views updated May 29 2018


"Speciesism" is the name of a form of bias or discrimination that is much discussed in the contemporary debates over the moral status of animals. It amounts to discriminating on the basis of species; that is, it takes the fact that, say, baboons and humans belong to different species as a reason in itself to draw moral differences between them and on several counts.

First, speciesism sometimes manifests itself in consideration of who or what may be members of the moral community, of who or what is morally considerable (see Clark, Frey, Regan, Singer). For example, it is sometimes said that creatures who have experiences or are sentient count morally; to go on to affirm that (some) animals have experiences and are sentient but to deny that they count morally solely because they are not of the right species is a form of speciesism. If it really is the fact that creatures have experiences and are sentient that matters, then animals count; what has to be shown is why the fact that it is a baboon and not a human who has these characteristics matters morally.

Second, speciesism sometimes manifests itself in claims about pain and suffering. For instance, we usually take pain and suffering to be evils, to be things that blight a life and lower its quality, and animals can feel pain and suffer. Thus, suppose one pours scalding water on a child and on a cat: It seems odd to say that it would be wrong to scald the child but not wrong to scald the cat, since both feel pain and suffer, both have the quality of their lives diminished, and both instinctively reveal pain-avoidance behavior. To claim that scalding the child is wrong, but that scalding the cat is not wrong solely on the basis of the species to which each belongs is not in itself to give a reason why or how species-membership is morally relevant, let alone morally decisive (see Rachels 1990, Sapontzis 1987).

Third, speciesism sometimes manifests itself in claims about the value of life. Most of us think human life is more valuable than animal life; yet to think this solely on the basis of species exposes one to an obvious problem. If it is true that normal adult human life is more valuable than animal life, it by no means follows that all human life is more valuable than animal life, since it is by no means the case that all human lives are even remotely approximate in their quality. Thus, some human lives have a quality so low that those who are currently living those lives seek to end them; this, of course, is what the contemporary concern with euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is all about. Indeed, some humans live in permanently vegetative states, where, as best we can judge, all talk of the quality of life seems beside the point. Are even these human lives more valuable than the lives of perfectly healthy baboons? To say that they are solely because they are human lives, lives lived by members of the species Homo sapiens, even though it is true that healthy baboons can do all manner of things, can have all manner of experiences, is in effect to say that species-membership makes the crucial difference in value. It is not apparent exactly how it does this (see Frey). Of course, certain religions and cultural traditions may hold that humans have greater value than do animals, no matter what the quality or kind of lives lived: But these very same religions have put forward moral views that many today do not endorse, and these very same cultural traditions have held that, for example, whites are superior to blacks.

See also Animal Mind; Animal Rights and Welfare; Euthanasia; Racism; Singer, Peter.


Clark, S. R. L. The Moral Status of Animals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Clark, S. R. L. The Nature of the Beast. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Frey, R. G. Interests and Rights: The Case against Animals. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Frey, R. G. "Moral Standing, the Value of Lives, and Speciesism." Between the Species 4 (1988): 191201.

Frey, R. G. Rights, Killing, and Suffering: Moral Vegetarianism and Applied Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Rachels, J. Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Regan, T. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Regan, T., and P. Singer, eds. Animal Rights and Human Obligations, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989.

Sapontzis, S. F. Morals, Reason, and Animals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

Singer, P. Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. New York: New York Review of Books, 1990.

Singer, P. Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

R. G. Frey (1996)


views updated May 11 2018


This term, popularized by author Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation (1975), refers to a human attitude of superiority over other creatures and a tendency among humans to place the interests of their own species above all others. As Singer puts it, speciesism "is as indefensible as the most blatant racism. There is no basis for elevating membership of one particular species into a morally crucial characteristic. From an ethical point of view, we all stand on an equal footingwhether we stand on two feet, or four, or none at all. That is the crux of the philosophy of the animal liberation movement...Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, seal hunting...and the destruction of wilderness." Opposition to speciesism has become one of the foundations of the modern animal rights movement.

See also Environmental ethics