We are in a state of crisis regarding notions of animal equality. Animal liberation implies some kind of animal equality. For Peter Singer, a utilitarian, in his book Animal Liberation it means equal consideration of equivalent interests, such as not suffering. However, for him, different animal lives are of differential value depending on whether they involve self-awareness, planning, advanced communication, complex social relationships, and other characteristics. For Tom Regan, an animal rights theorist whose views are mainly articulated in The Case for Animal Rights, animals who are routinely exploited often may be considered not merely living, but “subjects of a life,” and they each have “equal inherent value.” Yet in dilemmas, if we have to choose between saving a human and a dog, say, in a burning building in which you can only pull one form the fire, Regan would say to save the dog because nonhuman animals supposedly have fewer “opportunities for satisfaction.”
Joan Dunayer, in her book, Speciesism, is more of an absolute egalitarian. She states that it would be perfectly moral to flip a coin in the case of the dog versus the human. She calls Singer and Regan “new speciesists” because they do not take equality of sentient beings all the way down the line, so to speak. Not only this, but she calls for equal rights for insects, as well. Paola Cavalieri, in The Animal Question, also calls for equality of all conscious beings, undermining any appeals to real or supposed cognitive sophistication.
I believe that these debates over equality raise a crisis. David Selby writes:
Do all non-human animals have rights, and if so, do they all possess them to the same extent?….If sentience is the key determinant in the possession of rights, are the rights of species to be graded according to the degree of sentience? Where do the tsetse fly, the malarial mosquito, the locust, the tapeworm and the myriad organisms that invade our bloodstream and make us ill stand in the animal rights landscape?(Selby, Earthkind (1995), pp. 8-9)
And Stephen Wise writes:
Let those who would ridicule the argument that legal rights should not be restricted to human beings link the rights of chimpanzees and mosquitoes. If the link can be forged, it is likely that no nonhuman animal will ever obtain legal rights. (Wise, "Thunder without Rain," Animal Law 3 (1997): 50)
Is this really a crisis? Why not just settle for Dunayer’s and Cavalieri’s simpler view of equality across the board?
I think the crisis is this: most people would view it as highly objectionable to toss a coin between saving a human or a maggot, other things being equal. And they have the sense, however intuitive, that there are sound reasons for such a choice, if only they could be clearly articulated. They do not think they are speciesist. So either we go by the radical egalitarian view of Dunayer and Cavalieri, which seems to lead to this objectionable consequence and to reduce animal liberation to absurdity in most people’s minds, or else we have inequality in certain cases, and then it becomes a question as to whether this inequality should spread across the board, so that animals would enjoy no equal rights whatsoever. That might be an invitation to animal exploitation. Regan does not state what separates a dilemma from a normal situation in The Case for Animal Rights. He just asserts that there is a difference. Moreover, “opportunities for satisfaction” could lead to our saving the rich over the poor. Francione expresses that our intuition tells us that we should save a human over a dog if we know nothing about the individuals except their species, but intuition tells us exactly nothing as to why we should choose this way. Other animal rights philosophers such as Julian Franklin, Mark Rowlands, Bernard Rollin, and others simply do not tell us how to choose in such dilemmas.
In sum, is animal liberation DOOMED? On the one hand, undermining animal equality in any way might doom animal liberation, which seems to be based on some form of egalitarianism. On the other hand, having absolute equality seems to lead to absurdities, and absurd implications of animal liberation might also threaten animal liberation as a whole with possible untenability. A majority of society would not accept such an implication even if some extremists are content to flip a coin between a baby and a flea. The thought that someone might rescue a tiny insect trapped in a droplet of water gives me joy, but someone who says they’d flip a coin between saving a human or such an insect frankly makes me feel a bit sickened.
I believe that we can find principled grounds for distinguishing such cases, and also logical reasons for preferring humans to blow-flies in dilemmas, while still consistently maintaining a broad-based equality. Indeed, my own theory includes a strict duty to refrain from harming, say, insects if that is reasonably avoidable. However, such a theory must withstand objections from Dunayer and Cavalieri, e.g., that humans are not really intellectually superior, that cognitive capacities are morally irrelevant and so forth. I believe that such a theory is possible and my forthcoming book (and a research paper, if I have time to write it; there are so many papers and books that I feel the need to write!) will seek to enunciate this view. Thus it may be possible to transcend the crisis of either human-caterpillar absolute equality on the one hand, and creeping inegalitarianism across the board resulting in routine harming of nonhuman animals, including insects, on the other hand.