8.6.15

We can’t equate the horrendous treatment of animals with the oppression of people.

by Sarah Grey & Joe Cleffie

On May 27, 2015, as the US Supreme Court deliberated about the marriage rights of same-sex couples and the legacy of the Voting Rights Act, a New York Times interview with utilitarian bioethicist Peter Singer, famous for his philosophical work on animal liberation, asked us to consider another kind of bias: speciesism.

Speciesism, as Singer defines it, is “an attitude of bias against a being because of the species to which it “belongs” — in short, discrimination against nonhuman animals. “Humans show speciesism,” he explains, “when they give less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than they give to the similar interests of human beings.”

Singer does not think it is speciesist to think human life is more important than that of nonhuman animals in some instances. It is only speciesist to say human life is always more important.

To support this distinction, Singer focuses on the specificities of particular situations. It is not speciesist, for example, to declare that monkeys should not teach physics, because monkeys lack the ability to do so.

It is, however, speciesist to argue that monkeys should be used in medical experiments that are not absolutely necessary, simply because they are not human. He grants that killing “a being with the ability to think of itself as existing over time, and therefore to plan its life, and to work for future achievements” is more wrong than killing a nonhuman animal, but he argues that

given that some human beings — most obviously, those with profound intellectual impairment — lack this capacity, or have it to a lower degree than some nonhuman animals, it would be speciesist to claim that it is always more seriously wrong to kill a member of the species Homo sapiens than it is to kill a nonhuman animal.

People influenced by Singer’s concept of speciesism often use it in a stronger sense — and deploy it less carefully than Singer himself does. The concept of speciesism is a cornerstone of the animal-rights movement, whose members tend to categorize it alongside (if not ahead of) forms of human oppression such as racism and sexism.

Those who count animal-rights activists or vegan evangelists among their Facebook friends will no doubt be familiar with this sort of framing: it often involves inflammatory memes juxtaposing images of factory-farmed chickens with images of slave ships or Nazi concentration camps. Israeli animal-rights activists also drew this parallel in a recent viral video, explicitly describing a truck full of chickens as “just like what my grandparents experienced during the Holocaust.”

The recent illegal killing of Cecil the Lion has also brought this dynamic to light. Author Roxane Gay tweeted her thoughts on the hypocrisy of white Americans who were outraged about the lion but expressed no concern for ongoing police murders of African Americans, writing: “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so that if I get shot, people will care.”

Gay was subsequently inundated with hundreds of messages from incensed animal-rights activists, who insisted that “animal lives matter” and accused her of speciesism. The next day, the hashtag #AllLionsMatter was trending on Twitter.

Given the popularity of these viral images and the influence this thinking has on certain sections of the Left, it’s worth taking a closer look at the idea of speciesism.