Robert Jensen and Species Equality

According to Professor Robert Jensen, an otherwise progressive thinker:

“[N]o one really believes the quip, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” suggesting the equality of all life (or, at least, all mammalian life). To test that: If there were a rat, a pig, a dog, and a human child in the road facing an oncoming truck and you could save only one, which would you chose?”

Let’s take Jensen’s test. Even if we answer that we would save the human child, what does that tell us about the morality of eating animals and animal products, or using animals in circuses, zoos, or rodeos, or wearing animals?

Answer: nothing at all.

To see this clearly, assume that there are two humans in front of the truck–an extremely old person and a baby. Even if we would save the baby, does that mean it’s morally acceptable to eat old people, or makes shoes out of them, or use them in circuses, zoos, or rodeos, use them as forced organ donors to save the young, or otherwise treat them exclusively as resources?

No, of course not.

Assume that the two humans in front of the truck are two human babies: Jensen’s child and the child of another. Jensen would clearly save his child. Does that mean that the other child has lesser moral value and may be treated exclusively as a resource?

No, of course not.

Moreover, when we are deciding what to eat tonight, we are not in any situation that is analogous to the either/or situation that Jensen posits. If, as Jensen acknowledges, we don’t need to consume animal products, then we are under no compulsion that forces us to choose. If we eat meat, dairy, or eggs when we can choose to eat vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and nuts, then we are participating in suffering and death simply for palate pleasure. If animals matter morally at all, imposing suffering and death on them for a reason as transparently frivolous as palate pleasure cannot be justified.

Jensen simply ignores the very question that we need to examine: can we justify speciesism? If you asked a white person in 1830 whom he would save from death–another white person or a black person–the answer would be crystal clear. In fact, the white person would probably not even understand the question and would think it lunacy even to ask it. So our moral intuitions are a most unreliable guide when the very problem is that our moral intuitions are affected and infected by pervasive prejudice that we cannot seem to explain or justify rationally.

When I say “all sentient beings are equal,” what I mean is that, with respect to any sentient being, we are required to give a compelling moral reason to justify or excuse imposing suffering and death on that being. I maintain that my view here is not only not controversial, but that most people actually agree with it.

What we need to see is that pleasure, amusement, or convenience cannot suffice as “compelling moral reasons” for eating, wearing, or using animals. That necessarily leads us to rule out 99.99% of all animal use as morally unjustifiable from the outset.

Robert Jensen is a generally progressive person. He really needs to rethink his views on animal ethics. I hope he will consider that if we fed all the grain we feed to livestock directly to human beings, we could go a long way toward reducing human starvation. It takes many pounds of plant protein to produce one pound of flesh; it takes many more gallons of water to produce a pound of flesh than a pound of potatoes. Frankly, if Jensen were to think that animals have no moral value whatsoever, and he accorded moral value to humans alone, he would still be committed to a vegan diet.


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan!

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2013 Gary L. Francione