A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversible animal, than an infant of a day, a week or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
– Jeremy Bentham, 1789
Think of any “human” trait. In most, if not all cases, there are humans who lack that trait — and nonhuman animals who exhibit it. Some human beings lack the intelligence, eloquence, or reasoning skills of others, and yet we view all humans as morally equal, and believe that no human’s interests or suffering matters more than another’s.
So how can we justify disregarding the interests or suffering of nonhuman animals? How can we justify our unrelenting abuse of nonhuman animals for profit? We believe there is no such justification: equal suffering should count equally. Counting it for anything less would amount to arbitrary discrimination.
Sadly, arguments like Bentham’s have been overlooked by most of human society for centuries. It was not until the 1970’s that philosopher Peter Singer picked up where Bentham left off with the groundbreaking work Animal Liberation. Singer popularized the term “speciesism”, articulating the discrimination in how humans view other animals.
What is speciesism?
Speciesism is discrimination based on species membership. It’s why someone can eat a pig while caring for a dog. It’s the reason we give humans a right to their lives, while denying other animals the same. It’s why we use the word “animal” solely for nonhuman animals, despite the fact that humans are animals too. It’s what enables us to cram thousands of chickens into a dark, filthy shed. It’s why some people are distressed about dolphins caught in fishing nets, but unperturbed by the fish. It’s what makes killing one individual “murder”, and another “sport”. It’s slaughterhouses.
Antispeciesism is opposition to discrimination based on species membership. It’s the acceptance that pigs and dogs have equal interests in being free from suffering, and means not harming or eating either. It’s resistance to the forces pressuring us to use, eat, wear, or otherwise disregard nonhuman beings. Antispeciesism is the view that suffering counts equally, no matter the species of the individuals involved.
Antispeciesism does not require that we treat all organisms equally, rather, it simply requires that we consider interests of equal strength to an equal extent, regardless of the species membership of those involved. For example, antispeciesism does not require that we give gorillas the right to vote — gorillas have neither the capability to use, nor an interest in, such a right. Antispeciesism does require us to consider gorillas’ interests in life, social relationships, and freedom from physical and psychological suffering, and to avoid frustrating these interests as far as is practical and possible.
Speciesism in the discussion on animal rights
There are some commonly used justifications for denying other animals protections or rights. Some are motivated by speciesism, some are not. To determine whether speciesism is the cause of our resistance to giving rights to nonhuman animals, we can use the following heuristics: 1) Is the justification for denying such protections morally relevant? And 2) If it is, does it apply only to humans, and to all humans?
Many arguments for denying nonhuman animals a consideration of their most basic interests rely on human exceptionalism, and these arguments are universally motivated by speciesism (or more specifically, anthropocentrism). When examining animals’ cognitive abilities, we find that we readily move the goalposts of what constitutes this perceived exceptionalism, when we find that fish can use and invent tools, octopuses can solve puzzles, infant pigs can use mirrors, prairie dogs communicate with verbal symbols, dolphins can use language to coordinate on a problem, chimpanzees have metacognition and can deceive, jays have episodic memories, elephants grieve, chickens pass down cultural knowledge, rats engage in acts of altruism, crows and dogs play, nonhuman animals can have psychopathologies and are capable of depression, ad infinitum. Our desperation to assert that some exceptional trait separates humans from all other animals reveals how deep our speciesism goes: despite our knowledge of evolution and genetics, and in spite of continuously mounting cognitive and behavioral science demonstrating how much we share with nonhumans, we are resistant to accept that we are just another of many animal species.
Some particularly common refrains used to justify denying nonhuman animals rights are that they are not intelligent, they cannot talk, or they cannot reason about morality or perform contractual obligations. Forget for a moment that these assertions are broadly incorrect and there are nonhumans who surpass young human children in reasoning ability and adults in other cognitive feats, and others who use language and make moral decisions. Instead, imagine if these criteria were applied to humans: we would rightly be outraged at the proposal that some humans should receive substantially less moral consideration than others simply for being less intelligent, or less articulate, or because they are too young or mentally disabled to behave morally, or are otherwise incapable of entering contracts or bearing responsibilities. These traits do not determine whether we care about other humans’ well-being. So not only do these criteria fail to create a meaningful distinction between humans and other animals, but we already consider them morally irrelevant anyways.
Sometimes it’s argued that a being should be granted rights based on the average capacities or interests of their group, but this argument does not hold up under scrutiny either. If we consider a species’ average capacity, then a young child should be allowed to drive, and a male should be able to demand the same access to public prenatal health services as a pregnant female. The former would be dangerous; the latter would be useless. Neither would make it far in court. Not only do we not apply such a rule to our own species, but there is also no substantive justification for why we should consider average species capacity — we could just as arbitrarily consider the average capacities of an individual’s sex, race, class, or phylum.
Expanding our moral circle
Humans have an alarming ability to switch off our empathy for individuals in a perceived “out-group”, especially when the welfare — or even a trivial interest — of our own “in-group” is threatened. Fortunately, we have made significant progress against many forms of such discrimination in the last few centuries. Despite humans’ long history of war, violence, and conflict, the United Nations’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Ensuring that others are not discriminated against is a key concern in modern Western society, and we focus significant efforts on eliminating remaining (and substantial) inequity, at least among humans.
It is our ambition to help humanity continue to expand our circle of moral inclusion to encompass all individuals who are capable of suffering. In our next text in this series, we look at what it means in practice if we both reject speciesism and aim use our resources as impactfully as possible.