One place in life where a lot of good could be done through a clearer understanding of logic arises in cases of offense. We sometimes seem to believe that to be the cause of someone taking offense is by itself a wrong. But this ignores the fact that people can be mistaken in their offense: Someone might not intend the offense that another feels. In some cases, the offended may simply misunderstand what is being said. The feeling of offense, however, is as bewitching of our rational faculty as is most outrage and indignation. (A classic on the philosophical dificulties here is Joel Feinberg’s
Offense to Others).
Tim Wise in a recent article, “Animal Whites” in the leftist journal “Counterpunch” uses a battery of arguments to show that certain members of the animal right’s community, especially PETA and its founder Ingrid Newkirk have a race problem. Much of the article is flippant and progresses by a series of truly awful arguments, but along the way a couple of interesting issues are raised concerning the use of comparisons in arguments and the nature of offense.
Wise accuses animal rights proponents of “misanthropy” for the comparison between the suffering of animals and humans. The idea seems to be that if you care about animal suffering you therefore do not care about human suffering (or you hate humans). Perhaps this is true in some cases, but it certainly does not follow from the fact that someone devotes their efforts to ending animals suffering that they therefore don’t care about all of the millions of human beings who are suffering.
But this fallacious argument leads us to what matters most to Wise–the comparison of human suffering and animal suffering, or more specifically his offense at the PETA photo-display “Are Animals the New Slaves?”
>That PETA can’t understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn’t the least bit shocking.
Wise seems to think that if you compare two things in regard to one similar attribute (My car is the same color as my shirt), you imply that they are similar in all attributes (My car is my shirt), or in other attributes (My car would be comfortable wrapped around my body). Thus, if PETA shows that the treatment of African-American slaves in the past and the treatment of animals in the present are similar in some regards (use similar technologies, for example), then PETA is saying that African-Americans are animals, or are similar to animals in ways that would legitimate offense (e.g., the outrageous and shameful history of racist attempts to demean African-Americans (and other people) through comparisons with animals). But this, of course, does not follow from the original comparison.
>The “New Slaves” exhibition, currently making its way around 42 cities over a 10-week period has drawn outrage, understandably, from African Americans. And, typically, representatives of the blindingly white, middle class and affluent animal rights establishment, show no signs of understanding whence the anger emanates.
>To wit, Dawn Carr, PETA’s Director of Special Projects, who has admitted that lots of folks are upset about her group “comparing black people to animals,” but who, in PETA’s defense, doesn’t deny that that is what PETA is doing, but rather insists it’s OK, because the exhibit also compares factory farming to other injustices, “like denying women the vote or using child labor.” In other words, don’t worry black people: you’re not the only ones we’re comparing to animals!
Here we see that Wise is clearly committing the logical mistake in the last clause. The point might be made more clearly by saying that PETA is not comparing people to animals so much as comparing treatments. To say that someone was “hunted like an animal” is not to say that the hunting was right, that they are an animal.
But Wise imagines the animal rights proponent defending this comparison on the following grounds:
>Now I’m sure there will be some animal liberationists who read this and who think that since animals are sentient beings too, and since they have the right not to be exploited for human benefit (positions with which I don’t disagree), that comparisons with the Holocaust, or lynching are perfectly fair. To think otherwise, they might argue, is to engage in an anthropocentric favoring of Homo sapiens over other species.
Wise acknowledges that because animals and humans are similarly sentient, comparing their suffering seems reasonable. But he rejects this argument:
>But of course, whether they admit it or not, most all believers in animal rights do recognize a moral and practical difference between people and animals: after all, virtually none would suggest that if you run over a squirrel when driving drunk, that you should be prosecuted for vehicular homicide, the way you would be if you ran over a small child. The only basis for a distinction in these cases is, at root, recognition of a fundamental difference between a child and a squirrel.
>Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but if the folks at PETA really think that factory farming and eating the products of factory farming are literally the equivalent to human genocide, then, to be consistent, they would have to argue for the criminal prosecution of all meat-eaters, and War Crimes Tribunals for anyone even remotely connected to the process. After all, if you consume a factory-farmed chicken, you are, by this logic, implicated in mass murder, the same way many whites were in the lynching of blacks, by purchasing the amputated body parts of the latest victims of white rage.
>To draw any distinction at all–and to not support criminal incarceration of meat-eaters the way one would for a cannibal the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, indeed, draws that distinction–is to admit, whether openly or not, that there is a difference between a cow and a person. That difference may be quite a bit smaller than we realize, and that difference certainly doesn’t justify cruelty to the cow–and it may indeed be so small that we really should opt for vegetarianism–but it is a difference nonetheless.
But in his attempted refutation, Wise has shifted the “refutandum” from the plausible claim that there is a moral similarity between harming animals and humans because of an objective similarity in their character as sentient beings. Now he is arguing against the implausible claim that there is no moral or practical difference between animals and humans. This is a straw man.
These arguments have been addressed in the voluminous literature on animals and ethics. The essential point, I think, rests on Peter Singer’s distinction between “equal consideration” and “equal treatment.” To argue that animals and human beings deserve equal moral consideration does not imply that they deserve the same or “equal” treatment.
As an aside, I would point out that in the first case the essential difference is that we have good reason to believe that the cause of killing the squirrel was not negligence on the part of the driver but far more likely “negligence” on the part of the squirrel (If I leap in front of a car, the driver is presumably not prosecuted for killing me). The other two are more complicated, though again the fact that there are some moral and practical differences between animals and humans does not imply that the comparison between animal suffering and human suffering is illegitimate, which was the claim that Wise should be addressing.
Having failed to make the argument that there is good reason to be offended by this comparison, Wise turns to an extended ad hominem tirade against the “whiteness” of PETA. Being unable to offer an adequate argument he tries to implicate the position in racist motivations or blindness and thus to dismiss the substantive claims that PETA is making (The following paragraphs are unedited and are the actual conclusion of the article).
>That PETA can’t understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn’t the least bit shocking. After all, the movement is perhaps the whitest of all progressive or radical movements on the planet, for reasons owing to the privilege one must possess in order to focus on animal rights as opposed to, say, surviving oneself from institutional oppression.
>Perhaps if animal liberationists weren’t so thoroughly white and middle-class, and so removed from the harsh realities of both the class system and white supremacy, they would be able to find more sympathy from the folks of color who rightly castigate them for their most recent outrage.
>Perhaps if PETA activists had ever demonstrated a commitment to fighting racism and the ongoing cruelty that humans face every day, they would find more sympathy from those who, for reasons that are understandable given their own lives, view animal rights activism as the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, rather than as a struggle for greater compassion for all.
>But then again, if the animal rights movement wasn’t so white and so rich, it would never have thought to make such specious and obviously offensive analogies in the first place.
If my analysis of the logic of the comparison is correct, then we can understand why this comparison can seem offensive to some without that offense being legitimate since it rests, like Wise’s article in general, on a logical mistake.
But there is I think another ground for affront that seems to be lurking unclearly in the back of Wise’s mind and might be more reasonable–the suggestion that the suffering endured through the shameful institution of slavery, or the genocidal policies of Germany, is being trivialized through this comparison.
>The very legitimate goal of stopping the immense horror of factory farming–which horror should be able to stand on its own as an unacceptable cruelty, in need of immediate action–gets conflated with the extermination of millions of people in two separate Holocausts (that of the Middle Passage and that in Europe), thereby ensuring that damn near everyone who hears the analogy will conclude that PETA is either completely insensitive, at best, or bull-goose-loony, at worst: no offense meant to geese, by the way.
Wise confuses comparison and conflation here, but I take the mention of insensitivity to be a suggestion, however inchoate, that the comparison is taken to dishonor the suffering in the two holocausts, by not recognizing the distinctive character of these “two separate Holocausts.”
Whether this is reasonable will depend upon whether one takes the similarity between animal and human suffering to be valid. If one believes that the suffering of animals is less significant than the suffering of human beings then one will find this comparison perhaps offensive. Whether one is right–and in what precise sense it is true, if it is true–to think that animal suffering is less signficant than human suffering is a question that must be answered by careful ethical reflection.
But, we might at least make appeal to intention here. If it is the case that someone intends to trivialize the human suffering, offense would be legitimate. But if we have no reason to think that this is the point of their comparision, then it does not seem reasonable to find this offensive. I don’t think that this settles the question, but it does, at lesat, allow us to differentiate a substantive disagreement from the confusions that arise from the feeling of outrage and that plague Wise’s article.
There is, perhaps, also a third possible reason for taking offense at the exhibit, and althogh Wise doesn’t address this, it seems plausible to me that it is the ultimate motivation for many who are offended. For some, the use of images of racial violence appears as an appropriation of this suffering for political ends not shared by those who feel racial solidarity with the victims of that violence. There is a feeling of ownership of the suffering, and therefore a feeling that the use of this suffering for what appears to be an extrinsic political goal is illegitimate. To be honest I don’t know what I think about this objection, but it is an entirely different objection that anything Wise has raised in his article, and would need separate and careful consideration
There are ultimately difficult and troubling issues here that confront the animal rights movement when it attempts provocatively to cause awareness of the magnitude of animal suffering. There are, however, two important questions: First, whether the offense that some people feel is justified; Second, whether the offense that some people feel is too high a strategic cost for the activists.
One could not, however, do better than to read the very thoughtful foreword to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery by Alice Walker before taking offense.