Over the past century, humans have come far in fighting discrimination, whether in the movement for civil rights or female suffrage. These battles aren’t won, but they give us reason to be optimistic that we are making moral progress. But there are further prejudices that need to be challenged. One thing racism and sexism have in common is that they discriminate based on morally irrelevant information: the colour of one’s skin or one’s gender. In this piece, I argue in favour of rejecting another form of discrimination which is based on similarly irrelevant information, namely, species membership.
What is Speciesism?
Speciesism is discrimination based solely on species membership. That’s not to say anti-speciesists should ignore differences between different species, just that membership of a particular species doesn’t automatically give one individual a higher or lower moral status than any other. For instance, we wouldn’t want to treat a potato and a human equally. But that’s not because the potato is of a “lesser” species. Anti-speciesism means treating equal interests of all individuals equally. Since potatoes don’t have interests, we needn’t treat them as equals to humans. And whilst a pig doesn’t have an interest in voting in an election (so it would not be wrong to deny one a vote), she does have an interest in not being harmed, just as much as a dog does. Yet we often find ourselves cuddling one whilst eating the other.
The implications of anti-speciesism
Many animals are sentient: having the capacity for subjective experience. This means they are able to suffer and have interests in not suffering. However, each year, 70 billion land animals and over a trillion fish are killed for human consumption. And these animals often live lives of extreme suffering – two thirds of them are reared on factory farms. Many animals live in pens so cramped they do not have enough space to turn around, others die from diseases encouraged by squalid conditions, none are capable of carrying out their natural behaviours. Broiler chickens, bred selectively for fast weight, grow so fast that many are unable to support themselves. With their legs crushed they are left unable to stand; and a slow death due to starvation follows. The life of each factory farmed animal presents a similar horror story.
Therefore the crucial question has to be: do human interests in consuming animal-based products outweigh the farmed animals’ interests in not suffering? Considering these animals are often literally tortured in order to give us a comparatively small amount of pleasure, and seeing as a balanced plant-based diet is perfectly healthy (according to the NHS, as well as many other organisations), the anti-speciesist’s response is a definitive “no”. Anti-speciesism implies ending factory farming, and hence, moving towards a plant-based diet.
Some words on intelligence
Often, as justification for our speciesist views we cite our intelligence. We admit suffering on factory farms is bad, but claim that as we’re more intelligent, our interests are more important, so they outweigh those of other animals.
Whilst intelligence is of some relevance to this discussion, it is far from the whole story. In order to have some interests, a high level of intelligence is required, such as an interest in freedom of speech. But that doesn’t mean our interests are necessarily stronger than those of less intelligent animals and that we can neglect all interests of other animals. We just have a broader range of interests. Certainly we would not dream of treating newborn and severely mentally disabled humans the same way we treat animals on factory farms.
Working towards an anti-speciesist world
To live in an anti-speciesist world, we’ve noted that easy steps individuals can take include adopting a plant-based diet. But we can do more than that: we should think carefully about how to use our limited resources to help as many animals as we can. Animal Charity Evaluators estimates that their recommended charities save as many as 11,000 animals per $1000 donated, whereas a vegetarian diet saves roughly 400 animals a year, implying we should be generous with our donations as well as with our diet.
Ultimately, anti-speciesism comes down to equality, treating equal interests equally. And who can argue with that? If we are to continue along the path of moral progress, speciesism must be left behind.