Like sexism and racism, speciesism is a form of discrimination. While racism and sexism are the unjust treatment of members of certain groups of human beings, speciesism is the unjust treatment of members of certain species.
It is sometimes said that there are no morally compelling reasons to respect nonhuman animals. But actually there are good reasons to conclude that the way most animals suffer and die is unjust, and that speciesism is totally unacceptable. Some reasons why speciesism is unjustified are given below.
Should we discriminate against those who are less intelligent?
Some people say that we don’t have to fully respect animals because they are less intelligent than humans. It’s true that the majority of humans have certain capacities that other animals don’t have. However, there are humans who don’t have reasoning ability or possess any kind of complex cognition usually associated with humans, such as those with functional diversity and some elderly people. Is it just for us to take advantage of those humans simply because we’re more intelligent? Of course not. And it’s not any more just to discriminate against other animals who don’t have the same capacities that we have.
Those who want to use intelligence as a reason for not respecting nonhuman animals would actually have the same grounds for discriminating against many humans as well. There are capacities that some nonhuman animals have that humans don’t. Some animals are capable of flying, possess an acute sense of smell, or have the ability to run at very high speeds.
Having sympathy for some does not justify the abuse of others
Some would argue that it’s acceptable to discriminate against animals of other species because humans don’t have close and loving relationships with them. They would argue that humans do have close and loving relationships with other humans, and for that reason we should not discriminate against other humans. However, there are also humans who don’t have a relationship with anyone else. There are older people and orphans for whom nobody cares. There are children whose families are dead and who are working as slaves. The people who enslave them don’t care about them. Yet this is not a justification for exploiting them. We think these people should be respected. We find it unjust to discriminate against others who have no close human relationships. If it’s unjust, it can’t be used as an argument for discriminating against human or nonhuman animals.
Humans are more powerful
There are arguments that humans can discriminate against nonhuman animals simply because we are more powerful than they are. This is the same reasoning that has been used to exploit and enslave many humans for the benefit of the powerful. If we are opposed to “might makes right” as a justification for discrimination, then we can’t use it as a reason to discriminate against nonhuman animals any more than we can use it to discriminate against humans.
They belong to a different species
Some people say it’s OK to discriminate against other animals simply because they belong to a different species. This amounts to saying that we can discriminate against other animals for no reason at all. Species membership itself does not determine whether someone can be harmed or benefited by our actions. That is determined by whether an animal can feel suffering and joy or not. Ignoring the most relevant factor – consciousness – and using a classification based on something else instead is like giving a reason of “just because.” This is a type of circular reasoning, also known as begging the question. People making this argument have already assumed at the outset what it is they should be trying to prove, that treatment of others should depend on species membership.
If we were to accept that we can discriminate against animals of other species “just because,” then we’d have to accept any other kind of injustice or discrimination for the same reason. Someone who wants to defend racism could also say that we can discriminate against humans with different skin colors “just because.” But that says nothing.
Speciesism is an injustice
To figure out if a situation is unjust, we can try to put ourselves in the situation of those who are involved. For example, suppose we want to figure out if racism is unjust. We would have to put ourselves in the place of those individuals affected by it. We would have to consider not only the perspectives of those who benefit from racism, but also the perspectives of those who are harmed by it. This is what impartiality requires.
If someone who discriminates for racist reasons were made to suffer what those who are discriminated against suffer, surely he would be opposed to racism. What about in the case of speciesism? We should do the same thing when considering speciesism. We should put ourselves in the place of the animals who are harmed by it. It’s not enough to look at it only from our perspective. We have to think about what it’s like from the perspective of animals.
If we were the ones who had to suffer what nonhuman animals suffer because of speciesism, would we accept it?
It’s clear that we would not. We would never accept it if we were the victims. If we believe that justice requires impartiality, then we can’t accept this as being just. Therefore, speciesism is unjust.
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