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What is Speciesism?

Filip Zawadka - Authorfilip.zawadka@osqledaren.se

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media - Photographerosqledaren@ths.kth.se

Only 200 years ago owning another person wasn't something frowned upon and nearly 100 years ago women didn’t have the right to vote. Today we take those things for granted, but for the majority of civilized human history, they were unheard of.

We like to believe that when facing wrongdoing, we would have been on the right side of history, but this is statistically very improbable. The truth is that most of us form our moral compass on what is socially acceptable, but unfortunately this leaves out the possibility that we currently are participating in something horrific. Something we don’t think about, but future generations will be ashamed of. On the bright side, this also means that we have a possibility to rethink all of our moral values, and be a part of the change instead of the problem. In this article, I will try to examine our relationship with non-human animals.


The common understanding of the word animal isn’t connected to humans at all. Somehow, when we think of animals we have a clear idea of a varied group of species that ranges from ones that are as different from us as one could imagine, to ones that share with us nearly all the traits. We have a shared perception that there is a trait that separates us from the rest, taking us far apart from this group and even making the word animal a derogatory term in some contexts. This differentiation often makes it not immoral to mistreat the rest of the animals.


To argue that the mistreatment of non-human animals is not immoral and is in fact justified, there needs to be a trait that distinguishes us from them. The understanding is that it is intelligence that makes humans the superior species. If that is the trait, we would need to consider whether it is moral to kill a human if its intelligence was lower than that of a non-human animal. Furthermore, if we were to meet with a different species with proportionally higher intelligence than ours, we most probably wouldn’t find their justification to kill us based on our lower intelligence very fair. Philosopher, Peter Singer, argues that one's moral right not to be subjected to pain should be solely based on one's capacity for suffering. We have an intuitive understanding of this concept when it comes to humans. When provided with a scenario in which we would have to subject a baby or an adult to a certain amount of pain, we would implicitly choose the adult, knowing that he most probably has a higher tolerance for suffering. The argument of intelligence seems silly in this scenario, even imagining that the baby was mentally impaired, never being able to reach the intelligence of the adult.


Moreover, that same intelligence could be used as a parameter to prove that, in fact, we have an even bigger obligation not to mistreat other animals. Higher understanding of the world means higher moral agency. Moral agency is the ability to make moral decisions based on the notions of right or wrong. Babies, mentally impaired and non-human animals don’t have moral agency, and thus cannot be held responsible for their actions. We would not justify the morality of our behavior towards other humans based on what a baby does, and similarly, it would not be valid to justify killing pigs based on the actions of lions.


Although intelligence is the trait I focused on, many others can be used in its place, like having fur or not, standing on two legs, creativity, abstract thinking. We then need to think whether this characteristic is actually significant moral justification, or just an afterthought with the purpose of distinguishing one group from the other. We understand that, for humans, using an arbitrary distinction like skin color or sexual orientation to justify mistreatment is a form of discrimination and is unacceptable. Similarly, we could use this rule for the rest of the animals. Speciesism is a form of discrimination towards a different group based solely on them belonging to a particular species. An example of that would be valuing the life of a dog higher than a pig or a cow. Discrimination towards a given species instead of the other is arbitrary and culture-based. Some countries value the life of a given animal higher than the others. For example, in some cultures cows are believed to be holy, whereas in others eating dogs is appropriate. This double standard can be easily perceived by this simple scenario: Imagine having a family pet that has had a good and happy life, but died of old age with no suffering whatsoever. The sheer idea of eating its flesh would repel most people, meanwhile unless you decide not to eat meat, there is no logical reason as to why it shouldn’t be done.


The good news is that no one is speciesist to the core, the same way as no one is racist or homophobic. We are just capable of doing things that actually are speciesist, whether we know about them or not. This does not mean that we need to give each life the same value. The common argument against the notion of speciesism is the desert island scenario, in which a person would need to kill an animal to survive. Valuing one life higher than the other does not imply speciesism, in the same way as valuing the life of a younger person higher than an older person in this scenario does not imply ageism. On the other hand, valuing sensory pleasures or convenience of one being over the life or suffering of the other is speciesist and this is in actuality where the most of the suffering comes from. I would encourage applying this framework to every decision that we make, trying to fully understand the process, and change our behavior if we cannot defend it. This does not mean that we will be ever perfect and completely cut ourselves from causing any suffering, but there are practical ways in which we could drastically decrease them.

Publicerad: 2022-03-18

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Ansvarig utgivare: Carl Housten
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