the man would be morally obligated to make use of it.

Further, the philosophy of Animal Rights must, and does, recognise that the degree to which individuals experience life can vary considerably. Let us take the examples of a fully functional human adult, and a pig. Clearly both are subjects-of-a-life and therefore qualify for Negative Rights. However, in cases where it is absolutely impossible to respect the Negative Rights of both individuals due to an unavoidable conflict of interest, and the Negative Rights of one of them must be disregarded, then clearly the adult human is a ‘subject-of-a-greater-life’ than the pig (they have more to lose by dying) and her or his negative Rights must, morally, take precedence. A decision is forced upon us, and we must make it as morally as we are able. Such is the burden of moral agency.

This of course, is not the same as saying that any human preference is sufficient to outweigh the basic Negative Rights of everyone else, merely because it is human derived, as is often the case in our current Speciesist relationships.

As pointed out, no system can ever be perfect. Death must happen amongst subjects-of-a-life everywhere at some time. The field mice who may be accidentally killed by farm machinery, when sowing vegetables to avoid the immoral, systematic enslavement and slaughter cows, pigs, sheep and others, is unavoidable. What counts must surely be continually questioning ourselves as to the best possible balance of these things, and above all being honest with ourselves as to our answers.

The scale and significance of speciesism

… Non-human casualties of speciesism

It may be useful, when trying to position Speciesism within the Equalist’s landscape, to consider the scope and effect of its consequences for all of us, non-humans and humans.

According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (www.fao.org), in 2003 alone some 60 billion land animals were killed for food globally. Additionally, estimations by the campaign group ADAPTT (www.adaptt.org) suggest that approximately 150 billion marine animals suffered the same fate.

It should be noted that these are likely to be conservative figures, which do not include all countries and are only estimates, at best, for those which did. In addition, this data is over a decade old and it is has been suggested that current figures could be approximately 10% higher.

This also does also not include non-human animals killed for sport, or due to cruelty and neglect following enslavery in zoos, marine parks, circuses, laboratories etc. Also missing are those animals who fall victim to the dairy farming industry; the billions of cows and goats who, as females, survive only half their natural life spans in a continual cycle of forced insemination, to induce birth and hence lactation, their offspring being taken from them, to their great distress, as early as possible to suffer the same fate if they are females, or to be either shot (the ‘lucky’ ones) or raised in the dark confinement of veal crates before being slaughtered, if they are unfortunate enough to be male.

Then there must be added the unrecorded deaths of billions of male chicks, poured live into giant blenders for use in pet foods and other products.

How many of these yearly billions are subjects-of-a-life is harder to estimate. Most would agree that all mammals – cows, sheep, goats, pigs – and poultry; chickens, turkeys, etc – in fact all of the ‘usual’ farm(ed) animals we might think of will be so.

Most fish also have experientially rich lives; aware of pain and pleasure, with a self-will to avoid the former and seek the latter.

One thing is certain, as our scientific understanding increases, the list of Negative Rights qualifiers will surely grow.

This in itself should, some would say, place upon us sufficient moral imperative to recognise and address the moral inconsistency of denying their entitlement to the Negative Rights for which they already qualify and are currently denied due to nothing more than the bodies they are unfortunate enough to have been born with.

However, our conventional policy of non-inclusion concerning the rightful place of non-human animals in our moral dealings, has also, in no small measure, contributed to our maltreatment of each other.

… Human consequences of speciesism

Mahatma Gandhi once famously said…

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated”

What Ghandi is referring to here is that, due to the extreme differences of value we have historically seen between humans and animals, it is in the empathic development required to recognise the needs of animals (at the furthest edge of our moral circle) that we require the greatest moral advancement.
In other words, recognition of the deserving of respect for those we currently see as the least important, and from whom we have the least opportunity for repayment will require the greatest advance in our moral honesty.

But why do we see non humans as the morally ‘least important’ group to begin with?

In his book “The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress”, Peter Singer documents the anthropological and sociobiological evidence for why, throughout our ancestry, ‘kin altruism’ (prioritising the interests of self and family) is an inherited biological drive, necessary for each of us to maximise the chances of our own genes’ reproductive success. Successful evolution has ‘programmed’ us to see our relationships according to a structured order, as illustrated in Figure 4. Moral Circle

As minimalist survival gave way to rich human cultures, the biology of Kin Altruism was augmented by complex social and theistic constructs with which, in many (but not all) cases humans justified their premiership on Earth.

In 1917 Sigmund Freud wrote

“In the course of his development towards culture man acquired a dominating position over his fellow-creatures in the animal kingdom. Not content with his supremacy however, he began to place a gulf between his nature and theirs. He denied the possession of reason to them, and to himself he attributed an immortal soul, and made claims to a divine descent which permitted him to annihilate the bond of community between himself and the rest of the animal kingdom”

Freud referred to mankind’s self-appointed lordship over the other inhabitants of the earth as “human megalomania”.

We know from the archaeological record that there was a time when our relationship with non-human animals was very different. Despite (or more likely because of) the Kin Altruism ‘programming’ which underlined our early development, man-the-hunter, of pre-history, daubed his cave walls with artwork of hallowed creatures to whom he recognised he owed his existence and reproductive success.

It was during the switch from hunter/gatherers to farmers that our fundamental relationship with non-human animals (and so later with each other) began to change; a process we euphemistically referred to as ‘domestication’. It was quickly realised that to domesticate animals firstly requires subduing their independent natures. To this end the changes that paved the way for the creation of ‘The Great Divide’ began. This in turn facilitated the development of a model for the “inhuman” treatment of those human individuals, and groups, who have, each in turn, been persecuted throughout the course of human history.


Charles Patterson discusses this in his Pulitzer nominated book “Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust”. As Patterson puts it….

“our inter-related behaviours towards pigs, and towards men treated like pigs”

Patterson took the title of his book “Eternal Treblinka” from a quote made by the famous Yiddish writer and Nobel Laureate, Isaac Beshavis Singer, who once wrote…

“In relation to them, all people are Nazis: for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka”

Patterson explains how, by the agriculturally-derived necessity of denying non-human animals their physical and mental freedom, and ultimately their very lives, our enslavement of them required degrees of cruelty which we would not be happy to inflict on each other (eg killing protective males, separating mothers and children, denying natural development, forced insemination, gelding etc). Consequently it became necessary, as reflected in our language, to distance ourselves from the animals we enslaved and manipulated. This allowed us to justify the differences in our treatment of ‘them’ compared to our treatment of ‘us’.

Whilst hunted animals lived free of human control until they were tracked and killed. Once animals were domesticated, herdsmen and farmers adopted mechanisms of detachment, rationalisation, denial and euphemism to distance themselves emotionally from their captives. Where they had once hunted boar, they now ‘produced bacon’, cows became ‘beef’, young male calves raised in lightless crates to cause anaemia, altering the texture and taste of the flesh, became ‘veal’, and so on . The animal life (and hence perspective) was removed from our daily language and became simply a renamed ‘product’ with an unspoken origin.

Writes sociologist Tim Ingold…

“…like dependants in the household of a patriarch, their status is that of jural minors, subject to the authority of their human master”

Violence Begets Violence

Since violence begets violence, the enslavement of animals injected higher levels of domination and coercion into human history by creating oppressive hierarchical societies. Some anthropologists believe that the advent of herding and farming gave rise to an interventionist approach to political life. They point out that in societies like Polynesia, where people live by growing vegetables and crops that require little intervention, people believe that nature should be left to take its course and they in turn should be trusted to fend for themselves with a minimum of control from above.

The historian Keith Thomas likewise believes that the domestication of animals created a more authoritarian attitude since…

“Human rule over the lower creatures provided the mental analogue on which many political and social arrangements were based”

Historian Karl Jacoby writes that it seems…

“…more than coincidence that the region which yields the first evidence of agriculture, the Middle East, is the same one that yields the first evidence of slavery”

Once animal exploitation was institutionalised and accepted as part of the natural order of things, it opened the door to similar ways of treating other human beings, thus paving the way to not only slavery but even the Holocaust. Indeed the Eugenics movement of the 1920s and 30s was a common interest of both Hitler and of American industrialists such as Henry Ford, who based many of his manufacturing techniques on what he learned from slaughterhouses. It was from these fundamental eugenics concepts, founded on animal breeding and slaughtering experiences, that the seed for human genocide was sown.

The very same technology, originally pioneered for use in animal slaughterhouses, and later used to produce the Nazi death camps, is still in use today in much the same format.

Judy Chicago

When the artist Judy Chicago visited a Nazi death camp after the war she became acutely aware of the links between our treatment of non-human animals and of each other, and it “shook her to the core”. She later wrote…

“Once I began to see the slaughterhouse-like aspects of the Holocaust I started to understand the connection between the industrialized slaughter of animals and the industrialized slaughter of people … they were giant processing plants, except instead of processing pigs they processed people who had been defined as pigs”

What Chicago found so unnerving about being at Auschwitz was “how oddly familiar it seemed”. Since so many of the things the Nazis did in the camps are done all the time in the rest of the world. The “processing” methods used at Auschwitz were “a grotesque form of the same modern technologies upon which we all depend”.

At that point something clicked inside her and she saw the holistic ‘connection’ between forms of abuse and violence at all levels. She wrote…

“I saw the whole globe symbolised at Auschwitz, and it was covered with blood: people being manipulated and used: animals being tortured in useless experiments; men hunting helpless vulnerable creatures for the ‘thrill’; human beings ground down by inadequate housing and medical care and by not having enough to eat; people polluting the air, the soil and the water; the imprisonment of dissident voices; the elimination of people of opposing political views; the oppression of those who look, feel, or act differently”.

A bedrock for equalism

Perhaps Chicago’s holistic vision may provide the bedrock from which the broader scope of Equalist thinking might be defined.

In any case, that our treatment of non-humans plays such a fundamental part, not only in their own interminable suffering, but also in shaping our attitudes towards each other, should surely place it much higher on the agenda of the equalist than it might at first seem.

Until we become honest enough with ourselves to recognise, and remedy, our immoral objectification and alienation of non-human animals, we will never truly resolve the same attitudes towards each other.

If Gandhi is right, and our treatment of animals really is the yardstick by which our “moral progress” can be measured, it needs, and deserves, our utmost attention as equalists.

Neal Bedwell

About Neal:

Neal trained as an Ecologist at Lanacaster University, then went on to spend a number of years working in various IT-based environments. He is now semi-retired. He currently lives in Wales, United Kingdom, with the eight loves of his life – one human and seven canine.

Neal is a vegan and Animal Rights campaigner, and currently spends most of his free time lobbying governments and organisations for better treatment of non-human animals. He has been involved with campaigns to … end the Dog Meat trade in China and Korea, persuade the Welsh government to vaccinate badgers against bTB instead of culling them, ban the export of live animals from as many countries as possible, end the horrific slaughter of dolphins in Japan’s notorious Taji bay, and many other animal causes.


This entry was posted on 24 September 2015 by in Equalism in general, issues & 'ism's, Species and tagged , .
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