We Should Take Speciesism as Seriously as Other Prejudices

Racism, sexism and homophobia are three forms of discrimination that, one hopes, all readers of this blog will strongly oppose. Yet there is another form of discrimination that is increasingly recognised as being just as morally dubious as these three.

Speciesism means treating individuals differently solely on the basis of species membership. Just like skin colour, gender, and sexual orientation are not relevant characteristics when granting rights, neither is species membership.

This does not mean treating all individuals of all species identically.

But then, eliminating racism does not mean treating people identically; some ethnic groups are more likely to suffer from certain genetic diseases than others. Cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease and sickle-cell anaemia are more common in people of Caucasian, Ashkenazi Jew, and Afro-Caribbean ancestry respectively. It is not racist for doctors to take this into account when seeking a diagnosis.

Similarly, eliminating speciesism does not mean granting all animals exactly the same rights as humans. It wouldn’t be appropriate. Chickens aren’t going to get the vote or be able to buy alcohol or drive. What it does mean is that we should be consistent in treating individuals on the basis of morally relevant characteristics.

Clear examples of speciesism come in the form of how we treat pets versus how we treat farm animals. Why are we appalled when we hear of dogs and cats being subject to abuse, yet readily pay others to inflict abuse on animals such as pigs and cows, which have a similar level of intelligence and capacity to suffer? It is this cognitive capacity that surely matters, not whether an individual animal is a pig or a dog.

I can think of no justification for this inconsistency. If, as the evidence suggests, pets and farm animals are cognitively very similar, we must grant them similar rights. If it is wrong to harm a dog, then it is wrong to harm a pig. If you’re not willing to pay someone to breed and kill cats for you to eat, you should not be willing to pay farmers to breed and kill lambs.

Of course, some will eliminate this inconsistency by claiming they will happily abuse and eat cats and dogs. But how far are they willing to go for consistency? New born human babies are probably less cognitively developed than many farm animals. Perhaps they should be served for dinner.

Human babies do generally have greater cognitive potential than non-human animals. But does this matter? We don’t generally grant rights based on potential alone, but rather on potential that has been fulfilled. Children aren’t given the right to vote just because they will potentially be 18. Learner drivers aren’t given full driving licenses just because they may potentially pass the test. Furthermore, not all new born babies even have the potential to develop: they may have a terminal illness.

Is anyone actually willing to kill and inflict suffering on human babies in order to justify eating meat?

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(this article was originally posted on The Yorker)

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