Home > Philosophy > In praise of speciesism (crossposted at CT)

In praise of speciesism (crossposted at CT)

August 13th, 2005

Nicholas Gruen at Troppo Armadillo is unimpressed by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Nicholas argues that the whole idea is an unnecessary and unhelpful, since we can justify concerns about animals suffering from the simple observation (the basis of Jeremy Bentham’s argument for laws against cruelty to animals) that animals suffer. He says

What does the term ‘speciesism’ add to this? If Oscar Wilde had nothing to declare but his genius, Peter Singer’s book and its central concept of speciesism had nothing to declare but its circumlocution.

I haven’t got a fully consistent position on all this, but I think that, however ugly it is as a word, speciesism is a meaningful concept, and I’m in favour of it. That is, in opposition to Singer’s views on the subject, I’m in favour of treating all human beings, from birth to brain-death as having specifically human rights, simply by virtue of the fact they are humans, and whether or not they are self-aware and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals. I’d argue for this on rule-utilitarian grounds, which I understand to be Singer’s general viewpoint, though the same conclusion could be reached in other ways.

It seems to me any alternative position requires a dividing line to be drawn between those humans who are, or aren’t self-aware. I don’t believe this is possible. Moreover, any attempt to do so obviously creates the possibility of further divisions between people with different levels of self-awareness. On the other hand, as Nicholas points out, there’s no reason to think any non-human animal is self-aware in the kinds of ways that would make it wrong for us to (for example) painlessly kill them for our own purposes.

Of course, this position still involves dividing lines at birth and brain-death, and both of these are highly controversial. In the case of brain death, even though there are always going to be hard cases at the margin, I think the dividing line is clear enough for most purposes. The issues surrounding abortion are much more complicated, and mainly to do with who counts as a separate person and who gets to decide. It seems unlikely that society is going to reach agreement on these questions any time soon, but this doesn’t, to my mind, have much relevance in evaluating Singer’s argument.

Anyway, I’m sure there are readers who’ve thought more carefully about all this. I’d be interested in their views, and so, I’m sure, would Nicholas.

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  1. Neil
    August 13th, 2005 at 13:47 | #1

    The counterexample to the speciesism position is usually this: suppose a chimp was found who was capable of human speech with the fluency of, say, a 5 year old child. We would think this chimp had a right to life. So it isn’t the species that is doing the work; it is the actual psychological characteristics of the being. Speciesism is the view that species, all by itself, matters. It is hard to see why it should. Moral facts supervene on natural facts, but not just any natural fact can be invoked in explanation of a moral difference. Why should species matter, and not race or gender? As soon as you start to answer that question, you abandon speciesism or give up rationality.

    Singer argues for equal consideration of all animal interests (ours included). He’s not a rule-utilitarian. But the equal consideration view gets you differential treatment for humans and other animals, at least in most imaginable, and pretty much all actual, cases. Persons have future-oriented desires and preferences, that make killing them more morally significant than killing a cow (or an oyster). Human non-persons typically have persons who care about their welfare.

  2. August 13th, 2005 at 14:32 | #2

    That talking chimpanzee thing is mere projection. But on the other hand, we cannot use that as a test since that would mean that I am the only one with verifiable rights – and a system needs to be accepted more widely to be workable (even though quite clearly nobody is really sentient but me). So all this is following a wrong track.

  3. Neil
    August 13th, 2005 at 14:38 | #3


    I don’t know what you mean by “projection”.We use thought experiments to try to get at what justiifes our concepts and what their extension actually is. If we have determinate concepts, then they should give us determinate answers when applied even in imaginary cases. If our concepts are not determinate, then (a) we should find that fact out and (b) we may need to make them determinate. Moreover, the talking chimp may exist, either in the near-future or now. Genetic engineering may produce a primate that is clearly not of our species, but is as intelligent as, say, a child (probably it won’t *talk*: too many steps between them and having the right kinds of vocal cords). Koko the gorilla and a few other primates may already pass the test, right now.

    As for the rest of your post, I don’t understand it.

  4. Juke Moran
    August 13th, 2005 at 16:03 | #4

    There’s a cultural trope at work at the heart of the “speciesism” argument that builds from the concept of human-ness as fixed and basically immutable. This is inconsistent with rudimentary evolutionary theory, which says that what the species is now is not what it was last week or 10.000 years ago. And more importantly what it will be tomorrow.
    Somewhere on the timeline of our shared genetic heritage with the chimpanzee is a carrier of what we are now, an ancestor whose attributes would be virtually indistinguishable from its cousins.
    Your grandmother, many times removed.
    That this essence-in-potential is impossible to isolate, and thus impossible to legislate for, makes it a serious obstacle to codified moral pronouncement.
    But it’s there nonetheless.

  5. August 13th, 2005 at 18:24 | #5

    I have exactly the same position as you Q — a rule utilitarian justification for the respect for all human life given the difficulty of drawing any other workable dividing line.

  6. James Farrell
    August 13th, 2005 at 22:52 | #6

    ‘That talking chimpanzee thing is mere projection. But on the other hand, we cannot use that as a test since that would mean that I am the only one with verifiable rights…’

    You are a talking chimp, Peter? Why am I always the last to know? Of course I always knew you could write.

  7. August 14th, 2005 at 02:02 | #7

    No, JF – I simply meant that I cannot use the test of looking like a duck etc., because my sympathy for the duck is mere sentimentalism. In this case, the chimpanzee looks like more than a brute beast – but looking doesn’t make it so, any more than the cuddly rounded appearance of a hippopotamus or a grizzly bear makes it so.

    Similarly, however, we can’t take that very far, because if we leave out some form of sympathy I have no reason to think you a moral being worthy of attention (and even less so now, after that crack). And I also tried to make the point that whatever system we might arrive at would have to pass the test of doing its job (which isn’t the same as utilitarianism, rather a specific form of consistency). A system that made me the only person worthy of the name would be unreasonably but emotionally rejected by all you lot, the way those blacks rejected white superiority. An ethical system must be more broadly based to qualify as such, yet cuddliness or sympathy is mere projection of our own feelings.

    As Terry Pratchett pointed out, we know dolphins are intelligent because they never attack humans when there are any witnesses. But, is that sort of intelligence a basis for ethical treatment? It can’t be a simple matter of intelligence alone.

  8. August 14th, 2005 at 09:31 | #8

    It seems to me any alternative position requires a dividing line to be drawn between those humans who are, or aren’t self-aware. I don’t believe this is possible.

    Why not? True, self-awareness has intrinsicly subjective qualities which makes it hard to place the kind of objective quantitative dividing lines that the classification fetishists love to fuss over. But plenty of human judgements require a measure of empathic subjectivity yet we still make them.

    Moreover, neuroscientists are making some impressive strides into discovering the “neural correlates of consciousness”. A first trimester foetus lacks myelin sheathing around its neurons therefore it is implausible that it experiences consciousness. This is why early term abortion is morally acceptable.

    Moreover, any attempt to do so obviously creates the possibility of further divisions between people with different levels of self-awareness.

    So long as people are different we will have horses for courses. I am a mere private with a relatively low level of “military concsiousness”. The Army, beyond a decent minimum, will not dedicate an inordinate quantity of resources for my personal development and protection. A general, however, posesses a relatively high level of “military consciousness” and so rates a staff car, private bunker, body guards etc. I cannot see this as a just cause for moral outrage.

    there’s no reason to think any non-human animal is self-aware in the kinds of ways that would make it wrong for us to (for example) painlessly kill them for our own purposes.

    The fact that humans have language, create culture and go out of their way to help others at personal cost is an existence proof of humanities great existential moral potential. No other non-human animal comes close. It is one of two reasons why we rule the world. The other is that we are way smarter than most other animals. (Although there are possibly uber-nerd dolphins out there with IQs > 100.)

    Moral philosophy is hung up on trying to impose final dividing lines between classes and absolutely level playing fields within classes. This means that it suffers from analysis paralysis. If we want to help people we should be concerned with moving the ship in the right direction rather fussing over the table settings.

  9. Simon JM
    August 14th, 2005 at 11:10 | #9

    I did a paper on Singer on this subject and found it quite interesting because of the questions it raises on other moral issues.

    I argued it is in fact only less arbitrary than sexism or racism when placing boundaries on social group inclusion for equal social consideration. I pointed out that by setting a level of cognitive ability as a foundational criteria, that as a thought experiment, hyperconscious beings could experiment and kill us using this justification.

    His examination of personhood argument can also be used in the abortion debate in that we give personhood rights to born humans who don’t have functional personhood(cognition and self-awareness) ie infants, the mentally handicapped and some impaired elderly. If we were consistent we should be able to kill, experiment and use as body banks these born humans as we do un-born humans. Many Pro-Choice find this appalling for emotive reasons but have no problem dismissing the Pro-life as emotional over the life of a foetus.

    Being a meta-ethical moral relativist I cannot say any side is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ just note the degree of consistency within a moral framework. So Jack it is only abortion is only ‘morally acceptable’ to those who conform to its foundational values.

  10. Harry Clarke
    August 14th, 2005 at 12:32 | #10

    It is important to understand that almost everyone does assign rights to animals and these rights do imply certain duties. For example, most people oppose needless suffering of animals. Its a long stretch to say, on the basis of this, that non-human animals deserve ‘equal consideration’ as Singer claims and that to do otherwise is something akin to racism or sexism, namely speciesism.

    I have no problems putting the lives of animals into society’s social welfare function but it will still be human beings that are making the choices. There are good reasons for making these choices in a way that respects nature and the life of non-human species. Animals do provide us with use values (food, clothing, knowledge) and aesthetic and even perhaps psychic values that improve our genetic fitness (Wilson’s biophilia). But compassion for non-human life is still a human feeling and the extent to which it will be catered for results from human decisions.

    In practical terms Singer’s theories don’t help us much in making useful decisions with respect to preserving non-human life. How do we deal with feral populations in environments where native species are being wiped out? This might seem a rather particular concern but it is important to understand that human life imposes environmental constraints and that we need to ‘manage’ not just coexist with non-human species. If we seek to avoid speciesism I cannot see how we can do that.

  11. rollo
    August 14th, 2005 at 13:45 | #11

    “…my sympathy for the duck is mere sentimentalism…”
    That is what happened.
    That’s what’s wrong.
    Because sentiment can never be proved to have more worth than impersonal rationality it’s demeaned as valueless.
    The same arrogance puts aesthetics below pragmatism, and worships rules above what the rules were designed to protect.
    The arrogance of the rational mind. It’s a kind of autism that’s become a defining character trait in current humanity.
    When actually it was ferocity, unsentimental and absolutely violent, and a cruelty greater than any other creature’s, that gave humankind the dominance from which those bizarre statements emanate.
    Animals are inferior, as are blacks, browns, wogs in general, women, children – well, anything that can’t kick our ass is obviously inferior on that alone.
    We climb one step at a time out of a pit of hubristic alienation from the world’s life.
    It’s true, sentiment alone is not going to carry us to the new worlds of interstellar space, but without it we won’t be worth anything when we get there.

  12. August 14th, 2005 at 21:48 | #12


    thanks for linking to my piece, but I think we’re talking at cross purposes to a fair extent. I have tried to explain in a subsequent post that’s available here

    I’d welcome others’ comments on it.

  13. August 14th, 2005 at 23:18 | #13

    Other animals desire, like us, to be free of suffering. When we cause them to suffer, then we interfere with this “right”. Of course we will always put humans ahead of other species. We are speciesist. That is a our human nature obviously.

    However within the limits of the defining biology and our unchangeable loyalty to our own, any practical attempts to reduce the amount of suffering we inflict on other species is to be applauded.

    Singer is trying to up the ante. And why not?

  14. August 15th, 2005 at 10:33 | #14

    WBB as usual you beat me to what I was about to say!!

    The rejection of “speciesism” is not sentimentalism. It’s recognition of another being’s ability to suffer – both physically and mentally.

    It’s also the rejection of superstition – the “man-was-put-in-dominion-over-etc etc” thinking.

  15. Jim Birch
    August 17th, 2005 at 18:09 | #15

    Chimps don’t have the ability to speak but can be taught fairly complex language using symbols. Chimp researchers seem to think they mentally develop to the level 3 or 4 year old (human) kids, though it’s not exact.

    Chimps do recognise themselves in mirrors, as do dolphins, I believe. (I don’t know if anyone has held a large mirror up to a whale.) This seems to me to indicate a moderately sophisticated self awareness.

    I’d give them rights above cows and budgerigars on this basis.

  16. Tim
    August 19th, 2005 at 04:49 | #16

    Why the big focus on self-awareness?

    The “self” is a reified abstraction, and awareness of it is merely the ability to manipulate abstractions. Self-awareness is really just the ability to participate effectively in a culture where we happen to believe in, and place rather great stock in, something called “the self.”

    The self is a useful concept, but don’t let it get out of hand!

  17. August 19th, 2005 at 15:02 | #17

    I agree with Tim about self-awareness. We seem to have a dualist notion about awareness. We like to kid ourselves that human awareness or consciousness is of a different quality than that of the other animals.

    At most we may have a greater degree/complexity of it – but it’s the same thing at bottom. There is no hard and fast dividing line. And as JQ indicates if we go down that path, we strike trouble when considering the “rights” of certain human conditions – eg babies.

    We are speciesist. It’s not news really. We can choose to be more inclusive as we wish. And we do from time to time. Free range and veal are refusing to go away as issues. It’s seems arbitrary but that’s not a problem. We are talking about human emotions. We cannot appeal to any natural, divine or human laws here. In fact those laws would tend to push us in the other way.

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