The term and label of “human” is used to discern what receives moral consideration and what can be seen as simply a resource.
“Humanity” as a Tool for Moral Exclusion
Global society and social constructs very much cater to and focus on humans. We use human quality of life for measuring the effectiveness of our systems, judge human impact to decide if a problem is worth solving, and attempt to excise all unwanted elements of the natural world from our environment. This follows from a biblical teaching that is somewhat universal in our modern world: that man is superior to and separate from nature. This premise has been questioned somewhat in the last fifty years since the environmental movement began, but we are still firmly decided in acting upon it, leading to our extreme exploitation of the planet, as well as causing certain groups of humans to label others as “less than human” in order to exclude them from moral consideration. This worldview can be found in many mediums and disciplines. Two examples discussed will be the derision that Joe Rosen, a plastic surgeon, faces from his occupational community and mindsets displayed through characters in Ursula Le Guin’s 1972 novella, The Word for World is Forest. I will deal specifically with how the human-centered mindset causes us to ignore nonhuman beings in our moral frameworks, why it happens, and how it manifests in our lives.
The term “speciesism” has been used to describe the belief that human beings are superior to the world around us. It is explored at length in a 2019 paper by researchers at Oxford, called “The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism.” This paper argues that speciesism comes from the same psychological phenomena as other discriminatory beliefs. The researchers demonstrated that “when similarities between animals and humans are pointed out, not only speciesism is reduced but also moral concern for marginalized human out-groups is increased.”1 This shows that the belief that other humans are lesser is quite similar to the belief that animals are lesser, meaning speciesism is a discriminatory belief. In support of this, the researchers also pointed out that, “The language of dehumanization, such as referring to Black people as ‘apes,’ Jews as ‘rats’ and women as ‘bitches,’ works to strip the victim of moral worth, as it is assumed that actual apes, rats, and dogs could not merit full moral consideration.”2 Language is important when establishing moral consideration for beings, and the language we use to oppress certain groups of people draws from animals, to whom we would not extend that consideration. Language also exists on a gradient. Humans do not speak about all animals in the same way, and very often this connects to their treatment in human society. Our language concerning dogs and chickens diverge greatly, which connects to the sympathy we show towards those respective animals. This difference can be explained almost exclusively through their relationship to us. For example, in the United States, it is illegal to torture or indiscriminately kill a dog, but completely legal to do so to a pig. Pigs and dogs are similarly intelligent and have comparable levels of sentience to each other and humans, but they get treated very differently based on their relationship to us. In the United States, we live with dogs and eat pigs, and so the dog’s association with us grants it higher moral consideration. Dogs, however, can still never receive full inclusion in our moral framework. This is simply because they are not humans. Humans and canines have a strong interspecies bond that has been formed for a long period of time, as dogs were domesticated before any other animal. However, even the word “domesticated” describes how humans have continued to subjugate dogs while accepting them into our living arrangements. Inspecies domestication does not apply to humans so different methods of othering, such as dehumanization, are used to subjugate other human beings. As the researchers point out, “The existence of the human–animal gulf [. . .] functions to facilitate prejudice and discrimination between groups of humans as well as between humans and animals.”3
We have a few different reasons to explain this gulf, but all justification falls apart when slight pressure is applied. Humans often argue that animals deserve less consideration because of their lesser cognitive abilities, because they cannot reciprocate that morality, or their lack of or lesser sentience. In terms of cognitive ability, we extend greater consideration to dogs than pigs despite them being similarly intelligent and we also exclude animals with very high intelligence (such as dolphins and whales) from our moral consideration. The justification for lack of moral reciprocity is just as invalid. Our society extends moral consideration to other humans with violent and hateful moral frameworks, such as Nazis, despite their refusal to reciprocate to multiple groups. At the same time, severely disabled people are (correctly) a part of our moral consideration, despite cognitive difference that can prohibit moral reciprocity. Further, it has been shown that many animals experience levels of sentience comparable to that of human beings, meaning this justification is also absurd. According to the researchers, the denial of animals’ capability to suffer, known as dementalization, can reduce moral concern for animals. “Indeed, research shows that a person’s moral concern for animals is closely related to how much they believe animals can suffer”4 Humans can extend consideration to beings when we can empathize with them, and it is very hard for us to do so with animals. They have been excluded from our world and confined to small stretches of wilderness, labeled as pests or threats, and in many cases exterminated because of how little contact we have with them. It is hard to empathize with something from which you are alienated. This is analogous to other forms of discrimination, where research has shown that when people are alienated from other groups of people they will harbor more prejudicial beliefs towards them. Therefore, it is our alienation from other animals that facilitates and furthers our discriminatory actions towards them.
Humanity as a concept is viewed in a very rigid form and context. This can serve many purposes, but one function it serves is making it impossible to expand the definition of “humanity,” a term highly connected to personhood and moral consideration. In the article “Dr. Daedalus,” Lauren Slater writes about a plastic surgeon named Joe Rosen who ambitiously wants to give human beings multiple thumbs, echolocation, and even wings. He runs a successful practice and is well-known, but faces a great deal of derision in the scientific community for his ideas. This criticism he gets is often centered around the alteration of his patient’s humanity, that he would be changing some intrinsic thing about them. During a conference of plastic surgeons that is documented in the article, a scientist heckles him.
“Do you see any ethical dilemmas in making people into pigs, or birds?” another attendee yells out [. . .] Rosen darts and dodges. “There is such a thing as liberty,” he says. “Yes,” someone says, “but there’s such a thing as the Hippocratic oath too.”5
Here, the scientist criticizes Rosen on the basis of violating the Hippocratic oath. It is important to note that he does not denounce Rosen specifically for any danger to the patient, but that the act of “becoming” a pig or a bird would cause this harm. Is this any more harmful than other cosmetic decisions that people make (for example, removing stomach fat can cause major blood clots), or is it harmful and unethical because it is “not human?” Rosen’s goal of altering the human body to such an extreme is judged as changing people from humans into some mishmash of human beings and animals. This is viewed as invariably unethical. The scientist invokes the Hippocratic Oath as well, arguing that Rosen is not following the scientific tradition set for him, neglecting his duty to public health. However, what health benefits do most other plastic surgeries provide? In some cases, reparative surgery is medically necessary, but most patients receive purely cosmetic facelifts, breast augmentations, or other bodily alterations. The scientist is perfectly fine with this, but fervently against the idea of a medical procedure that makes someone “inhuman.” Rosen responds to the criticism by saying, “‘We have always altered ourselves, for beauty or for power, and so long as we are not causing harm what makes us think we should stop?’”6 The reason that the scientists believe Rosen should stop is because of the “inhumanity” of his experiments.
Slater discusses the possible reasons for concern about Rosen’s work, writing, “We as human beings have fretted about the question of whether there is anything fixed at our core, any set of unalterable traits that make us who we were and are and always will be.”7 This highlights one of the central beliefs of speciesist thought: that humans are intrinsically separate from the rest of the world. We fret about whether or not there is something fixed at our core because we believe ourselves to be different than and above other beings. If there is nothing that is fundamentally “human,” then the illusion we have built for ourselves would be destroyed, and we would not be separate from nature. Being part of nature will cause us to further question how we can be superior, which will cause the entire worldview to eventually collapse, as we realize it was built on a series of illogical arguments. For this reason, there must be something fixed and separate at our core, something that makes it completely unethical to “make people into pigs.”
In her book The Word for World is Forest, Ursula Le Guin writes about a colonial experiment on an alien planet that some humans have settled. This planet is already inhabited by the Athsheans, and so a major conflict in the book is between the humans and those indigenous people. The Athsheans and humans descended from a common ancestor, but separated into different populations long ago and look quite different from each other. Human beings will not extend equal treatment and rights to the Athsheans since they do not see them as equals, but as lesser creatures. This is not based on any scientific truths about the nature of the Athsheans, but on superficial differences in behavior and appearance. As the colonel assigned to the colony says, “The fact is that these creechies are a meter tall, they’re covered with green fur, they don’t sleep, and they’re not human beings in my frame of reference.”8 The human colonists enslave, wantonly kill, and rape the Athsheans they encounter, similarly to the many colonial conquests on Earth. Using a similar justification, Europeans conquered much of the world and exploited its resources. The Native Americans, Australians, Africans, and Asians were lesser beings who needed the Europeans to make them productive. Further, the way humans treat animals on Athshe reflects the way our civilization treats them. After being informed of poachers killing rare Athshean animals, Captain Davidson says, “I could stop ’em. But look, it’s the men I’m looking after; that’s my job, like you said. Not the animals. If a little extra-legal hunting helps the men get through this godforsaken life, then I intend to blink.”9 Human beings will reluctantly consider the wellbeing of other humans, begrudgingly allowing them entry into our sphere. However, we do not see ourselves as part of the animal or plant world around us. This is much more explicit in Le Guin’s novel since the humans are on an alien planet, but it applies to Earth as well. We do not consider the well-being of other populations and ecosystems unless they are in service of aiding us. Since Davidson sees the deer that his men are poaching as simply resources for a recreational activity, there is no reason to stop his men from killing them. Without a worldview of reciprocity, people view plants and animals around them as resources and believe that they have dominion over the planet. The term and label of “human” is used to discern what receives moral consideration and what can be seen as simply a resource. Le Guin’s novel spreads this message in many subtle ways that point out the hypocrisy of this worldview in the same way that many subtle forms of de-mentalization are active in contemporary society.
In conclusion, the creation and proliferation of the division between “humans” and everything else serves to create more discriminatory mindsets and is resulting in the destruction of life on Earth. When we decide that human beings are more valuable than nonhuman animals and plants, it leads down a path of more and more exclusion that has resulted in humans being exempt from the requirements of ethical behavior. This is prevalent in our society in many ways: media, science, art, and common language. It is a baseless belief that is eerily similar to forms of “othering” that hateful, racist groups have spread throughout time to dehumanize their targets. The term dehumanize can almost symbolize this outlook; to dehumanize is to remove from moral consideration. Dehumanizing is used to remove the title of human from a being, because doing so would strip the rights and autonomy that we extend to humans. If we do not expunge this ingrained belief from our society with another moral imperative to care for and protect all forms of life on Earth, the proliferation of horribly damaging worldviews that destroy countless numbers of lives (both human and nonhuman) will not be stopped.
- Lucius Caviola, Jim A. C. Everett, Nadira S Faber, “The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 116, no. 6, (June 2019): 1014.
- Caviola, Everett, and Faber, “The Moral Standing of Animals,” 1104.
- Caviola, Everett, Faber, “The Moral Standing of Animals,” 1104.
- Caviola, Everett, Faber, “The Moral Standing of Animals,”1104.
- Lauren Slater, Harper’s Magazine, January 2001, 63.
- Slater, “Dr. Daedalus,” 63.
- Slater, “Dr. Daedalus,” 66.
- Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest (Berkley Books, 1976) 77.
- Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest, 13.