Speciesism: does it exist and should we care?
What is Speciesism?
In the 1970s an Australian moral philosopher named Peter Singer coined a term that was equally as controversial then as it is now: speciesism. Singer considers speciesism on the same morally relevant level as racism, sexism and even ableism. According to him, speciesism is defined as the human belief of inherent superiority of their species over all nonhuman animals. He argues that the understanding of nonhuman animals as inherently expendable and less valuable than humans is archaic and should not have a place in contemporary society (Singer, 1975).
With regard to the moral standing of animals, most scholars agree that animals do feel pain and suffering in a way that can be considered on the same level of humans (Singer, 1975; Frey, 2005; Patterson, 2002). However, many opponents of the idea of speciesism argue that while they may have moral standing in society, nonhuman animals hold less inherent value than human ones (Frey, 2005). If we are saying then, that we can perform experiments on animals and cause them suffering, where do we draw the line on who judges the value of other living beings? The idea of value and who or what holds more than others is entirely subjective. The understanding of value will vary from one person to the next, across time as well as the type of animal being evaluated.
Consider, for example, a person who has a dog as a pet, and another person who has a bird as a pet. They may both love their pets equally and would do anything to help their pet through hard times. However, the dog owner is likely to place more value on a dogs life than a bird’s life, and the bird owner potentially vice versa. Does this mean, then, that the dog owner is permitted to cause harm and suffering to any bird, and the bird owner to any dog, simply because they believe that the other pet holds less value? This example may be slightly exaggerated, but the point holds true. Just because some humans believe that one animal holds more value than another does not mean that they can harm the other animal on the basis of their inherent inferiority.
Recently, animal rights activists have been working to achieve basic legal rights for nonhuman animals that are comparable to those afforded to humans. However, they have been continually denied on the basis that nonhuman animals are not as conscious or as intelligent as humans. Peter Singer argued that while we may not be able to understand nonhuman animal communication, or see their intelligence in the same way as we understand these things in humans, we cannot disprove any value animals may hold based on this misunderstanding (Singer, 1975). He argues, quite controversially, that there are certain humans who exhibit similar characteristics that prevent nonhuman animals from being included in the sphere of human rights. For example, young children, people with intellectual disabilities and people in a comatose state are not able to communicate in the same way as the average human. However, these people are still afforded the same rights as all other humans. The criteria for devaluing nonhuman animals, then, is arbitrary and inconsistent when applied to humans. If these humans are given the same rights as others, why, then, should nonhuman animals not be extended the same consideration?
Now, you may be thinking that some of the rights afforded to humans such as the right to vote or the right to equal access to jobs are not applicable to animals, and you would be right. Simply asking for equal consideration under the law does not mean that nonhuman animals should be afforded identical rights and freedoms as humans, but rather their lives should be considered as equal in value. Or, as Peter Singer puts it: “The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration” (1975, p. 2: emphasis in original).
Gender, Race, Ability and Species
So now that you understand what speciesism is, you may be wondering why we should care about it given that we are all (probably) humans who seek to benefit from the superiority of our species over all other living creatures. After all, the food chain exists for a reason, right? Well, this argument may not be so straightforward anymore. With the rapid increase in capitalist views, individualization in society and the rise of industrial farming, the hierarchy within the food chain is beginning to be quite unequal. The use of technological mechanisms for breeding, hunting, killing and utilizing nonhuman animal bodies puts humans at an exaggerated advantage over all other animals. This advantage is one that has not been seen before and may work to increase the gap between humans and nonhuman animals on an evolutionary scale.
Not only are humans devouring nonhuman animals at an all time high rate, but we are using technological and medical advances to increase the efficiency at which animals reproduce and are subsequently slaughtered for food. In addition, we are also complicit in their torture and suffering for medical, cosmetic and entertainment purposes. While the food chain may dictate that humans are at the top of the pecking order, no hierarchy exists that justifies the objectification of another life for personal gain.
More than that, effects of speciesism work to reinforce both sexism and racism despite the seemingly individual nature of the discrimination. In the same way, racist and sexist sentiments also reinforce the low status placed on animals. Language is an important tool in the continued discrimination against both women and nonhuman animals (Dunayer, 1995). Through the use of animal comparisons as insults toward humans, specifically female animals, the social hierarchy of humans above animals and male humans above female humans is reinforced in subconscious ways. For example, referring to women as chickens in any sense (young women as “chicks”, gatherings of women as “hen parties”, etc.) is harmful to women because of the value placed on chickens. Hens tend to be valued and used for their bodies (flesh) and reproductive abilities (eggs) more than anything else. A comparison can be drawn to women in that their value often rests on their ability to procreate. Further, referring to a young woman as a “chick” diminishes her value to that of a body to be used for another human’s benefit (presumably a man). Lastly, “hen party”, or a gathering of hens without a rooster, removes all substance or value that is held within a woman’s experience that does not seek to serve her exploiter.
A similar dynamic can be seen when we consider the historic treatment of people of colour. Slavery, the Holocaust and the Vietnam war represent a few of the many instances in history where the devaluation of certain human lives has been seen to lead to violence and mistreatment similar to that which we continue to commit against nonhuman animals (Patterson, 2002). Charles Patterson explores the implications of this devaluation (2002). Essentially, in order for masters, soldiers and others to be capable of treating fellow humans in such deplorable ways, they were convinced that the minority group was inherent less valuable than themselves. As mentioned previously, this lower value was considered adequate reasoning for mistreatment, harm and suffering to be caused (Patterson, 2002). During each of these times, members of the oppressed minority group were considered of equal or lesser value than rodents (the lowest animal on the social hierarchy). As a result, violence and suffering was justified because those creating the harm were considered to hold more inherent value than the ones suffering. This dynamic mirrors the previously discussed relations between humans and nonhuman animals. This leaves only one question: is violence justifiable on the basis of perceived inherent value of the creature as compared to that within the perpetrator?
Should a strict vegetarian or vegan diet be a social moral goal? Should we work harder to end animal testing? Where do we draw the line on animal rights? Should a line be drawn? Can we live a life in which there exists absolutely zero harm towards living things? Must there exist a hierarchy of value? We are left with more questions than answers. However, this hopefully will add to the conversation about speciesism and provoke thoughtful responses to the idea of speciesism and/or animal rights activism.
Dunayer, J. (1995). “Sexist Words, Speciesist Roots,” in Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan
(eds.), Women and Animals: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 11-31.
Frey, R. (2005). Pain, vivisection, and the value of life. Journal of Medical Ethics, 31(4), 202-4;
Patterson, C. (2002). Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York:
Lantern Books, 27-50.
Singer, P. (1975). Animal Liberation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, (2009 ), 1-23.