Saturday, May 7, 2011

Is It Speciesist to Use the Term "Animal"? ~ Part 2

Back on August 12, 2008 I countered Dunayer's attack on the use of "animal" as speciesist. That entry can be read here (recommended before proceeding).

Now in my recent appearance on the AR Zone, an activist I admire named Brandon Becker asked me to expand on this, which I did. He thought it would be a good idea to post the addendum to this blog, so here it is in its original form as a dialogue:

Brandon Becker:
In your essay "Is It Speciesist to Use the Term 'Animal'?" (, you argue that referring to animals other than humans as "nonhuman animals" implicitly reinforces anthropocentrism. Sociologist David Nibert prefers the term "other animals" but, as author Joan Dunayer points out, that isn't always as clear as "nonhuman animals." Personally, I use both "nonhuman animals" and "other animals" leaving "animals" for specific contexts. Can you expand on your views on this issue?

David Sztybel:
Thanks to ALL who are facilitating, you too, Jason.

Hey Brandon. Through correspondence I have learned that you are amazingly cyber-literate, with a wealth of references to offer. And I’m sure that’s just scratching the surface. Anyhow, I think it is noble to use the term “nonhuman animal” because it clearly implies that humans are animals too. I say it is anthropocentric because using the term always makes a reference to human beings, even when it is nonhuman beings who are being referred to. However, I think it is important to add that this anthropocentrism is not so noxious as speciesism, by far, by FAR. It is merely making a descriptive reference to humans, rather than declaring human superiority, or humans’ rights to harm animals, or any such thing.

So I am not so worked up about the anthropocentrism that I have identified in the phrase “nonhuman animal.” I used to use this phrase all the time, including in a book manuscript, and Grace Prince, my much-loved mother-in-law, pointed out how tedious it was for me to use this phrase over, and over and over again. I was struck by that comment. I went on to realize that we speak of animal rights, not nonhuman animal rights usually, or nonhuman animal liberation. Dunayer actually goes so far as to suggest that we use the term nonhuman rights, but as I point out in the blog entry in question, that logically implies rights for nonhumans, which includes rocks and grass.

Dunayer might say it is implicit that we are really referring to nonhuman sentient rights, or something like that, but it is not so obvious. Some animal rightists value beings just for being alive, such as Jains, or people who follow Albert Schweitzer’s ethics of reverence for life. (Here we have a distinction between ethical sentientism and ethical vitalism, by the way.)

Part of the point of “nonhuman animal” is to teach that humans are animals too. But honestly, how many times do you have to teach that lesson? I am inclined to think, “Gee, I get it, already!” It really becomes pedantic to teach a lesson such a maximal number of times. It is also tedious just to use that long phrase as Grace said. It is less aesthetically pleasing. In the blog entry you refer to I also discuss philosopher Tom Regan’s abbreviation, NHA, for nonhuman animal in short. I argue that “animal” in certain contexts as “animal rights” does not worsen speciesism in anyone’s minds or practices, and does not imply that humans are not animals (that would be a case of illogically jumping to a conclusion that goes against most people’s understandings of language and science). Dunayer would call me a “new speciesist” I am sure for other reasons too, but I do not think I am worsening injustice to animals by my use of the term “animal.” I sometimes use the term “other animals” as you say Nibert does (his work is important, I think), but as a tool for emphasis, not because I feel obliged to use that phrase in every single case. Sometimes I also use “nonhuman animals” when it is rhetorically apt to do so, such as when contrasting or comparing treatments of human and nonhuman animals.

I suppose it is also meant to be not-distortive to say “nonhuman animal” or “nha” for short as Regan would have it. But to hear “human…human…human…” every time you think or read about animals, even if couched in a phrase complete with the “non-“ is just almost overbearing in its ad nauseum qualities.

Let me see if I can get across what I mean a little unconventionally. In fact, let us do a visualization exercise, combining pictures and words here. I think some of you might enjoy this as I do. First, imagine a blackboard or a whiteboard as you prefer. Somebody draws a vertical line going up and down the middle of the board. Next, on the left, she writes “Human Animal,” and on the right side, “Nonhuman Animal.” A dichotomy. Does “human” occur in some form on one side or both? Both. Does the word human dominate the scene? Definitely. It takes up fully 50% of this little mind-map, and even intrudes on the other side too. Now imagine something completely different. Imagine an enormous canvas in which “Animals” is written in the middle, in graceful calligraphy, inside a circle or an oval. Now imagine all of the different kinds of animals or their families radiating outward with flowing lines from the centre. Humans form one tiny part of that radiance, only at the fringe or the end of one bit in fact. Nonhuman animals dominate in this picture. Does the word “human” occur virtually everywhere as in the previous picture? It occurs just once, really tiny. That is how I prefer to think of the animal kingdom.

So even though the anthropocentrism I noted in my blog entry is far from synonymous with speciesism, it is still representationally suspect and perhaps even obnoxious. Words are important, and help shape how we think, but I have not seen the term “animal rights” shape people into speciesists; if anything it has helped worked some magic in the other direction, if I may. It is great when people at least take animal rights seriously. That is often a great start in confronting the speciesism in people’s minds.

Brandon Becker:
Can I ask a follow-up question?

David Sztybel:
Sure, Brandon.

Brandon Becker:
First, I want to point out that we can speak correctly of "animal rights" rather than "nonhuman animal rights" because the philosophy and movement for legal rights includes rights for human animals.

David Sztybel:
Makes sense, very well thought out if I may add.

Brandon Becker:
It is an extension of rights from humans to other animals rather than just rights for other animals. But back to the core language issue: For those who don't like "other animals" or "nonhuman animals," I think the least we can do is when we use "human" in the same sentence as "animal" to refer exclusively to animals other than humans, we should modify "animal" appropriately. For example, use "human and nonhuman animals" or, my preferred choice, "humans and other animals" rather than saying "humans and animals" which removes humans from animalkind. What do you think?

David Sztybel:
That sounds like a wise stylistic suggestion. I don't pretend to have thought of all the ins and outs. As I said in my answer up there, I like to use "nonhuman animals" or some other suitable locution when we are comparing or contrasting human and nonhuman animals, or in other cases in which the two types of beings are neighbouring or contiguous.

Brandon Becker:
Thanks for sharing your views!

David Sztybel:
Thanks for sharing yours, too and for your very intriguing question!


A still further addendum:

It is true that "animal rights" technically includes rights for both human and nonhuman animals. Therefore we do not need to say "nonhuman animal rights" when stating our general philosophy. However, I assess that in a majority of cases, when we say "animal rights," we actually mean "nonhuman animal rights," talking about their being abused for food, fur, experiments, and so on. Often we speak of humans having rights and try to assess if we should add onto this animal rights in the sense of "nonhuman animal rights." We sometimes contrast whether human rights will be the same as animal rights in the narrow sense, such as including the right to vote as Peter Singer points out in Animal Liberation. People sometimes contrast the histories of human rights and animal rights in the restricted sense, and so on. I do not think we need to say "nonhuman animal rights" in that typical case to satisfy Dunayer or anyone else based on considerations that I have brought into play.


Finally, I would like to include an update of Brandon's own views from his e-mails, with which I believe I entirely agree:

While I'm still somewhat torn on the issue, I generally now only use "other animals" or "nonhuman animals" when referring to humans in the same sentence. Otherwise, I now speak of just "animals" (for any animal regardless of species and I use the species name if I want to be specific) and "all animals" (when I want to help others see that I'm including humans explicitly) and I think it is an improvement both stylistically and in terms of effective communication.

I'm increasingly becoming uncomfortable with all animals other than humans being called "nonhumans" as if they can't be referred to as what species they are or just as "animals" which is also what they are.

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