Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 13

Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 13

This video considers the first set of arguments against speciesism. It describes how many arguments for speciesism simply beg the question, which is to say they represent circular reasoning. It then considers that for any trait someone might consider to justify a higher moral status for humans, we can point to some humans who lack that trait, and disregarding them would clearly be unacceptable. Finally, the video considers a positive argument against speciesism, the argument from impartiality based on the veil of ignorance thought experiment.

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Related pages on the topics covered in this video:

Arguments against speciesism
The argument from species overlap
The argument from impartiality
Defenses of speciesism


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Extended content of the video with references:

Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues

Arguments against speciesism I

In this chapter, we will see the main arguments against anthropocentrism. Some of them are general arguments that question all the ways anthropocentrism can be defended, while others focus on particular ways of defending this position. We’ll start by considering the latter.


Begging the question

Begging the question means assuming from the start what you want to prove. It’s a form of circular reasoning, where the truth of the premises relies on the truth of the conclusion. In other words, it’s starting with the conclusion we want to reach, and working backwards to try to justify it. Begging the question applies to two types of arguments defending anthropocentrism, one that is definitional and one that is based on criteria that cannot be verified in any way. An example of a definitional claim in support of anthropocentrism is that it is simply intuitive that humans count more than nonhuman animals, and that this intuition doesn’t have to be backed up by further reasoning.1

But many people don’t share that intuition. Moreover, our intuitions shouldn’t be trusted when we have arguments pointing in the opposite direction, that is, leading us to think that they are unreliable intuitions.2 The argument from begging the question points out that definitional defenses don’t give any actual reasons why we should accept them.

Something similar can be said about views based on criteria that can’t be verified. Giving reasons that no possible amount of evidence can show to be right or wrong cannot prove something. When, as in this case, we have no basis to believe them, unverifiable claims can be considered mere rationalizations — that is, inventions that we come up with in order to support a view we want to defend.


The argument from species overlap

Other arguments in defense of anthropocentrism claim that human interests are worth more because humans have certain special capacities or relationships that can actually be verified. The argument from species overlap shows that such claims fail to draw a dividing line between humans and other animals. In addition, it suggests that such claims must be rejected because they lead to unacceptable conclusions.

The key point of the argument from species overlap is that there is no feature that we can verify that all humans have and that no other animal has. Consider, for example, complex cognitive capacities. There are human beings who don’t have them, such as those who have suffered certain kinds of brain damage. Some human beings are born with congenital conditions preventing them from ever developing complex cognitive abilities. Babies also lack these capacities. The same can be said about related capacities, such as the command of a language or being able to recognize and accept responsibilities towards others.3

We might think that babies are different because they have the potential to develop those capacities, but this doesn’t happen for babies who don’t make it to adulthood. And it seems unacceptable to think that these children shouldn’t be respected as much as other children. In fact, none of us should be treated according to what we merely have the potential to do. You might have the potential to become the president or prime minister of your country, but that doesn’t mean that you should to be treated as if you actually are president. The same applies in all other cases when someone has the potential to develop a certain capacity but doesn’t have it yet. So this response to the argument from species overlap doesn’t work.

The case is similar if we consider not capacities, but relationships, such as relations of sympathy or power. There are many humans who don’t have anyone who takes care of them or loves them, and people who are powerless, like many orphans and elderly people. The argument from species overlap shows that anthropocentric arguments based on these criteria fail. They can’t establish any good reasons why humans and nonhuman animals should be considered differently. If we accept the claim that having such capacities or relationships matters for whether and how someone should be considered and treated, we will have to accept that all those who don’t have such capacities and relationships should be disregarded or deserve less consideration. This means that many humans will not be granted full moral consideration, because they lack the capacities or relationships that are supposedly essential to full moral consideration. But this is a conclusion most of us will find unacceptable. Instead, we can acknowledge that in order to be granted full moral consideration, one doesn’t have to have those special capacities or relationships. This allows us to fully respect all human beings. But then, if we accept this, we will have to acknowledge that those capacities and relationships are not relevant to giving someone full moral consideration. Otherwise, we would have to accept the conclusion based on the following premises:

(1) It is justified to deny full moral consideration to those who lack certain intellectual capacities or special relationships with others.

(2) Not all humans have certain intellectual capacities or special relationships with others.

If we accept the two premises of the argument, then the following conclusion (3), must be accepted.

(3) It is justified to deny full moral consideration to humans who lack certain intellectual capacities or special relationships with others.

The second premise is irrefutable since it is a fact that there are humans who don’t have certain intellectual capacities or special relationships with others.

The only way the conclusion can be avoided is to reject premise 1, that it’s justified to give less consideration to the interests of those without certain capacities or special relationships. This means that this argument cannot support the case against respecting nonhuman animals without also supporting the case against respecting humans.4

Those defending anthropocentric positions have argued against this in several different ways. Some have claimed that, when some members of a species have certain cognitive capacities, then we should give equal moral consideration to all individuals of the same species. So, for example, since there are humans with complex cognitive abilities, we should give the same moral consideration to all humans, whether they have those abilities or not. Others have argued that, while humans who lack certain capacities should not be recognized as fully morally considerable, they should nevertheless be respected as if they were, in an “honorary” way, so to speak. Both of these positions combine two ideas. They first argue that having certain capacities is what matters. But then they claim that belonging to a certain species –– our species –– is what matters. We have seen that the latter claim can be rejected by showing that it begs the question, so it cannot be a sound response to the argument from species overlap.

Suppose someone tried to argue that humans deserve special treatment not because of any particular attribute, but because of a combination of attributes that make humans special. Now suppose that they come up with a group of attributes that is unique to humans. That still wouldn’t support their claim, because they would actually be arguing that humans are special because they are the most like humans. That is a circular argument. They would be begging the question by concluding that humans deserve special treatment because they are human.


The argument from impartiality

We see that the different ways to defend anthropocentrism fail because they either beg the question or because they fail when challenged by the argument from species overlap. So, combining the two arguments we have seen so far, we have a full refutation of the defenses of anthropocentrism.

There are other arguments that challenge all kinds of defenses of anthropocentrism. Each of these arguments is sufficient by itself without needing to be combined with any other claim. One of these arguments, called “the argument from impartiality,” argues that anthropocentrism is incompatible with fairness. The argument starts with the premise that in order to be fair, we should only accept a position that we would accept if we thought impartially about it.

What do we mean by impartial? There’s a thought experiment used in philosophy that can help us to see more clearly what we would decide if we were being impartial. In this thought experiment, we think about how we would want individuals to be treated in the society where we will live. But there is one condition. We have to think about how we would respond to this question if we didn’t know what our place in the society would be. That is, we could be born rich or poor, with high status or low status, healthy or sick, with cognitive abilities greater or less than average.

In contemporary philosophy, this uncertainty about what our position would be is known as the veil of ignorance. Behind this veil of ignorance, we would not know the class, gender, skin color, economic status, or anything else about who we would be. This thought experiment is intended to help us come up with a just system for a society. The idea is that if we were thinking only of ourselves and we didn’t know what position we would be born into, we would want the society to be as fair as possible.

This thought experiment also helps us to consider what would be a fair way to treat nonhuman animals. We can expand the veil of ignorance to include all sentient beings. So, in the hypothetical situation we have just seen, you wouldn’t know if you were going to be born as a human being or as an animal of a different species. And the total number of sentient animals may be up to or more than a quintillion, which is 1018, or a billion billion, which is more than 160 million times the number of humans. So in this scenario, chances are you would find you were a nonhuman animal. If we reflected on this, we would not prefer a situation where the odds are that we would be deprived of consideration and potentially harmed as a result. We would not want to be in a society where nonhuman animals are disregarded if we might be — probably would be — a nonhuman animal.5 So if we consider the matter in a truly impartial manner, we would have to reject anthropocentrism.

A different thought experiment also helps us to consider the consequences of our decisions in an impartial manner. We consider what decisions we would make if we had to consecutively live the lives of all the different individuals affected by our decisions. Again, thinking about this scenario would lead us to take the interests of nonhuman animals into account too, whenever the consequences of human actions could potentially harm them. Otherwise, the consequences for us would almost certainly be terrible. This thought experiment is like the previous one in that it shows us that impartiality requires us to oppose discrimination against nonhuman animals.


1 Diamond, C. (1991) “The importance of being human”, in Cockburn, D. (ed.) Human beings, Cambridge: Royal Institute of Philosophy, pp. 35-62; Lynch, T. & Wells, D. (1998) “Non-Anthropocentrism? A Killing Objection”, Environmental Values, 7, pp. 151-63; Gaita, R. (2003) The philosopher’s dog: Friendships with animals, London: Routledge.

2 Singer, P. (2004) “Ethics beyond species and beyond instincts: A response to Richard Posner”, in Sunstein, C. & Nussbaum, M. (eds.) Animal rights: Current debates and new directions, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 78-92.

3 Regan, T. (1979) “An examination and defense of one argument concerning animal rights”, Inquiry, 22, pp. 189-219; Pluhar, E. (1996) Beyond prejudice: The moral significance of human and nonhuman animals, Durham: Duke University Press; Ehnert, J. (2002) The argument from species overlap, master’s thesis, Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Horta, O. (2014) “The scope of the argument from species overlap”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 31, pp. 142-154.

4 The argument from species overlap has often been called “the argument from marginal cases.” This name is inaccurate. To start with, it is not clear what “marginality” refers to. If it refers to membership to humanity, it is a wrong denomination, as humans who fail to satisfy the criteria are not marginal humans; they are as human as any other human beings. Being human is not determined by having those features; individuals with fully human DNA, born to human beings, who don’t have those capacities or relationships are not marginal humans. If, instead the term “marginal” is used to mean not humanity, but the possession of certain features, it is an inaccurate term, because some humans do not possess those features at all (not just in “marginal” ways), and because it implies that humans who have higher capacities than average would also be marginal. It makes more sense to instead refer to it as the “argument from species overlap” because the central point is that there is an overlap among different species regarding how they satisfy certain requirements. The “argument from species overlap” shows that those requirements can’t be satisfied by all the members of only a certain species.

5 VanDeVeer, D. (1979) “Of beasts, persons and the original position”, The Monist, 62, pp. 368-377; Rowlands, M. (2009 [1998]) Animal rights: Moral, theory and practice, 2nd ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan. See also Harsanyi, J. C. (1977) Rational behavior and bargaining equilibrium in games and social situations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Rawls, J. (1999 [1971]) A theory of justice, rev. ed., Cambridge: Harvard University Press.