The fight to end speciesism is central to the entire Animal Rights movement and philosophy. Unfortunately, it is by far one of the cause’s most misunderstood concepts leading to many strawmen arguments against it and resulting in the masses not taking it seriously. I'm writing this essay to discuss the concept, clear up some misconceptions and respond to some opposition.
NOTE: Many of the excerpts in this essay are from Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. I highly recommend checking out the first chapter of this book here, it is only 20 pages long and caused the entire animal rights movement and existence of PETA. If you’re going to try fault a philosophy, at least be familiar with its source arguments.
What Speciesism Is
Speciesism is the concept of discriminating against other beings based on their species. It’s primarily meant to apply to humans, and how we discriminate against other animals, as well as our tendency to put some species above others. we love dogs, but we will eat cows, etc.
As Peter Singer writes in Animal Liberation:
“Speciesism…is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of another species"
He explains it further when he explains the term is defined analogously to racism and sexism:
“Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favoring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.”
It is clear that animals and humans do not always share the same interests - humans often have an interest in being able to vote, owning property, getting an education etc. These interests are not shared by nonhuman animals. However, humans and animals do share some similar interests, such as an interest in food, water, shelter, companionship, freedom of movement, not being killed and avoidance of pain. Speciesists, however, are content in the belief that human interests should always be given more weight than animal interests in the absence of morally relevant differences. For example, a speciesist would see no ethical problem slaughtering a pig so a human can eat it for convenience or pleasure (that is, when it is not necessary for the human’s health or survival). In this case, the pig’s interest in living has been traded in favor of the human’s interest in indulging in a particular taste. Another example would be to compare a human and a dog being experimented on. Although dogs and humans feel pain the same way and would suffer equally, speciesist beliefs assert that it is inherently worse for this to happen to the human.
What Speciesism is Not (The Burning Building)
It's not long into a discussion about the ethics of speciesism when the famous "burning building" scenario comes up. The situation is that you are in a burning building and you can only save one - a human or a dog. In this scenario, Speciesism would be choosing to save the human solely because it’s a human.
Pretty simple, but where people mess up is in their understanding of anti-speciesism. Most people take anti-speciesism to mean “all species are equal in regard to moral relevance”. So, ethically, “there’s no difference” between choosing the dog or the human.
This is false, this is not what anti-speciesism is. To quote Singer again:
“This does not mean that to avoid speciesism we must hold that it is as wrong to kill a dog as it is to kill a human being in full possession of his or her faculties. The only position that is irredeemably speciesist is the one that tries to make the boundary of the right to life run exactly parallel to the boundary of our own species”.
Anti-speciesism is not the position that “all animals have equal worth”, it is that ‘’species membership’’ is irrelevant in deciding the moral worth of a being’s life or suffering.
The taking of life is a very specific case, and has different considerations to bear in mind than when comparing animal and human suffering (which is equal). There may very well be reasons to save the human's life over the dog's, but this choice has nothing to do with species. As Singer writes:
“There are many matters in which the superior mental powers of normal adult humans make a difference: anticipation, more detailed memory, greater knowledge of what is happening, and so on. Yet these differences do not all point to greater suffering on the part of the normal human being”
and then in his essay "Speciesism and Moral Status":
“I accept the normative view that there is a greater significance in killing a being who has plans for the future – who wishes to accomplish things – than there is killing a being who is incapable of thinking about the future at all but exists either moment to moment or within a very short-time horizon (for example, a time horizon limited to thinking about eating something in the near future)…….It is, other things being equal, much less a tragedy to kill that sort of being than to kill someone who wants to live long enough to do the sorts of things that humans typically want to achieve over the course of their lives."
This is a “graduated view” of moral status, as Singer puts it, that’s based on cognitive ability and therefore, degree of suffering.
So, in the burning building, it’s rational to save the human over the dog because the average human is more sentient than the average dog, and thus would likely experience more anguish. Similarly, it would be rational to choose the dog over a fish, or a fish over a beetle.
However, this does NOT mean that it is always rational to choose the human over the dog (or fish over the beetle).
“We may legitimately hold that there are some features of certain beings that make their lives more valuable than those of other beings; but there will surely be some nonhuman animals whose lives, by any standards, are more valuable than the lives of some humans. A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of seIf-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility. So if we base the right to life on these characteristics we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans.”
In such a case, where the choice is between saving a severely cognitively disabled human or a fully sentient dog, the rational moral choice would be to save the dog. A choice between a fully aware chimp or a person in a state of advanced senility would demand rational people to save the chimp instead for similar reasons. A speciesist would always save the human. There would never be a case where they would value the animal over the human. The sole fact that “they are human” takes precedence over everything else. This is the same as when whites regarded whites as more important than blacks "just because they are white".
Real World Consequences
"If the speciesist and non-speciesist will make the same decision 99% of the time, what’s the problem?"
The problem, unfortunately, is enormous. When we accept that speciesism is “at least theoretically” wrong, we run into massive problems with how we currently treat other non-human animals. Our entire societies and cultures are built on the idea that humans are infinitely more important than other animals, but realizing that speciesism is an indefensible philosophy destroys this.
Consider animal testing. We view it justified to experiment on mice, but not on humans, because the mice are less sentient than we are. Fine. But would you agree with experimentation on severely-cognitively-disabled humans whose sentience was less then that of the mice? If you would not (which most people wouldn’t) you are committing speciesism.
Consider every widespread practice that we currently condone with animals: raising them in overcrowded cages in factory farms, killing their kids so we can have their milk, grinding newborn baby chicks alive in the egg industry, killing them for their skins, locking them in cages in zoos, abusing them to perform tricks for us in the circus, racing them for gambling purposes, and sacrificing them for medical experiments for “the greater good”. We would NEVER consider it OK to do these things to other humans, but we think nothing of doing it to other animals because “they are less intelligent” or “less aware”. However, many humans are less sentient than these animals, like the senile, the comatose, very young babies, people with advanced dementia, and the otherwise mentally-impaired. But it’s not considered OK to exploit these people. Why? Well, because they are human.
When PETA made their infamous “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, comparing concentration camps to modern factory farms and slaughterhouses, this was branded a disgrace and received overwhelming backlash. Why? Because human lives are more important. OK fine, that’s not inconsistent with being anti-speciesist as we’ve discussed. Now imagine there was a massive genocide of people that are so medically mentally-impaired they have less intelligence than chickens. Would their lives matter? If you think saving these hypothetical human’s lives would be a moral necessity but killing animals in a slaughterhouse is fine, you are committing speciesism.
If we accept speciesism is irrational, the entire animal industrial complex must be ceased for us to be morally consistent.
The bottom line is this: Look at any practice we condone with animals, now replace the animals with humans at comparable mental levels. If you think it's morally OK to do it to the animals but you would not consider it morally OK to do to these humans you are committing speciesism.
Discrimination in its Purest Form
From Gary Yourofsky:
"Human beings claim to be compassionate, claim to be know better, but then we turn around and do the same horrible things to the animals that we’ve done to each other, that logical people now condemn. What we’ve done to Blacks, what we’ve done to woman, what we do to homosexuals. It is time to eradicate all forms of discrimination once and for all. From speciesism down the line. But let me point this out too; you’re never gonna get rid of racism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism until you destroy discrimination at its root and that root is speciesism, It’s the first form of hatred human beings are taught. Before any White person is ever taught to hate a Black person, if they are taught that, before any man is ever taught to hate and dominate a woman, if they are taught that, they are taught to eat the cow, eat the pig, eat the chicken, disregard this animal, love the dog, love the horse, be sad for rhino, love the elephant, but fuck those fish. it’s all backwards. If you want to get rid of all the forms of hatred–get rid of speciesism...... You teach [kids] justice and teach them to respect the weakest, even the most insignificant of creatures–a mouse, a chicken. Think about this; if you teach that to a child, when child grows up and sees different sizes, shapes and colors of human beings. How do they learn to hate them? Because that’s what it boils down to. discrimination, speciesism. It’s all based on sizes, shapes and colors and you want to treat certain sizes, shapes and colors better than other ones? No you treat everyone equally, that’s all vegans, that’s all animal rights people want is equality."
"As long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love"
From Leo Tolstoy:
"As long as there are slaughterhouses.....there will be battlefields"
Finally, from Peter Singer:
“All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering, the animals are our equals”
Make the connection.