This video begins the second module of our course, which concerns the ethics of our treatment of animals and the evidence of their sentience. This video covers what moral consideration means and how speciesism consists of withholding moral consideration towards other species. It describes how having interests (by being sentient) is the correct criterion for determining moral consideration. It describes the different forms that speciesism can take and how they all constitute harmful discrimination.
Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues
In addition to being the name of our organization, “animal ethics” is a term for a field in ethics. It’s about how we reflect on the way we should act towards nonhuman animals. The key issue in animal ethics is “speciesism.” In this section, we’ll see what speciesism is, as well as some of the different forms of speciesism. In particular, we’ll look at anthropocentrism, which is a form of speciesism that favors humans, and we’ll examine some of the arguments people have used to defend it.
The word “speciesism” was coined almost fifty years ago, and is analogous to “racism” and “sexism.” Like racism and sexism, speciesism is a form of discrimination – in this case, discrimination against those who are not members of a certain species. Discrimination occurs when someone is treated worse than others for an unjustified reason. Just like skin color and sex, species membership is a biological characteristic that is independent of how we should morally consider someone. Speciesism can be defined as treating those who don’t belong to a certain species worse for no justified reason, or giving them less moral consideration.1
What do we mean by giving them less consideration? It means that we act as if the harms they can suffer, and the benefits that could be given to them, count for less. Another way of saying this is that we don’t treat their interests according to a common standard. What “interest” means in this context is a potential benefit or harm. You have an interest in something — for example, in being provided with medical care — if it is something that will benefit you. You have an interest against something – for example, against being beaten — if it will harm you.
We consider the interests of two individuals equally when we give the same priority to interests of equal importance, regardless of whose interest it is. For example, imagine two people, Alice and Betty, are suffering from malaria and are in need of medicine. They both have the same disease, and both are suffering equally badly. Each of them has an interest in receiving medical treatment, and the interest is equally strong for both of them. We can cure both of them. If we decide that it’s very important to treat Alice, so we treat her, but not very important to treat Betty, and we don’t, then we have failed to consider their interests equally. We consider Alice’s interest important, but not Betty’s.
In the case of Alice and Betty, the interests were the same. But equal consideration of interests doesn’t mean that the interests of the individuals have to be exactly the same. They can be very different. Nor does it mean that we must treat different individuals in exactly the same way. But if we are to give their interests equal consideration, then we must take them equally seriously if they are equally important interests. For example, a fish has an interest in living in water, and a squirrel has in interest in living on land. These interests are very different. They are equally important, however, because a fish would suffocate on land and a squirrel would drown underwater. What is important here is that we recognize that both interests are equally important, even though the contents and the holders of the interests are very different.
Equal consideration of interests also means that we give greater priority to interests that have more weight. By weight, we mean greater impact on an individual. Michael’s interest in having a mild pain relieved is less important than Sarah’s interest in having a severe pain relieved. If we gave priority to the milder pain over the severe pain, we would be considering the interests of those two individuals unequally, unjustifiably favoring Michael’s lesser interest over Sarah’s greater one.2
We’ve discussed the meaning of discrimination, which is treating others worse for unjustified reasons, and the meaning of interests, which are potential harms or benefits. Now we’ll see how the term “moral consideration” is related to them.
Moral consideration is a way of saying that we are taking someone’s interests into account. When we give someone moral consideration, it means we consider how they will be affected by our actions and omissions, along with our attitudes and decisions. When we think we should give moral consideration to someone, we call them “morally considerable.”3 If we don’t give any moral consideration to someone, we might do all kinds of things that could harm them. We might treat them as a mere object. We might harm them simply for our own amusement, or force them to work until they collapsed. Or we might completely disregard them, no matter how bad their situation is or how easily we could relieve it.
However, moral consideration isn’t all or nothing. We can give greater or lesser degrees of moral consideration to different beings. For example, in modern society most people give nonhuman animals some moral consideration, so animal interests generally count for something (we generally think it’s wrong to hurt or kill animals for no reason at all, for example). But they are typically given far less consideration than humans. Note that we can give some moral consideration to someone, but be willing to frustrate greater interests of hers in favor of lesser interests of others. This is discrimination.
It’s also possible to discriminate against someone without harming them, by treating them less well than we treat others for unjust reasons.4 We discriminate against nonhuman animals — even if we don’t do anything to harm them — if we are not willing to help them in situations where we would be willing to help humans. For example, many people think it’s very important to help humans who are in danger of being affected by natural disasters, but few think that we should help animals in the wild when they face similar dangers (although this has been changing in recent years).
So we can see that speciesism, like other forms of discrimination, can have many different implications for their victims, including both our actions against them and our omissions to act in ways that will benefit them. People commonly reject discrimination against other humans, and think all humans should be equally considered. Rejecting speciesism means that we should have a similar attitude towards other sentient beings. This doesn’t mean denying that individuals from different species often have different interests (just like individuals of the same species have different interests). What it means is that when their interests have the same weight, that is, when the harms or benefits are similarly bad or good for the one experiencing them, then the interests should count the same.
The alternative to speciesist discrimination is a position that does not give different moral consideration to individuals of different species. We can call this a nonspeciesist view. Nonspeciesism can be defined as the absence of speciesism. In addition to the term nonspeciesism, you might have heard the term antispeciesism. While nonspeciesism means trying to avoid acting or thinking in a speciesist way, antispeciesism means actively working against speciesism.
The most common form of speciesism is discrimination against nonhuman animals in comparison to humans. We see it in how we routinely behave towards nonhuman animals in ways that we would never behave towards other humans. The view that the interests of humans count more than equally strong interests of other animals is called anthropocentrism. If we agree that anthropocentrism is unjustified, and is therefore a form of speciesism, we can also call it anthropocentric speciesism.5
However, this is only one type of speciesism. There are many ways in which some nonhuman animals are discriminated against in comparison to other animals. For example, animals who are more closely related to humans, or who share certain capacities that many humans have, are usually given greater consideration than all other animals. This includes great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas, along with other animals such as dolphins and elephants. In many countries, animals such as pigs, cows, chickens or different species of fishes are treated comparatively worse than dogs and cats. Pigs, cows, and chickens are used for some human purposes in ways that dogs and cats are not. In some countries, it’s different and all these animals are used for similar purposes. Another reason that certain animals are treated better than others is because humans have an aesthetic preference for them. Animals such as panda bears or butterflies are often favored over black bears or beetles. In other cases, the differences have to do with different scientific interest in the animals. Also, mere size makes a difference: smaller animals are typically given less consideration than larger ones. This is one reason why invertebrates, despite being the majority of animals, are often disregarded, even though there is evidence of their sentience, as in the complex behaviors of bees and their centralized nervous systems. Some people even think of small invertebrates like insects as “not really animals.” Finally, some animals are treated worse than others just because people have a dislike for them. This happens when animals are considered aesthetically “ugly.”
Most people don’t hold just one type of speciesist attitude. Usually, people hold several, if not all, of these different speciesist attitudes. As a result, the moral consideration that people give to different animals often ends up being influenced by a combination of morally irrelevant factors. The factors that these diverse forms of discrimination are based on are irrelevant because they are unrelated to the interests of those who are favored and harmed by the discrimination.
Out of all these views, the one with potentially the most harmful consequences for nonhuman animals is anthropocentrism. In light of this, it is crucial to examine whether this is a justified position or not. We will now examine some of the arguments used to try to justify anthropocentrism.
There are different ways in which anthropocentrism — the view that human interests count for more than other animals’ interests — can be defended (note that we are now talking about the way the anthropocentric views themselves are defended, not the arguments to counter those claims, which we’ll talk about later). Anthropocentric views can be classified into several groups.
First, it is sometimes claimed that the interests of human beings should count more than those of other sentient beings, and no further argument is given. It is simply taken for granted. This view is so commonplace that most people don’t think to question it except in cases where the type or degree of discrimination is unusual.6
A second type of claim is that human interests should count more because there is some special condition that only human beings satisfy, but this special condition cannot be verified (or else is recognized to be false). Examples of this include having an immortal soul or some kind of privileged position in the universe.7
Third, there are claims that human interests count more because only human beings have certain special capacities or traits. These are usually complex cognitive capacities, or abilities related to them, such as language or the ability to accept responsibilities towards others. According to these positions, anyone with those features deserves special respect and greater moral consideration than beings who lack them.8
Fourth, it’s argued that human beings have certain special relationships with other humans, such as love, sympathy, and solidarity.9 According to this argument, we have these special relationships only with other humans, so we should grant full moral consideration to other humans, but since we don’t have similar relationships with nonhuman animals, we are justified in not giving them the same consideration. Another argument regards power relations. It is argued that humans can disregard other animals because we are stronger or more powerful than they are, but that we should respect other humans because humans have a similar level of strength or power.
Finally, there are views that combine one or more of these arguments. For example, it is sometimes claimed that in order to be given full moral consideration, a being must either have certain complex cognitive capacities or have certain special relationships with us. Or that we should respect all beings who belong to the same species that we do or who have complex intellectual capacities.
If these claims, or at least some of them, are right — in fact even if only one of them is right, then anthropocentrism would be a justified view. However, there are strong arguments against reaching this conclusion, as we’ll see next.
1 Ryder, R. D. (2010 ) “Speciesism again: The original leaflet”, Critical Society, 2, pp. 1-2; Horta, O. (2010) “What is speciesism?”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 23, pp. 243-266.
2 The unequal status view is presented in Vallentyne, P. (2005) “Of mice and men: Equality and animals”, Journal of Ethics, 9, pp. 403-433 as well as in DeGrazia, D. (2008) “Moral status as a matter of degree?”, Southern Journal of Philosophy, 46, 181-198, and it is criticized in Rachels, J. (2004) “Drawing lines”, in Sunstein, C. & Nussbaum, M. (eds.) Animal rights: Current debates and new directions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 162-174; Singer, P. (2009) “Speciesism and moral status”, Metaphilosophy, 40, 567-581; Horta, O. (2017) “Why the concept of moral status should be abandoned”, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20, pp. 899-910.
3 Pluhar, E. B. (1995) Beyond prejudice: The moral significance of human and nonhuman animals. Durham: Duke University Press; Bernstein, M. H. (1998) On moral considerability: An essay on who morally matters, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4 A detailed account of discrimination can be found in Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2014) Born free and equal? A philosophical inquiry into the nature of discrimination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5 Dunayer, J. (2004) Speciesism, Derwood: Ryce; Horta, O. (2010) “What is speciesism?”, op. cit.
6 Posner, R. A. (2004), “Animal Rights: Legal, Philosophical and Pragmatic Perspectives”, in Sunstein, C. & Nussbaum, M. C. Animal rights: Current debates and new directions, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 51-77; Williams, B. (2006) Philosophy as a humanistic discipline, Princeton: Princeton University Press, part. 13.
7 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.
8 Frey, R. G. (1980) Interests and rights: The case against animals, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Leahy, M. (1991) Against liberation: Putting in animals in perspective, London: Routledge; Carruthers, P. (1992) The animal issue: Moral theory in practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
9 Becker, L. C. (1983) “The priority of human interests”, in Miller, H. B. & Williams, W. H. (eds.) Ethics and animals, Clifton: Humana Press, pp. 225-242; Midgley, M. (1993) Animals and why they matter, Athens: The University of Georgia Press; Petrinovich, L. (1999) Darwinian dominion: Animal welfare and human interests, Massachusetts: MIT Press.