On Myths, Religion and Innocence
As I've explained elsewhere, pretty much everyone is taught how to systematically devalue the equal needs of (at least some) others. By the time we reach adulthood, this 'skill', and the meritocratic moral logic that undergirds it, are deeply rooted, though people obviously differ greatly in how broadly they apply this logic. As such, few of us manage to (completely) ignore the many distractions (skin color, nationality, gender, ethnicity, intellectual ability, wealth, mannerisms, religious affiliation, and so on) we are taught to care about, and to embody the kind of inclusiveness, egalitarianism and solidarity that, abstractly, nearly all of us know is appropriate (and required). The question I want to talk about here is how this relates to our stance on the use and killing of other animals, and how our thinking about the other animals as inferior affects how we think about how we may treat and view other humans.
As Marshall Rosenberg has explained, one of the most dangerous notions is that of anyone deserving anything -- either because they have or lack certain characteristics, or because of behavior or beliefs they hold. Very often, when we tell ourselves that someone deserves something, what we mean is 'we are comfortable with the fact some benefit or harm came to them' (that we wouldn't wish on or grant others), even as other people will consider the opposite to be true.
The fact that we can come to such opposed conclusions is usually taken to suggest that some (or most) of us are insufficiently rigorous or intelligent to make judgments. Following Rosenberg (who follows Kaufmann), I have a very different response to this, as it seems to me that since we are all equally human, there is no democratic way of stopping some people from making subjective judgments. Additionally, since all judgments are feedback, and since it's necessary to be able and allowed to provide feedback if you want people to live together, what we need to do instead is to become aware of the work words like deserving perform in our thinking -- namely, encouraging and blinding us to violence and injustice.
Such injustice and violence can take many different forms, ranging from talking over people because we see them as 'brats' or 'wrong', to prejudicially focusing on or ignoring requests and contributions, to marginalizing and segregating folks, to outright use of force against those who are devalued or marginalized; up to and including via imprisonment, enslavement and death.***
To clarify this further, let's take the most extreme and common form of othering, and note how intensely comfortable we are with it. That is, consider how casually even the most fair-minded and caring humans will reference and invoke violence towards those we have been taught to view as the least of us, namely the other animals. Even though nearly everyone believes animals matter, and even though just about everyone who's ever seen or interacted with another animal knows that they too experience and value their own lives, they too enjoy freedom and play, they too will nurture their children, and they too will do just about anything to stay alive; currently, over 98% of the world's population considers it okay to use and kill them for food, clothing and entertainment. What gives?
Briefly put, we've been taught to dismiss the harms we inflict on them, using many different cop-outs. To name a few: when challenged on their animal use, many point to the 'fact' that the victims are 'just' animals; they may raise how, since we 'can't know' whether they 'truly' suffer and dislike it when we harm them, it therefore is okay to harm animals; they may assert that animals 'don't mind being used and killed' so long as they 'don't see it coming' and don't suffer 'too much' (in our -- the perpetrator-owner's -- estimation); and so on (given enough time, we can generate a basically infinite number of 'arguments' like these).
In the end, all of these claims are circular, in that they presuppose and then use the (imagined) differences we identify and point to in order to justify the violence and unequal treatment, even as they distract from the -- much more important -- similarities, starting with the fact that they value their lives just like we do ours. Because these differences are completely irrelevant. Yes, other animals do experience their lives differently, and they certainly have different bodies and abilities, and so on. But what matters is not how (differently) they experience and live their lives, bodies and surroundings, but that they experience, and that they have the same basic needs (to live, play, socialize, rest, etc.) that we do. When it comes to our fellow humans, too, the question with respect to whether we may treat them as a thing or as our property isn't "how clever is my victim?" or "how exciting do I consider their life?," but whether they experience and value their life. Moreover, even when they currently don't think their life is worthwhile, it's not up to us to choose when it ends. And the same applies to how we treat the other animals: it's not up to us to decide for them how they live and when they die, because their life is theirs to live.
As such, if you embrace egalitarianism or nonviolence, or if you consider discrimination to be wrong, I would suggest that it follows that you should stop using and harming other animals and go vegan, and that you will want to unlearn the speciesism that a., makes us dismiss the experience of those 'sufficiently' beneath us as irrelevant, and b., that encourages us to see animals as categorically inferior in the first place. And this not just for their sake, but also because until we consciously reject the meritocratic logic in all of its forms, we're highly likely to relapse into other forms of chauvinism, by othering other humans (by calling them and thinking of them as 'rats', 'cockroaches,' 'rabbits,' and so on). As you will find when you make this change, unlearning speciesism will teach you a great deal about how this logic operates in us generally.
If you want to explore the question why and how we should stop treating and thinking of other animals as property, I'd highly recommend watching the embedded video, and reading Francione and Charlton's Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach. They have developed the most lucid and powerful case for equal consideration of equal needs that I know of; and their six principles have greatly helped me in clarifying my own thinking about moral issues starting with (but hardly limited to) how I view the other animals, as well as my commitment to egalitarianism.
Other works I'd recommend on this topic are Eat Like You Care and Advocate for Animals, and Sherry Colb's Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger? (these works are especially useful if you want to engage in vegan advocacy). Francione's other academic works, especially Animals as Persons, and Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Steiner's Animals and the Moral Community.
David Nibert's Animal Oppression and Human Violence, and Bob Torres's Making a Killing are both very helpful in helping me understand more about the institutional aspects of animal use, and the ties between animals and human exploitation and devaluation.
For practical information about how to live without using animals, I'd recommend having a look at this or this page. This book contains a lot of useful information about how to live healthily. And as always, please feel free to ask any questions, provide feedback, and so on. :)
*** Of course, I'm not arguing the use of force can never be justified, or that every request must be honored. I simply wish to point out the role that character judgments play in our own behavior, especially when it comes to 'justifying' not just those beliefs about superiority and inferiority, but also that it's legitimate to use violence, and to treat the claims and needs of those who you value less as mattering less than our own.