Note from Rachel: This is a post by our new contributor Spencer Lo! Spencer will be contributing his thoughts on animal ethics and other related topics from time to time. He can also be found blogging at animalblawg.
Within the animal rights community, it is a firmly established—if not self-evident—truth that the animals we routinely and systematically exploit are slaves, and yet, to the general public, that description is seen as absurd and offensive. Behind the general reaction is the thought that by applying the term to nonhuman animals, it demeans the actual victims of slavery, because only humans can be slaves. One example of this comes from Wesley J. Smith, a well-known animal rights critic, who recently stated that the comparison “makes a mockery of slavery’s real impact on people” and “is completely outrageous.”
At the same time, however, critics like Smith nevertheless express opposition to animal cruelty and abuse, believing it clearly immoral to inflict such harms on animals. I wonder, though, whether the condemnation of animal cruelty and abuse is consistent with the charge that describing animals as slaves is morally offensive.
Suppose the description of animals as slaves is morally offensive because it demeans human victims of slavery—though not because, like slaves, animals aren’t also property and forcibly exploited, but because, notwithstanding the similar treatment and legal status, only humans can be slaves. Why, then, wouldn’t descriptions of animals as victims of abuse, cruelty and/or torture also demean the human victims of those forms of mistreatment? After all, if only humans can be victims of slavery, then it can be similarly claimed that only humans can be victims of abuse, cruelty and/or torture.
This implication, of course, is not only morally offensive, but, in Smith’s words, “completely outrageous”; not even the most extreme opponents of animal rights believe animals can’t suffer as genuine victims of abuse, cruelty and/or torture—at least not anymore. And yet the implication, the result of denying the reality that animals are slaves, seems only a short leap away, which may explain why the unimaginable suffering of countless billions still remains unrecognized.