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I am a politically-progressive, ethically-herbivorous anthropoid pursuing a paleontology education in the Los Angeles Basin. I am largely nocturnal, have rarely been photographed, and cannot thrive in captivity.

20 October 2011

The Trouble With "Speciesism"

I can count on less than one hand the number of times I've ever used the word "speciesist" as a pejorative for someone who believes in human supremacy. I mean, let's face it, it just doesn't have the same pizzazz as "racist" or "sexist." Maybe it has too many syllables (though that doesn't seem to hurt "homophobia"); maybe an alternate name would be better. Taxonist? Cladist? Human Supremacist?

But there's a problem with "speciesist" aside from its clumsiness: it's counter-intuitive. It implies an equality of species that most humans are simply incapable of accepting. And that's an obstacle that repeated use of the word may not be able to overcome.

I've never much used the word for this very reason. Most people already agree that killing and hurting animals unjustly is wrong. Most people already have a sufficient-enough level of cross-species empathy that they can intuit why factory farming is wrong. There really isn't much need, in my view, to invent a whole new ethical system to promote veganism. We really just have to get more humans to take their own professed values seriously, and to think before they eat.

Every species is different from all others in fundamental ways. That is what it means to be a species. And while it's true that this fact alone is not enough to justify the horrid things we do to nonhuman animals, it's also not an ideological construct in the same way that, say, race or gender are. Humans and nonhumans really are fundamentally different, and the farther afield one gets from our clade, the more pronounced those differences get. Pretending these differences don't exist, or that they are irrelevant in ethics, is to my mind a losing battle.

I've always thought of the issue in these terms: animals have interests of their own, independent of how our species feels about them. And animals should be left alone to pursue those interests; the benefit of the doubt should go to them in situations where our own species or individual interest is not in conflict with theirs. When our interests are in conflict, those of animals ought not be dismissed simply because they are nonhuman.

In practical terms, this is a more than sufficient case for veganism: for most people living today, exploiting animals for food is completely unnecessary. That they taste good and are made convenient to us are not just cause for overriding animals' interests in themselves, and certainly not for the hell we inflict on them with modern farming practices.

While we're on the subject, I've only rarely ever used the phrase "animal rights," too, and for much the same reason I've avoided "speciesist." My view has always been one of a more laissez-faire approach to animals than a social contract: just let them alone, and leave them free to pursue their own lives and interests.

Does this make me an animal libertarian?


  1. "Most people already agree that killing and hurting animals unjustly is wrong. Most people already have a sufficient-enough level of cross-species empathy that they can intuit why factory farming is wrong. There really isn't much need, in my view, to invent a whole new ethical system to promote veganism. We really just have to get more humans to take their own professed values seriously, and to think before they eat."

    I mostly agree with the above, however, some people are willing to kill animals themselves, and some people hunt for sport. Perhaps this is a minority of people. A larger proportion of people have no problem with piercing a fish's face with a sharp hook and leaving them to suffocate. This may well be because a troublingly large percentage of people don't think that fish can feel pain. I have also spoken to people who are not willing to consider pigs as anything more than 'food animals', and refuse to discuss the difference between their view of dogs and pigs, even though they are similarly intelligent and capable of fear and pain. This seems to indicate that speciesism is alive and kicking.

    On speciesism and equality:

    Being against speciesism doesn't mean that you have to pretend that there are no differences between species, just like being against racism doesn't mean that you have to pretend that there are no differences between races. If we view humans as equal, it does not mean that everyone has the same characteristics and capabilities, but that we grant equal consideration for humans' equal interests.

    Peter Singer illustrates this very well in his essay "All Animals are Equal" http://www.animal-rights-library.com/texts-m/singer02.pdf

    One basic premise of his essay is that all animals deserve equal consideration of equal interests. You don't have to worry about affording dogs the right to vote (they have no interest in voting), but if a human child and a pig have the same interest in not experiencing pain, the willingness to inflict pain on the pig but not the child is based on speciesist prejudice in the same way that being more willing to hurt someone of another race is based on racist prejudice. Some might argue that the child can suffer psychological damage that the pig might not, but this does not mean that we can simply ignore pigs' interests in not being hurt, and besides, there is a chance that pigs can suffer psychological damage from being hurt physically, too.

    It is true that other animals have different interests - few species of animal maintain long-term contact with their parents, so removing some young animals from their parents won't have the same psychological effects on some animals as it would in humans. However, many humans overlook the fact that many non-human animals can be hurt emotionally. Examples include some of the tragic experiments where monkeys were removed from their mothers at a young age, and the emotional impact on dairy cows when their calves are taken away shortly after birth. It is difficult to say whether the emotional connection between a mother cow and her calf is comparable to the connection between a human mother and her baby, but based on the cow's reaction to the separation, she has very strong feelings about her calf being taken away. There is no question that there is prejudice at work when humans are willing to treat nonhumans in this way while they would never inflict the same emotional anguish on humans.

    As far as human rights go, I agree with Singer that the concept of 'rights' is only useful as a shorthand for interests that can be violated (I think he mentions this in 'Practical Ethics'), thus if a human can be described as having rights purely based on having interests, then the same can be said of non-human animals.

  2. "Animal rights" and "antispeciesism" are terms from philosophy. WAnd I think you're more talking about effective activism.

    Whereas Vegan Outreach's form of activism seems to be the most effective (at least in the US), I still think the "animal advocacy" movement needs a moral (philosophical) basis, i.e. animal rights and antispeciesism.

    If "animals should be left alone" is not 100% clear to me. I don't think for example a dog should be allowed to kill a mouse (or cat) if we are there and could prevent him from doing so.

    The most problematic thing with antispeciesism is the big question mark of where consistent antispeciesism would lead ;)

  3. I agree with everything you both just said, for the most part. I guess my problem isn't with speciesism as a concept, but as a label. It just hasn't caught on, and isn't likely to, in my opinion.

    Calling something "speciesist" -- even if that's what it is -- doesn't pack the same punch outside of vegan circles as do the labels "racist" and "sexist."

    I suppose my concern is with communicating the idea to non-vegans without making what sounds to them like a strained analogy. If people can't relate the concept to their own experience, they're less likely to embrace it.

    Not sure what to do about it, though.

  4. Hi Rob,

    I know exactly what you mean. I'm not sure that the term "racist" was catchy when racism was a dominant (and thus invisible) ideology. Perhaps someday people will look back, facepalm and wonder how their ancestors could have been so speciesist.

    My feeling is that humans operate more on what we feel is right than we realise, even people who pride themselves on being especially rational. Unfortunately our feelings - and as a consequence, our thoughts - on right and wrong are heavily influenced by tradition and upbringing. Before I read about speciesism, I saw videos of animals suffering on farms and in slaughterhouses, and I was emotionally moved to try and refrain from contributing to what I saw. The realisation that their suffering was no different from that of dogs or cats was part logic and part empathy. I have no idea how I would have reacted to the idea of speciesism before this realisation. I'm sure that it took similar emotional shocks for people to realise that there was something wrong with discrimination based on race.

    I think a more important question than "how do we communicate the idea to non-vegans", would be "what should we try to communicate to non-vegans?"

    I used to think that all it would take to get people to change their food choices would be to communicate this new philosophy to people, and that they would immediately see the sense of it, but I met resistance almost without fail.

    Most people do not actively think about the philosophy behind their actions, but we mostly manage not to murder each other senselessly; and as you pointed out, most people are against animal abuse where they are aware of abuse taking place and they view the animals as beings with minds (I think farmed animals and fish are often viewed almost more as objects than individuals).

    I think the following is important:

    - Educate people about farming and slaughter: leafletting, speaking in schools, demos, pay-per-view demonstrations, ad campaigns, and television adverts (if they will ever be allowed). Many people in my generation may be too hardened to suffering or new ways of thinking to change their habits, but I think that young people up to university age are more open to absorbing new information about how farmed animals are treated.

    - Never make non-vegans feel like the bad guys, this will make them ignore everything you say. Having said this, many people seem to take offence at just hearing what happens to farmed animals - there's not much we can do about this. But I do think that vegans should refrain from calling non-vegans bad people or calling them out on their ethics.

    - Give people options to help farmed animals even if they say "I will never give up meat" - I think that some people can't imagine the faintest possibility of going vegan or vegetarian, and if they think that you can only help animals by going vegan overnight, they might rather ignore the whole issue. Tell people that battery farmed eggs are usually worse than free range and that non-free range pig and chicken meat has a higher likelihood of coming from animals who lived in horrific conditions than most meat. Tell people that veal is especially bad. Suggest reducing meat consumption. Find out which supermarkets have slightly better animal welfare (I know, an abused word) standards and suggest better purchases to those family members who will never ever consider going vegetarian. Perhaps if we can get some people to take small steps in the right direction, they might start thinking about animal suffering on farms instead of ignoring it completely.

  5. Hi,

    (and btw amazing blog - don't stop!)

    I'm currently "working" with the Spanish speaking animal rights/vegan movement and antispeciesist activism is atm quite common. I will observe and watch how effective it is.

    Also see our Interview with professor Óscar Horta (the man behind the Spanish speaking antispeciesism ;)


  6. "Not sure what to do about it, though."

    Keep at it. Getting the concept across is more important than getting the term into common usage. We rescue some animals, and eat others regardless of their common interests. We deny some animals the right to be left alone simply for not belonging to the human species. It's pervasive thinking, true. But it is also irrational, and it should be examined and countered as best we can.

    Embracing welfarism and single issue campaigning as Therese suggests is exactly the wrong way to go though. You can't expect anyone to grasp the idea that animals should be given equal consideration by elevating one over another or suggesting treatment you would never suggest for a human.

    I highly recommend Gary Francione's definitive book on the topic: http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Animal-Rights-Your-Child/dp/1566396921/

  7. The term speciesism was developed as part of a Utilitarian approach to animal rights/welfare/issues. It's not the only approach and it may not be the approach that is most effective in animal advocacy.

    Certainly, I agree with you that a belief in the equality of all sentient species is not necessary for veganism. In fact, there's no particular belief that is necessary because veganism is about actions, not beliefs.

    Refrain from using animal products as much as practical and possible, refrain from harming animals as much as possible and practical, and voila, you're vegan. The animals don't care about our philosophical debates. They care about their lives, their freedom, their loved ones.