Christina Louise Dicker Reviews Joan Dunayer’s Speciesism

In the March-May 2005 issue of Vegan Voice, Christina Louise Dicker reviews Joan Dunayer’s recent book, Speciesism. Like other activists, Decker is smitten with Dunayer’s extreme, if consistent, animal rights philosophy.

Dicker highlights the expansive nature of the types of creatures that Dunayer would grant rights (emphasis added),

Dunayer’s arguments are hard-hitting and rock solid as she uses plain and simple language, supported by a myriad of examples, to clarify every aspect of the discussion. . .

. . .

The author convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that our fellow species on this planet are not our inferiors. She argues that “any form of consciousness should suffice to confer legal personhood,” and when discussing the grounds for such a statement she carefully explains how consciousness and sentience (rather than complexity and intelligence) are the only relevant methods to assess a creature’s right to justice.

I’m assuming, based on Dicker’s use of quotation marks, that the section highlighted above is Dunayer’s formulation. Regardless, it is absurdly broad.

Dunayer has previously argued that it is wrong to use indirect human measures of consciousness to assign rights. Dunayer criticizes Steven Wise, for example, for Wise’s refusal to grant rights to honeybees on the grounds that bees are invertebrates. Dunayer says this creates a nonsensical hierarchy of species.

But if any form of consciousness should suffice, then we are in the same boat with every species. For example, I am fairly certain that my fern is not conscious. However, in arriving at that view, I am inferring it from the fact that the plant does not exhibit minimal signs that I would argue are necessary at a minimum for consciousness, such as acting intentionally (which is not to say that every being that acts intentionally should be considered conscious — though Dunayer seems to take that view — but rather that creatures that don’t act intentionally would seem to be automatically excluded from the set of beings that is conscious).

But if “any form of consciousness” qualifies, the same objection applies — how dare we apply our human-mammalian-animal prejudices to deciding whether or not my fern is conscious?

Rather than simplifying things, Dunayer’s views taken together appear to create a number of problems for those who would embrace them. And yet, embrace them she does as Dicker seems to explicitly recognize where Dunayer’s position leads. She writes, (emphasis added),

Throughout the ages, one of the most effective methods of achieving social reform has been education, followed by action. My prediction is that Joan Dunayer’s work will have a snowball effect as other considerate human beings to [sic] accept, adopt, and then promote the goals outline in this book. The potential impact of this amazing text is ready to prove once again that the proverbial pen has the power to change the world.

A book like Speciesism promotes a thoroughly positive step forward for the future of our planet, since the rebounding effects of the abolition movement will bring about improvements for other global problems, such as environmental degradation and human overpopulation. It envisions a day when people stop heralding the “sanctity of human life” and start proclaiming “the sanctity of all life.”

My prediction is that Dunayer’s book won’t be read outside of a small circle of extremist animal rights types and will have no impact on the wider debate about society’s treatment of animals, in large measure because of the extreme view which Dicker articulates that advocates for “the sanctity of all life.” That view takes an already fringe view and cranks up the nuttiness by a factor of 10. Its absurd to talk about the sanctity — and presumably rights — of all living things. Even vegans need to regularly kill living things in order to survive, unless Dicker and Dunayer favor Newkirk’s dream of a world absent humanity, because that’s ultimately where the abolitionist version of the animal rights philosophy leads.


Review of Speciesism by Joan Dunayer. Christina Louise Dicker, Vegan Voice, March-May 2005.