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January 2005
Trying to Walk Before We Can Crawl
Book Review by Norm Phelps

Speciesism by Joan Dunayer (Derwood, Maryland: Ryce Publishing, 2004). $18.95 paperback. 204 pages.

The publication in 2001 of Animal Equality: Language and Liberation established Joan Dunayer as an important new voice in the animal rights movement. In it, she deconstructed the language that we use to talk about animals, exposing not just the bias that is built into our speech, but the profoundly unjust power relationships that our speech both reflects and supports. There ought to be, Dunayer argued, an absolute moral equality between human and nonhuman animals, and this equality should be reflected in our language, which should not have one set of terms for human animals and another for nonhuman. If we “eat,” other animals should also “eat,” not “feed.” We should speak of animals as “he” or “she” rather than “it.” We should not refer to “animal agriculture,” but to “food industry enslavement,” and so on.

In Speciesism Dunayer continues to develop the Leitmotiv of her earlier book: the need for an intellectually consistent ethic of moral equality for all sentient beings. As she puts it, “Sentience, defined as any capacity to experience, is the only logical and fair basis for rights. In nonspeciesist philosophy, all sentient beings have rights. What’s more, all sentient beings are equal… Any needless harm to nonhumans should be viewed with the same disapproval as comparable harm to humans… Am I saying that a firefly is as fully entitled to moral consideration as a rabbit or a bonobo? Yes. Am I saying that a spider has as much right to life as an egret or a human? Yes. I see no logically consistent reason to say otherwise.”

Not surprisingly, Dunayer has no patience for arguments that would condition some rights (e.g. the right to life) on the ability to anticipate future pleasures (Peter Singer), a sophisticated sense of self (being “the subject of a life,” as Tom Regan phrases it), the ability to achieve a certain score on tests that measure humanlike mental capacities (Steven Wise), or similar criteria modeled on human abilities. These arguments she demolishes with plain language and devastating logic. Speciesism is a cogent, consistent, elegant statement of the full-bore animal rights position that categorically rejects any compromise with “welfarism.”

Reality Check
Unfortunately, what is elegant in theory can become hopelessly tangled upon contact with reality. And when Dunayer applies her theory to the real world, what began as a clarion call for animal rights degenerates into an attack upon dedicated activists whose campaigns do not meet her standard for ideological purity.

A typical example of Dunayer’s approach is her criticism of three of the country’s most active and effective animal rights organizations—United Poultry Concerns (UPC), Compassion over Killing (COK), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)—for campaigning on behalf of “welfarist” reforms, including expansion of the Animal Welfare Act and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. “If I were in a Nazi concentration camp,” she says, “and someone on the outside asked me, ‘Do you want me to work for better living conditions, more-humane deaths in the gas chambers, or the liberation of all concentration camps?’ I’d answer ‘Liberation.’ …I’d regard any focus on better living conditions and more-‘humane’ deaths as immoral.”

If the focus were only on better living conditions and more humane deaths, I would agree. That would be immoral. But UPC, COK, and PETA carry on vigorous campaigns against all animal exploitation and in support of a vegan society in tandem with their campaigns for humane reforms. It is this two-pronged approach—with its simultaneous, and not entirely consistent, emphases on both liberation and reform—that is critical to success in the real world in which animals are suffering and being killed. Dunayer’s Nazi concentration camp illustration is based on the unstated assumption that animal liberation can be achieved within a fairly near time frame. But since it clearly cannot be, refusing to work for better living conditions and less painful and terrifying deaths amounts to a betrayal of the animals whom we are professing to help. We must resist the temptation to sacrifice real-world results on the altar of an ivory-tower consistency because what we are really sacrificing is the animals. (In the interests of full disclosure, Karen Davis of UPC, Paul Shapiro of COK, and Bruce Friedrich of PETA, all of whom Dunayer takes issue with by name, are friends of mine. Their record of dedicated and effective advocacy on behalf of animal rights is, however, well known throughout the animal rights movement and beyond.)

A Faith-Based Initiative
Like religious fundamentalists, Joan Dunayer believes that she has found the only path to salvation and that all who do not agree with her are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And in fact, her faith that rigid adherence to a logically consistent theory is the sole route to liberation has something of the aura of religious zealotry about it. And like fundamentalist religion, her faith is not empirically based. There is absolutely no evidence to support Dunayer’s claim that working for “welfarist” reforms retards liberation. Historically, the notion that the road to social change lies in strict submission to an elegant orthodoxy has always led, not to the utopia that was promised, but to failure, disaster, or both. Witness the Puritan Revolution of 1640, the French Revolution of 1789, and the appallingly brutal communist experiments of the 20th century. Real improvement has always come from reformers who were able to keep their eyes upon the prize, as the saying goes, while moving toward it one inconsistent step at a time.

Emerson reminded us that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” As Joan Dunayer demonstrates, it can also be a trap for intelligent and expansive minds. Speciesism is an important book, and a great deal of what it has to say is profound and penetrating. But Dunayer’s insistence that animal activists’ campaigns must pass a test of ideological purity is not only divisive at a time when we all need to support each others’ efforts, it is dangerous. We have to crawl before we can walk. Joan Dunayer is right when she says our society should walk. And in time it will. But criticizing activists for trying to teach the American public to crawl delays, rather than hastens, the day that we all long for. That is too high a price to pay for theoretical consistency.

Norm Phelps is the author of The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights (Lantern Books, 2004) and The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible (Lantern Books, 2002). He is a contributing writer at Satya.


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