My interest in the ethical issues surrounding the use of non-human animals grew out of my investigations into the phenomenon of dehumanization- the tendency to conceive of groups of people as creatures that are less than human. Dehumanization is a common feature of war, genocide, slavery, and other atrocities (Smith, 2011). Its purpose is to disinhibit violence against the dehumanized group by excluding them from the universe of moral obligation.
Dehumanization raises deep metaphysical and ethical questions about the human/non-human binary…
…Speciesism is parasitic on the category of “species”. It refers to the moral privileging of certain biological kinds… [I]t is generally supposed that “human” straightforwardly refers to the species Homo sapiens, and therefore that “human” is a name for a biological kind. If this assumption is correct then it provides a clear basis for demarcating humans from non-humans. Only Homo sapiens are human, and all other species are non-human. But what if this isn’t correct? If “human” and “Homo sapiens” are not equivalent terms, then this upsets certain suppositions about the human/non-human dichotomy as well as the moral implications that supposedly flow from them.
What is it to be human? …[T]he dictionary gives us three options (Homo sapiens, some proper subset of genus Homo that includes Homo sapiens among its members, or all of genus Homo); the scientific literature presents us with even more. Although for the most part paleoanthropologists identify humans with Homo sapiens, or with the genus Homo, some restrict it to the subspecies Homo sapiens or enlarge it to include all of the hominin lineage (for a range of views, see e.g. Leakey and Lewin, 1993; Falgueres et al., 1999l Potts, 2003; Schmitt, 2003; Lewin and Foley, 2004; Mikkelsen, 2004; Pollard, 2009).
These differences of opinion are not due to the scarcity or ambiguity of empirical evidence. They are due to the complete absence of such evidence- or, to put the point with greater precision, the absence of any conception of what sort of evidence would settle the question of which primate taxa or taxon should be counted as “human”. Biological science can specify, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, the taxon to which an organism belongs, but it cannot tell us whether an organism is a human organism. The epistemic authority of science does not extend to judgements about what creatures are human because “human” is a folk category, not a scientific one.
…Claims like “an animal is human only if they are a member of the species Homo sapiens” are stipulated rather than discovered. Neither you nor anyone else has sifted through the available data (what data?) to emerge with the finding that humans are Homo sapiens. Rather, in deciding that all and only Homo sapiens are humans, you are expressing a preference about where the boundary separating humans from non-humans should be drawn (Clark and Willermet, 1997; Corbey, 2005; Bourke, 2011).
The Politics of Species (2013) -Chapter 3 (Idexically Yours: Why being human is more like being here than like being water)- David Livingstone Smith on the politics of human identity and “human” as a social construct and folk category versus a biological fact. // Part I.
“We exclude other animals from the moral community by conceiving of them as essentially different from ourselves.”
“Brute.” “Cockroach.” “Lice.” “Vermin.” People often regard members of their own kind as less than human, and use terms like these for those whom they wish to harm, enslave, or exterminate. Dehumanization has made atrocities like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and the slave trade possible. But it isn’t just a relic of the past. We still find it in war, genocide, xenophobia, and racism. Smith shows that it is a dangerous mistake to think of dehumanization as the exclusive preserve of Nazis, communists, terrorists, Jews, Palestinians, or any other monster of the moment. We are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are all potential objects of dehumanization. The problem of dehumanization iseveryone’s problem.
Less Than Human is the first book to illuminate precisely how and why we sometimes think of others as subhuman creatures. It draws on a rich mix of history, evolutionary psychology, biology, anthropology, and philosophy to document the pervasiveness of dehumanization, describe its forms, and explain why we so often resort to it. Less Than Human is a powerful and highly original study of the roots of human violence and bigotry, and it as timely as it is relevant. [book link