Where We Place Value
Value hierarchies are pairs of concepts that are considered to be opposite, exclusive, and differ in value. Common examples are reason/emotion, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, white/coloured, intelligent/passive, and human/nonhuman. Although these concepts are not necessarily opposite or exclusive, historically women, people of colour, and nonhuman animals have been associated with the second characteristic of these dualisms (emotion, body, nature, passivity, and animality), which are considered inferior to the first characteristic (reason, mind, culture, intelligence, and humanness/maleness).1
Rights, privileges and freedoms are often denied to a group of individuals by claims that the group lacks a superior characteristic (such as reason) or embodies an inferior characteristic (such as emotion). Importantly, similar justifications are often used to exploit different groups of individuals. It is easy to think of examples in which value hierarchies have been used to oppress individuals – women are not ‘intelligent’ enough to vote, people of colour are too ‘wild’ to live free and self-determined lives, or animals are not ‘rational’ and therefore do not possess inherent value.
The Great Chain
The Great Chain of Being was developed in classical and medieval periods to identify what were known as ‘natural hierarchies’. This chain placed (white) men at the top of the chain (closest to God), followed by women, children, people of colour, nonhuman animals, and nature. The chain provided justification for a hierarchy that made some controllers and possessors of rights, and others resources, to be exploited and used at will.
Though few individuals specifically reference this chain, it has tremendous influence on current thought. In modern society, there is often an unspoken ‘knowledge’ that certain individuals contain more inherent value than others. This hierarchy is often justified by appealing to God, tradition, or ‘scientific research’ (generally biased to ‘prove’ hierarchies exist).
Examples of biased scientific research include Pieter Camper’s measurement of the ‘facial angle’ to prove that Europeans were more intelligent than Africans2, or assertions that woman’s brain size to body ratio indicated that there were more child-like than men, lacking ‘self-control’.3 More recent examples of biased research include the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends 2-3 daily servings of dairy products when African-, Asian-, Hispanic-, and Native-Americans are more likely to be lactose intolerant than whites4, and disproportionate diagnoses of histrionic personality disorder in women, characterized as excessive emotionality and attention-seeking behaviour.5 Research examining ‘animal intelligence’ consistently uses cognitive tasks that we know humans perform well at, rather than recognizing that animals have different cognitive strengths.6 Such biased research reinforces the ‘natural hierarchies’ created in antiquity, but it reestablishes them as ‘science’.
Humanness as a Measure of Worth
We define our humanness against the other animals with whom we share this earth. We define our humanity as more intelligent or evolutionarily above other animals, and we declare ourselves the only species to use language or control our behaviour through “rational” thought. Defining our humanity against animality imposes a hierarchy, one in which humans are above other animals.
From this, a new hierarchy can develop, one in which some humans are considered more 'human' than others. Throughout history, every oppressed group has been assigned the characteristics of nonhuman animals: slaves have been “livestock”, Jews have been “beasts”, and women are “fat cows”.7 In this conceptual framework, those who are considered more human are given more privilege.
For example, those characteristics that are considered ‘subordinate’ in value hierarchies are also considered more ‘animalistic’. And the Great Chain of Being describes the ‘lower races’ as closer to animals than to humans. Man has built a power structure that bases its oppression on the presumed animality (and therefore unworthiness) of the subject. And as a consequence none of these hierarchies will be broken until the species barrier dissolves.
We cannot fight oppression by moving individuals higher up the ‘chain’ or by convincing society that oppressed groups contain the critical characteristic that will give them inherent value (that women are intelligent or that animals are rational). If we wish to see revolutionary change in the way individuals are treated in society, we must destroy the notion that any one individual has more inherent value than another and that differences between us result in natural superiority. We must restore value to emotion and the nature, to coloured skin and nonhuman animals. By placing equal value on the variety of characteristics that make us individuals, we can begin to disrupt patterns of domination and oppression.
Why are these Concepts Important?
Similar justifications are used for different forms of domination. It is not so surprising, then, that different hierarchies emerged together, during the rise of agricultural society.7 The causal, conceptual, and symbolic connections between different forms of oppression demand our attention. Without looking at roots of oppression, we merely throw band-aids on the blood of society. Or worse, we attempt to raise the status of one group while lowering the status of another. Neither attempt will create the society we are fighting for.
This website is an attempt to introduce people to some of the connections between human, environmental, and animal oppressions. In the past, people have considered the comparison of animal oppression to human oppression offensive; however, as stated by Marjorie Spiegel, “Comparing the suffering of animals to blacks (or any other oppressed group) is offensive only to the speciesist; one that has embraced the false notions of what animals are like. Those who are offended by the comparison to a fellow sufferer have fallen for the propaganda spewed forth by the oppressors. To deny our similarities to animals is to deny and undermine our own power… It is to say that we would rather be like those who have victimized us, rather than like those who have also been victims.”8
We must criticize traditional values.
We must criticize political institutions that ascribe to those values.
And we must criticize our own biases.
"Very little of the great cruelty sown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit. The roots of cruelty, therefore, are not so much strong as widespread. But the time must come when humanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought. Let us work that this time may come". – Albert Schwitzer.
1Warren, K. J. (1998). Introduction. In M. E. Zimmerman, J. B. Callicot, G. Sessions, K. J. Warren, & J. Clark (Eds.), Environmental philosophy, Second Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall.
2West, C. (2002). A genealogy of modern racism. In P. Essed & D. T. Goldberg (Eds.) Race critical theories (pp. 90-112). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
3Schiebinger, L. (1986). Skeletons in the closet: The first illustrations of the female skeleton in eighteenth century anatomy. Representations, 14, 42-82.
4Berton, P., Barnard, N. D., & Mills, M. (1999). Racial bias in federal nutrition policy, part I: The public health implications of variations in lactase persistence. Journal of the National Medical Association, 91, 151-157.
5Kass, F., Spitzer, R. L., & Williams, J. B. W. (1983). An empirical study of the issue of sex bias in the diagnostic criteria of DSM-II Axis II personality disorders. American Psychologists, 38, 799-801.
6For an elaboration of this argument, follow this link
7Patterson, C. (2002). Eternal Treblinka: Our treatment of animals and the holocaust. New York: Lantern Books.
8Spiegel, M. (1988). The dreaded comparison: Human and animal slavery. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
This website is meant to be an introduction, rather than a comprehensive analysis, of these issues. Please contact us with any comments or suggestions on how to improve the site. To get active check out The Canadian Animal Liberation Movement - CALMaction.org