10 Reasons Why Human Slavery and Animal Institutionalized Exploitation Are Incomparable

10 Reasons Why Human Slavery and Animal Institutionalized Exploitation are Incomparable

This is the last part of the series about slavery. It is a very important issue since many activists compare slavery with animals’ institutionalized exploitation. They use it as a rhetoric tool, trying to convince the public that just as discrimination based on skin color is arbitrary and wrong so is discrimination based on species, and they use it as an inspiration source arguing that just as discrimination based on skin color was ended, discrimination based on species can also end.

In the former posts we argue that drawing inspiration from ending slavery is false since slavery was never really ended. In fact there are more slaves than ever before. And even what is falsely considered as the end of slavery in the US didn’t happen for moral reasons despite the common narrative that activists tend to cling on to. Not only that, but the American civil war and the 13th amendment didn’t even end the enslavement in the US at all.

The hopes of the animal liberation movement are laid on an institution that exists for about 15,000 years, was never ended nor reduced but increased to the point that there are more slave today than ever before in history. The fact that slavery kept growing in size regardless of the fact that it is illegal now in every country in the world, shouldn’t be inspiring but alarming.

In this post we argue that not only the inspiration is false but that the comparison itself is false and it is so for several reasons:

Different Functions

One of the main rationales of the comparison is that both slaves and animals were objectified and treated as if they are property. First of all, the fact that two exploited groups are considered property doesn’t mean they were treated the same. And secondly, most animals are not considered property but merely raw material.

Enslaved humans were never milked, skinned to be worn or eaten by their enslavers, and most exploited animals don’t do humans’ labor for them but are raised by them so humans can fiercely take what they desire from them, mainly their own bodies after they were murdered in the age and size humans wished for.

Black people were treated as sub-humans who are destined to serve white people, animals are a disposable bundle of meat that happen to be alive and sentient.


 Different Value

A very dramatic difference is the value of the victim. When the function of the enslavement is the labor of the enslaved there is an incentive to protect the slaves. Not out of consideration for humans but out of a cynical protection over the “property”. That is as opposed to the case in which the function of the exploitation is certain organs that happen to be part of the body of a sentient being.

When it comes to slaves the longer they live and the better their physical condition is, the better it is for the enslaver who paid a lot of money to buy them. When it comes to animals the fastest they reach the “target weight” the better.

Slaves are good and profitable as long as they live, animals – when they die. That’s why there is at least some sort of a built in extremely cynical economic incentive that the slaves would be healthy and live long, and that animals grow the desirable organs as fast as possible (on the expense of the rest of their body) while living the shortest lives possible.

Slaves were chosen by their body size and teeth condition but their body features weren’t modified according to the masters’ desires, as happens with every factory farmed animal today.
That is one of the most dramatic differences between the two since one of the greatest causes of suffering of animals is not the external prison they live in but the inner confinement. Animals are born to suffer from their own body deformities caused by genetic manipulations. Regardless of their living conditions, at some point of their lives they suffer simply from being alive. As opposed to slaves which their living conditions in many ways are ruled by their human “masters”, in the case of animals at least from this aspect they are all ruled by the mastery of their own deformed bodies.


Clearly slavery is slavery regardless of the masters’ treatment. Taking others’ freedom is sufficient to consider slavery as one of the worst things humans ever did to each other. But not all the slaves suffered every single moment of their lives. Billions of animals can’t find even one painless position they can stand, sit or lie in. They have no single moment of relief. Genetic manipulations (which soon may frighteningly be genetic engineering) are an incomparable atrocity.

Obviously the very fact that a price tag was attached to a human is appalling, but given that this price was high provided an incentive for the enslavers to protect the enslaved. When it comes to animals it is true only in the case, not even when it comes to expensive ones like some of the exploited price was high provided an incentive for the enslavers to protect the enslaved. When it comes to animals it is true only in the case, not even when it comes to expensive ones like some of the exploited animals in animals in laboratories, or in circuses and zoos, horses in the horse racing industry and cows in the dairy industry. And it is definitely not the case with almost 99%  of the systematically exploited animals which are so cheap, and the gap between keeping them alive and the profits made at their expense is so marginal, that millions of individuals are left to die in any case of a problem. In some cases a death toll of more than 10% of a population is just business as usual.

It is not by chance that much of the comparison is made using mammals and in industries in which they are worth more when they are alive. Fishes and Chickens are almost not mentioned since their lives are so cheap and short that it is incomparable with slavery.

Slaves are identified by names and documents. Cows and Pigs are identified by numbers. Chickens don’t even have identifying numbers. But they are counted in whole numbers. Fishes are not even counted in whole numbers. Individual fishes are not even considered as separate items. They are counted in kilograms and tones.


Different Scope of Demands

To actually abolish nonhumans’ exploitation, a much more radical change than a formal legal prohibition of selling animal based food is required.
The enslavement of several million humans in a very specific and defined system, which it is pretty clear where it begins and how it can end, is incomparable with the exploitation of trillions of nonhumans, which the scope and definition of their exploitation is obscure and undefined.
Human slavery is compared to institutionalized exploitation, mostly factory farms, but hundreds of thousands of humans privately imprison hundreds of millions of animals (mostly in their backyards) for several exploitive functions – from feeding themselves with their flesh or bodily secretions, worming themselves with their skin, do their labor, carry them or their belongings from place to place, guard their property, amuse them in their houses, amuse them in public places, bet on them, use them to kill other animals and etc.
These few examples don’t begin to cover the list of wrongs done to animals on a regular basis which happen outside of factory farms.

In addition, although human slavery is mostly compared to factory farms, animal liberation means that animals should be liberated from human tyranny. When it comes to animals everything is much more complex, every road dividing habitats, every artificial lighting operated at night, every ship invading the ocean with tremendous noise, with trembling, pollution and collisions, every flying object which does the same in the air, every industrial factory’s polluting materials which animals are always the first to get hurt by.
The abolitionists’ goal was to convince their own people not to force humans from a different culture (who they considered a different race) to work so hard for so little. In theory all that it required was to hire more or less the same people to work on more or less the same farms but as free humans with rights, decent working conditions and a salary.
On the other hand if we take animal liberation seriously, we must vision a world which nothing in it is similar to the one we know today. Veganism is only the first step and we have so far reached less than about 1% of it. Morally we mustn’t compromise on less than a truly free world and that is never going to happen.

Different Settings

Even in the peak of slavery in the United States in the middle of the 19th century, the public opinion was at least bipartile if not in favor of slavery abolishment, since the North, which was against slavery (for self-serving political and ironically racist reasons), was more populated than the South.
So if to analogize, the movement’s “North” is speciesist vegans and the South is the rest of the world. On the eve of the civil war there were about 22 million people in the North and about 9 million in the south, that’s almost double and a half. Vegans are less than 1% of the world population…

And what makes things even worse is that despite that nowadays slavery is not bipartile but the vast majority of humans are against it, still there are more slaves than ever before. So what are the chances of animal liberation when the vast majority of humans are actively supporting their exploitation?

 Different Justifications

Another important difference is the set of justifications to enslave Africans. Besides the de-humanization and savageness that was attributed to Africans, which was used to excuse the supremacy and exploitation, many whites identified themselves as the Africans’ saviors. Many have convinced themselves that black people came from Africa to receive Christianity and if they have, they would gain a place in the next life, which is anyway more important than this one. Whether some wholeheartedly believed in such a paternalistic view, or was it a convenient cynical way to justify what they were doing, is less relevant, the point is that salvation was never used as a justification for animals’ exploitation. The fact that “salvation” was brought up, even merely as an excuse, proves that Africans were seen as humans, not animals. Inferior to white humans in their eyes of course, but still humans, and even ones who can get a place in the afterlife.


Different Emotions Towards the Oppressed

Hate is considered a tougher emotion to crack and relieve, and in many cases it is true. But not always. Sometimes analyzing the roots of hate can neutralize it. On the other hand to turn apathy into empathy, indifference to care, is always hard.
You can convince some that they have no justified reason to hate the other, obviously it is extremely hard and obviously and unfortunately it rarely works, but it seems that it is even harder to make people care about someone they are currently indifferent to.
Caring is much more demanding and energy consuming than stop hating someone.
Trying to convince haters that their hate object is not really the source of their problems would certainly not work in many cases, but little can be done in the case that one group doesn’t consider the other as the source of all their problems but “just” as a convenient raw material.

Generally speaking, most whites hated most blacks. Most humans don’t hate most animals. They definitely feel superior to them but not necessarily hate.
In some of the comparison campaigns images of victims of lynches or hangs are put next to animals who were severely beaten or hanged. But the animals weren’t abused because of hate but “just” to rush them into or down from transportation trucks, and they were hanged because this is the common practice of slaughtering them. Another type of images is of humans in chains or restraining devices next to calves in veal crates or rabbits in Draize test facilities for example. But there is a big difference between the two types of scenarios. In the case of slavery, it is some individuals who were put on these devices as punishment, as opposed to all the animals and as regular procedure. The restraining devices are animals’ living facilities not their penalization devices.


Different Representation

A very dramatic difference between the two struggles is the self-representation factor. Slaves could and have represented their case by themselves, animals can’t. Fredrick Douglas’ autobiography was a best seller and he traveled the North telling people his story and what is slavery like from first hand in his own voice. That was much more effective than William Lloyd Garrison’s journals, and it is definitely more effective than human activists trying to mediate animals’ suffering.

It’s not just about authentic voices that are identifiable for the wide public. The lack of self -representation regards every aspect of the struggle – its aims, its means, its priorities. You can be sure that if animals could represent themselves everything would have been totally different. Even the very definition of what is oppression and what is not.

Different Legitimacy

While the civil war wasn’t really about slavery, violence did play a part in the struggle against it. William Lloyd Garrison was famously non-violent but Nat Turner, David Walker and John Brown, for example, weren’t. Despite that fact, they are studied in history classes. They are unquestionably considered as part of the anti-slavery struggle. We in the Animal Liberation movement can only dream of such legitimacy for violence use.

Even though they faced a much smaller atrocity compared with the one animal liberation activists are fighting against, the use of violence received much more support, some of which came in real time. That shows how vast the gaps are between the status of animals compared with what was the status of slaves, and how legitimate animal exploitation is compared with humans exploitation.
John brown is forever a hero for raiding an army arsenal because he wanted to initiate a slaves rebel, and when AR activists throw paint on a fur coat they are violent aggressors.
And don’t get it wrong, it is not a historical perspective matter, the hanging of John Brown was a public event, he became a martyr a minute after he was judged, not retrospectively, years after slavery was abolished.

Different Narratives

Even if, despite all the causes, reasons and evidences specified in the post regarding the 13th amendment, there are ones who insist on arguing that the abolition movement had a crucial factor in ending slavery in the United States, even in this most flattering scenario, it can only be said that the abolitionists had something to do with the fact that a war broke out. Somehow activists tend to ignore that part in their version of events – that a war, let alone a civil war, was a major factor in the events held before, what is mistakenly considered to be, the ending of slavery in the United States.

It is one thing to insist that the war was about slavery, but it is a totally different story to ignore the fact that one existed. We understand that activists need to believe that it was an ideological dispute, despite all the evidences. However, even in that fairytale version, in the end what eventually turned things around was a war. So if to ignore history and focus on the logic behind the comparison only, if it took a 4 years of civil war with more than 700,000 causalities to free the about 4 million slaves in one country only, do activists really believe that freeing billions of animals all over the world would be gained peacefully? Or is it global war that they offer?
Who in their right mind can even imagine a war between vegans and non-vegans? And even if there are some who do, currently ethical vegans are less than 1% of the human population and probably most of this tiny minority would pass on the war against 99% of the world’s human population.

We don’t see how the abolitionists’ (admirable as they are and inspirational as they are on a personal level) marginal influence is even debatable considering the events before and after the war. The North, generally speaking, was extremely racist before, during and after the war. Colonization programs were considered before, during and after the war (including by Lincoln himself). Several northern states maintained their slaves before, during and after the war. And of course, the war didn’t end slavery which continued in the South for about another century.
If one really wants to believe in that story, still, the allegedly social “change” happened by using coercion and violence. So if there is a historical lesson then it is that if you want to abolish a major exploitative system, start to acquire arms.

Different Atrocities

Marjorie Spiegel made the most thorough, serious and widely known attempt of comparing slavery and institutional exploitation of animals in a book called The Dreaded Comparison.
Though we agree with some of her points, with her title we agree only when it is interpreted exactly the opposite. The comparison is dreaded but for exactly the opposite reasons.

There are several factors which are comparable and some practices are very similar. And of course, the rhetorical power in the comparison is very tempting for advocators, but that is as far as it goes.

Spiegel wraps together different types of exploitations. Some might seem similar to slavery (circuses, zoos, donkeys and horses exploitation and maybe even some animals in laboratories), but the food industry is a whole different story.

As horrible as slavery was and still is, when it comes to the number of aspects of life the exploiters are invading, the depth of their invasion, the exploitation functions, the circumferential systems and facilities of the exploitation, the knowledge and research involved and mainly the extent of the exploitation throughout history, it is incomparable.

Overall, the estimations of the slave trade are of about 30 to 40 million people during a period of about 400 years. When it comes to institutional exploitation of animals that number is suppressed after 2 hours. That is mostly why Spiegel is right, it is a dreaded comparison.


The forming of a breed and the absolute control over its reproduction was never recorded in the history of human exploitation. Slaves were chosen by their body size and teeth condition but their body features weren’t modified according to the masters’ desires, as happens with almost every factory farmed animal today.
Creating an entire breed that is designed by artificial selection for specific profitable body parts is an animal exclusive atrocity, and one of the most dramatic differences between the two.

Cruel family separations were common during the slave trade, but not separating all the parents from all the young, all the time. In institutional animal exploitation the separation between the parents’ population and the offspring population is systematic.
Genocide is a well-known phenomenon in human history, but intentionally systematically artificially creating populations to kill them is animal exclusive.

While the world is getting farther and farther from being slavery-free, as hard as it is to realistically think this institution is abolishable, it is at least imaginable. A world without animals’ exploitation is unimaginable. Not that we can seriously imagine a political, social and economic system without exploitation of humans, but when it comes to nonhumans it is even theoretically impossible.

When the gaps are so enormous and the victims are artificially “produced” in their billions every year, it is not a quantitative difference. In the peak of slavery in the United States there were about 4 million enslaved humans. Every 13 minutes, 4 million animals are murdered in the food industry, most after they have suffered their whole lives.

Obviously the intention of the comparison is anti-speciesist, but it is indeed a dreaded comparison, and a speciesist one. How is it possible to make a comparison between an oppressive system that suppresses the other oppressive system in several parameters, mainly considering that its extent is suppressed in 2 hours only?

The few similarities that we do find are mostly the ones regarding the mindset of the exploiters (for example the need to extremely devalue the “other”), not in the actual status and value of the exploited. Focusing on the exploiters instead of the exploited is done because the mindset of activists is focused on how to change the views of victimizers and not how to free the victims. We have thoroughly addressed this issue in a former post and in a follow up post. Please take the time and read them.

There is something speciesist in insisting on comparing atrocities towards animals to human ones. And if not speciesist since it is done for tactical reasons, then it is at least an admission of the fact that raising empathy towards animals’ suffering, is very difficult if at all relevant for the whole society, so if you disagree that the comparison is speciesist you surely can recognize how sad and depressing it is.

And even if you oppose our criticism of the comparison and insist that it is valid, you should definitely agree with our movement’s meta-argument. If the urge is to take advantage of a given situation and that is truly what stands behind all exploitations, then why insisting on changing humanity and not destroying it? If all along history, when humans observe weaknesses among others, regardless of ethnical origin, color or species, and no matter at which period in history, they take advantage of it , then why not draw the relevant conclusions –if we wish to truly abolish exploitation, we must abolish the exploiters?

Nothing can be compared with humans’ tyranny over animals. Not even the cruelest, most oppressive tyranny of humans over each other. Slavery was and still is an atrocity that we think is in itself a reason why humans must be annihilated. And the fact that such a dreadful atrocity isn’t the worst thing humans have ever done but actually can’t even be compared with the worst one, doesn’t leave room for doubt that how necessary and urgent this moral obligation is.

3 thoughts on “10 Reasons Why Human Slavery and Animal Institutionalized Exploitation Are Incomparable

  1. So far even in *vegan groups* it’s a struggle to make the comparison without being automatically flagged a racist, bc speciesism runs so deep, AND PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS CARE MORE ABOUT PEOPLE THEN OTHER ANIMALS. Attacking the comparison as offensive towards the animals is not something any of them can wrap their speciesist head around

  2. Agree with most of your points, especially the last one.
    Hope one day the comparison will come under fire for downgrading the misery of non-human victims, and not the other way round. So far the comparison being bashed from the opposite direction can be another point in itself to the unbridgeable gap between humans and other animals in the eyes of humans.

  3. Of course there are crucial differences between the 2 systems but stating the common elements is also important in order to understand how oppression functions (even if you don’t believe it is possible to defeat it the analysis is important for battling it).
    I’m not a huge fan of the ecofeminist theory about how the western dualist hierarchal perspective is the source of all evil, but it does make sense that the types of oppressions spring from a common root.
    At first I thought the point of this post was to point out important differences activist (intersectionalists, etc.) glance over, but I noticed at the very end you seem to question the comparison altogether, and that’s taking it too far to the other extreme.

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