9 June

Is There Such a Thing as Speciesism?

The recent killing of a gorilla at a zoo in Cincinnati has provoked a wildly disproportionate social-media reaction. In some widely viewed footage of the occurrence, a four-year-old boy falls into the gorilla’s enclosure and is subsequently grabbed and dragged through water by the animal. Alarmed by understandably loud shouting from the boy’s mother and passers-by, the gorilla becomes increasingly nervous and zoo officials decide to take action. Fearing that the 180kg animal is a serious threat to the child’s life and worried that a tranquilizer may not take effect immediately, the zoo authorities opt to shoot the gorilla, named Harambe. More than 500,000 people have already signed a petition demanding ‘Justice for Harambe’, while many Twitter users have accused the boy’s parents of negligence.

Such aggressive public outrage at the shooting of a potential threat to a child calls for reflection. Animal rights advocates and their followers seem enraged by a mother who – through no fault of her own – witnessed a dreadful accident and saw her child in peril. Some criticise the zoo’s decision, strangely indeed, given that the lack of any viable and sure alternative to save the child. We are seeing people sharing photos of Harambe, romanticising the gorilla and its life history as though its death was that of a human being. Others have made much of the apparent fact that silverback gorillas are a threatened species of which only 175,000 remain and have even suggested that – from a utilitarian-cum-conservationist standpoint – Harambe’s life should have been preferred over that of the boy. Many talk of ‘speciesism’: they believe that the ‘discrimination’ by which human life is valued above that of other species, ought to be combated.

‘Speciesism’ is novel in the egalitarian lexicon that now dominates Western academia, but it is becoming more popular. It forms part of broader trend in Western thought that, propelled by the likes of Foucault, has since the 1980s pushed an egalitarian agenda and promoted ‘identity’ politics. Academics and their pupils in recent decades often seem horrified by any form of difference which they view as somehow socially constructed. They hold that language plays a pivotal role in such processes. A concomitant abhorrence of definitions and distinctions has largely stalled the progress of rational inquiry.

Unjust discrimination surely should be confronted, but contemporary egalitarians must acknowledge that there is a just and justified discrimination. Human beings can and should be distinguished from irrational animals, and a human life is worth more than that of a gorilla. This is not to deny that animals should be treated with respect and care. But human life is endowed with special characteristics – reason and will perhaps the chief among them – that give it a peculiar dignity. When a boy’s life is at risk from a gorilla, the natural response is to rescue the child even if that means shooting the animal. There is no such thing as speciesism: the valuing of human beings above other animals is not only natural, but right.

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