Joan Dunayer on Steven Wise and Peter Singer

In 2001 Joan Dunayer and Peter Singer were involved in a public dispute over the intricacies of animal rights arguments. Singer partially panned a book written by Dunayer for her claim that the death of an animal such as a chicken was just as tragic as a human being. Dunayer shot back that this, of course, is at the heart of what animal rights is about and criticized what she said was Singer’s reform-minded agenda as opposed to Dunayer’s abolition perspective.

Dunayer recently distributed the text of a speech she gave at an Austrian national animal rights conference attacking Singer and animal rights lawyer Steven Wise.

Dunayer’s main complaint against Wise revolves around the model he offers in Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights which relies on a number of criteria related to the mental capabilities of animals to decided whether or not they should be accorded rights. Wise’s argument is basically that animals that, in his view, share some cognitive abilities with human beings should be given legal protection — only humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and bottle-nosed dolphins clearly meet Wise’s criteria.

Dunayer is upset by this argument because Wise denies rights to insects, which she maintains are capable of reasoning. She offers a long-winded and not terribly coherent description of honeybees “reasoning”,

In his first book, Rattling the Cage, Wise completely dismissed the idea that insects might reason. I told him I knew of much evidence that honeybees and other insects reason. He requested references. The evidence I supplied included the following: When a honeybee colony requires a new hive site, honeybee scouts search for a cavity of suitable location, dryness, and size. Each scout evaluates potential sites and reports back, dancing about the site that she most recommends. A honeybee scout may advertise one site over a period of days, but she repeatedly inspects her choice. She also examines sites proposed by others. If a sister’s find proves more desirable than her own, the honeybee stops advocating her original choice and starts dancing in favor of the superior site. In other words she’s capable of changing her mind and her “vote.” Eventually colony members reach a consensus.

Dunayer says this and similar evidence proves that honeybees reason, and apparently Wise agrees with her. But Wise still denies rights to honeybees and other insects, “Because, he says, they’re invertebrates. If they were vertebrates — like us — he’d grade them .75 or .8, and they’d qualify for rights. Too bad, honeybees.”

Dunayer, on the other hand, would clearly grant rights to honeybees and the rest of the invertebrate kingdom.
Dunayer also objects to Wise’s use of a common animal rights argument — that since some animals have cognitive abilities similar to those of some human patients such as very young children, the animals should be accorded rights. Dunayer finds this argument insulting . . . to the animals.

Wise advocates assessing the intelligence of nonhuman animals by giving them tests designed for human children, even though, by his own admission, tests designed for children may not be valid for nonhumans. Comparing nonhumans to human children insults humans. Some birds, such as Clark’s nutcrackers, can remember thousands of soil locations in which they’ve buried seed. What test designed for children, or even adult humans, possibly could reveal that? If captive adult gorillas and bottle-nosed dolphins seem to resemble human children, it’s because certain humans choose to view them that way and because they’ve been placed in stultifying environments that tallow scant expression of their natural adult nonhuman abilities. Personally I’m grateful that nonhuman animals aren’t like children. Imagine how annoying it would be if fishes, birds, and other nonhumans started going around whining, “I wanna cookie. I wanna cookie. I wanna cookie.”

Dunayer takes this argument to its logical extreme several paragraphs later (emphasis added),

We need to create the moral outrage that American abolitionists created about black enslavement, until the groundswell of public opinion forces legislation that recognizes sentience as the basis for rights. If some individual judges rule that a chimpanzee is a rights-holder because the chimpanzee shows human-like intelligence rather than because the chimp is sentient, we’ll have set the wrong kind of precedent. We don’t want a few nonhuman animals to be regarded a honorary humans. We want to get rid of humanness as the basis for rights.

Dunayer then carries her argument to Singer, criticizing him for having written approvingly of Wise’s argument. Dunayer is upset that Singer does not grant much consideration to chickens or fish. Dunayer responds,

Fourth, Singer’s disrespect for chickens, fishes, and so many other nonhuman animals is inconsistent with his own espoused philosophy, which values benign individuals more than those who, on balance, cause harm. By that measure, chickens and fishes are worthier than most humans, who needlessly cause much suffering and death (for example, by eating or wearing animal-derived products).

Dunayer adds that every animal is literally equal and worthy of rights, including houseflies,

Speciesism’s hallmark trait is denial of nonhuman individuality. In reality, no animal is replaceable. Both physically and mentally, ever sentient being is unique. Every lobster, every crow, every housefly, is an individual who has a unique life experience and never will exist again. But that’s not how abusers see it. For example, the flesh industry. In the flesh industry’s view — and that of flesh-eaters — chickens, fishes, and other nonhumans can be killed by the billions each year provided that others of their species remain available for future killing. Essentially, Singer has the same view.

Yes, that’s right, housefly rights.


Animal Equality. Joan Dunayer, Speech given at Austrian animal rights convention, September 5-9, 2002.

One thought on “Joan Dunayer on Steven Wise and Peter Singer”

  1. Joan Dunayer’s view is the logical and consistent one, no matter how unsettling it might be to realize that the housefly you smushed valued it’s life as much as fellow humans do.

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