We looked for signs of hope in the swell of her abdomen that came with each breath, in how bright her eyes appeared, in the level of interest she displayed at our presence, in every single gram of food she ate. But beyond that hope lay the certainty of loss and the knowledge that we were powerless to change the course of events that left a spirited, loving cat to be picked up as a stray and to spend her dying days in our care.
Just under six weeks ago, Harriet was taken to a local rescue centre, desperately thin from malnutrition, riddled with parasites, and suffering from such horrendous dental decay that she needed a full-mouth extraction. Recovery was never going to be easy for her, but after almost three weeks of extensive veterinary treatment she finally came to her new home with us.
As our love and hopes for her grew over the past three weeks, the diagnoses worsened: anaemia, jaundice, cancer. We watched her slowly improve a little and then regress quickly. She was determined and tenacious, and she battled hard. Despite a life filled with injury, neglect, starvation, and loneliness, this life was hers; she clearly valued it, and was not going to let it go without a fight. Yet, the various diseases that afflicted her were finally too much for her frail body, and she went to her final rest in our arms as we told her how much we adored her.
Peter Singer, taking his lead from Jeremy Bentham, insists that nonhuman animals do not value their lives in the same way that humans do, and claims that ethical issues surrounding our relationship with other species hinge on issues of treatment, rather than use. Most nonhumans, he believes, are not self-aware in the sense of having a consciousness of their own history and therefore, he concludes, they have no interest in continued existence. He asserts:
“You could say it’s wrong to kill a being whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong, but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed. What is different about humans? Humans are forward-looking beings, and they have hopes and desires for the future. That seems a plausible answer to the question of why it’s so tragic when humans die.”
The core of speciesism can be felt acutely in such a statement: nonhumans are so often accorded value only in terms of how they compare to us, or in how we balance their interests against our own. Yet, comparing harms never leads us to any worthwhile conclusions about the moral wrongness of the harm in itself, and comparing the moral worth of sentient beings in order to rationalise whether we are justified in treating them as things is at best misguided and at worst oppressive. We may debate whether Harriet had hopes and desires for the future (and those of us with companion animals will be quite emphatic that our companions do, whether this is manifested in their marked excitement of the appearance of their food bowl or all in the signs of their anticipation of our return from a period of absence), but such a debate is ultimately futile when it comes to moral decision-making regarding whether we use nonhumans as a means to our ends.
It is their difference from us that causes us to erase their moral worth when it benefits us, even in the most trivial of ways: to ignore their interests, even though the fact that they possess such interests is of enormous moral significance. If we examine what makes us afford our moral concern to those we consider family, we should be able to see how that same concern ought to be extended to those of a different species whom we consume and otherwise exploit. It makes no difference to their moral worth if they can smell a thousand stories on the trunk of a tree or carry their own bodies high on the air with the power of their wings; if they prefer to eat kibble or grass or seeds; if they have paws rather than hooves or talons.
Harriet was given her name three weeks before her life ended. Before that, she was “vermin” straying into areas where she wasn’t welcome, rummaging through trash to acquire her next meal. But she didn’t change when she became a companion animal; she merely came to be viewed through a different lens. That lens doesn’t reflect the truth, however; it merely alters perspective. Seen through the same lens that allowed Harriet, previously considered a “pest”, to be rightly acknowledged as a member of the moral community, the animals whose body parts or secretions we consume or wear, or whom we treat as our resources become living, feeling beings whose interests are just as sacred to them as Harriet’s were to her and to us. Those without names—whom we force into being and separate from their families, whose bodies we work until exhausted, whose deaths we euphemise, whose corpses we desecrate—matter no more and no less than those whose lives we grieve so deeply when they pass.
It is only our perspective, and not any moral truth, that perpetuates the exploitation of other sentient beings. Yet, that flawed perspective cannot stand up to the weight of scrutiny; our nonhuman family members matter to us because we recognise their interests, but failing to recognise the interests of those we exploit places the blame for this dichotomy firmly with us. The only solution, of course, is to extend our moral concern for one or a few outwards to all of those who are, in all relevant ways, equivalent in moral value, and to be vegan.