Leiden Law Blog

What legal scholars should know about Speciesism

What legal scholars should know about Speciesism speciesismthemovie.com

Speciesism is the term – originally coined by Richard Ryder – for the ideology that humans are categorically better than other animals. Some animal ethicists claim that speciesism is comparable to racism and sexism, in the sense that in all these ideologies the interests of the group regarded as ‘inferior’ (black people, women) are systematically and unreasonably disregarded. It is claimed that a general discriminative attitude prevails towards non-human animals, just like there used to be a general hostility towards black people and women. In the light of this alarming accusation of mass discrimination, either combatting or denying speciesism should be top priority for legal scholars, since they are generally very much concerned with the equality principle and with combatting discrimination. Yet, not many legal scholars write, teach or even know about speciesism.

What is speciesism?

Speciesism is an often unconsciously held conviction that human interests are always more important than other animals’ comparable interests. We have a species-bias, in the sense that we humans generally do not weigh the interests of other species just as heavily as our own interests. We are inclined to put our interests before those of other animals, no matter what the conversion ratio is. If they have to suffer and are blinded by our shampoos in order for us to test such products, we think it’s worth it. If they have to be tortured for years in order for us to have a couple of seconds of taste sensation, then it shall happen. And even their lives shall be sacrificed on the altar of the human taste buds. The speciesist believes humans are categorically more important than all other animals.

The effects of a speciesist society

Because the human species has had a speciesist bias for a very long time, it could be that we use sentient animals in our current day society for every goal imaginable. We act as though all our interests are always more important than any interests of animals of other species. This is an obvious type of unacceptable discrimination, comparable to racism and sexism, because the interests of the specific others are systematically and categorically regarded as inferior to the racist’s/sexist’s/speciesist’s own interests, on an irrational basis. Speciesism, therefore, defies the ethical principle that enlightened societies generally hold very high: the equal consideration of all relevant interests, in short: the equality principle. It is speciesist to regard the interests of non-human animals as lower because they are ‘just animals’. If we disregard other animals’ interests just because they don’t belong to the same species as we do, we discriminate and violate the principle of equality. 

The alternative: equal consideration

The alternative of speciesism, Peter Singer holds, is including the interests of non-human animals in our moral considerations on an equal level. The principle of equality requires us to take all interests into account equally, whatever the species, race or gender. But equal consideration is not the same as absolute equal treatment. The same action inflicted on different individuals may lead to a completely different damage of interests. Let’s compare a human with a general spider in order to illustrate this.

Suppose we were forced to pull a leg out of either a spider or a human. Equal treatment would mean that we were expected to not indicate a preference at all. Equal consideration, however, gives us a fair guideline for this decision. The interests of a human to not have a leg pulled out of his or her body are bigger than the interests of a spider against such violence. Without medical help the human would probably be fatally wounded, whereas the spider will do just as fine with seven legs as he or she would have done with all eight. It is, consequently, not speciesist to say that pulling the spider’s leg out is preferable, because this decision is not based on species bias, but rather on rationality. But let’s take another violent action. Suppose we would have to choose between dropping a three centimetre stone on a human’s head or on a spider’s head. Now the human’s interests of not having the stone dropped on his or her head are probably less than the interests of the spider in avoiding such violence. Whereas the human (depending on the height the stone was dropped) will probably only suffer a minor head injury, the spider will lose its life. Consequently, we would need to let go of our speciesist bias, and would have to prefer dropping the stone on the human’s head over dropping it on the spider’s head. According to Singer, these kind of assessments would have to be made for any case in which human interests conflict with other animals’ interests. Would we then still condone animal testing for cosmetic products? And would we consider it justified to take lives in exchange for taste sensations?

A just society

If we follow Peter Singer’s line of reasoning, and many rational people will, we must conclude that there is no justification for much of the pain and suffering we put other animals through. If we weigh the relevant interests (for example: of having a few minutes of gustatory delight and having to suffer a life full of pain, anxiety and stress) on an equal level, there’s no way our luxurious human interests outweigh the elementary interests of other animals. The only thing that can account for the widespread (silent) acceptance of these practices is the speciesist attitude that most people have. And now that Singer has made us aware of this obnoxious ideology, it is the task of legal scholars to actively engage in the debate about animal ethics and animal rights. More precisely: we have to think over what our principle of equality really means. Do we really have established equality in our Western democracies? Or is a great deal of discrimination still silently condoned under the common presumption that only human interests count?


For those interested in the phenomenon of speciesism, the documentary Speciesism: The Movie is highly recommended. You may buy or watch it here (I am not affiliated with the makers of this film).

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