Types of use of the term “speciesism”

Speciesism is often described as a related concept to racism or sexism. The term speciesism has a pejorative connotation, since people who are labeled as speciesists are accused of discriminating against a morally relevant group (non-human animals) without providing valid arguments and convincing reasons for their belief and actions. On the other hand, there are people calling themselves sepciesists as they are actively defending the idea that all humans are morally superior to animals and that the former have moral status because of their supremacy. In the speciesist’s view, any interests of humans – however trivial they may be – almost always take precedence over the interests of non-human animals.

What does speciesism stand for?

Speciesism, in its most general form, contains the idea that the unequal treatment of two living beings is justified by their different species membership. One consequence of speciesist beliefs is that moral rights (e.g. the right to physical integrity or the right not to be killed) are only attached to the species that is defined as morally relevant. Like racism and sexism, speciesism creates a dualistic division between two groups and aims to establish a hierarchy which classifies one group as “inferior” to the other and which is meant to justify why the “superior” one is allowed to hold almost unlimited dominion over the other. This means specifically that humans consider themselves superior to all non-human life and thus feel justified in oppressing and discriminating against those who do not belong to their species.

Although most people are not familiar with the term or use it directly, the unquestioned and obvious exploitation of non-human animals for human purposes is a consequence of the fact that many of us humans have somehow internalised the view that non-human animals have no inherent value and can be exploited, subjected, killed and used in experiments. What makes it difficult to realize the flawed nature of speciesist attitudes is that the exploitation of non-human animals is not only based on individual prejudices against non-human animals, but that speciesism is institutionalized, i.e. widespread and accepted in many social systems.

Like forms of oppression that occure between humans, speciesism is also based on irrational thought processes, unquestioned traditions of reasoning and represents a failure in one’s own ethical attitude. In the following I will present two of the most common ways in which speciesism is defended and I will show why these positions are arbitrary and irrational. The first defense of speciesism takes place through the argument that only the human species has moral status, because only the human species should be morally relevant. The second defense attempts to show that only those intellectual abilities that correspond with the norm of humans are relevant for having moral status. I will briefly discuss both ideas and show that speciesism – like racism and sexism – cannot provide a valid basis for the legitimate granting of moral status to only human beings.

a.) Simple speciesism: Only humans enjoy moral status because they belong to the human species.

The idea behind simple speciesism is that only humans have moral status because only humans are members of the morally relevant species. This claim is flawed because the argument is circular and therefore invalid:

Circular reasoning: A circular argument is an invalid proof which is given when what is to be shown has already been accepted in the argument (the conclusion is already used in the premise). The argument “The Bible is the word of God because the Bible tells us so”, for example, is a circular argument, since what is to be shown (“the Bible is the word of God”) is already presupposed in the argument or assumed to be true (“The Bible tells us that it is the word of God”).

Circular reasoning is also to be found among the advocates of the argument of simple speciesism:

P1Only humans belong to the human species.
P2Only beings belonging to the human species should have moral status.
KHumans are those beings who should have moral status.

Again, what is to be demonstrated in the conclusion (humans should have moral status) is already assumed in the premises (only those belonging to the human species should have moral status). However, such arguments are invalid, because it needs to be shown why only those beings who belong to the human species have a right to exist or a right to bodily integrity. This argument cannot provide such proof. On the contrary, it seems to be completely arbitrary to take species membership as a morally relevant criterion for the granting of rights, since nothing in “to be a part of the humans species“ qualifies one to derive an objective “worthy of moral treatment” or “unworthy of moral treatment” from it. On the other hand, we can deduct from our ability to suffer, for example, that it is better to be without pain than being in a constant state of pain and that therefore beings capable of suffering are worthy of moral treatment to avoid suffering as much as possible – regardless their species membership. As long as the speciesist does not comment on this in more detail, his argument is invalid.

Why should it be reasonable to exploit other living beings just because they do not belong to a certain species? Shouldn’t we rather ask ourselves why we deny moral status to non-human animals when they share so many abilities with us? Why are we allowed to take the lives of non-human animals, separate them from their children and friends, use them for entertainment or perform painful experiments on them if we know that these actions harm them and are causing pain, suffering and other negative subjective feelings?

Another reason a more sophisticated version of speciesism would be needed to defend animal exploitation is that if moral rights are linked exclusively to the concept of the human species, implausible consequences follow. Imagine that another species, distinct from humans but with similar characteristics (e.g. rationality, reflectiveness, moral deliberation) exists. Such a species, although equal to us in many respects, however, would not be entitled to receive moral rights following the simple form of speciesism simply because they are not human beings. This is absurd – also because the reference to biological kinship and characteristics has been and is still used today (e.g. by white supremacists and sexists) to artificially form hierarchies between different people. Such arguments must always be questioned and condemned.

b.) Advanced capacity–speciesism: Only persons with morally relevant capacities have moral status.

As has been noted, pure biological kinship cannot be the determining factor for moral status. Many speciesists have recognized this and instead try to link moral status to the possession of certain abilities.

In western philosophy, beings with "higher" cognitive abilities are often defined as persons. Different philosophers give different arguments as to how sophisticated these abilities must be. According to Tom Regan, for a living being to be considered a person, it must be a "subject-of-a-life": For someone to be a subject-of-a-life they must have the ability to have desires and beliefs, to remember the past and anticipate future events, to be intentional, to be sentient. Thus, according to Regan, most non-human animals as well as humans are persons and receive moral stauts.1 According to this idea of personhood, some animals such as apes or dolphins would also count as persons since they meet all the conditions mentioned above. However, the definition of a person is usually restricted so that only some members of the human species meet the requirements. The criterions often mentioned which then determine personhood are the ability to reflect, to speak, and to form thoughts about emotions or desires. Since animals cannot do all of this, they are not considered persons.2 The problem now is that in philosophy personhood is often automatically equated with moral consideration.

Advocates of the advanced form of speciesism are now addressing the second conception of personhood. In doing so, the speciesist refers to a species-characterising capacity of humans (e.g. ability to reflect, to speak or to think logically) and thus concludes that it is precisely this capacity that constitutes moral relevance. Humans, for example, unlike animals, are able to use language, reflect upon desires and solve complicated mathematical problems. Speciesists can now argue that animals are not receiving moral status because they do not possess these specific qualities and since these qualities are needed to be included in the sphere of morally considerable beings, animals do not receive moral rights.

The most common objection to this approach is called the argument from species overlaps. Opponents of capacity-speciesism argue that higher cognitive abilities are not decisive for moral status since many humans do not possess them. Mentally severely disabled, dementia, comatose, babies and infants do not have the morally relevant abilities to fall into the category of morally considerable beings. Nevertheless, we think that human non-persons have a right to life and physical integrity no matter if they are not able to speak or can form thoughts about other thoughts or desires. If capacity speciesism is true, we cannot explain why it should be considered wrong to breed, eat, or conduct painful experiments on mentally disabled people for the benefit of human persons. As soon as one refers to the fact that they have rights simply because they belong to the human species, one falls back into simple speciesism discussed above, which, as has been shown, is circular, irrational and not defensible without further argument.

Another problem the more sophisticated approach has to deal with is that it does not explain why rationality and reflectivity should determine who receives basic rights and who does not. Just because some humans can solve complex mathematical problems and evaluate their desires, this will not justify why it is okay for non-human animals to suffer for us. It seems like being able to feel pain is a more plausible criterion for explaining why we should treat each other respectfully. Non-human animals are – just like us – beings capable of suffering. They suffer if they are farmed, exploited, enslaved and killed. Moreover, killing - no matter what the life of the non-human animal was like beforehand - always constitutes a non-consensual denial of future experiences and the extinction of an entire existence that was important to that specific living being. Why does the capacity of reason give humans the right to exploit and execute differently intelligent and sentient beings? Why shouldn’t we instead focus on characteristics that humans and animals have in common when formulating moral principles? If we know that our actions cause subjective harm to a living being, isn’t that reason enough to refrain from performing those actions even if the being that is harmed does not have exactely the same cognitive abilities as most humans?

As with the concept of simple speciesism, the sophisticated approach cannot withstand certain thought experiments. Imagine a species sharing the same characteristics as humans, but with the ability to telepath and solve complex abstract problems in a matter of seconds without any assistance (just like high-performance computers). Thus, this species is much more intelligent than the human race. The members of this species could now determine, as humans do with animals today, that telepathy and the ability to have extraordinarily high cognitive abilities (which humans do not possess) are the criteria that determine whether a being is morally considerable. Such beings would have the right to enslave, breed and eat us because they are far cleverer and more eloquent than we are. This result, of course, is quite counter-intuitive because it seems more plausible to attach the right to live to the criterion of sentience or to the capacity to have intentional states as to forms of intelligence – because, no matter how short-minded humans seem in the eyes of the foreign species, people would suffer when they get killed to serve as food or used for painful experiments. Although one species seems to be more intelligent than another, it does not automatically follow that one species can use the other as a means to their ends.

Speciesism in modern day society

As already mentioned at the beginning of this article, speciesism is a common concept in almost all parts of the world. Because we assume that animals are not bearers of moral rights, we also believe that it is not wrong to kill or use them for our purposes. Even within cultures where speciesism is commonplace, i.e. where the consumption of flesh, dairy and eggs is the norm, certain non-human species are considered superior to others. It seems that we attribute a higher value to certain non-human species such as dogs and cats than to non-human animals that are killed for their body parts. But in fact, we do not grant rights to so-called “pets” either, since they too are regarded merely as the property of humans and their value is in most cases defined in a purely instrumental way. Dogs and cats also suffer from speciesist norms, their value is measured by the benefit to humans and we are free to discard them as soon as they cause us difficulties or are no longer of interest to us. An anti-speciesist attitude thus not only questions and condemns speciesist prejudices against non-human animals whose bodies are abused for consumption, experiments or clothing, but also sheds light on human-animal relations and our speciesist treatment of non-human animals in general. Anti-speciesism is a social justice movement which demands basic moral rights for non-human animals as well as humans and supports an ongoing debate on the speciesist treatment of non human animals in everyday life and on the power structures that initiate, facilitate, and promote it (e.g., the influence of capitalism and white supremacy on speciesist values) and that also disadvantage other humans.

  1. Regan, Tom, The Case for Animal Rights, Berkeley/Los Angeles 2004.
  2. Frankfurt, Harry G., Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person, in: The Journal of Philosophy, Bd. 68, Nr. 1, 1971.