In praise of speciesism (crossposted at CT)
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 â€˜speciesismâ€™ add to this? If Oscar Wilde had nothing to declare but his genius, Peter Singerâ€™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.