Speciesism is the biased belief in the superiority of some species over others. According to this prejudice some animal species are favoured over others, and the human animal is favoured above all other species.
Human vs Non-human: Debates Around Speciesism
The term was coined by Richard Ryder in the 1970s and later popularized by the philosopher Peter Singer. In his influential book Animal Liberation (1975), Singer addresses speciesism as an issue of discrimination, comparing it to racism or sexism.
As a discriminatory set of values and beliefs, speciesism directly translates into social attitudes and practices. It forms part of a system into which most people are socialised, although the exact form of it is culturally dependant. Arguing for equality across species lines, Singer recognises that non-human animals "lack certain capacities that human animals possess" (Singer 1975). However, as Singer remarks and Bonnie Steinbock further explores, while this may justify "different treatment of non-human animals... it does not justify giving less consideration to their needs and interests" (Singer 1975; Steinbock 1978, 247).
However, as pointed out by Onora O'Neill "the term speciesism is also often used (derogatorily) for any preference for the human species, regardless of whether the preference is justified or not" (O'Neill 1997, 129). This is an important distinction within discourse on speciesism because some defenders of speciesism argue that anthropocentric ethics substantiates moral choices which are justifiably favourable to humans. Furthermore, defenders of speciesism maintain that crucial capacities such as moral agency and language use (Duignan, 2013) are highly relevant characteristics that differentiate human animals from non-human animals. Thus, they reject the idea that non-human animals and their interests should be given equal consideration and/or treatment (Duignan).
Those who reject speciesism see such ways of thinking as the very ground upon which post-industrial societies are able to widely exploit non-human animals for products for humans. This includes but is not limited to: using animals for their flesh, milk or eggs; using animal skins in fashion; testing on live animals in the pharmacological or cosmetics industries; exploiting animals for entertainment in zoos, circuses or animal theme parks. According to animal advocates, "the tacit consent of the wider public” (Malecki et al. 2019, 2) is what makes animal exploitation on an industrial scale possible and feasible.
"If the capacity to suffer is the reason for ascribing a right to freedom from acute pain, or a right to well being, then it certainly looks as though these rights must be extended to animals as well...The demand for human equality rests on the equal capacity of all human beings to suffer and to enjoy well being. But if this is the basis of the demand for equality, then this demand must include all beings which have an equal capacity to suffer and enjoy well being. That is why Singer places at the basis of the demand for equality, not intelligence or reason, but sentience." (Steinbock, 249)
All Animals Are Equal but Some Are More Equal Than Others
Another fundamental side of speciesism stems from the prejudice that some species of non-human animals deserve more consideration or better treatment than others. This is evident in the prevalent ethical stance and in social and cultural practices that clearly divide non-human animals into “companion animals” and “consumption animals”. Again, this division is culturally dependent which becomes clear if we consider for instance the status of cows in India. However, in the majority of cultures some animals are seen as fit for eating while others are cherished as companions or pets. The pet industry and the meat industry are just two examples which work on and sustain anthroparchal models.
Although as a concept, speciesism is so deeply ingrained within human cultures and socialisation processes that it goes largely unnoticed and, thus, unquestioned, it essentially justifies and defends treating one animal’s life as more valuable than another’s. An extreme example of thoughtless subscription to speciesist attitudes is feeding one's pet with dog food that has been highly processed and made from body parts of livestock animals which were discarded during meat or dairy production.
Duignan, B. (2013). Speciesism. Retrieved from Encyclopædia Britannica on 13 November 2020.
Malecki, W., Sorokowski, P., Pawlowski, B., & Cienski, M. (2019). Human Minds and Animal Stories: How Narratives Make Us Care About Other Species. Routledge.
O'Neill, O. (1997). Environmental Values, Anthropocentrism and Speciesism. Environmental Values, 6(2), 127-142.
Singer., P. (1975). Animal Liberation. Harper Collins.
Steinbock, B. (1978). Speciesism and the Idea of Equality. Philosophy, 53(204), 247-256.