by David Olivier

The attack launched against humanism in Cahiers antispécistes has sparked debate among anti-speciesists. The argument is that humanism has cemented a constellation of positive connotations around itself – of non-violence, openness, generosity, sensitivity, candour, intelligence, moderation and responsibility, to name just a few. The fear is therefore that by criticising humanism, we could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or in any case, that the general public might think we are. I believe that this fear is largely well-founded.

And in any case, isn’t it enough to criticise speciesism? What good can come of criticising humanism? There are, after all, anti-humanists who are speciesists. It seems to have almost become fashionable to label oneself anti-speciesist to attract attention to one’s personal version of humanism. The term anti-humanist is now nothing more than a synonym for “never content”.

Humanism: 1984

“War is peace”1

What I refer to as “humanism” is not simply the movement of this name that emerged during the Renaissance; rather, I am referring to every one of the cultural and ideological elements, omnipresent in our societies, that construct and venerate this imaginary object called “humankind”, which is supposed to represent what every human being is and, at the same time, should strive to be.2

Detecting humanism is a difficult task in itself. The ideological hammering of the movement is incessant and obsessive, to the point of becoming subliminal, like the sound of aeroplanes to those living near an airport. It takes a considerable amount of effort to pinpoint every reference to the superiority of humankind, its extraordinary dignity, beauty and unparalleled kindness. Hark, good people: “human rights!”, “all that is human is a concern of ours”, “don’t treat him like a dog!”, “human dignity!”, “all men are equal!”, “every man has a heart!”, “human warmth!”, “human liberty!”, “crime against humanity!”, “bestial crime!”, “don’t eat like a pig!”. Not to mention the indirect references, of which there are even more: praise is handed out for intelligence, for excelling at something (for example sport), for standing upright, even… These references only make sense within a humanist mindset and they reactivate and consolidate this way of thinking with each repetition.

Humanism, according to this constant ideological bombardment, is the opposite of barbarity; just as religion and Christianity in particular, is thought of as the realm of altruism and love.

Yet the curriculum vitae of humanism is an extremely bloody one, as is that of religion, even if we only count the human blood spilt. It was explicitly in the name of humanity that the Nazis, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge committed their massacres. Historical examples abound but there would be little use in listing them here, given the extent to which to which humanism has accustomed us to regarding every massacre of human beings committed in the name of humankind as nothing more than an accident unrelated to humanism, just as the Inquisition or almost two millennia of anti-semitism are said to have nothing to do with our “religion of love”.

But this is as much a question of logic as of history, as I will illustrate using two common humanist claims.

“Humanism is equality”

The very structure of humanism makes it incompatible with equality, including equality among human beings.

What is “humankind”? We have been conditioned to believe two things that are completely contradictory:

  • By default, every member of the human race is completely, and therefore equally, human.
  • We must strive to conform to the “human” model, to be as human as possible. It is therefore possible to be human to varying degrees.

Both of these proposals are simultaneously omnipresent in the ideological hammering of humanism. Fascists, for example, who do not believe in human equality, are said to be monsters, “rats”, foul beasts – essentially, therefore, subhuman…3

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. 4

Belonging to the species Homo sapiens is all it takes to be human. But Western philosophy has never ceased to define this “human” in terms of certain characteristics, which can therefore be possessed to varying degrees: the immortal soul, intelligence, knowledge, etc. Ultimately, the concept of human is explicitly the opposite of the concept of animal. And what do we do to animals? We only need look at our plates for the answer. The greater or lesser humanity of each human being is therefore a burning issue and one that is symbolic in nature – much more than symbolic, in fact. On the one hand, it represents the main structural and legitimising line running through our social hierarchy. To succeed at school or university is to prove one’s aptitude for intelligence and learning: in short, one’s humanity. On the other hand, from the democracies of Athens to the death camps of Nazi Germany, to the cotton fields of the American south worked by slaves, nothing has been easier than justifying the exclusion of countless Homo sapiens from the sphere of equality through the exaltation of humankind. Worse still, the moment we exalt humankind and turn it into a value to attain, a value that is therefore not inherent but at the same time is the source of rights (according to humanism, it is the only source of rights) equality, including equality among human beings, becomes unthinkable.

“Humanism is kindness”

“The abattoir is joy”

In an Easter Sunday speech, Pope John Paul II said it was time to stop spilling “the blood of man”. This use of the singular – be it “man” or “humankind” – that humanists are particularly fond of is very remarkable indeed, given that from Kosovo to Belgrade, it is the blood of humans that is being spilt. 5

What is it that troubles the humans concerned? Humans whose blood is being spilt, humans who are hungry, who are frightened, who have lost their loved ones, who are exhausted, sick, wounded, cold, who no longer have shelter, safety… Do those humans say to themselves, “the abuse of humankind troubles me”? By asking us to defend humankind, the Pope and humanism in general pressure us to act in accordance with a motivation that is completely foreign to the victims themselves.

Humanism forces us to be completely indifferent to the suffering and joy of human beings. It cannot be any other way: either we consider that suffering and joy are what matter, in which case they are of equal importance whether they are experienced by a rat or a human, or we consider humanity to be important, in which case suffering and joy have, at most, only an instrumental value. The only other solution would be to proclaim, as Descartes did, that non-human joy and suffering simply do not exist; that the screams of non-humans are nothing but the sounds of grinding machinery. But this point of view is no longer put forward by anyone, at least not in this extreme form.6

Today, the humanist orthodoxy no longer defers to Descartes, but to Kant. According to Kant, ethics are based on only one imperative, of which the following provides an example:7

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Treating humans as ends in themselves can have varied consequences. We know about humanism’s habitual, if not constant opposition to (human) euthanasia, including when requested by a person with an incurable illness, to put an end to their suffering. Kant was also categorically opposed to suicide. However, he was not opposed to the death penalty; on the contrary, he believed that “humanity” implies responsibility. In the end, acting for the good of the other or, for that matter, for oneself, at least if “good” is understood to be something related to happiness, joy and life, is only incidentally prescribed by Kantian ethics, when it is prescribed at all. In fact, there is no particular reason why the welfare of the sentient individual should coincide with the welfare of humankind. The opposite is even the case: “the humanity in man” consists mainly of what makes the latter a “non-animal”, and given the fact that humans are animals, and that their actual welfare is animal welfare, it can be said that in essence, humanist morality involves killing the “animal in us” – that is, killing ourselves.

An act carried out purely out of compassion is, according to Kant, devoid of moral value. All that matters is cold compliance with categorical imperative. To act out of compassion, and therefore out of inclination, is the same to Kant as acting out of selfishness – submitting to our animal emotions. As such, Kant and the humanists in general can no longer claim to practice any sort of kindness. It is no coincidence that in 1961, during his trial, Eichmann justified his compliance with Hitler’s orders on the grounds of Kantian morality. Though he expressed regret, he avoided showing the weakness of taking into consideration whatever suffering his victims were experiencing at the time.

I could give many more examples of the glaring contradictions between what humanism is – both in theory and in practice – and what it claims to be. I will settle for briefly citing just two more:

  • Humanism is supposed to be working toward eradicating world hunger. The humanist model of humankind, however, is fundamentally that of the citizen – so, the citizen of a given country. At the international level, the “person” who is treated as an individual and to whom inviolable rights are attributed is not a human being but a nation. Once again, “individuals” are human and nations “developed” to a greater or lesser extent, the criteria for this development being the economy, and our capacity to master it. This aspect of the situation may be changing, but I have the feeling that humanism is at least partly responsible for the poverty to which a large proportion of humans are being subjected across the globe.
  • Humanism claims to honour diversity among individuals. However, regarding the criteria of belonging to the human species as essential devalues everything else by default. The current technological breakthroughs taking place are not able to mask the great fear humanism has had since the “end of ideologies”: boredom. The only thing that exists is humankind. Everything else is decoration. As for dissidence, it is handled not with torture in the underground chambers of the Ministry of Love, as in Orwell’s novel, but with negation. In particular, humanists have shown that they are incapable of understanding, or even just listening to, anti-speciesist discourse as it is; on the contrary, they do their best to slot it into the ways of thinking they are more familiar with, such as naturalism or fascism.

Humanism is speciesist by definition. I do not think we can fight speciesism without tackling humanism. Yet this is what the majority of the world’s “animal liberation” organisations attempt to do – organisations that claim to be anti-speciesist but adopt humanist ways of thinking with as few modifications as possible. But in practice, how can we truly give the interests of non-humans the same weight as those of human beings without abandoning this obsessive rhetoric about the glory of “man”? It would be very strange indeed if this kind of glory came without any privileges. I believe it is crucial that we take a critical look at humanism.

Should we be anti-humanists?

It is one thing to condemn humanism, as I just have; it is another to not be a humanist. It is important to remember that not all humanists come in the form of Kant or Luc Ferry. All human beings are humanists, at least in our part of the world; every one of us is a humanist.

The incessant ideological hammering to which we are subjected has had the effect of planting the humanist flag in every last corner of our existence. In particular, humanism has succeeded in putting its stamp on everything that might seem desirable or generous to us, and appropriating these things for itself.

The trick is to systematically associate equality, kindness, happiness and so on with humanistic reasoning. Not harming others – respecting each individual’s interests as a sentient being and therefore, as an animal – becomes “respecting human dignity”. Helping a person who is freezing to death on the streets becomes “not letting them die like a dog”. Helping people in remote places becomes “humanitarian” work. Our horror of the Nazis’ butchery becomes a horror of “treating people like animals”8. Demonstrating signs of high intelligence becomes “fully developing as a human being”. Our common condition as living beings with all the joy and suffering it entails becomes “all men are equal”. Even animal welfare becomes “treating animals humanely”.

Humanism has erected its temples everywhere, from our minds to our streets. Gastronomy is one of the places it has taken over, although the pleasure of eating is far from being exclusive to humans. Each bite we take must be an ode to culture, a symbol of something. The same goes for school, although the justification here is the pleasure of and need for learning, a need that all animals share with us, down to the tiniest kitten. Another temple of humanism is psychoanalysis, which opens the floodgates for our animal desires. And medicine, whose aim is to fight against suffering and death, which are far from exclusive to humans. And the justice system, whose aim is to help us peacefully settle our differences, an activity we share with many social animals, especially other great apes. And philosophy, the study of the relationship between the objective and subjective that has desperately tried to limit its subjectivity to human beings alone. And of course we have anthropology, ethnology and sociology, whose most constant credo is “men are not animals”.

Humanism works on the basis of repression/sublimation. What we are unable to get rid of must be transfigured. Humans don’t only eat to survive, after all! Unlike animals, of course. Sexuality supposedly has “another meaning” for humans than it does for animals: it has the honour of serving as a stepping stone to Love, while animals only use it for reproductive purposes (or at most, as a technique for “managing aggression in the group”). In each case, the goal is to distinguish our activities and motivations from their equivalents in non-humans.

I have said that I believe a criticism of humanism is indispensable, but I also believe it has the potential to be very mobilising. Humanism is, in fact, to speciesism, something like what the patriarchy is to sexism: the concrete translation of the abstract discriminatory principle into each of our daily actions. Humanism creates a binary opposition between humans and animals, but humans are animals. In fact, humanism, in every one of our thoughts and actions, puts us in a binary opposition with ourselves9.

But humanism has managed to intervene so forcefully in all that is good that it has become impossible to simply do away with it. If we do, not only do we appear to get rid of the parts that are contrary to humanism, but both in a fundamental and a practical sense, we actually get rid of them, to a large extent at least, because humanism has soaked them up like a sponge. For example: I walk past a butcher’s every day. I don’t smash the window – I don’t do anything. I am in favour of animal equality. But how would I react if it were not hens, nor pigs, but little human children that I saw there, dead, hanging from a hook, available for purchase in various cuts? Not only would I not legally be able to do anything in the case of chickens and pigs, if I wanted to react emotionally as though the animals were humans, I would either end up going mad or to continue my involvement in the struggle for animal equality, I would have to develop a certain level of emotional numbness to be able to cope. I would no longer react to suffering, whether of non-humans or humans, or if I did, the reaction would be weak. Massacres in Kosovo, in Rwanda? Pfft. Two thousand animals frying away on stovetops each minute in France? The Holocaust? Pfft. A drop in the sea of suffering imposed on sentient beings over the course of the twentieth century. Racism? Just another sub-variety of speciesism. And so on. Every one of our egalitarian reactions has been constructed on humanist grounds. I cannot simply reject humanism, even if I know that it is fundamentally incompatible with equality, without seriously compromising any possibility of fighting for equality, including animal equality. How can we fight against the butchering of non-humans if we no longer oppose the butchering of humans, except in a mechanical way? How can we appeal to people’s generosity, having snatched away the grounds on which their generosity has always been demonstrated? And how can we build a political movement to protect humanism’s most defenceless victims without generosity?

The same goes for compassion in general. Cahiers antispécistes, as critics have often noted, has been characterised by its dispassionateness. This is because we decided to reject the typical tear-jerker, “charity” approach to animal welfare. Animal welfare movements have adopted this approach because it is the only one that humanism allows them to take: an approach that treats animal suffering as incidental. If a human being is abused, we do not stand up for them by invoking pity: “pity for women” is not a popular slogan among feminists. For humanists, pity is a pejorative term only suitable for non-humans and sub-humans. When referring to human women, we talk about “rights” and “dignity”. But by attacking humanism on the only grounds that the humanist movement itself considers valuable – the grounds of reason – we are, to a certain extent, agreeing with it. One of the issues I had with Yves Bonnardel’s article on Florence Burgat’s Animal Mon Prochain10 is that in rejecting humanism, it seems to reproduce humanism’s same distinct brand of dispassionateness. It is, after all, humanism that seeks to radically separate ethics from emotions, that holds pity and compassion in contempt. In the same way, as a result of intellectual bias, Cahiers antispécistes pays constant implicit homage to the same way of thinking, which, according to humanism, is precisely what marks the boundary between human and animal11.

I do not think it is possible to make any kind of abrupt departure from the vicious circle of humanism. Humanism is our culture, for better or for worse. To leave humanism behind would mean rebuilding our entire culture. And who would have the ludicrous audacity to think themselves capable of reconstructing an entire culture from A to Z, either alone or in a small group? This is why Cahiers antispéciestes has tried to avoid positioning itself as the voice of anti-speciesism. For a long time, we were, in a sense, the only clearly audible voice in France. But I can only rejoice at the arrival of new anti-humanist voices, whether these explicitly arise within the anti-speciesist movement or, like Burgat’s, come from outside.

The main thing Burgat can be criticised for is her complacency with regard to humanism. But this complacency is inevitable. It’s just that her complacency is different from ours12. To break away from humanism, our task has to be one of separation; above all, we should not systematically reject everything that bears the mark of humanism because everything in our lives bears its mark. As humanist as it may be, Animal Mon Prochain performs this separation and takes it in several directions. I interpret her reference to pity in this way.

Reclaiming pity

A quick read of Florence Burgat’s work could lead one to believe that she rejects rationality, invoking pity for animals in the way one might ask for a presidential pardon. At first, she appears to agree with, or rather, concede to opponents of ethical consideration of animals, by suggesting we criticise not their arguments but their reason itself.

As a decisive instrument of classification, should reason/logic not be criticised if it functions primarily as a force for establishing a right that is exclusively in favour of the interests of a community that has been restricted to beings that are considered to be rational?13

This kind of attitude shocks us because we believe it is easy to demonstrate, using fairly indisputable logic, that their argument is invalid. To take reason as the basis for our ethics, for example, does not imply limiting the scope of our ethics to rational beings. These may be simple arguments, but we know that they are not particularly effective wat convincing a community of humanist philosophers who are possessed, even more than they admit, by the idea of a human essence that cannot be compared to that which is “animal”. It is for this reason that Burgat directly attacks this human ontology.

Humanism has confined pity to the realm of the incidental; Burgat, on the other hand, bases her entire ethical perspective on pity. And I believe she does it without rejecting reason in any way. She is not explicit enough about this point and many others, sometimes to the point of ambiguity. But the important thing is the direction she takes.

This direction, I believe, is demonstrated in the following passage:

If we transpose an epistemological concept into the field of ethics, it is possible to say that pity is a crucial experience14.

I believe that this transposition from the epistemological domain – the field of physics, for example, and generally the study of what is – into the ethical field – the study of what ought to be – opens up a new guiding thread. Because if humanist philosophy has done everything in its power to radically separate reason from sensibility within the field of ethics, it has not been able to do so in the field of science. Although the interplay of reason and sensibility is a question that has not yet been resolved in science, nobody would deny that physics is based simultaneously and without contradiction on both experience – sensibility – and reason.

To reject one particular reason is not to reject reason itself. The Aristotelian scholastic physics of the Middle Ages was also built on reason but Galileo only had to drop two objects of different weights from the tower of Pisa to turn this logic on its head15. At the same time, Galileo’s experience was incommunicable in a sense. The two weights landed at the same time. It had to be seen to be believed, at least in a society otherwise unlikely to accept this result. The fact that pity is incommunicable – “pity as an experience and not as an idea”16 – makes us think, by humanistic reflex, that it comes from an act of faith, from the irrational. But we do not think in these terms when it comes to our modern physics. Because of humanism, we are no longer accustomed to seeing pity for what it is: a perception of the suffering of others.

By describing us as essences – “souls” – humanism has prohibited any kind of real communication. How can essences communicate? Our souls are like diamonds, eternal and unalterable. Humanism locks us into solipsism. However:

…pity dispossesses the individual of their ipseity, disappropriating them from the circle of their autonomy by blurring the distinction between the self and the non-self.17

Pity makes us perceive the suffering of others in the same way we perceive our own suffering. At the same time, it becomes a motivation similar to our personal motivations. This does not imply that it is the only motivation, that ethical reasoning can only be carried out in the precise moment when we feel pity. Physics, after all, is not limited to experiments either. Nor does this imply that all pity is good, that it is above criticism. It is possible to feel pity for mountains and rivers, as Yves points out18. The existence of false perceptions in physics does not invalidate physical experience in general. Compassion and shared joy are at the root of ethics in the same way that physical experience is at the foundation of physics: without them, we would not know that none of us are alone, and ethics would lose its entire purpose.

And unless we return to Cartesianism, it is not possible to dismiss all pity for non-humans as false. Ethics therefore includes non-humans as well as humans.

Humanism had monopolised pity, at the same time reducing it to a shadow of itself. Burgat’s reasoning gives it back to us. This is not a question of the extent to which she is a humanist. Rather, it is a question of not allowing our own humanist blinders to hide the radical destabilisation she is carrying out within the structure of humanism.

  1. Slogan of the political party in George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1948). In the Ministry of Love, “thought criminals” are tortured and killed, the Ministry of Truth is in charge of ensuring that facts always match up to an orthodoxy that is constantly changing, and so on.
  2. In this sense, humanism can be traced back long before the Renaissance; I suspect that it was Christianity that exacerbated the cult of Man (identified with Christ?) from its beginnings, and scholasticism that made a system out of it.
  3. The ink had barely dried on my computer screen when I received a message from an anti-fascist, anti-speciesist describing fascists as “degenerate toads”. Excellent use of a Hitlerian world view…
  4. 1984, p. 171 (Penguin Modern Classics). “Doublethink lies at the very heart of [the party’s ideology].”
  5. Here I have switched to the masculine “man”, which I use in this way because it is their concept; in fact, humanism depicts “man” as having strangely masculine traits. I will not develop this important point further here.
  6. There is, however, a strong temptation to devalue non-human emotions and sensations. I have seen a researcher seek to distinguish the suffering that only human beings can experience from “simple” animal pain. I was, however, born too late to hear the pro-slavery speeches on how black people have a lesser ability to feel.
  7. Kant, Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, second section.
  8. This transformation is systematic. The original meaning of “Holocaust” is “sacrifice”, which in its biblical origin, refers to the sacrifice of an animal, thus establishing the human/animal opposition (in chapter 22 of Genesis, Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son to God, who replaces the son in extremis with a ram).
  9. In addition to the above-mentioned examples, it is worth mentioning the ban on abortion in most of the world, in the name of the human (and therefore sacred) nature of embryos, despite the fact that they are as insensitive as rocks, as well as the scorn heaped upon humans who do not possess “human intelligence”, or not enough of it.
  10. Yves Bonnardel, “Perplexité….”, Les Cahiers antispécistes, no. 17, April 1999.
  11. It is neither a question of rejecting intelligence, to the extent that we or others have it, nor of rejecting other characteristics that are frequently associated with humans. It is refusing that intelligence be an end or value in itself. It should not confer any glory; rather, it should be seen only as a tool for the enjoyment of life.
  12. The (justified) criticism of certain humanist aspects of Cahiers antispéciestes has, for a long time, been the speciality of Philippe Moulhérac.
  13. F. Burgat, Animal Mon Prochain, p. 71.
  14. F. Burgat, p. 200.
  15. Around 1590. Scholastic physicists believed that heavier objects fell faster. This is not the case, or at least not in any significant way, with the exception of very light objects, which are affected by air resistance.
  16. F. Burgat, p. 204.
  17. F. Burgat, p. 205.
  18. Yves Bonnardel, “Perplexité….”, op. cit.