Speciesism is the consideration that the species to which an animal belongs, for example the human species, is a relevant criterion for establishing the rights that it must be granted. This ethical concept is mainly used by proponents of antispeciesism in a context related to animal rights.
By extension, speciesism also refers to the idea that humans would give more or less moral consideration to individuals of other animal species depending on them: for example, pets would see their interests more taken into account than domesticated animal, intended for experimentation or considered as harmful.
The concept of speciesism was coined from the beginning of the 1970s by analogy with notions of racism and sexism, in order to denounce a dominant ideology, in the same way that the notion of patriarchy was taken up by radical feminism to define what was judged as an omnipresent, invisible ideology, at the root of various injustices. The concept of speciesism is thus fundamentally linked to that of antispeciesism.
Origin of the term
For Paul Waldau, speciesism is very old. He writes that it has traditionally been justified not to take into account, or secondarily to account, the interests of other animals by the belief that they would exist for our use. Aristotle notably affirmed the preeminence of the human species in the fourth century BC in his work History of the animals, in which he also establishes a hierarchy between the animal species. For Isocrates, according to Thierry Gonthier, the animal then represents the negative pole of human duality, bestiality being opposed to the logos. Similarly, according to Gonthier, the Roman orator Cicero in the 1st century BC uses, in his speeches, the animal as a tool allowing him to develop a rhetoric that helps him to put the man in value. The Jewish religion and then the Christian religion also pose the preeminence of the human species over animals, created for humans.
However, it is only more recently that this hierarchy has begun to be questioned by some philosophers.
The term “speciesism” and the correlative idea that it was a prejudice appeared in 1970 in a pamphlet by psychologist Richard D. Ryder entitled Speciesism. Ryder had written to the Daily Telegraph in April and May 1969 three letters criticizing animal experimentation, based on incidents he had observed in laboratories. Subsequently, he joined a group of intellectuals and writers in Oxford known today as the “Oxford Group”, which questioned the status and treatment of animals. One of the activities of this group was to write and distribute pamphlets, such as “Speciesism“, on animal experimentation.
Ryder explains in his article that:
“Since Darwin, scientists have agreed that there is no ‘magical’ essential difference between human and other animals, biologically-speaking. Why then do we make an almost total distinction morally? If all organisms are on one physical continuum, then we should also be on the same moral continuum.”
He writes that, at the same time in the United Kingdom, 5 million animals are used every year for experimentation, and that this way of benefiting, for our own species, from the mistreatment inflicted on animals is speciesism.
Ryder re-uses the term in “Animal Experiments” in Animals, Men and Morals (1971), a collection of essays on animal rights edited by three other members of the Oxford group, Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris. He then draws a parallel between speciesism and racism:
“The words “race” and “species” are terms as vague as the one used to classify living beings primarily on the basis of their appearance. We can make an analogy between the two. Discrimination on the basis of race, although tolerated almost universally two centuries ago, is now largely condemned. In the same way, it may be that one day enlightened minds will abhor speciesism as they now hate racism. The illogicality in these two forms of prejudice is of the same type. If we accept as morally unacceptable to deliberately harm innocent human beings, then it is logical to find it unacceptable to deliberately harm innocent beings of other species. The time has come to act according to this logic.”
Dissemination of the idea
The idea was popularized by the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer (who knew Ryder at Oxford) in Animal Liberation (1975). Singer explains that speciesism violates the principle of equal consideration of interests, which stems from the principle stated by Jeremy Bentham:
“Everyone counts for one, and no one for more than one.”
Although there may be many differences between humans and other animals, we share with them the ability to suffer. Also, in moral deliberation, we should, according to Peter Singer, grant the same weight to two similar sufferings, regardless of the individual who suffers. A moral theory that would lead to dissimilar treatment of two similar cases would not, in his view, be a valid moral theory. Singer writes in the first chapter of Animal Liberation:
“Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.”
The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1985. In 1994, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defined it as:
“By analogy with racism and sexism, the improper stance of refusing respect to the lives, dignity, or needs of animals of other than the human species.”
Interpretations of the term
Several competing or complementary interpretations of speciesism coexist. The term enters the Petit Robert 2017 under the definition of “ideology that postulates a hierarchy between species”. This definition is found (sometimes as a corollary of what would be the antispecism) in several sources, such as the Google dictionary, or Slate magazine. For the philosopher Martin Steffens, the corollary of speciesism would be “the belief that there exist, within the genus “living beings”, distinct species, even hierarchical species”. The philosopher Chantal Delsol finally defines antispecism as “the idea that the distinction between animals and men would amount to a form of racism”.
For some authors, speciesism would rather concern the inequality of taking into account the equivalent interests of individuals (especially not to suffer), depending on the species of these individuals. To take into account the species of an individual in order to know how to treat it, however, would not necessarily be speciesist, if it results from the species characteristics relevant for the determination of interests. This is why it is less serious, writes Peter Singer, to give a slap (of the same intensity) to a horse as to a human baby; because the skin of the horse is thicker than that of the baby, and its actual suffering will therefore be less.
More specifically, while Horta defines speciesism as “unjustified” discrimination of interests on the sole basis of the species, some authors such as Cohen, Regan and Jaquet consider that the term speciesism may cover the disadvantageous consideration of individuals following the species criterion, whether it is fair or unfair.
While most of the aforementioned authors define speciesism as discrimination, some also define it as an ideology justifying this discrimination, bringing it closer to racism, sexism and the notion of carnism, developed by Melanie Joy.