On Ableism and Animals

An excerpt from Beasts of Burden, which was published by The New Press in February 2017

British Library, Harley 4751, fol. 45r (England, 13th century)

The ableism embedded in animal-rights discourse is evident in a common rallying cry used by animal advocates. To be a “voice for the voiceless” is a sentiment with which many activists within advocacy communities identify. It became common to use the biblical phrase “a voice for the voiceless” to refer to animals after the publication of a poem written in 1910 by American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

I am the Voice of the Voiceless

Through me the dumb shall speak


Till the world’s deaf ear be made to hear

The wrongs of the wordless weak.

At the turn of the century, this poem was radical in its acknowledgment of animal suffering. It is also intriguing as an example of the conflation of animality and disability, which has occurred in some animal advocacy movements. It is sprinkled with phrases that seem to turn animality into a form of disability–animals are dumb (voiceless), weak, and frail. The poem also suggests an unbridgeable divide between those who help and have voices and those who are helped and are voiceless.

The phrase a “voice for the voiceless”–giving voice to a population that is unable to defend or speak for itself–inevitably conjures the sentiment in Wilcox’s poem: that the voiceless are physically unable to speak or help themselves. It has been critiqued in numerous contexts, including by Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy, who poignantly writes, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Wilcox’s phrase and the sentiment are still ubiquitous despite such critiques. Perhaps some advocates still use tropes of voicelessness because, as can be seen in charity models of disability, the idea of helping beings who cannot help themselves tends to be more attractive to many people than acknowledging that those who are dependent and vulnerable can also have agency and opinions. Today there are countless organizations and charities intended to help disabled people that don’t include a single disabled representative in a decision-making role, for example. The opportunity to express our opinions about our own needs and wants has been such a consistent struggle for disabled people that one of the most common rallying cries of disability-rights movements is “Nothing about us without us.”

Because of this history of exclusion and charity, some disabled activists are understandably unimpressed with the patronizing tone of those animal advocates who wish to be a “voice for the voiceless.” Disability activist Stephen Drake writes, “Animal rights advocacy is a cause that operates by defining and advocating for a set of principles which should govern human-animal interaction. It is not the animals themselves demanding this . . . advocates and activists can define the terms of rights advocacy for animals and never have to worry about the animals telling them they got it all wrong or that they want to speak for themselves now.”

But Drake is wrong to suggest that animals are not telling us what they want. Roy’s phrase “the preferably unheard” is far more apt. Animals consistently voice preferences and ask for freedom. They speak to us every day when they cry out in pain or try to move away from our prods, electrodes, knives, and stun guns. Animals tell us constantly that they want to be out of their cages, that they want to be reunited with their families, or that they don’t want to walk down the kill chute. Animals express themselves all the time, and many of us know it. If we didn’t, factory farms and slaughterhouses would not be designed to constrain any choices an animal might have. We deliberately have to choose not to hear when the lobster bangs on the walls from inside a pot of boiling water or when the hen who is past her egg-laying prime struggles against the human hands that enclose her legs and neck. We have to choose not to recognize the preference expressed when the fish spasms and gasps for oxygen in her last few minutes alive. Considering animals voiceless betrays an ableist assumption of what counts as having a voice.

A surprising amount of evidence also points to the fact that animals can and do participate in their own liberation. In 2011 a German dairy cow named Yvonne made it into the news when she escaped from her farm, sensing her impending slaughter. Yvonne was called a “kind of freedom fighter for the animal-loving German public” by the Guardian , because she “outsmarted” her captors for more than three months. She has been bought by an animal sanctuary after stealing many a German’s heart. She will never be made into food. She is just one of many domestic and wild animals who have escaped their fates at slaughterhouses, zoos, research labs, and circuses, often by incredible feats.

Once free, animals will often do their best to travel as far away from their enclosures as possible or stay stealthily hidden, as Yvonne did. Some are captured within hours, while others live free for weeks or even months until they are spotted miles away crossing a highway or moving through someone’s backyard.

When animal advocates describe animals as voiceless, even when it is meant simply as a metaphor, it gives power to those who want to view animals as “mindless objects.” In the long run, activists will help animals more if we treat them as active participants in their own liberation–as the expressive subjects animal advocates know them to be–remembering that resistance takes many forms, some of which may be hard to recognize from an able-bodied human perspective.

Ableism manifests itself within animal advocacy movements in a more egregious way as well. One of the most prevalent lines of argument in defense of animal rights is structured around ableist assumptions about cognitive capacity, coupled with a rhetorical instrumentalization of disabled people. In 2010 autistic animal activist Daniel Salomon published an article in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies called “From Marginal Cases to Linked Oppressions” that drew attention to the problem. In it Salomon critiques animal-rights discourse for its neurotypical bias, which not only perpetuates ableism within animal-rights theory but also, he argues, actually reinforces speciesism. Although one would assume that theories of animal rights would oppose speciesism, one of the most prevalent animal-rights arguments privileges rational thought, which invariably places humans in a hierarchy above nonhumans. As Salomon puts it, “The framing of animal ethics needs to be critiqued; a neurotypical bias remains implicit in the way animal ethics is typically framed, which keeps intact and perpetuates speciesism.”

The argument Salomon is critiquing is known in philosophy as the argument from marginal cases. The theory attempts to defend the rights of animals by comparing their mental capacities to those of certain humans. The comparison is problematic both for humans and for animals, flattening varied communities into stereotypes and saying nothing of their differences. It also implicitly ends up privileging capacities that philosophers have long held to be “morally relevant” (such as rationality)–capacities that in the Western tradition of moral philosophy and legal theory are central to deciding who is a “person,” someone who has rights or is the subject of ethical duties and obligations.

Although this line of argument has deep historic roots, it was made popular by philosopher Peter Singer in the 1970s and remains a common tactic used by those who are arguing for animal rights. The argument suggests that there is no “morally relevant ability” that all animals don’t have but all humans do. Not all animals have language for instance, but not all humans do either. At its most basic, this argument does not sound particularly problematic; it is a version of the argument I make. It can even be understood as anti-ableist, because it emphasizes that there is no one specific ability shared by all humans that gives us value.

Nonetheless, the danger of the argument is evident in the very act of deciding which abilities are morally relevant. Morally relevant abilities are those associated with the capacity to reason: self-awareness, language, the ability to imagine a future, and the ability to comprehend death. When the moral relevance of these abilities is taken for granted and left unchallenged, the argument upholds reason as the yardstick of value, implicitly assuming that it is possible to identify beings who are obviously morally valuable–rational human beings with morally relevant abilities. The distinction puts the moral relevance of groups who lack–or are assumed to lack–these specific privileged abilities into question.

Those who use the theory to defend animal rights argue that there will always be some humans (intellectually disabled individuals, infants, the comatose, and elderly people with dementia– the “marginal cases”) who don’t have certain morally relevant abilities. They say that if we agree that these humans have moral status even though they lack important capacities, then there is no reason why nonhuman animals who have similar capacities to these people should not be granted moral status as well. Although many people use this argument to show that both disabled individuals and animals have moral value and should be granted certain protections, invariably intellectually disabled individuals, infants, the comatose, and elderly people with dementia become lumped together as a single group–the marginal cases–whose lack of abilities is compared to that of nonhuman animals, who are also often and troublingly flattened into a single group. The worth of these groups is then put up for debate. For animals, who are nearly always written out of the debate altogether, this move has some benefits (at least they are being considered), but for intellectually disabled people, it offers little except risk.

As Salomon suggests, the argument has the truly unfortunate effect of pitting intellectually disabled individuals against animals, implying that if the animals go down, so should the intellectually disabled people. Whether the thinker then concludes that all of these groups are indeed morally relevant, as many theorists do, or that some members of these groups are less morally relevant than rational human beings, the damage has been done. The value of disabled people’s lives has been put into question. For a group of people who have won basic rights and protections only within the past few decades, this is an offensive and frightening gamble.

Arguments that compare animals to intellectually disabled people miss the more important point that a focus on specific human and neurotypical “morally relevant abilities” harms both populations. Those of us invested in advancing justice for all species should not be arguing that since we care for intellectually disabled people, we should care for animals. This line of thought is ableist and anthropocentric, as it centers the human as the yardstick of moral worth and implicitly devalues and flattens out intellectual disability. Instead we must argue against the very notion that beings with neurotypical human capacities are inherently more valuable than those without.

The problem is not reason itself but rather the ways in which reason has been held up as separate from and more valuable than emotion, feeling, and other ways of knowing and being. This definition of reason stems from a history of patriarchy, imperialism, racism, classism, ableism, and anthropocentrism, and too often carries these oppressions within it. These issues are particularly important to keep in mind when theorizing liberation for those who do or may lack “reason,” such as nonhuman animals and individuals with significant intellectual disabilities.

Intellectual inferiority has been so easily animalized because animals themselves have long been understood as intellectually inferior. The association of animals with cognitive deficiency must be challenged, not only because many species exhibit signs of human intelligence and because animal minds are complex in their own right (in ways that often cannot easily be compared and contrasted with human capacities), but because intellectual capacity should not determine a being’s worth and the protections they are granted.

Cognitive capacity is widely accepted as an indicator of a nonhuman animal’s value. Many people won’t eat pigs because they have been shown to be at least as “intelligent” as dogs, but they will guiltlessly eat chicken or fish because it is presumed that these animals do not think or have feelings. And nearly everyone has heard a story or two of an outstanding or heroic animal who was spared her fate as dinner because of something uniquely intelligent she did. Remember Yvonne, our famous German dairy cow who outsmarted her captors and so was spared death? Another cow who made the news that year was not so lucky: She escaped but did not manage to avoid her captors, and so she had to wait until “judgment day rolls back around,” as one paper lightheartedly put it. It seems this cow just was not smart enough to garner enough sympathy for a pardon.

We need to crip animal ethics, incorporating a disability politics into the way we think about animals. It is essential that we examine the shared systems and ideologies that oppress both disabled humans and nonhuman animals, because ableism perpetuates animal oppression in more areas than the linguistic. To me, far from proving that animal justice is impossible and silly, the complexity of sentience and the vast array of mysterious life and nonlife on this planet show that we need a nuanced understanding of different abilities and the different responsibilities those abilities engender.