For thousands of years up to the present day humans have viewed animals primarily as a resource. Our evolutionary history has been marked and in many ways driven by the tools and resources we have been able to exploit. Soon after our ancestors developed rudimentary stone tools they were able to shear flesh from animal carcasses. Over a million years ago they began actively hunting and over 7,000 years ago anatomically modern humans developed agriculture. Since this time humanity’s primary interactions with animals have been through agriculture, a system in which animals are utilized and viewed as resources. Having concluded that we are intelligent and special while other animals are stupid and trivial we have proceeded to use, and often abuse, them for our own benefit.
In the past the hunting, raising, and slaughtering of animals for food and other resources was often a necessity and human beings have been apex predators throughout most of our evolutionary history. Little concern was given to the suffering and death of the prey, and later of the livestock, and both the use of animals as resources and the indifference towards their suffering continues today. But what have we learned about animal species other than ourselves that should change the way we have been exploiting them and behaving towards them for millions of years? Is there anything wrong with treating animals as resources or denying them to the right to lives free of pain and suffering?
Due to scientific advances in ethology, neuroethology, and behavioral ecology we now understand that the cognitive differences between humans and many other animal species are not as cut and dry as they once appeared. Primates such as the common chimpanzee and especially the bonobo display complex social systems, tool making, and independent language. Dolphins have been observed to use tools as well and also form social groups as complex as great apes. Many scientists now believe that great apes, dolphins, elephants and possibly other species possess self-awareness. Scientific discoveries regarding what animals are capable of feeling, thinking, and understanding have fundamentally altered the way we view the boundaries of animal cognition, human cognition, and the nature of cognition itself.
In light of this knowledge, domestic pigs and cattle, laboratory rats and primates, circus elephants, and oceanarium cetaceans and pinnipeds are among the many animals that should be regarded as individuals potentially capable of full cognition and treated as such. To deny animals the right to life free of pain and suffering is an act of speciesism, the selective discrimination of species outside of humanity. Anthropocentrism can be blamed for many of the atrocities that have been and are currently being committed against animals across the world and despite the scientific discoveries regarding animal behavior and cognition too many of us continue to view them as resources that deserve little to no rights.
Should the exploitation of animals as livestock, laboratory research subjects, or obligatory entertainers end completely? It seems obvious to me that the raising and slaughter of animals for food will not end in the foreseeable future, despite the fact that the vast majority of wanton animal cruelty takes place in modern agriculture, and outside the First World the utilization of animals as food can still be a necessity, rather than a choice. But it seems equally obvious that the way we in America treat and exploit animals for our own ends must be radically changed. We must accept our ethical responsibilities towards animals and begin the process of ending speciesism.