Author: Dan Lowe
Word Count: 1000
Human beings use non-human animals in a variety of ways: for scientific experimentation, clothing, and, most commonly, for food. Are humans morally justified in using animals in these ways? One position which provides a positive answer to this question is speciesism, the idea that humans have a moral status superior to animals, just because humans are members of the human species.1 Speciesism offers a reason why it is morally acceptable to use animals in these ways.2 Moreover, although few people self-consciously identify as speciesists, speciesism is immensely attractive insofar as it captures something of moral common sense: We think that being human confers a special dignity and moral status. But despite its significant intuitive appeal, speciesism faces surprisingly difficult objections from some philosophers.3
Objections to Speciesism
The topic of “what it is to be human” can be approached variously; but for the speciesist, to be human is to be a member of the species homo sapiens.4 This is a matter of biology—if one’s DNA is configured in a certain way, then that makes one a human being. But if that’s what the speciesist accepts, then there’s an obvious objection: How one’s DNA is configured is just a fact about the order of molecules in our cells, and that seems morally irrelevant.5
This objection to speciesism might seem unfair. After all, it ignores the fact that human beings have very different capacities from animals. To take just three, humans have sophisticated language, the capacity for complex thought, and the ability to live according to moral ideals. We might thus distinguish the Capacities View: the idea that having certain important capacities is what gives a being moral status.6
But appealing to these capacities won’t actually help the speciesist. If these capacities are what give human beings moral status, then it’s having those capacities that is morally important – not one’s biology. The Capacities View is an alternative to speciesism, not a way of supporting it.
This objection might also seem to miss the point. Surely we have those capacities partially because of our biology, and thus our species membership.
That’s true, but this won’t help the speciesist, either. For one, membership in the species homo sapiens is neither necessary nor sufficient for having those capacities.7 It’s not necessary because aliens with a different biology could nevertheless have these capacities. It’s not sufficient because not all members of our species have these capacities; the severely mentally handicapped, for instance, lack all three of the capacities mentioned. For another, even if all and only human beings had these capacities, that wouldn’t make species membership itself morally relevant. The capacities themselves would still be the basis of moral status.
This is why some philosophers have argued that speciesism commits the same error in reasoning as does racism or sexism.8 The racist, for example, says that members of a certain race are superior to members of other races. But what race one belongs to is morally irrelevant. Likewise, what species one belongs to is merely a biological fact, and also morally irrelevant.
A Revised Version of Speciesism
To rescue speciesism, one might claim that a combination of species membership and these capacities is morally relevant. Contemporary advocates of speciesism often go this route, saying that humans have a superior moral status to animals because they are members of a species where the typical members have these important capacities.9
This version of speciesism has two advantages. First, it does not depend on the idea that species membership all by itself gives humans superior moral status – by referring to typical human capacities, it draws on a plausible aspect of the Capacities View. Second, it would not imply that the severely mentally handicapped, for instance, have inferior moral status; even though they may lack these capacities, they are members of a species in which the typical members do have them.
Objections to the Revised Version of Speciesism
Although the revised version of speciesism may avoid some of the earlier problems, it also encounters new ones.
Crucially, the view depends upon a dubious combination of ideas: (1) having certain capacities matters for having a certain property (namely, moral status). But (2) some being can entirely lack those capacities, but still have the property – just because typical members of the being’s species have those capacities.
To illustrate the problem, consider an analogous case.10 If a story is well-written, has an engrossing plot, and excellent character development, then these qualities give it the property of being a good story. Suppose that most of the stories in the Sherlock Holmes series are like this – except “The Naval Treaty.” It would be wrong to say that, even though “The Naval Treaty” doesn’t have any of those qualities, it still has the property of being good because the typical members of the series do have those qualities.
Likewise, it would be wrong to say that some humans have moral status because the typical members have certain characteristics, even though the members in question lack those very characteristics.
Moreover, the revised version of speciesism seems just as vulnerable to the charge that speciesism is analogous to racism or sexism. Consider a racist who believes in the superiority of one race because most members of the given race had special characteristics that the members of other races lacked. Even if it were true that most members of a race had special characteristics that members of other races lacked, that still wouldn’t justify racism. Likewise, appealing to the characteristics of typical members of a species doesn’t justify speciesism.11
If these objections cause us to reject speciesism, then we should rethink our beliefs about the moral status of animals. This is far from easy. The advocate of the Capacities View, for instance, will still need to say what capacities might be the basis of moral status, and to what extent they are shared by humans and animals alike. In any case, some account of the grounds of moral status is important for understanding how we should treat animals.
1The concept of speciesism was introduced to a wide audience by Peter Singer. He formulates speciesism differently: “Speciesism … is a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species” (Animal Liberation, p. 7). The formulation used in this essay is different in two ways. First, it is more neutral — it does not presuppose that speciesism is a form of prejudice or bias. Second, it aims to express more clearly the role of speciesism in the debate about animal ethics — namely, that it tries to establish the superiority of humans to non-human animals, on a purely biological basis.
2According to one version of speciesism, humans have moral status superior to animals in that humans have moral status and animals do not. Such a version of speciesism thus constitutes an argument for exceptionalism – the view that humans have no duties to animals.
3Philosophers who advocate speciesism include Carl Cohen, Tibor Machan, and David Schmitdz; philosophers who contest it include Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Gary Francione.
4It should be noted that it is controversial whether species are real things – in other words, whether they are natural kinds, or whether they are merely a human-made category which does not correspond to any deeper reality. But if a speciesist is going to say that species-membership is morally significant, then it seems clear that this requires species to be more than mere social constructs.
5James Rachels, “Drawing Lines.”
6Speciesism and the Capacities View are not the only positions on the source of moral status. One might believe, for instance, that having a soul is what gives a being moral status.
7Philosophers often inquire about what is necessary and sufficient for some phenomenon to occur, or for some concept to be applied. For example, gasoline is necessary for your car to run, but not sufficient for your car to run—your battery must also be charged. Alternatively, taking a transatlantic flight is sufficient for getting from New York to London, but it’s not necessary—you could take a boat, instead. Some things are both necessary and sufficient: Getting 270 electoral votes is both necessary and sufficient for being elected President of the United States. Here we are asking whether being a member of the species homo sapiens is either necessary or sufficient for having the important capacities mentioned earlier.
8Peter Singer, Animal Liberation; Tom Regan, “The Case for Animal Rights.”
9Carl Cohen, “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research”; David Schmidtz, “Are All Species Equal?”
10Similar examples are provided by Alastair Norcross, “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases”; Nathan Nobis, “Carl Cohen’s ‘Kind’ Arguments For Animal Rights and Against Animal Rights”; and Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life.
11Gary L. Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?
Cohen, Carl. “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research” in Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues, 5th edition, eds. Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Norcross, Alastair. “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases” in The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems, 2nd edition, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Regan, Tom. “The Case for Animal Rights” in In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
About the Author
Dan Lowe is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He holds a BA from The Evergreen State College and has a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He works on ethics broadly construed, political philosophy, and feminist philosophy. His current research is in naturalized moral epistemology and philosophical methodology in general.