Interview with Óscar Horta (English)

(October 2009)

Dr. Óscar Horta is an antispeciesist activist. He currently works as a researcher in the Philosophy Department of Rutgers University, New Jersey. Before that he was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. He has also been a spokesperson and coordinator in organizations such as Rights for Animals and Alternativa para la Liberación Animal.

1) Since when have you been vegan?

I have been vegan for a bit more than 15 years.

2) What made you become vegan?

I became vegetarian about a year and a half before becoming vegan. Back then I was familiar with the arguments regarding the unnecessary suffering and death caused by the consumption of non human animals. This surely would have made me become vegan sooner or later. But there was something that definitely pushed me to do it. That was when I discovered another type of argument: the antispeciesist one, which shows that we do not have any good reason to consider human beings and other animals in different ways.

When considering someone, the only relevant factor must be the ability to suffer and enjoy. Not having certain capacities (e.g. intellectual or linguistic ones) is irrelevant in this case. In fact, there are many human beings that do not possess such capacities; however they are taken into account by most people. Therefore there is no reason why this should not happen equally in the case of other animals. This implies that a human being’s suffering or enjoyment and that of any other being have to be considered equally.

These arguments were the ones that made me become vegan. A book that definitively led me to know these arguments was Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. This was the case, even though today I disagree with a whole series of positions that are held in said work.

3) Are there any books in Spanish about veganism or animal rights that you would recommend, or any books that you would like to see translated into Spanish?

I think that there are not too many good books, even though there are many topics that it would be interesting to see written about. Moreover, the majority of the books that exist on the topic are of a philosophical and/or technical nature. Therefore I think I won’t recommend any book in particular. What I will do instead is provide a list of books that have been talked about a lot. They are practically all books of a philosophical nature. Of course, I disagree with many of them, but it is important to note that to read only the things with which we agree is not the best way of learning.

Instead of putting the books in alphabetical order, I have listed them by their date of publication:

Books in Spanish:

Singer, Peter, Liberación Animal, Trotta, Madrid, 1999 (which I have already referred to).

Regan, Tom, Jaulas vacías: el desafío de los derechos de los animales, Altarriba, Barcelona, 2006.

González, Marta I., Riechmann, Jorge, Rodríguez Carreño, Jimena y Tafalla, Marta (coords.), Razonar y actuar en defensa de los animales, Los libros de la catarata, Madrid, 2008.

Books in English:

Rollin, Bernard, Animal Rights and Human Morality, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1981.

Sapontzis, Steve F., Morals, Reason, and Animals, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1987.

Adams, Carol J., The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Continuum, New York, 1991.

Pluhar, Evelyn, Beyond Prejudice: The Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals, Duke University Press, Durham, 1995.

Francione, Gary Lawrence, Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1996.

Dombrowski, Daniel A., Babies and Beasts: The Argument from Marginal Cases, University of Illinois, Chicago, 1997.

DeGrazia, David, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life & Moral Status, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

Spiegel, Marjorie, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, Heretic Books, London, 1998.

Bekoff, Mark y Meaney, Carron A., (eds.), Encyclopaedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, Chicago, 1998.

Cavalieri, Paola, The Animal Question, Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.

Armstrong, Susan J. & Botzler, Richard G. (eds.), The Animal Ethics Reader, Routledge, London, 2003.

Dunayer, Joan, Speciesism, Ryce, Derwood, 2004.

Regan, Tom, The Case for Animal Rights, 2nd ed., University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004

Hall, Lee, Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror, Nectar Bat Press, Darien, 2006.

Francione, Gary L., Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, Columbia University, New York, 2008.

There is finally a book that I find very interesting, because it shows the differences between environmentalism and antispeciesism. This book is written from the environmentalist perspective and is an attack on the point of view of animal rights:

Hargrove, Eugene C. (ed.), The Animal Rights / Environmental Ethics Debate. The Environmental Perspective, State University of New York Press, New York, 1992.

4) What do you think about the slogan “actions speak louder than words”?

Well, in reality, what’s important are neither the actions by themselves, nor the words by themselves, but what you achieve with them.

An action can communicate a lot or very little. Many actions are done only thinking about the action itself, which makes it difficult to have a transformative impact for the nonhuman animals... Because of that it’s good to reflect on what to do and how to do it (with the larger picture in mind)

A very clear example of this would be open rescues. A rescue can be presented as something done to help a limited number of animals. As it has often been said, this practice can encounter various problems, e.g. that the animals will be replaced by other animals in the place from which they were rescued, e.g. a laboratory, that considerable amounts of money have to be spent to take care of those animals (money that cannot be used in campaigns) or that, in the case of clandestine actions, they will not reach the public or they will not engage the public’s sympathy. Open rescues happen as a result of reflection and in order to resolve at least some of these problems, and in these the activists act without covering their faces and in a non-violent manner. Those, as they are not clandestine, receive much more publicity and engage notably more sympathy. Reflections like this, which ensure that actions can have a positive and relevant impact, are missing.

Furthermore you also have to take into account that the slogan that you mention can greatly underestimate the power of words. A book, a website, a lecture…can change a person's life. This has happened in many cases and it will keep happening in this way.

5) Could you explain what speciesism means?

Speciesism is the discrimination of those who do not belong to a specific group of beings called a “species”. The most common form of speciesism is the one that discriminates against all animals that do not belong to the human species, which, in turn, privileges human beings. Other forms of speciesism are when you discriminate against some nonhuman animals in favour of others, e.g. if you pay more attention to mammals, or to dogs, than to other animals.

6) How important do you think it is to use non-speciesist language?

I think it is important to a certain point. Language is what makes the way in which we see the world visible. Because of that, some things that we do not have words for are very difficult to see. When a word starts getting used, it makes those who use it recognize that which it is referring to. In this way, for example, the fact that the word “racism” exists, makes it visible that a discrimination exists against those who do not have certain physical traits. So it is fundamental that the word “speciesism” becomes known and used as much as possible.

Because of that it is necessary to question speciesist language. But at the same time we should not lose sight of the fact that you can question speciesist language without questioning the speciesist attitudes beneath. And to accomplish this, it is useful to know how to communicate in a way to bring about a change of attitude in the people we address. But trying to refine our language can on occasion present a problem... We should try to be clever and juggle the situation, challenging speciesist language only when it is not counterproductive to communication.

7) Do you consider yourself an animal rights activist, and what do you think of when you think of animal rights activism in the 21st century?

I’m an antispeciesist activist. For this reason I cannot accept that nonhuman animals are treated worse than human beings. And, because I agree with the generally maintained position that human beings should not be exploited as mere resources, but should be respected as rights holders, so, too, do I believe that other animals with the capacity to suffer must have such rights... This implies that they should not be used as resources.

The fight for animal rights does not necessarily imply the adoption of an antispeciesist point of view. Someone can be against the use of nonhuman animals as resources and nonetheless accept that in a situation in which the animals were not going to be harmed, human beings would, without justification, be favoured over them. As an antispeciesist, I am opposed to that. Because of that the defence of animal rights or of veganism is insufficient. It is necessary to go further and to arrive at antispeciesism.

The same is true with the abolition of human slavery. When slavery was abolished, there continued to be racism. When equality of legal rights was achieved, there continued to be racism. For this reason, for those who oppose racism, terms like “abolitionist movement” or “civil rights movement” end up being insufficient: their position is better defined by talking about opposition to racism as such. The same is true in the case of nonhuman animals, with speciesism. Because of that, when stating the movement in which I would like to be involved, I prefer talking about antispeciesism.

We don’t know what will happen in the course of this. I would like that the movement at least takes the step to begin to show serious concern for all nonhuman animals with the capacity to suffer and enjoy. This would also have to include the animals that suffer and die, even if they are not used as resources.

8) What do you think is the best way to actively promote veganism and animal rights?

That depends a lot on the context. Generally speaking, I think that the most important thing to do, as much as possible, is to equalize how we act towards humans and other animals. There's no reason why this should only be achieved by communicating our arguments to our audience. To move them emotionally can be equally as effective, or more so. But the main objective must be to achieve bringing about the change that I have referred to, a change in attitude towards all beings.

Likewise it should be clear that choosing one course of action or another should not be a matter of personal preferences, but of long term efficiency. And I talk about long term for a simple reason: the animals that are to be born in the future should matter as much as the ones that exist now. They will suffer and die just like the ones that live today.

9) What do you think is the topic that has been neglected the most in the animal rights movement?

As I have already suggested above, the most neglected problem facing nonhuman animals is the type of suffering they face that is not caused by their use as resources. In the following I will explain what I mean by this.

Normally we talk about the exploitation that is caused when they are directly exploited by human beings. What is assumed when saying this is that animals who do not suffer this fate live wonderfully. In a particular way, we assume that animals that live in their natural environments have happy lives and that we should simply leave them in peace. However, this is far from being the case. The lives of animals in the wild are filled with tragedies, which would be devastating for ourselves if we had to endure them. In fact, we rarely realize that the vast majority of animals that are born (above all in the case of invertebrates) die before they become adults (from starvation, disease, getting eaten, etc.). They live lives in which there is a lot more suffering than enjoyment (or where there is no enjoyment whatsoever).

Nowadays, there is very little we can do about this. But it is critical to start questioning the idea that we should not do anything... This is crucial so that in the future, some day, the problem can be addressed. If a community of human beings is stricken by a flood, a famine, violence, or is stricken by an epidemic, we think that if there is something we can do to help them, we should do it. Why not in the case of nonhuman animals? Normally we think that this is the way life in the wild. However, few of us who state this would be willing to let other humans die of disease, starvation or cannibalism. What is the reason for this different consideration of humans and other animals? Many reasons can be given, but all of them are merely excuses. The real motive of this dissimilar attitude is speciesism. Moreover, none of us would like to be left to die suffering in conditions such as the ones described above. In this way, if we are neither egotistical nor speciesist, and we therefore assume that we are willing to treat other animals as we would like to be treated, then we must conclude two things: not only should we care about the animals that are exploited by human beings, but we also must care about the animals that live in freedom. We must reflect on what we can do for them.

This is the consequence of antispeciesism that is the most difficult to accept, and it is, in fact, a reason why many animal rights advocates are not really capable of taking a antispeciesist stance. Only those who are truly capable of leaving their most deeply rooted speciesist prejudices behind can manage to address this question. But if - as I have said above - speciesism is an unjustifiable position, we must have enough courage and responsibility to not look the other way.

A very interesting discussion on this topic has recently been published in the Brazilian magazine Pensata Animal: Similarly, an interesting article regarding this question can be found here:

10) Is there anything else you would like to mention, or would you like to thank anyone?

Well, yes, I would like to say that it is possible that the views that I have expressed here (in particular in the previous question) might seem very shocking or new to many people. The only thing I would ask is that both the arguments for and against these views be taken into consideration.

Whoever wants more information can write me at OHorta ( a ) dilemata . net, or visit my blog

And finally I do want to thank somebody: Fuente Vegana (how couldn’t I?) for their work towards a world free of violence against animals.