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  • Writer's pictureCrone


I need to start by defining what speciesism is and to do that I will follow Oscar Horta and use his (longer) definition:

Speciesism is the unjustified disadvantageous consideration or treatment of those who are not classified as belonging to one or more particular species.

He points out that lesser consideration of an individual may be justifiable on other grounds, but the membership of a given species is not a morally significant reason. No oppose speciesism entails viewing all animals - human and non human animals (NHA) - as having moral status.

But an equal consideration of interests does not entail identical interests. Different treatment does not mean that discrimination is enacted - so, while men will get certain goods, like prostate examinations, women will not. This is neither discriminatory nor disadvantageous to women.

However, the claim that differentiating between species is vital because different species need different things would be speciesist as equal consideration and moral status apply to individuals. A species is not harmed, an individual is. This does seem to run counter to the male/female example above in that one uses biological sex to determine which individuals get what, but there we go - he doesn't explain that. What he is insisting is that the interests of individuals, irrespective of species, should have equal consideration.

Speciesism is defended by claiming that all humans have a certain property which no other animals have and that makes humans unique. But there is no property that all humans have and no property that only humans have. Some writers argue that to have moral consideration an individual must either have certain capacities or be human - thus ensuring that humans who fail in the given criteria retain their moral significance. This is still a speciesist position.

Horta then considers anthropocentrism - the disadvantageous consideration or treatment of those who are not members of the human species. Even if such views are not discrimination - i.e. that they are just - they are still anthropocentrist. For example, the granting of moral status to NHA in utilitarianism and the moral rights granted to NHA by deontologists are dependent on rationality and psychological complexity. These are capacities that are highly prized by humans. Such moral status tends to be on a sliding scale, with some humans below some NHA but most humans well above most NHA. It's similarly anthropocentrist to privilege domestic pets, say, over farmed or wild animals on the basis of relational bonds.

Ultimately, Horta claims that anthropocentrism is not justified.

Marc Bekoff, a cognitive ethologist, is also wary of speciesist cognitivists. He says that intellieence is different for different animals and that our common sense intuitions are often wrong. Mice and rats, it turns out, are better at imitation than some apes.There is research suggesting intention in the behaviour of piping plovers. Essentially, he dismisses the concept of any 'sliding scale' of consideration regarding other species gauged on the assumption of sociability or cognitive or psychological complexity.

Gary Steiner says that this privileging of selfhood, consciousness, agency, cognition, rationality or psychological complexity maps well onto a conception of liberal individualism - for humans - but it fails to encompass the inherent worth of NHA (and indeed nature as a whole). Peter Singer's view appears to strip this down to the ability to experience pleasure or pain - but that's not how his analysis works because the assumption is that humans, because they can reason, experience more or greater pleasures and pains. Thus, when doing your hedonic calculus, rational humans weigh more heavily than non or less rational beings. In addition, humans (younger ones) have more years of potential happiness ahead and that weighs in their favour too. If considering preference based utilitarianism, again, humans have more of them. So by virtue of what is selected as morally salient, humans come out on top - not because they are members of a species, but because of traits that are predominantly and to a greater extent found in that species. Thus Stuart Hampshire states that utilitarianism “places men at the very center of the universe, with their states of feeling as the source of all value in the world.”

Tom Regan, who advocates rights for animals, claims that all 'subjects-of-a-life' have inherent value and deserve respect. And yet, because humans have awareness of the future and other complex cognitive capacities, the loss of a human is so much greater than that of a NHA that he would sacrifice a million dogs for a few people. I really don't get that at all.

Steiner digs into the research on animal cognition and supports a view, similar to Bekoff, that NHA have such very different experiences and capacities that it is almost impossible to rank them or judge them. It is entirely unhelpful - and unjustifiable - in judging the moral consideration of NHA to take an anthropocentrist perspective.

So Steiner wants to combine a capabilities based approach (what capacities an individual can develop) with a concept of kinship with all beings in a somewhat romantic sense, that he tracks back through Western philosophy. What this means in reality is appreciating that all living things have certain ways of flourishing and that we all have inherent value in our shared quest to survive. What this means in practice, though, is far less clear.

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