A term attributed to British psychologist Richard Ryder, author of Victims of Science (1975), it was popularized by Australian philosopher Peter Singer in Animal Liberation (1975).
Speciesism is the doctrine that certain species are innately superior to others; and is used especially to describe the exploitation of lower species by humans.
Also see: chain of being
T Regan and P Singer, Animal Rights and Human Obligations (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1976)
Origin of the term
The term speciesism, and the argument that it is a prejudice, first appeared in 1970 in a privately printed pamphlet written by British psychologist Richard D. Ryder. Ryder was a member of a group of academics in Oxford, England, the nascent animal rights community, now known as the Oxford Group. One of the group’s activities was distributing pamphlets about areas of concern; the pamphlet titled “Speciesism” was written to protest against animal experimentation. The term was intended by its proponents to create a rhetorical and categorical link to racism and sexism.
Ryder stated in the pamphlet that “[s]ince Darwin, scientists have agreed that there is no ‘magical’ essential difference between humans and other animals, biologically-speaking. Why then do we make an almost total distinction morally? If all organisms are on one physical continuum, then we should also be on the same moral continuum.” He wrote that, at that time in the United Kingdom, 5,000,000 animals were being used each year in experiments, and that attempting to gain benefits for our own species through the mistreatment of others was “just ‘speciesism’ and as such it is a selfish emotional argument rather than a reasoned one”. Ryder used the term again in an essay, “Experiments on Animals”, in Animals, Men and Morals (1971), a collection of essays on animal rights edited by philosophy graduate students Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, who were also members of the Oxford Group. Ryder wrote:
In as much as both “race” and “species” are vague terms used in the classification of living creatures according, largely, to physical appearance, an analogy can be made between them. Discrimination on grounds of race, although most universally condoned two centuries ago, is now widely condemned. Similarly, it may come to pass that enlightened minds may one day abhor “speciesism” as much as they now detest “racism.” The illogicality in both forms of prejudice is of an identical sort. If it is accepted as morally wrong to deliberately inflict suffering upon innocent human creatures, then it is only logical to also regard it as wrong to inflict suffering on innocent individuals of other species. … The time has come to act upon this logic.
Henry S. Salt in his 1892 book Animals’ Rights argued against the “great gulf” between humans and other animals, claiming that we should recognize the “common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood”. In The Universal Kinship (1906), J. Howard Moore asserted that a “provincialist” attitude towards other animals leads humans to mistreat them and compared the denial of an ethical connection between humans and animals to the “denial of ethical relations by a tribe, people, or race of human beings to the rest of the human world.” Moore went on to criticize the anthropocentric perspective of humans, who “think of our acts toward non-human peoples […] entirely from the human point of view. We never take the time to put ourselves in the places of our victims.”
Spread of the idea
The term was popularized by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation (1975). Singer had known Ryder from his own time as a graduate philosophy student at Oxford. He credited Ryder with having coined the term and used it in the title of his book’s fifth chapter: “Man’s Dominion … a short history of speciesism“, defining it as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species”:
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 favouring 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.
Singer stated from a preference-utilitarian perspective, writing that speciesism violates the principle of equal consideration of interests, the idea based on Jeremy Bentham’s principle: “each to count for one, and none for more than one.” Singer stated that, although there may be differences between humans and nonhumans, they share the capacity to suffer, and we must give equal consideration to that suffering. Any position that allows similar cases to be treated in a dissimilar fashion fails to qualify as an acceptable moral theory. The term caught on; Singer wrote that it was an awkward word but that he could not think of a better one. It became an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1985, defined as “discrimination against or exploitation of animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind’s superiority.” In 1994 the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy offered a wider definition: “By analogy with racism and sexism, the improper stance of refusing respect to the lives, dignity, or needs of animals of other than the human species.”
More recently, animal rights groups such as Farm Animal Rights Movement and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have attempted to popularize the concept by promoting a World Day Against Speciesism on June 5.
Moral community, argument from marginal cases
Paola Cavalieri writes that the current humanist paradigm is that only human beings are members of the moral community and that all are worthy of equal protection. Species membership, she writes, is ipso facto moral membership. The paradigm has an inclusive side (all human beings deserve equal protection) and an exclusive one (only human beings have that status).
She writes that it is not only philosophers who have difficulty with this concept. Richard Rorty (1931–2007) stated that most human beings – those outside what he called our “Eurocentric human rights culture” – are unable to understand why membership of a species would in itself be sufficient for inclusion in the moral community: “Most people live in a world in which it would be just too risky – indeed, it would often be insanely dangerous – to let one’s sense of moral community stretch beyond one’s family, clan or tribe.” Rorty wrote:
Such people are morally offended by the suggestion that they should treat someone who is not kin as if he were a brother, or a nigger as if he were white, or a queer as if he were normal, or an infidel as if she were a believer. They are offended by the suggestion that they treat people whom they do not think of as human as if they were human. When utilitarians tell them that all pleasures and pains felt by members of our biological species are equally relevant to moral deliberation, or when Kantians tell them that the ability to engage in such deliberation is sufficient for membership in the moral community, they are incredulous. They rejoin that these philosophers seem oblivious to blatantly obvious moral distinctions, distinctions that any decent person will draw.
Much of humanity is similarly offended by the suggestion that the moral community be extended to nonhumans. Nonhumans do possess some moral status in many societies, but it generally extends only to protection against what Cavalieri calls “wanton cruelty”. Anti-speciesists state that the extension of moral membership to all humanity, regardless of individual properties such as intelligence, while denying it to nonhumans, also regardless of individual properties, is internally inconsistent. According to the argument from marginal cases, if infants, the senile, the comatose, and the cognitively disabled (marginal-case human beings) have a certain moral status, then nonhuman animals must be awarded that status too since there is no morally relevant ability that the marginal-case humans have that nonhumans lack.
American legal scholar Steven M. Wise states that speciesism is a bias as arbitrary as any other. He cites the philosopher R.G. Frey (1941–2012), a leading animal rights critic, who wrote in 1983 that, if forced to choose between abandoning experiments on animals and allowing experiments on “marginal-case” humans, he would choose the latter, “not because I begin a monster and end up choosing the monstrous, but because I cannot think of anything at all compelling that cedes all human life of any quality greater value than animal life of any quality.”
Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, stated against speciesism in The Blind Watchmaker (1986), The Great Ape Project (1993), and The God Delusion (2006), elucidating the connection with evolutionary theory. He compares former racist attitudes and assumptions to their present-day speciesist counterparts. In the chapter “The one true tree of life” in The Blind Watchmaker, he states that it is not only zoological taxonomy that is saved from awkward ambiguity by the extinction of intermediate forms but also human ethics and law. Dawkins states that what he calls the “discontinuous mind” is ubiquitous, dividing the world into units that reflect nothing but our use of language, and animals into discontinuous species:
The director of a zoo is entitled to “put down” a chimpanzee that is surplus to requirements, while any suggestion that he might “put down” a redundant keeper or ticket-seller would be greeted with howls of incredulous outrage. The chimpanzee is the property of the zoo. Humans are nowadays not supposed to be anybody’s property, yet the rationale for discriminating against chimpanzees is seldom spelled out, and I doubt if there is a defensible rationale at all. Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection of any number of intelligent adult chimpanzees! … The only reason we can be comfortable with such a double standard is that the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead.
Dawkins elaborated in a discussion with Singer at The Center for Inquiry in 2007 when asked whether he continues to eat meat: “It’s a little bit like the position which many people would have held a couple of hundred years ago over slavery. Where lots of people felt morally uneasy about slavery but went along with it because the whole economy of the South depended upon slavery.”
David Sztybel states in his paper, “Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?” (2006), that the racism of the Nazis is comparable to the speciesism inherent in eating meat or using animal by-products, particularly those produced on factory farms. Y. Michael Barilan, an Israeli physician, states that speciesism is not the same thing as Nazi racism, because the latter extolled the abuser and condemned the weaker and the abused. He describes speciesism as the recognition of rights on the basis of group membership, rather than solely on the basis of moral considerations.
Centrality of consciousness
“Libertarian extension” is the idea that the intrinsic value of nature can be extended beyond sentient beings. This seeks to apply the principle of individual rights not only to all animals but also to objects without a nervous system such as trees, plants, and rocks. Ryder rejects this argument, writing that “value cannot exist in the absence of consciousness or potential consciousness. Thus, rocks and rivers and houses have no interests and no rights of their own. This does not mean, of course, that they are not of value to us, and to many other painients, including those who need them as habitats and who would suffer without them.”
Arguments in favor
A common theme in defending speciesism is the argument that humans have the right to exploit other species to defend their own. Philosopher Carl Cohen stated in 1986: “Speciesism is not merely plausible; it is essential for right conduct, because those who will not make the morally relevant distinctions among species are almost certain, in consequence, to misapprehend their true obligations.” Cohen writes that racism and sexism are wrong because there are no relevant differences between the sexes or races. Between people and animals, he states, there are significant differences; his view is that animals do not qualify for Kantian personhood, and as such have no rights.
Nel Noddings, the American feminist, has criticized Singer’s concept of speciesism for being simplistic, and for failing to take into account the context of species preference, as concepts of racism and sexism have taken into account the context of discrimination against humans. Peter Staudenmaier has stated that comparisons between speciesism and racism or sexism are trivializing:
The central analogy to the civil rights movement and the women’s movement is trivializing and ahistorical. Both of those social movements were initiated and driven by members of the dispossessed and excluded groups themselves, not by benevolent men or white people acting on their behalf. Both movements were built precisely around the idea of reclaiming and reasserting a shared humanity in the face of a society that had deprived it and denied it. No civil rights activist or feminist ever argued, “We’re sentient beings too!” They argued, “We’re fully human too!” Animal liberation doctrine, far from extending this humanist impulse, directly undermines it.
A similar argument was made by Bernard Williams, who observed that a difference between speciesism versus racism and sexism is that racists and sexists deny any input from those of a different race or sex when it comes to questioning how they should be treated. Conversely, when it comes to how animals should be treated by humans, Williams observed that it is only possible for humans to discuss that question. Williams observed that being a human being is often used as an argument against discrimination on the grounds of race or sex, whereas racism and sexism are seldom deployed to counter discrimination.
Williams also stated in favour of speciesism (which he termed ‘humanism’), arguing that “Why are fancy properties which are grouped under the label of personhood “morally relevant” to issues of destroying a certain kind of animal, while the property of being a human being is not?” Williams states that to respond by arguing that it is because these are properties considered valuable by human beings does not undermine speciesism as humans also consider human beings to be valuable, thus justifying speciesism. Williams then states that the only way to resolve this would be by arguing that these properties are “simply better” but in that case, one would need to justify why these properties are better if not because of human attachment to them. Christopher Grau supported Williams, arguing that if one used properties like rationality, sentience and moral agency as criteria for moral status as an alternative to species-based moral status, then it would need to be shown why these particular properties are to be used instead of others; there must be something that gives them special status. Grau states that to claim these are simply better properties would require the existence of an impartial observer, an “enchanted picture of the universe”, to state them to be so. Thus Grau states that such properties have no greater justification as criteria for moral status than being a member of a species does. Grau also states that even if such an impartial perspective existed, it still wouldn’t necessarily be against speciesism, since it is entirely possible that there could be reasons given by an impartial observer for humans to care about humanity. Grau then further observes that if an impartial observer existed and valued only minimalizing suffering, it would likely be overcome with horror at the suffering of all individuals and would rather have humanity annihilate the planet than allow it to continue. Grau thus concludes that those endorsing the idea of deriving values from an impartial observer do not seem to have seriously considered the conclusions of such an idea.
Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff stated: “By its nature and throughout the animal kingdom, life survives by feeding on life. To demand that man defer to the ‘rights’ of other species is to deprive man himself of the right to life. This is ‘other-ism,’ i.e. altruism, gone mad.”
Douglas Maclean agreed that Singer raised important questions and challenges, particularly with his argument from marginal cases. However, Maclean questioned if different species can be fitted with human morality, observing that animals were generally held exempt from morality; Maclean notes that most people would try to stop a man kidnapping and killing a woman but would regard a hawk capturing and killing a marmot with awe and criticise anyone who tried to intervene. Maclean thus suggests that morality only makes sense under human relations, with the further one gets from it the less it can be applied.
The British philosopher, Roger Scruton, regards the emergence of the animal rights and anti-speciesism movement as “the strangest cultural shift within the liberal worldview”, because the idea of rights and responsibilities is, he states, distinctive to the human condition, and it makes no sense to spread them beyond our own species. Scruton argues that if animals have rights, then they also have duties, which animals would routinely violate, such as by breaking laws or killing other animals. He accuses anti-speciesism advocates of “pre-scientific” anthropomorphism, attributing traits to animals that are, he says, Beatrix Potter-like, where “only man is vile.” It is, he states, a fantasy, a world of escape.
Thomas Wells states that Singer’s call for ending animal suffering would justify simply exterminating every animal on the planet in order to prevent the numerous ways in which they suffer, as they could no longer feel any pain. Wells also stated that by focusing on the suffering humans inflict on animals and ignoring suffering animals inflict upon themselves or that inflicted by nature, Singer is creating a hierarchy where some suffering is more important than others, despite claiming to be committed to equality of suffering. Wells also states that the capacity to suffer, Singer’s criteria for moral status, is one of degree rather than absolute categories; Wells observes that Singer denies moral status to plants on the grounds they cannot subjectively feel anything (even though they react to stimuli), yet Wells alleges there is no indication that non-human animals feel pain and suffering the way humans do.
Robert Nozick notes that if species membership is irrelevant, then this would mean that endangered animals have no special claim.
The Rev. John Tuohey, founder of the Providence Center for Health Care Ethics, writes that the logic behind the anti-speciesism critique is flawed, and that, although the animal rights movement in the United States has been influential in slowing animal experimentation, and in some cases halting particular studies, no one has offered a compelling argument for species equality.
Some proponents of speciesism believe that animals exist so that humans may make use of them. They state that this special status conveys special rights, such as the right to life, and also unique responsibilities, such as stewardship of the environment. This belief in human exceptionalism is often rooted in the Abrahamic religions, such as the Book of Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Animal rights advocates state that dominion refers to stewardship, not ownership. Jesus Christ taught that a person is worth more than many sparrows. But the Imago Dei may be personhood itself, although we humans have only achieved efficiencies in educating and otherwise acculturating humans. Proverbs 12:10 says that “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel