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Speciesism () involves the assignment of different values, rights, or special consideration to individuals solely on the basis of their species membership. The term is mostly used by animal rights advocates, who argue that speciesism is a prejudice similar to racism or sexism, in that the treatment of individuals is predicated on group membership and morally irrelevant physical differences. The argument is that species membership has no moral significance.[1]

The term is not used consistently, but broadly embraces two ideas.[2] It usually refers to "human speciesism" (human supremacism), the exclusion of all nonhuman animals from the protections afforded to humans.[3] It can also refer to the more general idea of assigning value to a being on the basis of species membership alone, so that "human-chimpanzee speciesism" would involve human beings favouring rights for chimpanzees over rights for dogs, because of human-chimpanzee similarities.[4]

The arguments against speciesism are contested on various grounds, including the position of some religions that human beings were created as superior in status to other animals, and were awarded "dominion" over them, whether as owners or stewards. It is also argued that the physical differences between humans and other species are indeed morally relevant, and that to deny this is to engage in anthropomorphism. Such proponents may explicitly embrace the charge of speciesism, arguing that it recognizes the importance of all human beings, and that species loyalty is justified.[5]


Origin of the term

Richard D. Ryder coined the term "speciesism" in 1970.

The term speciesism, and the argument that it is simply a prejudice, first appeared in 1970 in a privately printed pamphlet written by British psychologist Richard D. Ryder. Ryder was a member of a group of intellectuals in Oxford, England, the nascent animal rights community, now known as the Oxford Group. One of the group's activities was distributing pamphlets about areas of concern; the pamphlet entitled "Speciesism" was written to protest against animal experimentation.[6]

Ryder argued in the pamphlet that: "Since Darwin, scientists have agreed that there is no 'magical' essential difference between humans and other animals, biologically-speaking. Why then do we make an almost total distinction morally? If all organisms are on one physical continuum, then we should also be on the same moral continuum." He wrote that, at that time in the UK, 5,000,000 animals were being used each year in experiments, and that attempting to gain benefits for our own species through the mistreatment of others was "just 'speciesism' and as such it is a selfish emotional argument rather than a reasoned one."[7] Ryder used the term again in an essay, "Experiments on Animals," in Animals, Men and Morals (1971), a collection of essays on animal rights edited by philosophy graduate students Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch, and John Harris, who were also members of the Oxford Group. Ryder wrote:

In as much as both "race" and "species" are vague terms used in the classification of living creatures according, largely, to physical appearance, an analogy can be made between them. Discrimination on grounds of race, although most universally condoned two centuries ago, is now widely condemned. Similarly, it may come to pass that enlightened minds may one day abhor "speciesism" as much as they now detest "racism." The illogicality in both forms of prejudice is of an identical sort. If it is accepted as morally wrong to deliberately inflict suffering upon innocent human creatures, then it is only logical to also regard it as wrong to inflict suffering on innocent individuals of other species. ... The time has come to act upon this logic.[8]

Spread of the idea

Peter Singer popularized the idea in Animal Liberation (1975).

The term was popularized by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation (1975). Singer had known Ryder from his own time as a graduate philosophy student at Oxford.[9] He credited Ryder with having coined the term and used it in the title of his book's fifth chapter: "Man's Dominion ... a short history of speciesism", defining it as "a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species":

Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.[10]

Singer argued from a preference-utilitarian perspective, writing that speciesism violates the principle of equal consideration of interests, the idea based on Jeremy Bentham's principle: "each to count for one, and none for more than one." Singer argued that, although there may be differences between humans and nonhumans, they share the capacity to suffer, and we must give equal consideration to that suffering. Any position that allows similar cases to be treated in a dissimilar fashion fails to qualify as an acceptable moral theory. The term caught on; Singer wrote that it was an awkward word but that he could not think of a better one. It became an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1985, defined as "discrimination against or exploitation of animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind's superiority."[11] In 1994 the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy offered a wider definition: "By analogy with racism and sexism, the improper stance of refusing respect to the lives, dignity, or needs of animals of other than the human species."[12]

Anti-speciesism critique

Moral community, argument from marginal cases

The Trial of Bill Burns (1838) in London, showing Richard Martin, MP for Galway, in court with a donkey beaten by his owner, leading to the world's first known conviction for animal cruelty.

Paola Cavalieri writes that the current humanist paradigm is that only human beings are members of the moral community, and that all are worthy of equal protection. Species membership, she writes, is ipso facto moral membership. The paradigm has an inclusive side (all human beings deserve equal protection) and an exclusive one (only human beings have that status).[3]

She writes that it is not only philosophers who have difficulty with this concept.[3] Richard Rorty (1931–2007) argued that most human beings – those outside what he called our "Eurocentric human rights culture" – are unable to understand why membership of a species would in itself be sufficient for inclusion in the moral community: "Most people live in a world in which it would be just too risky – indeed, it would often be insanely dangerous – to let one's sense of moral community stretch beyond one's family, clan or tribe." Rorty wrote:

Such people are morally offended by the suggestion that they should treat someone who is not kin as if he were a brother, or a nigger as if he were white, or a queer as if he were normal, or an infidel as if she were a believer. They are offended by the suggestion that they treat people whom they do not think of as human as if they were human. When utilitarians tell them that all pleasures and pains felt by members of our biological species are equally relevant to moral deliberation, or when Kantians tell them that the ability to engage in such deliberation is sufficient for membership in the moral community, they are incredulous. They rejoin that these philosophers seem oblivious to blatantly obvious moral distinctions, distinctions that any decent person will draw.[13]

Much of humanity is similarly offended by the suggestion that the moral community be extended to nonhumans. Nonhumans do possess some moral status in many societies, but it generally extends only to protection against what Cavalieri calls "wanton cruelty".[3] Anti-speciesists argue that the extension of moral membership to all humanity, regardless of individual properties such as intelligence, while denying it to nonhumans, also regardless of individual properties, is internally inconsistent. According to the argument from marginal cases, if infants, the senile, the comatose, and the cognitively disabled (marginal-case human beings) have a certain moral status, then nonhuman animals must be awarded that status too, since there is no morally relevant ability that the marginal-case humans have that nonhumans lack.

American legal scholar Steven M. Wise argues that speciesism is a bias as arbitrary as any other, a point conceded even by some critics of animal rights. He cites the philosopher R.G. Frey (1941–2012), a leading animal rights critic, who wrote in 1983 that, if forced to choose between abandoning experiments on animals and allowing experiments on "marginal-case" humans, he would choose the latter, "not because I begin a monster and end up choosing the monstrous, but because I cannot think of anything at all compelling that cedes all human life of any quality greater value than animal life of any quality."[14]

"Discontinuous mind"

Richard Dawkins argues against speciesism as an example of the "discontinuous mind".

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, argued against speciesism in The Blind Watchmaker (1986), The Great Ape Project (1993), and The God Delusion (2006), elucidating the connection with evolutionary theory. He compares former racist attitudes and assumptions to their present-day speciesist counterparts. In the chapter "The one true tree of life" in The Blind Watchmaker, he argues that it is not only zoological taxonomy that is saved from awkward ambiguity by the extinction of intermediate forms, but also human ethics and law. Dawkins argues that what he calls the "discontinuous mind" is ubiquitous, dividing the world into units that reflect nothing but our use of language, and animals into discontinuous species:[15]

The director of a zoo is entitled to "put down" a chimpanzee that is surplus to requirements, while any suggestion that he might "put down" a redundant keeper or ticket-seller would be greeted with howls of incredulous outrage. The chimpanzee is the property of the zoo. Humans are nowadays not supposed to be anybody's property, yet the rationale for discriminating against chimpanzees is seldom spelled out, and I doubt if there is a defensible rationale at all. Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection of any number of intelligent adult chimpanzees! ... The only reason we can be comfortable with such a double standard is that the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead.[16]

Dawkins elaborated in a discussion with Singer at The Center for Inquiry in 2007, when asked whether he continues to eat meat: "It's a little bit like the position which many people would have held a couple of hundred years ago over slavery. Where lots of people felt morally uneasy about slavery but went along with it because the whole economy of the South depended upon slavery."[17]

Great ape personhood

Great Ape personhood is the idea that the attributes of nonhuman Great Apes are such that their sentience and personhood should be recognized by the law, rather than simply protecting them as a group under animal cruelty legislation. Awarding personhood to nonhuman primates would require that their individual interests be taken into account.[18]

Animal holocaust

David Sztybel argues in his paper, "Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?" (2006), that the racism of the Nazis is comparable to the speciesism inherent in eating meat or using animal by-products, particularly those produced on factory farms.[19] Y. Michael Barilan, an Israeli physician, argues that speciesism is not the same thing as Nazi racism, because the latter extolled the abuser and condemned the weaker and the abused. He describes speciesism as the recognition of rights on the basis of group membership, rather than solely on the basis of moral considerations.[20]

Centrality of consciousness

"Libertarian extension" is the idea that the intrinsic value of nature can be extended beyond sentient beings.[21] This seeks to apply the principle of individual rights not only to all animals but also to objects without a nervous system such as trees, plants and rocks.[22] Ryder rejects this argument, writing that "value cannot exist in the absence of consciousness or potential consciousness. Thus, rocks and rivers and houses have no interests and no rights of their own. This does not mean, of course, that they are not of value to us, and to many other painients, including those who need them as habitats and who would suffer without them."[23]

Arguments in favor


A common theme in defending speciesism is the argument that humans have the right to exploit other species to defend their own.[24] Philosopher Carl Cohen argued in 1986: "Speciesism is not merely plausible; it is essential for right conduct, because those who will not make the morally relevant distinctions among species are almost certain, in consequence, to misapprehend their true obligations."[25] Cohen writes that racism and sexism are wrong because there are no relevant differences between the sexes or races. Between people and animals, he argues, there are significant differences; his view is that animals do not qualify for Kantian personhood, and as such have no rights.[26]

Nel Noddings, the American feminist, has criticized Singer's concept of speciesism for being simplistic, and for failing to take into account the context of species preference, as concepts of racism and sexism have taken into account the context of discrimination against humans.[27] Peter Staudenmaier has argued that comparisons between speciesism and racism or sexism are trivializing:

The central analogy to the civil rights movement and the women's movement is trivializing and ahistorical. Both of those social movements were initiated and driven by members of the dispossessed and excluded groups themselves, not by benevolent men or white people acting on their behalf. Both movements were built precisely around the idea of reclaiming and reasserting a shared humanity in the face of a society that had deprived it and denied it. No civil rights activist or feminist ever argued, "We're sentient beings too!" They argued, "We're fully human too!" Animal liberation doctrine, far from extending this humanist impulse, directly undermines it.[28]

Ayn Rand's Objectivism holds that humans are the only beings who have what Rand called a conceptual consciousness, and the ability to reason and develop a moral system. She argued that humans are therefore the only species entitled to rights. Randian philosopher Leonard Peikoff argued: "By its nature and throughout the animal kingdom, life survives by feeding on life. To demand that man defer to the 'rights' of other species is to deprive man himself of the right to life. This is 'other-ism,' i.e. altruism, gone mad."[29]


The Rev. John Tuohey, founder of the Providence Center for Health Care Ethics, writes that the logic behind the anti-speciesism critique is flawed, and that, although the animal rights movement in the United States has been influential in slowing animal experimentation, and in some cases halting particular studies, no one has offered a compelling argument for species equality.[30]

Some opponents of the idea of speciesism believe that animals exist so that humans may make use of them. They argue that this special status conveys special rights, such as the right to life, and also unique responsibilities, such as stewardship of the environment. This belief in human exceptionalism is often rooted in the Abrahamic religions, such as the Book of Genesis 1:26: "Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." Animal rights advocates argue that dominion refers to stewardship, not ownership.[31]

Films about speciesism

See also


  1. ^ Ryder (2009), p. 320
  2. ^ That it is used inconsistently, see Zamir (2009), p. 3
  3. ^ a b c d Cavalieri (2001), p. 70
  4. ^ Waldau (2001), pp. 5, 23–29
  5. ^ Lafollette and Shanks (1996) (courtesy link)
  6. ^ Ryder (2000), p. 6
  7. ^ Ryder (2010)
  8. ^ Ryder (1971), p. 81
  9. ^ Diamond (2004), p. 93; Singer (1990), pp. 120–121
  10. ^ Singer (1990), pp. 6, 9
  11. ^ Wise (2004), p. 26
  12. ^ Blackburn (1994), p. 358
  13. ^ Rorty (1998), p. 178
  14. ^ Wise (2004), p. 26, citing Frey (1983), pp. 115–116
  15. ^ Dawkins (1993)
  16. ^ Dawkins (1996), pp. 262–263
  17. ^ Dawkins (2007)
  18. ^ Karcher (2009)
  19. ^ Sztybel (2006)
  20. ^ Barlian (2004)
  21. ^ Vardy and Grosch (1999)
  22. ^ Holden (2003)
  23. ^ Ryder (2005)
  24. ^ Graft (1997)
  25. ^ Cohen (1986)
  26. ^ Cohen (2001)
  27. ^ Noddings (1991)
  28. ^ Staudenmaier (2003)
  29. ^ Peikoff (1991), p. 358
  30. ^ Tuohey (1992)
  31. ^ Scully (2003)
  32. ^ "The Superior Human?", official website


Barlian, Y. Michael (2004). "Speciesism as a precondition to justice", Politics and the Life Sciences, 23(1), March, pp. 22–33.
Blackburn, Simon (1994). "Speciesism," Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
Cavalieri, Paola (2001). The Animal Question : Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights, Oxford University Press.
Cohen, Carl (1986). "The case for the use of animals in biomedical research", The New England Journal of Medicine, 315(14), pp. 865–869.
Cohen, Carl and Regan, Tom (2001). The Animal Rights Debate, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Diamond, Cora (2004). "Eating Meat and Eating People," in Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum (eds.), Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, Richard (1993). "Gaps in the mind", in Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (eds.), The Great Ape Project, St. Martin's Griffin, 1993, pp. 81–87.
Dawkins, Richard (1996) [1986]. The Blind Watchmaker, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Dawkins, Richard (2007). "Richard Dawkins – Science and the New Atheism", 7 December.
Fernández-Armesto, Felipe (2003). Ideas that changed the world, Dorling Kindersley.
Frey, R. G. (1983). Rights, Killing and Suffering, Blackwell.
Graft, D. (1997). "Against strong speciesism," Journal of Applied Philosophy, 14(2).
Gray, J. A. (1990). "In defense of speciesism," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13(1).
Holden, Andrew (2003). "In Need of New Environmental Ethics for Tourism?", Annals of Tourism Research, 30(1), pp. 94–108.
Karcher, Karin (2009) [1998]. "Great Ape Project," in Marc Bekoff (ed.), Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, Greenwood.
Lafollette, Hugh and Shanks, Niall (1996). "The Origin of Speciesism", Philosophy, 71(275), January, pp. 41–61 (courtesy link).
Noddings, Nel (1991). "Comment on Donovan's 'Animal Rights and Feminist Theory'", Signs, 16(2), Winter, pp. 418–422.
Peikoff, Leonard (1991). Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Dutton.
Ryder, Richard D. (1971). "Experiments on Animals," in Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris (eds.), Animals, Men and Morals, Victor Gollanz, pp. 41–82.
Ryder, Richard D. (2000) [1989]. Animal Revolution, Berg.
Ryder, Richard D. (2009) [1998]. "Speciesism," in Marc Bekoff (ed.), Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. Greenwood.
Ryder, Richard D. (2010). "Speciesism Again: The Original Leaflet", Critical Society, Spring, 2.
Rorty, Richard (1998) [1993]. "Human rights, rationality and sentimentality," in Truth and Progress, Cambridge University Press.
Scully, Matthew (2003). Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, St. Martin's Griffin.
Singer, Peter (1990) [1975]. Animal Liberation, New York Review/Random House.
Staudenmaier, Peter (2003). "Ambiguities of Animal Rights", Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society, March, 5.
Sztybel, David (2006). "Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?", Ethics & the Environment, 11(1), Spring, pp. 97–132.
Tuohey, John (1992). : Has the animal rights movement achieved philosophical legitimacy?"Animal Liberation"Fifteen years after , Journal of Medical Humanities, 13(2), June, pp. 79–89.
Vardy, P. and Grosch, P. (1999). The Puzzle of Ethics, Harper Collins.
Waldau, Paul (2001). The Specter of Speciesism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals, Oxford University Press.
Wise, Steven M. (2004). "Animal Rights, One Step at a Time," in Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum eds.), Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, Oxford University Press.
Zamir, Tzachi (2009). Ethics and the Beast: A Speciesist Argument for Animal Liberation. Princeton University Press.

Further reading

BBC (2006). "The ethics of speciesism".
Dunayer, Joan (2004). Speciesism, Ryce Publishing.
Geoghegan, Tom (2007). "Should apes have human rights?", BBC News Magazine, 29 March.
Nibert, David (2003). "Humans and other animals: sociology's moral and intellectual challenge", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 23(3), pp. 4–25.
Ryder, Richard D. (1975). Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research, Davis-Poynter.
Horta, Oscar (2010). "What Is Speciesism", Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp. 243–266.
Kaufman, Frederik (1998). "Speciesism and the Argument from Misfortune" Journal of Applied Philosophy, 15(2), pp. 155–163.
Perry, Constance K. (2001). "A Compassionate Autonomy Alternative to Speciesism," Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 22(3), June 2001.
Discussion between Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins
Les Cahiers Antispécistes (in French)
Liberazioni (in Italian)
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