What Anti-speciesism Isn’t

Mihnea Maftei
Jun 26, 2014 · 8 min read

The word “speciesism” alludes to attitudes such as racism and sexism, now almost universally regarded as indefensible, at least in mainstream moral philosophy. Anti-speciesism condemns our implicit or explicit bias to disregard the interests of sentient beings other than humans, on the mere basis that they do not belong to the species Homo sapiens.

Speciesism has not had the fate of racism and sexism, but there is a growing awareness of the issue, facilitated by blogs and online discussion groups and promoted to a significant extent by philosopher Peter Singer and others like him, from around the 1970s.

Peter Singer’s influential book Animal Liberation, published in 1975, was shaped by the growth of factory farming and the immense amount of animal suffering this has resulted in. It is not very hard to see that we should be concerned with this issue, once we know the gruesome facts, but there are also people concerned with the animal suffering that occurs in the wild (a good resource on this are Brian Tomasik’s writings). This is a view that few people have seriously considered and even fewer have accepted, since many think that what occurs naturally in the wild cannot fall within the scope of morality or that we have a moral duty not to interfere with wildlife or to try to restore wildlife to how it was prior to our influence.

I am not discussing here whether speciesism is justifiable or not, though I believe it is not. I am trying to clarify what anti-speciesism is and especially what it is not, for people who are perhaps new to this topic or who may not have thought much about what it means, or what it should mean, if it is to be coherent.

All beings are not created equal

At first glance, anti-speciesism may seem to say that humans and all other animals (perhaps even all plants and other beings) should be treated equally or that, morally, they have equal importance, just as anti-racism asserts about humans with different skin colours. This is not so.

It is easy to see why the equal treatment hypothesis fails: nice and gentle as they may be, dogs cannot be trusted with the vote, nor would they benefit much from attending university.

As to moral importance, most people would agree that it matters whether, and to what extent, different beings can suffer or feel pleasure, just as it matters whether a dentist pulls out the tooth of an anaesthetised person or of one who can feel the pain fully. Some species, like marine sponges, can be seen as being always anaesthetised, to a lesser or greater extent, as they cannot suffer, or suffer less than other species.

What then is left for anti-speciesists to claim, if not that all creatures are equal? Anti-speciesists can (and I think should) support, as Peter Singer does, the equal consideration of the interests of any being, regardless of what species it belongs to, or whether it is a biological being at all. This implies one cannot discard, or value less, the interests of a fish just because it does not belong to the species Homo sapiens, but one can recognise that the fish—due to other characteristics—may have, as it were, a smaller quantity of interests compared to a human or to some other species. That means the pain of a fish that feels as intense as another pain felt by a human matters just as much, all other things being equal. This may seem obvious to some, but many see members of the species Homo sapiens as supremely important, even when they are not more than a small group of cells, dividing after fertilisation.

Of course, all other things are not generally equal. Painlessly killing a human and painlessly killing a dog involve the same amount of pain in themselves, namely none, but the killing of a human generally involves more suffering, and a greater reduction in pleasure, all things considered. Humans have friends and relatives who will suffer greatly. Their families may depend on them for sustenance. Their jobs and all the things they would have achieved in their lives are lost. These considerations apply less, or not at all, in the dog’s case. And, of course, there can be anticipatory suffering. If I tell you I will murder you, or if you know that this is a real possibility, you will not feel at ease. If I tell the same thing to a dog, it will not even take notice. This example points in the direction of saying that humans matter more, all things considered—but this is not always the case. If I perform a painful but beneficial injection on a person, they know it is harmless and helpful, and that they are safe. An animal may feel it is being attacked and won’t know that it will be over in a few seconds.

Species do not have interests; animals do

The arguments in the previous paragraphs may be familiar to many. However, there is another misconception about anti-speciesism that few people seem to see, perhaps because it mostly concerns wild animals. Anti-speciesism does not entail the view that we should protect species against extinction. Or it should not entail this, if it is to be a coherent view which says species is not what matters.

There may be various reasons why we should prevent a given species from going extinct; according to anti-speciesism, the mere fact that it is a separate species is not a valid one. This is akin to the fact that we do not have a direct moral duty to preserve the genes that incline us to be left-handed, if such genes exist, in the gene pool of future humanity. Being left- or right-handed is the prime example of a morally irrelevant issue (though this has not always been seen as such!). If we faced the choice of saving either a group of one hundred people or another group of ninety-nine (or also one hundred, as this does not affect my argument), the second one containing the last remaining left-handedness genes in the world, this gene difference would not by itself be a reason to prefer the second group. There may be incidental reasons, related to left-handedness, why we should save that group. Perhaps our society flourishes much better with more diversity of this kind. Perhaps we had discovered that the left-handedness genes also cause one to be more compassionate or altruistic. But perhaps we had discovered that these genes make it more likely for one to be a psychopath. Differences of various kinds are theoretically conceivable; we already know that left-handers tend to have a slight advantage in sports, because the information pathway from vision through the brain and to their muscles is shorter. That is not to say that these differences should compel us to prefer one group over the other, since it may be that they are not strong enough to trump the general guiding principle of treating all innocent persons equally. But they can be valid considerations, whereas right-handedness by itself—absent of these other considerations—cannot.

Anti-speciesism implies it is so with a group of lions and a group of tigers, the second group containing the last remaining members of their species. The tigers do not have a greater moral claim to be saved just because they possess a unique set of genes. The disappearance of the last hundred tigers is not in itself worse than the disappearance of the same number of tigers when more of them exist, or than the disappearance of one hundred lions when more lions exist. The term “extinction” loses its moral relevance. We do not have a word for “the disappearance of a group of tigers, when others survive”.

Another way to illustrate the irrelevant-extinction claim of anti-speciesism is to consider a family with three children, one of whom has green eyes and two of whom have blue eyes. The death of the green-eyed child would be as great a tragedy, but not greater, than the death of one of the blue-eyed children; it would not matter more that in the first case the only member of the category of green-eyed children in this family has disappeared. Anti-speciesism regards the mere belonging to a species as analogous to the morally irrelevant trait of having green eyes. A tiger is merely a tiger-DNA-possessing being, just as a green-eyed person is a green-eyes-DNA-possessing being.

Nevertheless, there can be many strong moral reasons for preventing species going extinct, but these reasons are not spurred by anti-speciesism per se.

A general one is given by the option value of preventing extinctions. This concept, originating in finance, refers to the fact that there may currently be unknown reasons why the existence of a certain species is desirable, and therefore we should prevent it from going extinct for we may later discover there are such reasons; once a species is extinct, we do not have the option to revive it. With recent advances in cloning, this is not so clear cut any more, but it still provides a valid argument. The option-value argument, as can be seen, is quite specific to the extinction of species, rather than the extinction, as it were, of some differently-defined group, such as the group of animals in my back garden.

Also, people (and probably only people) like seeing tigers or knowing they exist. This is not the case for all animals: we do not care in this way about some obscure species of dust mites. Animals of some species contain substances useful in medicine. And, of course, the existence of most species affects other animals in complex ways: tigers prey on deer, deer eat plants, some of which may provide shelter for rodents, which may consume insects, which are eaten by birds etc. These connections, not just in the form of food chains, are so numerous and complicated that it is almost impossible to know whether, all things considered, the genetic trait of being a tiger—which by itself is morally irrelevant—is mostly beneficial or mostly deleterious from the non-speciesist standpoint, which can give equal consideration to the interests of all sentient beings regardless of their species. Such interests can include eating, drinking water, not being mauled to death, not dying of some painful disease, perhaps merely existing, et cetera. People who hold the moral view called utilitarianism (a type of consequentialism), which is probably the case for most anti-speciesists, would say that all interests ultimately reduce to suffering and pleasure, in a broad sense of these terms, or to some kind of implicit preferences.

Anti-speciesism is thus the view that the mere fact of belonging to a certain species—by itself, absent any other considerations—is morally irrelevant, just as being black, female or left-handed is. I have tried to clarify above what this view is not. Given my clarifications, it is easier to see why some anti-speciesists care about wild animal suffering and perhaps harder to see why many do not.

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