The Case for Carnism instead of Speciesism

I wanted to add this to the perspective about Speciesism provided by Mike recently. Like he accurately described, I think that invoking Speciesism is not useful. Furthermore, I think the concept is counter-productive and creates confusion for many people. A better concept to invoke that does not have those drawbacks is Carnism. Carnism is one of the most profound theories I’ve learned in my entire life and it clearly explains the psychological behaviors that underlie how we perceive and morally consider nonhuman animals. I want to make my case for Carnism over Speciesism in this article.

I’ve mentioned Carnism before, but for those new to the idea it is essentially the theory that people have deeply rooted, subconscious biases against nonhuman animals of all kinds. The way I summarize it is that we see pets, wildlife, and farm animals in different ways on a sliding scale: pets have the highest moral value and regard, wildlife has less, farm animals have little to none. This theory explains the bizarre inconsistencies of people’s behavior and cognitive dissonance, etc. As the scholar who coined the phrase, Dr. Melanie Joy, indicates through the title of her canonical book, Carnism explains “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.”

For the sake of definition, Speciesism is much simpler to define. It’s a theory that that asserts humans and nonhuman animals are morally similar, but there are inherent ideological biases that lead humans to make nonhuman animals inferior to us and strip them of their worth. It’s thought of as being tantamount to racism. There is an asterisk to this, which Mike rightly points out – it is really meant to apply to irrational distinctions between them, but not all distinctions.

Now to get to my argument. The asterisk about Speciesism, that it is properly just about irrational distinctions, often gets ignored and people misunderstand it to mean any and all distinctions are bad. This really does bely science and reason, however. Humans ascribe higher moral value and regard to humans; it’s natural, rational, and better that we do so. We all agree, though, that irrational distinctions are wrong – like ascribing more value and regard to cats than chickens or buying companion animals (aka pets) from breeders.

This misunderstanding is very pervasive, to the point where it has kind of corrupted the concept of Speciesism. When it is invoked, the side that gets shown is the kind of zero-sum Speciesism Evan refers to, in which people just take it to apply to all types of distinctions. This raises a practical questions for advocacy and discourse. On the advocacy side, does invoking Speciesism ultimately help the cause of promoting veganism? For discourse, is it the best theory to explain people’s warped relationship with nonhuman animals? I assert that the answer to both of these questions is no, it isn’t helpful and it isn’t a particularly strong theory. And this is where Carnism comes in to be the solution to these issues.

Like I mentioned earlier, Carnism avoids the drawbacks of Speciesism. It is a theory that is rooted in psychology and has logical parameters that keep the concept from being overgeneralized. It is about how our minds and society at-large shape how individuals describe, portray, and think about nonhuman animals; how these perceptions exist on a spectrum from little to most moral value and regard, and how these perceptions are inherently shaped with our individual and collective relationship with animals.

Speciesism might have these implications as well, but it isn’t apparent from its usage and understanding in today’s discourse. Right, wrong, or whatever, it seems Speciesism has lost its meaning and power. I would even go so far as to say it’s been made obsolete by this widespread misunderstanding and the emergence of Carnism as a similar but better theory.

I just want to wrap-up here with the moral of the story. The point of this back-and-forth is more about exploring the depth, breadth, and nuance of veganism than it is about having a winning argument. On one hand, this debate presents people with a wider, and perhaps preferred, set of arguments and perspectives. It broadens the way we can think about our relationship to animals and equips advocates with more arguments. On the other hand, though, this issue represents a philosophical issue within veganism and an opportunity to evolve the body of knowledge. While I think I am correct about this issue, there may be some, like Mike, that disagree. This is a rich and constant debate between him and I, and I encourage other vegans to explore this discussion with others to expand the scope of debate. Veganism is a philosophy just as much as it is a lifestyle, after all!

What’s important above all else, however, is that we share the same dream of a more vegan world and we still are passionate about persuading people of the power and benefit of veganism, what I call the two virtues. This is the ultimate goal we all share and it helps move the cause forward if we can expand those philosophical elements.

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