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Speciesism [spee-shee-ziz-uhm] involves assigning different values or rights, or special consideration, to individuals solely on the basis of their species membership. The term was coined in 1973 by British psychologist Dick D. Ryder to denote prejudice against non-humans based on morally irrelevant physical differences.

The term is mostly used by animal rights advocates, who argue that species membership has no moral significance, and that it is both irrational and morally wrong to regard sentient beings as objects or property. Philosopher Tom Regan argues that all animals have inherent rights and that we cannot assign them a lesser value because of a perceived lack of rationality, while assigning a higher value to infants and the mentally impaired solely on the grounds of membership of a certain species. Peter Singer’s philosophical arguments against speciesism are based on the principle of equal consideration of interests.

One argument used to show that speciesism is an arbitrary discrimination is called the argument from marginal cases. This says that if marginal-case human beings – such as infants, the senile, the comatose, and the cognitively disabled – have a certain moral status, then non-human animals must have it too, since there is no morally relevant ability that the marginal-case humans have that non-human animals lack. ‘Moral status’ may include a right not to be killed or made to suffer, or a general moral requirement to be treated in a certain way. Peter Singer, a utilitarian, rejects moral rights as a general matter and, like Ryder, regards sentience as sufficient for moral status. Singer maintains that most animals do not care whether we kill and use them for our own purposes; they care only about how we treat them. Despite our having laws that protect animals, Gary Francione contends that we treat animals in ways that would be regarded as torture if humans were involved.

Richard Dawkins touches briefly on the subject in ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ and ‘The God Delusion,’ elucidating the connection to evolutionary theory. He compares former racist attitudes and assumptions to their present-day speciesist counterparts. In a chapter of the former entitled ‘The one true tree of life,’ he argues that it is not just zoological taxonomy that is saved from awkward ambiguity by the extinction of intermediate forms, but also human ethics and law. He describes discrimination against chimpanzees thus: ‘Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection of any number of intelligent adult chimpanzees! […] The only reason we can be comfortable with such a double standard is that the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead.’

Dawkins elaborated on his position towards speciesism and vegetarianism in a live discussion with Singer at The Center for Inquiry in 2007: ‘What I am doing is going along with the fact that I live in a society where meat eating is accepted as the norm, and it requires a level of social courage which I haven’t yet produced to break out of that. It’s a little bit like the position which many people would have held a couple of hundred years ago over slavery. Where lots of people felt morally uneasy about slavery but went along with it because the whole economy of the South depended upon slavery.’

David Nibert seeks to expand the field of sociology ‘in order to understand how social arrangements create oppressive conditions for both humans and other animals.’ He compares speciesism to racism and sexism. Some have suggested that simply to fight speciesism is not enough because intrinsic value of nature can be extended beyond sentient beings, termed the ethic of ‘libertarian extension.’  This belief system seeks to apply the principle of individual rights not only to all animals but also objects without a nervous system such as trees, plants, and rocks. Ryder rejects this in writing that ‘value cannot exist in the absence of consciousness or potential consciousness. Thus, rocks and rivers and houses have no interests and no rights of their own. This does not mean, of course, that they are not of value to us, and to many other painients [individuals capable of perceiving pain], including those who need them as habitats and who would suffer without them.’

A common theme in defending speciesism is the argument that humans ‘have the right to compete with and exploit other species to preserve and protect the human species.’ Carl Cohen, a professor of philosophy at the Residential College of the University of Michigan, writes: ‘Speciesism is not merely plausible; it is essential for right conduct, because those who will not make the morally relevant distinctions among species are almost certain, in consequence, to misapprehend their true obligations.’ Cohen argues that racism and sexism are wrong because there are no relevant differences between the sexes or races. Between people and animals however, there are significant differences, and they do not qualify for Kantian personhood, and as such have no rights. Animal rights advocates argue that, because many humans do not qualify for Kantian personhood, yet have rights, this cannot be a morally relevant difference.

Some people who work for racial or sexual equality have said that comparisons between speciesism and racism or sexism are insulting, for example Peter Staudenmaier writes: ‘The central analogy to the civil rights movement and the women’s movement is trivializing and ahistorical. Both of those social movements were initiated and driven by members of the dispossessed and excluded groups themselves, not by benevolent men or white people acting on their behalf. Both movements were built precisely around the idea of reclaiming and reasserting a shared humanity in the face of a society that had deprived it and denied it. No civil rights activist or feminist ever argued, ‘We’re sentient beings too!’ They argued, ‘We’re fully human too!’ Animal liberation doctrine, far from extending this humanist impulse, directly undermines it.’

Some opponents of the idea of speciesism believe that animals exist so that humans may make use of them, be it for food, entertainment, or other uses. This special status conveys special rights, such as the right to life, and also unique responsibilities, such as stewardship of the environment. Objectivism holds that humans, as the only beings with a conceptual consciousness, as the animals possessing a reasoning faculty and the ability to think, which is the key characteristic setting them apart from other animals, and with their life as the standard of moral value, is the only species entitled to rights. Others take a secular approach, such as pointing to evidence of unusual rapid evolution of the human brain and the emergence of ‘exceptional’ aptitudes. As one commentator put it, ‘Over the course of human history, we have been successful in cultivating our faculties, shaping our development, and impacting upon the wider world in a deliberate fashion, quite distinct from evolutionary processes.’ Constance K. Perry asserts that the use of ‘non-autonomous’ animals instead of humans in risky research can be based on solid moral ground and is not necessarily speciesism.

Some believers in human exceptionalism base the concept in the Abrahamic religions, such as the verse in Genesis ‘Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Animal rights advocates argue that dominion refers to stewardship and does not denote any right to mistreat other animals, which is consistent with the Bible. Buddhism, despite its reputation for respect for animals, explicitly accords humans a higher status in the progression of reincarnation. Animals may be reincarnated as humans, conversely, humans based on their behavior/action can be demoted to the next life to non-human forms; but only humans can reach enlightenment. Similarly in Hinduism, animals are respected, as it is believed that each animal has a role to play. Hindus are therefore vegetarians with a deep respect for Cows. Felipe Fernández-Armesto writes that early hunter-gatherer societies such as the Innu and many animist religions lacked a concept of humanity and placed non-human animals and plants on an equal footing with humans.

Great Ape personhood is a concept in which the attributes of the Great Apes are deemed to merit recognition of their sentience and personhood within the law, as opposed to mere protection under animal cruelty legislation. This would cover matters such as their own best interest being taken into account in their treatment by people.

Canadian philosopher David Sztybel holds that the treatment of animals can be compared to the Holocaust in a valid and meaningful way. Using a thirty-nine-point comparison Sztybel asserts that the comparison is not offensive and that it does not overlook important differences, or ignore supposed affinities between the human abuse of fellow animals, and the Nazi abuse of fellow humans. The comparison of animal treatment and the Holocaust came into the public eye with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ ‘Holocaust on your Plate’ exhibit. Sztybel equates the racism of the Nazis with the speciesism inherent in eating meat, or using animal by-products, particularly those produced on factory farms. Y. Michael Barilan, an Israeli physician who in his article ‘Speciesism as a precondition for justice,’ writes that speciesism is not the same thing as ‘Nazi racism’ because Nazi racism extolled the abuser and condemned the weaker and the abused. He describes speciesism as the recognition of rights on the basis of group membership rather than solely on the basis of moral considerations.

In science fiction and works of fantasy speciesism takes on a role similar to racism, discriminating against other sentients based on a sense of superiority. It varies from humans being superior to non-humans, non-humans being superior to humans, or certain non-humans being superior to other non-humans. Such exists on either a terrestrial, extraterrestrial, extragalactic, or extradimensional plane.


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