Like any other philosophy or theory that explains the source of some phenomenon, veganism seeks to do this as well when considering what deeper factors underlie how people think about nonhuman animals. There’s a lot going on socially and psychologically in the ways we think about and interact with these animals. We draw weird lines around them and us, making distinctions about their intelligence, ability to feel pain, emotionality, social ability, and their moral value. As we learn more about the anatomy, biology, and sociology of ourselves and nonhuman animals, we are realizing that these lines aren’t valid. But these lines are strong, and they intuitionally make sense, even though they make little to no sense scientifically or factually. The role of philosophizing and theorizing is to explain why these lines exist and why they persist in spite of this increased knowledge.
That’s where two similar but different ideas come in: Speciesism and Carnism. These ideas are incredibly important in understanding why we act the way we do, what’s making it happen, and how this behavior can change. They explain our behavior towards nonhuman animals in different ways, but they share the belief that our relationships with and towards animals is largely predisposed to us by history and culture, it’s a purely social construct that has resulted in today’s state of affairs. However, because the concepts of Speciesism and Carnism explain these things in different ways, there are sometimes when it’s appropriate to refer to Speciesism and others when Carnism should be referred to. In this article, I will argue that while these two concepts are valid, they both should be considered and applied more thoughtfully so that they both get equal airtime in the discourse. Before I make that argument, though, I just want to briefly describe Speciesism and Carnism.
Speciesism is parallel with racism and sexism, but towards all animals in different species. It postulates that we discriminate against all nonhuman animals, seeing them as inferior to humans and as having little to no moral value, even though they are all animals just like us; it can be thought of as supremacism over all other animals. It implies that we eat cows, chickens, pigs, and other farm animals because of this inferior view we have of them. So, when people say things about how they’re too stupid to realize their circumstance or desire liberty like we do, they don’t feel pain and fear like we do, they don’t bond with each other like we do, etc. – that’s Speciesism. Similarly, it implies that we have “pets” that we “own” because of the view that those animals as inferior to humans – they can be “owned” by us and be “our pets”, instead of the individuals they truly are. PETA recommends that we use the word “companion animal” instead of “pet”, which replaces the owner-owned relationship with a connotation that implies the human and the nonhuman animal are equals, companions. (I think this is a reasonable alternative, but I don’t know how many people perceive or treat their pets as ‘less than’ and how much of a role the word “pet” plays into that.) You can learn more about Speciesism here and here.
Carnism, on the other hand, postulates that we arbitrarily categorize and discriminate against nonhuman animals based on their relative place in society. In other words, we perceive and treat animals differently based on who and where they are. I largely break these categories into four groups: farmed animals, wild animals, pets (or companion animals), and research animals. Each of these categories provoke different reactions in us, which produces distinctions that we make between these nonhuman animals. Farmed animals are thought of as animals that we eat and whose milk we drink, and they receive little to no moral value or consideration; wild animals are seen in a lot of different ways depending on if they’re bears or rabbits, for example, but they get very little moral value or consideration; pets (or companion animals) are seen as members of our family and receive significantly more moral value or consideration; research animals don’t really get thought of a lot at all and they thusly receive little to no moral value or consideration. Carnism implies that our perception of and treatment towards nonhuman animals is dependent on their relative place in society. There isn’t a ubiquitous contempt for nonhuman animals, instead there are levels of concern depending on if the animal is a farmed animal, wild animal, a pet, or a research animal. It is also strongly linked with the implication that this behavior can be explained as a psychological and sociological phenomenon. Carnism was developed by a psychologist and scholar, Melanie Joy, Ph.D., so it makes enough sense that Carnism implies that these ideas are embedded into our psyches. You can learn more about Carnism here.
With these concepts laid-out, we can see how they’re similar and different. Their similarities are that there is ‘us and them’ thinking involved in both Speciesism and Carnism, they both are both anthropocentric to some extent, and they both lead to a regime of unnecessary violence and subjugation for nonhuman animals. The differences between these two concepts is subtle but significant, however. First and foremost, they take different dimensions in ‘us and them’ thinking. With Speciesism, we relegate all nonhuman animals altogether as being ‘them’, who are supposed to be inferior to us; with Carnism, the ‘them’ depends on what category of concern the nonhuman animals fall into. In other words, Speciesism invokes the same moral wrongs being done to farmed animals and having pets, for example – they are both subjugating animals to be our things to use, stripping them of their individuality and liberty. Carnism, on the other hand, invokes different moral wrongs being done to farmed animals and pets, to continue that example – they are results of different social histories and roles, whereas one is a ‘product’ of food and the other is an individual that we own. The second difference is that the extent of anthropocentricism between these two concepts is different. With Speciesism, it’s totally and unambiguously anthropocentric; the justification for our perception of and treatment towards nonhuman animals is that we’re humans and they’re animals, which means they’re inferior to us, don’t feel, don’t matter, etc. Carnism adds more context to the extent to which anthropocentricism plays into our perception of and treatment towards nonhuman animals. It posits that there are other, nonconscious social and psychological factors that contribute to this behavior, and it’s more nuanced than simply being a matter of anthropocentricism.
Like I mentioned in the opening of this article, there are appropriate times for when to refer to either one of these concepts, but many times Speciesism is the only concept that gets the focus. In fact, what prompted me to write this article was a Facebook post by PETA. They posted a meme (I think it’s a meme) of a picture of a cat next to a picture of a turkey that reads “Petting a cat while eating a turkey is Speciesist. Every animal deserves respect.” This is part of a campaign they administer called “End Speciesism”. Maybe it’s just me, but this seemed like behavior that can be more clearly explained with Carnism, instead of Speciesism. I even commented on this post by raising this point, to which the PETA account responded to by defining what Speciesism was, thereby ignoring my point. It got me thinking about how frequently I hear Speciesism get invoked to describe behavior or phenomenon that can be better explained by Carnism, it’s been a complaint of mine for a while. That post got me tired of complaining privately and motivated me to constructively make my argument for why Carnism needs more attention and focus. The meme can be seen below, see for yourself and let me know if you think this is a result of Speciesism or Carnism.
It seems clear to me that Carnism would offer a stronger, more cogent explanation for why we pet cats and eat turkeys. It is defined as the different ways we treat nonhuman animals with varying degrees of subjugation or apathy based on their relative place in society, so it’s logically consistent that this is why we treat two different animals in such different ways. This also falls in-line with the framework of Carnism. We pet cats and treat them with love because we perceive them as our pets; we eat turkeys and don’t care about their individuality or sentience because we perceive them as food. Speciesism can’t account for this inconsistency, therefore it’s a weaker explanation.
Generally, I feel that Carnism does a better job at making sense of why we perceive and treat nonhuman animals the way we do, but Speciesism tends to get the focus. I don’t know why this happens, but I have a hunch. Speciesism is a simple and ostensibly deep concept, and it reflects a historic pattern of supremacism. It is a big subject that attempts to answer complicated questions with one explanation: that it’s because we’re humans and they’re animals, and their rights and interests are negligible or inexistent. It doesn’t elicit the nuance and complexities in considering broader contexts of sociology and psychology. Furthermore, this behavior of raising our group above another has been part of a pattern of supremacy, subjugation, and violence that humans have exhibited. It many ways throughout human history, we’ve employed contrived and false reasons for why it’s justified and supported that we treat another group differently or badly; whether it’s racism itself, societal biases against people for their sexual or gender preferences, patriarchy, manifest destiny, etc. So, it may seem logically consistent that the way we treat animals is an outgrowth of a larger pattern of treating other, dissimilar groups differently or badly.
Whatever the reason is, Speciesism has gotten really popular and maybe it shouldn’t be. I think it’s time for Carnism to get the focus and consideration it deserves. It is often a better explanation for human behavior towards nonhuman animals and it aligns more with our understanding of psychology and sociology. I think the discourse around veganism and vegan advocacy would also improve, too. Of course, Speciesism still has a place in the discourse – especially regarding this pattern of supremacism we’ve seen throughout our history – but maybe it’s better that it takes up less of a place. I believe by putting Carnism out there more, the cause would advance, and we’d be having better, more scientifically-minded discussions around veganism. That’s what we need.