Defenses of speciesism

Defenses of speciesism

Numerous theorists from the fields of natural sciences, philosophy, journalism, and others have tried to provide a theoretical background in favor of speciesism. They have tried to justify animal discrimination and exploitation by claiming that the use of animals is completely unavoidable, and by predicting catastrophic consequences if such uses were brought to an end. Some, such as William Paton, have made such arguments about animal experimentation,1 and others such as R. G. Frey have done it for the use of nonhuman animals as food.2

Most writers who defend speciesism have argued in a more general way. They have tried to provide reasons why it is justified to disregard the interests of nonhuman animals, and have focused exclusively on defending human interests. The section on the arguments against speciesism explains this in detail. They have argued that only humans have certain cognitive capacities that nonhuman animals lack (as Michael Leahy and Luc Ferry do),3 that we are justified in exploiting nonhuman animals because we are more powerful than they are (as Jan Narveson and Lewis Petrinovitch claim),4 that God created them for us to exploit (as Peter Harrison and James Reichmann maintain),5 etc.

None of the arguments these theorists defend succeed. These arguments either beg the question or appeal to capacities that not all humans possess. In addition, these arguments are often based on criteria that are irrelevant and biased. In making decisions or taking actions in which someone may be harmed or benefited, there are strong reasons to defend the argument that we should be concerned with simply whether that individual can be harmed or benefited. This is determined by whether or not she or he is sentient. If we consider the case impartially, we would reject the arguments that defenders of speciesism propose, because neither we nor they would accept these arguments if we were to suffer the same fate nonhuman animals face because of speciesism.

Those theorists who defend speciesism often fail to address these arguments. They present their arguments without properly addressing the responses to them (briefly explained above and in more detail in the section on speciesism). In fact, most of them present arguments that if applied consistently would also deprive many humans of consideration.6

An interesting case of a former defender of speciesism who changed his position is Michael Allen Fox. Fox is a moral philosopher who, in the 1970s and the 1980s wrote extensively in defense of the moral exclusion of nonhuman animals.7 However, due to his involvement in the debate on this topic, he had to consider very seriously all the different arguments presented in the debate. Finally, he concluded that there was no sound response to the arguments against speciesism. He initially argued that only those beings with certain cognitive capacities should be respected, but tried to claim that those humans without those capacities should be respected. He ended up deciding this view was incoherent. He gave up his previous speciesist positions, abandonded the use of nonhuman animals as resources and started to write in defense of animals, rather than against them.8

Other theorists who defend the moral exclusion of nonhuman animals, or discrimination against them, and claim that all human interests matter morally in a way that no nonhuman animal interest matters include Peter Carruthers,9 Lawrence Becker,10 Carl Cohen,11 Jeffrey A. Gray,12 Tibor Machan,13 Roger Scruton,14 Bonnie Steinbock15 and Toby Sbovoda.16

In the field of environmental ethics there has been much opposition to views that question speciesism and defend the moral consideration of all sentient beings. This is basically due to the idea that it is not individuals that matter, but rather the species or the ecosystems to which they belong, so animals can be harmed or killed if it is better for the environment. Some theorists claim that all living beings should be respected, and that sentient beings should not necessarily count more than non-sentient living beings.

However, as is explained in more detail in the section on the relevance of animal interests, those who defend these views do not hold the same position when it comes to humans. With the exception of very few theorists, who actually take seriously environmentalist principles and want to sacrifice humans for the sake of those principles17 (something most people oppose), virtually all environmental ethicists claim that human interests should not be sacrificed for the sake of environmentalist ideals. Most environmental ethicists believe that the interests of nonhuman animals should be. They are willing to kill animals and cause them to suffer for the sake of environmental preservation, even though they would never do that to humans. And they would not be willing to act in nature to help nonhuman animals even though they would do it to help human beings. Due to this, it can be argued that their viewpoint is a speciesist one.

There are some environmentalists who defend the proposition that nature should be preserved as it exists, because that benefits humans, even if it’s harmful for nonhuman animals. This is something we won’t accept if we defend the reasons in support of the moral relevance of sentience. The most representative theorists defending such views include Murray Bookchin,18 John Baird Callicott,19 Eugene Hargrove,20 Arne Næss,21 Bryan Norton22 and Holmes Rolston, III.23

Further readings

Armstrong, S. J. & Botzler, R. G. (eds.) (2008) The animal ethics reader, 2nd ed., New York: Routledge.

Attfield, R. (1987) “Biocentrism, moral standing and moral significance”, Philosophica, 39, pp. 47-58.

Bernstein, M. H. (2004) “Neo-speciesism”, Journal of Social Philosophy, 35, pp. 380-390.

Bernstein, M. H. (1998) On moral considerability: An essay on who morally matters, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Callicott, J. B. (1990) “The case against moral pluralism”, Environmental Ethics, 12, pp. 99-124.

DesJardins, J. R. (2013 [1993]) Environmental ethics: An introduction to environmental philosophy, 5th ed., Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Dunayer, J. (2004) Speciesism, Derwood: Ryce.

Francione, G. L. (2000) Introduction to animal rights: Your child or the dog?, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Frey, R. G. (1980) Interests and rights: The case against animals, Oxford: Clarendon.

Frey, R. G. & Paton, P. (1989) “Vivisection, morals and medicine: An exchange”, in Regan, T. & Singer, P. (eds.) Animal rights and human obligations, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, pp. 223-26.

Hargrove, E. C. (ed.) (1992) The animal rights/environmental ethics debate: The environmental perspective, Albany: State of New York University Press.

Horta, O. (2010) “What is speciesism?”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 23, pp. 243-266 [accessed on 18 November 2013].

Pluhar, E. B. (1995) Beyond prejudice: The moral significance of human and nonhuman animals, Durham: Duke University Press.

Regan, T. & Singer, P. (eds.) (1989) Animal rights and human obligations, 2nd ed., Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Sapontzis, S. F. (ed.) (2004) Food for thought: The debate over eating meat, Amherst: Prometheus.

Sapontzis, S. F. (1988) “On justifying the exploitation of animals in research”, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 13, pp. 177-196.

Sapontzis, S. F. (1987) Morals, reason, and animals, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Schweitzer, A. (1929 [1923]) Cultural philosophy II: Civilization and ethics, London: A. & C. Black.

Singer, P. (ed.) (2006) In defense of animals: The second wave, Malden: Blackwell.

Steiner, G. (2005) Anthropocentrism and its discontents: The moral status of animals in the history of western philosophy, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press.

Sztybel, D. (2000) “Taking humanism seriously: «Obligatory» anthropocentrism”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 13, pp. 181-203.

Taylor, A. (2003) Animals & ethics: An overview of the philosophical debate, Ontario: Broadview.

Taylor, A. (1999) Magpies, monkeys, and morals: What philosophers say about animal liberation, Ontario: Broadview.

Varner, G. (2002) “Biocentric individualism”, in Schmidtz, D. & Willot, E. (eds.) Environmental ethics: What really matters, what really works, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 108-120.

Waldau, P. (2006) A communion of subjects: Animals in religion, science, and ethics, New York: Columbia University Press.


1 See for instance Paton, W. (1984) Man and mouse, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2 See for instance Frey, R. G. (1983) Rights, killing and suffering: Moral vegetarianism and applied ethics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

3 Leahy, M. (1991) Against liberation: Putting in animals in perspective, London: Routledge. Ferry, L. (1995 [1992]) New ecological order, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4 Narveson, J. (1977) “Animal rights”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 7, pp. 161-178. Petrinovich, L. (1999) Darwinian dominion: Animal welfare and human interests, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

5 Harrison, P. (1989) “Theodicy and animal pain”, Philosophy, 64, pp. 79-92. Reichmann, J. B. (2000) Evolution, animal ‘rights’ and the environment, Washington: The Catholic University of America Press.

6 See Carruthers, P. (1992) The animal issue: Moral theory in practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

7 Fox, M. A. (1978) “Animal liberation: A critique”, Ethics, 88, pp. 106-118; (1986) The case for animal experimentation, Los Ángeles: California University Press.

8 Fox, M. A. (1990) “Taking animals’ viewpoint seriously”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13, pp. 20-21; (1998) “Anthropocentrism”, in Bekoff, M. & Meaney, C. A. (eds.) Encyclopedia of animal rights and animal welfare, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, pp. 67-68; (1999) Deep vegetarianism, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

9 See Carruthers, P. (1992) The animal issue: Moral theory in practice, op. cit.

10 Becker, L. C. (1983) “The priority of human interests”, in Miller, H. B. & Williams, W. H. (eds.) Ethics and animals, Clifton: Humana, pp. 225-242.

11 Cohen, C. & Regan, T. (2001) The animal rights debate, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

12 Gray, J. A. (1980) “In defense of speciesism”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13, p. 22.

13 Machan, T. (2004) Putting humans first: Why we are nature’s favorite, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

14 Scruton, R. (1996) Animal rights and wrongs, London: Metro.

15 Steinbock, B. (1978) “Speciesism and the idea of equality”, Philosophy, 53, p. 256.

16 Sbovoda, Toby, “Why there is no Evidence for the Intrinsic Value of Non-humans”, Ethics & the Environment, 16 (2), 2011, pp. 25-36.

17 See Linkola, K. P. (2009) Can life prevail?: A radical approach to the environmental crisis, London: Integral Tradition. Pianka, E. R. (2006) The vanishing book of life on Earth [accessed on 11 November 2013].

18 Bookchin, M. (1990) The philosophy of social ecology: Essays on dialectical naturalism, Montreal: Black Rose.

19 Callicott, J. B. (1980) “Animal liberation: A triangular affair”, Environmental Ethics, 2, pp. 311-338.

20 Hargrove, E. C. (1992) “Foundations of wildlife protection attitudes”, in Hargrove, Eugene C. (ed.) The animal rights/environmental ethics debate: The environmental perspective, op. cit., pp. 151-183.

21 Næss, A. (1989) Ecology, community and lifestyle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

22 Norton, B. G. (1987) Why preserve natural variety?, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

23 Rolston, H., III (1992) “Disvalues in nature”, The Monist, 75, pp. 250-278.