It is very common to meet animal rights activists affirming that they oppose not only the oppression of nonhuman animals. They also support humans either actually or potentially downtrodden by racists, sexists, homophobes, ableists, ageists, and others of their ilk. However, obviously, we need a theory that is up to the task of mirroring this concern to shore up solidarity against tyrannical discrimination. That is, we require a system of ideas that totally and unambiguously rules out all forms of oppression. Surprisingly or not, all of the main traditional ethical theories come up short in this key practical and theoretical department.
Here is a list of the most prominent ethical theories discussed in my forthcoming book, Universal Animal Rights: Winning the Ethical Debate. Each of the theories has been used to defend exclusively human interests. Animal ethics scholars have largely copied these theories into the animal liberation realm, thus not providing much original, theoretical inspiration for anti-oppression advocates beyond the important demand of extending justice to other animals. I will presently illustrate how each framework can be used to rationalize oppression against both humans and other animals. To be clear, typical proponents of these theories are not oppressors and do not approve of oppression. I am only saying that their theories do not logically rule out oppression, which is a severe logical deficiency for practical and theoretical ethical purposes. Consider the following:
- Intuitionist rights theory. Rights are based on an intuition, or a fundamental belief that does not admit of justification, that rights-holders have a dignity, inherent value, and so forth, and therefore have rights. People can easily have an ‘intuition’ that females, blacks, the poor, and so on have less dignity that needs respecting than elites. In the book, I show that all of the theories below rely on intuitionism too, even if it is not explicit.
- Traditionalist rights theory. Rights are based in tradition. But oppression has its own traditions.
- Compassion-based rights theory. Rights on this outlook are to be based on compassion. If someone lacks sympathy, then ethics based in sympathy simply does not work. Appealing to sympathy as a general principle (instead of looking to a particular person’s sympathy) will not have a different result unless one no longer appeals to any given person’s sympathy, but one argues that some forms of sympathy are generally better or worse than others. But that makes the good the fundamental consideration, not sympathy per se. Basing equal rights on sympathy will fail in key cases unless of course one is ‘preaching to the converted’, who already hold liberationist sympathies.
- Kant’s rights theory. Rights are based in Kant’s idea that an acceptable moral principle can be universalized for all rational moral agents. All oppressors would universalize their particular views.
- Gewirth’s rights theory. Uses Gewirth’s notion that everyone needs rights to freedom and well-being, and the principle of generic consistency requires that we extend our consideration to rights-holders generally. Oppressors agree that people need freedom and well-being to act, and that all kinds of beings should be treated in a consistent manner. (Similar remarks apply to a principle of equal consideration of interests, such as Singer’s, Francione’s, or Dunayer’s, that merely requires treating like cases alike unless there is a ‘good’ reason to the contrary. What an oppressor intuitively views as a ‘good’ reason is different from what liberationists see as ‘good’, but one cannot merely beg the question against competing senses of ‘good’, or assume what needs to be justified. Yet intuitions structurally do not admit of justification, and are logically helpless to settle conflicts between intuitions about the good or anything else.)
- Rawls’ rights theory. Frames principles of rights or justice in ‘the original position’, an imaginary time when we are spirits, not yet born, and we do not know if we will be born rich, poor, ‘white’, ‘black’, male, female, and so on. This restriction of knowledge, known as ‘the veil of ignorance’, is meant to rule out all forms of harmful discrimination. Rawls claims that everyone in the original position is merely self-interested. However, someone who is truly self-interested would not submit to forming principles in the original position. And someone who is a sexist, racist, or homophobe believes that they are inherently superior either ‘naturally’ or perhaps in a way favoured by God, and will believe that they cannot possibly be born as one of these ‘inferior’ beings (or else it would not be the same sort of being that is born), so there is allegedly no danger in framing sexist, racist, or homophobic principles in the original position after all, among supposedly ‘morally good’ people who can be ‘trusted’ to legislate ethics. After all, one must be ‘morally competent’ to form moral laws.
- Utilitarianism. What path in the future maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for everyone? Or maximizes preference-satisfaction and minimizes preference-frustration? Even if, say, all pleasures and pains are counted without regard to race, sex, sexual preference, and so on, in some societies it is possible that most feelings, desires and preferences are generally molded along conservative, oppressive lines, and that in such a society, it would present the ‘greatest good’ to oppress in a particular manner. Or perhaps one could aim for an oppressive society in which feelings, preferences, and desires vindicate certain forms of oppression. The latter—going from a liberationist to an oppressive society—is much harder to argue for convincingly in utilitarian terms, but much of the point of an ethic is to get oppressive societies to change, and utilitarianism does not self-evidently demand such a change in a thoroughly oppressive society as argued. Oppression usually happens when oppressors outnumber or can mold the oppressed anyway. Also, startlingly, most utilitarians are exclusive of most beings with interests. That is, most utilitarians now are ‘humanists’, or what animal liberationists would call speciesists. Only the interests of humans need to be maximized on the most common utilitarian frameworks, although the interests of animals need to be considered in a so-called ‘humane’ fashion. Since the predominant logic of utilitarianism thus permits exclusivity, there is nothing to stop a utilitarian from only seeking to maximize the interests of the rich, so-called ‘whites’, heterosexuals, and so on, only needing a ‘humane’ treatment of those who are denied equal consideration. These remarks do not apply to ‘indirect utilitarianism’, which advocates ‘forgetting’ about being a utilitarian and just aiming for society’s ethics in general, but obviously some societies are oppressive to emulate, and indirectly approximating maximum utility, as the above shows, can be very hazardous indeed from an anti-oppressive standpoint.
- Ethical egoism. This claims that ethics can be based on pure self-interest, and it is rational to universalize rules against harming for example since otherwise other citizens may harm oneself. However, a purely selfish person might perceive that they can treat certain members of an underclass harshly and not be unduly at risk for harm oneself so long as power, security forces, and segregation are exerted in certain ways. It is also unclear whether someone who only really cares about ego would feel either obliged to care about those whom the self would oppress, or required to refrain from indulging pet prejudices, be they oppressive or perhaps other.
- Virtue ethics. Oppressors always think that their way is more ‘virtuous’, and that self-styled ‘progressives’ are really ‘vicious’ in certain ways. Virtue ethics is really based on intuitionism, and the intuitions of oppressors are hardly liberatory.
- Moral skepticism. This outlook permits any way of life whatsoever, including oppressive ones.
- Pragmatism. This facilitates whatever ‘works’ for society. Oppressors have no problem implementing protocols that chiefly ‘work’ only for themselves.
- Ecoholism.This set of theories judges moral right and wrong based on what contributes to the flourishing of environmental wholes such as nature, the biosphere, ecosystems, and so on. Such theories do not settle debates over animal—including human—relations at an individual level, though, and so are ambiguous as to oppression. Indeed, a surprising number of ‘deep green’ thinkers are extreme right-wingers who believe in letting nature take its course in a harsh, social Darwinist fashion.
- Spiritual Ethics.Thinking clearly in this capacity calls us back to the ethical theories listed above (and indeed beyond them all). Or being dogmatic about one’s intuitions as to divine preference, for example, permits any kind of oppressive stance whatsoever.
Another special consideration of utilitarianism—the most complicated theory of the lot on this particular question—seems to be in order. Do utilitarian considerations of pleasure or preference-satisfaction (or their opposites) need to employ a standard of the equal consideration of interests that would inherently rule out all forms of oppression? All that the equal consideration of interests means for utilitarians is that your pleasure or preference counts regardless of your sex, so-called ‘race’, sexual preference, and so on. However, the scenarios noted above do consider everyone’s interests and give them equal weight when they are comparable, only the interests of the oppressed are outweighed by the aggregate of interests in society anyway. Utilitarianism’s equal consideration of interests cannot be tied to equally good outcomes for everyone (such as my own theory of best caring pretty much guarantees in terms of basic rights) without giving up the utilitarian theory itself. Outcomes need to be decided by aggregate utilities on the theory in question. Similarly, equal consideration of interests cannot be used to secure individual dignity against aggregated interests since the vulnerability of such dignity is a well-known feature of utilitarianism itself. Utilitarians are committed to the equal consideration of utility-units, not necessarily of sentient beings. Indeed, as we have seen, exclusive utilitarians who perceive that some sentient beings are superior in dignity do not even seek to maximize everyone’s interests in the first place.
In other work, I have noted that the rights frameworks, the ethic of care, virtue ethics, and pragmatism can all be logically reducible to, say, utilitarianism or ethical egoism. This creates ever more of a real problem for ruling out all oppression as I have argued.
In any case, all traditional ethical theories are intuitionist, including utilitarianism. So even though it might not seem plausible for a more enlightened society to backtrack into a flagrantly oppressive society in utilitarian terms, more fundamentally for utilitarians and others, an ethic is deemed right if it conforms to one’s intuitions. And oppressive beliefs illustrate the true fundamental opinions of oppressors without any doubt. Intuitionism unwittingly valorizes these fundamental notions of those who would oppress. As for the intuitions of the ethic of care, if oppressors are asked, in formulating their ‘caring’ intuitions, if they care as much about the oppressed, one would hear a resounding ‘No!’ Obviously, I am not arguing that the oppressive, often superiorist intuitions resorted to in responding to the above theories are right, only that they cannot be objected to as intuitions by those same fourteen theorists without complete hypocrisy. That is because the theorists in question all uniformly rely on intuitionism.
It would be deplorable if all of the chief ethical views out there are logically reducible to the logical outlines of oppressive societies. Plenty of liberationists are willing to walk the walk of opposing all oppression, but the above views fail to give people the means to talk the talk as convincingly as could be. We need not only good thoughts and deeds, but good systems of thoughts concerning deeds. Many or most moral theorists have anti-oppressive good intentions, but these are not only not good enough, but they do nothing at all in satisfying demands for theoretic rigour. All the fame of the above most favoured theories, their proponents, and associated institutions will do nothing at all to save these views in question from their own logic or lack of it.
When will activists generally wake up to these facts of reasoning? However, we should not despair. It is not the case that all views can be co-opted by oppressors. In championing what is best for each and every sentient being, and systematically ruling out all harms, best caring (defended elswhere, especially in my forthcoming book) can never logically be reduced to any form of oppression. The logic of best caring can only be used to try to reduce oppression itself in a completely global sense that is never reliant on unreliable ‘intuitions’.
Best caring agents of the world unite!