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An Exploration of Animal Rights and Speciesism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2774 words Published: 23rd Jun 2021

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“All animals are equal.” The internet search aiming to find an analysis of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” society that instead led me to an article of the same name. This article was the work of philosopher, utilitarian and animal rights activist, Peter Singer, who introduced me to the term “speciesism.” 

First coined in the 1970s by Richard Ryder while campaigning in Oxford, “speciesism” refers to a prioritisation of one’s own species and, in doing so, harming another. This concept of self-centred human prejudice gained traction with Peter Singer, who likened the concept to racism:

The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race, when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Similarly, the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case. (Singer 108)

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Singer and other philosophers see this prejudice as a real issue with no logical or moral groundings and posit that we should be recognising this and making changes to how we deal with other species. In order to fully explore the nature of speciesism – its origins, shortcomings, logic, moral groundings and implications in practice – we must first visit the ideas of equality and, in particular, what is it that compels us to treat each other, as humans, equally?

When we state “all humans are equal” in our progressive, liberal, Los Angeles society, what are we asserting? We can recognise that there are plenty of differences amongst humans, be they in intellectual capability, shape and size, physical strength, benevolence towards others and moral capacities. In the face of this, it becomes difficult to decide on the basis upon which our ideas of equality for humans can rest. There is no logical reason why we should treat two people the same despite their differing capabilities, and yet, we feel compelled to do so. Equality appears to stem from moral ideals instead of an assertion of fact.

Jeremy Bentham incorporated ideas of equality when developing his utilitarian moral system. In his system, the morally right act is that which produces “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” and in this equation “each count for one and none for more than one.” As such, when calculating the morally correct action in a situation, the interests (i.e. happiness) of any individual are to be taken into consideration and given no more priority than the interests of another individual despite any differences between the two. Therefore, this principle implies that equality does not rest on characteristics, capabilities and abilities, but the interests of others.

If we can accept that valuing interests of everyone equally is a basis for demanding equality, as is often the mind-set deployed to condemn racism and sexism, we are forced to realise that this principle cannot logically be limited to just our species. This is where speciesism – the discrimination and maltreatment of an entire species because it is not human – begins. Many have tried to discount animals from our equation of interests, but with little success.

For example, John Stuart Mill, another utilitarian, refined Bentham’s theory by introducing “base pleasures” and “higher pleasures” in partial response to the ability of utilitarianism to be applied beyond humans to include, what he argued to be, less valuable interests – such as those of animals. Mill famously remarked, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” arguing that pigs (and other animals) cannot experience “higher pleasures” so their interests are of less value and can be removed from discussions of equality. But classifying interests and pleasures as higher or base-level is arbitrary and illogical – who gets to decide what these higher or base pleasures are? And what exactly is it that makes a pig’s pleasures less than those of a human? It is a theory designed to bolster a presupposed speciesist belief: animals are intrinsically worth less than humans and rights should only be granted members of a specific species. If we rest our case solely upon this logic, what is stopping someone from declaring that rights should only be granted to members of a specific race, arguing that the interests of one race are simply more valuable than another’s?

Defenders of human supremacy still search for grounds that diminish the interests of animals so that they are not part of our equality equations. One popular position taken to prove our species’ dominance is our characteristics of autonomy, rationality, consciousness and the ability to communicate. But, there are two ways to refute this: the first supplies evidence of all the animals who do show a degree of each of these and thus wouldn’t be discounted from our system of according rights. Chimpanzees have learnt American sign language (Gardner and Gardner) and communication methods are evident in dolphins and parrots (Hillix and Rumbaugh). The second, shorter counter-argument was illustrated by Bentham in his remark that “a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old.” Here we can see that if we are to come up with some line – a mark at which we can logically exclude the interests of other species from our system of according rights and equality – it is inevitable that some humans will fail our tests too. Infants are not autonomous, rational, or users of language. From this logic, what is stopping us from grouping them with the non-human and subjecting them to the same fate as the animals on which we test medicines or that we fatten for food?

Aha! Infants are potential adults and therefore fully right-worthy humans; they do not deserve to be diminished to the level of animals. Okay, but now let me present a different class of humans: those who unfortunately have brain damage and so will never be able to speak or reason or participate in the other characteristics that separate us from animals. Their interests cannot be assigned priority over animals using our aforementioned checklist of qualities. So again, I ask: what is it that compels us to use chimpanzees as a means to our ends – locking them up in labs for experiments – and never a class of humans that arguably have a lower mental level than the chimps? The weak answer is: because the chimpanzee is not human. This is speciesism at its core and is as indefensible as any other discriminatory movement. There is no logical ethical stance that can be taken which elevates the human species above the rest – we all stand equal, whether on four feet, two feet or none at all.

These arguments, designed to down play animals in the quest for our supremacy are flawed and reek of speciesism. But it is important to clarify that I do not mean to contend or advocate that animals should have the exact same rights and treatment as humans. I am fully aware that confining a herd of sheep to a single field would cause them little distress but, should I do the same to a group of adults, I would be causing them great harm. Similarly, were a group of adults to be kidnapped from a shopping centre to participate in a lethal experiment, not only would this group feel physical pain but they would also experience psychological distress – as would their family and other members of society who would then fear entering shopping centres should they be kidnapped too. Now, in performing the same exercise on sheep, they would most likely be unaware of the impending suffering during the capture and I think it is safe to assume their family and wider society would not be traumatised.

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There is a noticeable distinction between the effects on the two groups in this example and so they should be treated accordingly. Were we to decide who should be the subject of the experiment, we would choose the animals – but this decision would not come from their membership to a particular species and be rooted in speciesism. So how can we make this distinction? What should be the hierarchal system for viewing interests, rights and equality? According to Bentham, “the question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” The humans’ knowledge of their situation is what makes it more traumatic, leading to suffering outside of the physical pain they experience. Bentham suggests that an ability to suffer should be the marking of how we consider interests. But it is important to mention that, just because animals might suffer less in a situation – that fact does not in itself excuse their use in such experiments.

It is also worth noting that, should an infant be put in the experiment, its obliviousness would put its suffering on a par with the sheep. If, despite this, we were to prefer an experiment on sheep over infants, this would be an example of speciesism as the equal suffering results in an equal consideration of interests and thus equal rights. Additionally, it is not the case that we can assume humans will always suffer more: were we to relocate and contain a group of humans in order to save them from an impending earthquake and do the same to our sheep, the sheep would not know the difference between this and the trauma of kidnapping; their suffering in this situation might be greater.

Grasping for threads now, I hear objections from the opposition: “But how can we be sure when animals are suffering at all?” Apart from chimps being taught sign language, animals cannot explicitly communicate their emotions – but nor can infants. When you hit babies, they cry and make noises to signify their distress and we can see a similar reaction amongst animals. We also know sorrow and distress can have devastating effects on animals, as evidenced in Jane Goodall’s case of Flint, the healthy eight-year-old chimpanzee, who died just three weeks after his mother did (Goodall). Aside from these observations, there is more scientifically grounded evidence seen in the structure of nervous systems that are relatively old in evolutionary terms and so are consistent to a degree across animals (Spence). Anatomical parallels provide evidence that the pain we would feel is similar to that we inflict on animals.

It is difficult though, of course, to compare suffering in many cases. We cannot understand the degree to which animals suffer and so some argue that in most cases we should not sacrifice human interests on the basis that animals might be suffering. But, even if we were to discount any situation when human interests would barely be compromised to avoid mass animal suffering, there are still plenty of examples where we are compelled to eliminate animal suffering, such as in experiments in many scientific fields, farming methods, animals in entertainment (zoos, circuses), our diets and the wearing of fur. The strongest case for change is visible in that of animal testing. There are many examples of experiments on animals that provide minor benefits to humans while generating serious suffering to the test subjects. For example, Princeton University experimenters kept 256 rats without water or food until they died. The conclusion they reached was rats under fatal thirst and hunger are more active than those who are given food and water (Armstrong and Botzler, p 38). But why carry out such an experiment that imposes death and suffering on these animals? The excuse that it is for human benefits is not valid here at all. Another point, often hypothetically proposed, is: what if there was an experiment that would claim the life of a few animals but would also provide us with scientific knowledge to save thousands? A utilitarian would have to deem the experiment acceptable: prioritising the interests and avoided suffering of many over the few. However, there is then the question: would you allow such an experiment to be carried out on an orphaned infant or brain damaged human? If not, you are partaking in speciesism and there is no moral grounding for your bias.

Of course, there is also the presence of meat in our diets. Factory farming methods have been exposed as a chain of suffering for animals in which they are abused, have their freedom severely restricted, and then of course are ultimately killed. This cycle obviously results in mass suffering for the animals, which is incomparable to the satisfaction derived by humans from eating their meat. It has been proven that meat is no longer needed nowadays as there are now plenty of alternative protein sources available. Scientists are even asking people to avoid meat for their own health – a vegetarian diet can lower cholesterol (Sacks and Kass) – as well as for the benefits to the wider environment – halving meat consumption in the European Union would result in a 25-40% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions (Westhoek et al.).

However, this does touch on a more difficult and contentious subject on how we value human and animal’s lives. While I can easily argue for meat to be cut out of our diet – due to the great suffering endured by animals in exchange for a lesser quantity of human benefit – this does not mean that I believe it is as wrong to kill an animal as to kill a human. Human life, with potential and aspirations for the future is different to, say, the life of a fish who is unlikely to have plans, hopes and dreams. Consequently, killing a fish does not inhibit a fulfilment of plans as killing a human would, and so killing a fish, if that is the only available source of sustenance for a human, is not an example of speciesism. The difference in treatment is not based upon species alone, but instead is a result of realising human potential and a fish’s lack thereof.

We can then conclude that an acceptance of speciesism is not advocating for equal rights for animals and humans. It is merely a recognition of our prejudice against animals and how we must take into account their interests and suffering when making moral decisions as opposed to discounting them based on species alone. The result in practice is far less testing on animals, a meat-free diet wherever possible, and animals not being imprisoned in zoos or circuses or hunted for fur. While such ideas may seem radical to many people (though perhaps less so to a Los Angeles liberal), it is a stop along the line of ethical evolution. As W.E.H. Lecky wrote in The History of European Morals, “At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”

Works Cited

  • Hillix, William Allen, and Duane Rumbaugh. “Animal bodies, human minds: Ape, dolphin, and parrot language skills.” Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.
  • Goodall, Jane, and H. van Lawick. "My life with the wild chimpanzees." National Geographic 124 (1963): 272-308.
  • Armstrong, Susan J., and Richard G. Botzler, eds. “The Animal Ethics Reader.” Taylor & Francis, 2016.
  • Sacks, Frank M., and Edward H. Kass. "Low blood pressure in vegetarians: effects of specific foods and nutrients." The American journal of clinical nutrition 48.3 (1988): 795-800.
  • Westhoek, Henk, et al. "Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe's meat and dairy intake." Global Environmental Change 26 (2014): 196-205.
  • Spence, Inga. “The Surprisingly Humanlike Ways Animals Feel Pain.” National Geographic, 3 Dec. 2016, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/12/animals-science-medical-pain/.
  • Bentham, J. (1879). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. United Kingdom: Clarendon Press.
  • Gardner, R. Allen, and Beatrice T. Gardner. “Teaching Sign Language to a Chimpanzee.” Science, vol. 165, no. 3894, 1969, pp. 664–672. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1727877.
  • Singer, Peter. "All animals are equal." Philosophic Exchange 5.1 (1974): 6.


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