A Common Misunderstanding of Speciesism

I have a long-standing debate with Reasoned Vegan co-founder Scout Hartley over the meaning and public understanding of the term speciesism. He says that the misunderstanding I lay out here is so widespread that the term is not even useful. I disagree, but here I register a protest at the broadening of the original definition of speciesism.

When Peter Singer coined the term in his 1975 book “Animal Liberation,” society was fresh on the heals of the civil rights movement and 2nd wave feminism. Singer proposed animal rights in the spirit of these movements. Once equal rights for all human beings were enshrined into law from a wave of public support, it was time for our circle of concern to include animals. Just as racism is the enemy of justice for non-white people, so too is speciesism the enemy of justice for animals.

Unfortunately, this analogy is misleading. The difference between the races is trivial from the point of view of genetics. There is no sensible basis for distinguishing the rights or moral worth of the races.

This logic has led many people to the same conclusion for humans and non-human animals. But what this understanding belies is that distinction between different groups is not in and of itself a problem. Speciesism is characterized by irrational distinctions in moral consideration granted to different species.

If a young African American person goes to a doctor with fever, painful joints and swelling of the extremities, they will be checked for sickle cell anemia. The same test would not be given to a white person with the same symptoms. That’s not racist. It’s based on an understanding of medical differences between the two groups.

Is it speciesist to grant all human beings over a given age the right to vote, but to exclude pigs? Singer gives this example and explains you could answer that question with a question: is it sexist that men don’t have the right to abortion? Right should correspond to the capabilities, needs and interests of the beings they protect.

The thorniest area of this debate is the question of the value of human and non-human animal life. I agree that a pig and a human being both have an interest in remaining alive and have a right not to be murdered. Singer, a committed Utilitarian, follows Jeremy Bentham’s famous line that it isn’t intelligence, but ability to suffer that is morally relevant.

The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” – Bentham (1789)

Should we take this to mean that human and non-human animal suffering are equal? And if so, does this mean that lives are equal?

On Singer’s account, it is as wrong to inflict on a pig as it is to inflict pain on a person. It would be speciesist to say otherwise. But on the question of life, the question becomes more complex. The moral wrong of taking a life depends on what you are taking away. Ending the life of a self-aware creature that has goals and plans is more wrong than ending the life of a being that lives in an eternal present. This is not to say that pigs live in an eternal present (many animals are future-oriented to a surprising degree), but none of them meet quite the bar that humans do. Chimps don’t save for retirement, start businesses or do humanitarian work. Chimps also don’t dump chemical waste into rivers, cheat on their taxes or commit genocide. What matters morally is that a murdered person is denied the capability to do make choices about their lives and create a future.

It would not be speciesist to insist that a human’s life is more valuable than a pig’s.

Court systems recognize this implicitly when they impose harsher sentences on murderers with young victims. It’s rational to consider what’s being taken away from a given being when they are murdered. And it’s only irrational distinctions that are speciesist.

Many vegans get hung up on this point and end up embracing positions that are deeply repugnant to the majority of people and not in line with the common understanding of this term. It is certainly speciesist to propose (as most people do) that non-human animals lives are less morally valuable than human beings, and therefore it’s no problem to slaughter and consume them by the billions. That should be enough.

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