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Valuing Animals and Valuing People

(Un)surprising links between attitudes toward animals and human "outgroups"

If you work long enough in some facet or another of animal welfare, you will likely have heard a comment along these lines: “Why don’t you stop worrying so much about animals and do something for people?” Two unspoken assumptions lie hidden here. 1) Animals don’t matter—or at least don’t matter as much as people. 2) We humans have a limited amount of empathy or good will or moral energy—whatever you want to call it—and if we “spend” it on animals we won’t have any left for people.

Both of these assumptions are wrong. New research in psychology suggests (and common sense confirms) that valuing humans and valuing animals tend to go hand in hand. There appear to be close links between how much moral value we accord to animals and how much we accord to other humans, especially those who are different from us. In particular, racial prejudice has close ties to prejudice against animals.

An essay published in the December 15 issue of New Scientist, by Gordon Hodson and Kimberly Costello, offers insights into these connections. Hodson, Costello and a team of researchers at Brock University in Canada have been exploring what they call “an interspecies model of prejudice.” Their thesis is that the perception of difference between humans and animals is directly linked to prejudice toward human outgroups, particularly racial minorities and immigrants. Humans, they note, have a long history of “dehumanizing” certain groups of people—making them out to be less than human, and more animal-like. This happened to African Americans held as slaves, and to Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies during the Holocaust. Think, more generally, of the common understanding of the phrase “to treat someone like a dog.”

The researchers carried out various experiments that tested the interconnectedness of a perceived human-animal divide and racial prejudice. For example, in one study they asked a group of white Canadian children to look at photographs of black and white children. The participants were asked to attribute to the images various emotions—some of them considered uniquely human (e.g., love, embarrassment, guilt) and some shared with animals (e.g., fear, happiness). Participants were also asked to look at images of various animals. They were then asked to place the images of people and animals along horizontal and vertical boards. Those children who placed humans and animals the farthest apart—who ranked humans as far superior to animals—also tended to rank black children as possessing fewer uniquely human qualities than white children. As Hodson and Costello sum up their conclusion, “Dehumanizing outgroups is driven largely by our sense of superiority, importance, and value over animals.”

The opening sentence of their essay is a deeply disturbing quote from twentieth-century philosopher Theodor Adorno: “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.”

Of course, we shouldn’t promote humane treatment of animals simply because it is good for people. We should be concerned for the animals themselves. That said, it is nice to have even more empirical data showing links between how much moral value we accord to animals and how we treat other human beings, and to know that if we raise our children to value the lives of animals, we will likely also raise children who are tolerant toward human diversity and difference.

As Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.”


Gordon Hodson and Kimbery Costello, "The human costs of devaluing animals." New Scientist, 15 December, 2012: 34-35.

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