Animal advocates use the term “speciesism” to describe the arbitrary nature of excluding nonhuman animals from equal moral consideration. Yet, despite the growth the movement has witnessed in recent years, misconceptions persist about what exactly it is. At a glance, it can seem like a strange term. It’s unfamiliar to many ears and can strike some as hollow, even absurd in a world overflowing with human suffering and injustice.
We tend to perceive a vast gulf between humans and other animals, a moral gulf that seems to vanish when we compare men and women, white people and people of color, straight and LGBTQ individuals. To identify violence against nonhumans as analogous to racism and sexism seems, to many people, an incoherent thing at best, dangerous and delusional at worst. I’ll try to dispel some misconceptions about anti-speciesism in this post.
Contra the standard portrayal, anti-speciesism does not erase the relevant differences existing between diverse individuals in diverse species. The lives of the average human, chicken, and squirrel don’t carry the same moral value. Each of these individuals possesses different capacities. Rather, anti-speciesism problematizes the traditional belief of a moral division between all humans, on the one hand, and all other animals, on the other.
Humans have used members of other species for millennia. We designate them as our property, as objects to be bought and sold as we see fit. We breed them to ensure a steady number of beings, harnessing their bodies every time to satisfy our desires in an ever-expanding array of spheres, from food to fashion, entertainment to experimentation. And today, despite the carefully protected invisibility of the mass violence, animal use is at an apex; we mutilate and kill tens of billions of nonhuman animals every single year.
While most people express agreement about minimizing the severity of animal suffering — at least insofar as it never clashes with human interests — we generally take for granted animal use itself. The commodification of other animals is seldom held to the fire of scrutiny. Instead, we’re made to believe the moral division between humans and other animals is obvious, something etched in the cosmic order rather than something we sustain.
What quality is it, however, that separates humans from other animals? In other words, what makes it a moral wrong to own, breed, and kill other humans, but a justifiable practice with members of other species? That’s the point around which this discussion revolves. The answer is self-evident to many people. “Humans possess greater intelligence than other animals, and this is what makes it acceptable to kill latter but not the former.”
Others run the whole gamut of qualities related to intelligence, which they believe are the exclusive province of humans: agency, rationality, language use, abstract thinking, and tool use. The argument, then, is that possession of these qualities by humans, and their purported absence in other animals, gives rise to the moral demarcation that justifies animal use. This vein of argument, while common, is in the end insupportable.
This is because it fails to consider the differences in capacities that abound within humanity. Not all humans are rational, capable or abstract thinking, or bearers of the others qualities listed. People with severe mental disabilities, the senile, and infants are examples. Despite their lacking these qualities, however, we recognize that this does not entitle us to own, breed, or kill them. What matters, in the end, is their sentience.