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The term has not been used uniformly, but broadly embraces two ideas. It usually refers to "human speciesism" (human supremacism), the exclusion of all nonhuman animals from the rights, freedoms, and protections afforded to humans. It can also refer to the more general idea of assigning value to a being on the basis of species membership alone, so that "human–chimpanzee speciesism" would involve human beings favouring rights for chimpanzees over rights for dogs, because of human–chimpanzee similarities.
The term speciesism, and the argument that it is simply a prejudice, first appeared in 1970 in a privately printed pamphlet written by British psychologist Richard D. Ryder. Ryder was a member of a group of intellectuals in Oxford, England, the nascent animal rights community, now known as the Oxford Group. One of the group's activities was distributing pamphlets about areas of concern; the pamphlet titled "Speciesism" was written to protest against animal experimentation.
Ryder argued in the pamphlet that "[s]ince Darwin, scientists have agreed that there is no 'magical' essential difference between humans 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 wrote that, at that time in the UK, 5,000,000 animals were being used each year in experiments, and that attempting to gain benefits for our own species through the mistreatment of others was "just 'speciesism' and as such it is a selfish emotional argument rather than a reasoned one". Ryder used the term again in an essay, "Experiments on Animals", in Animals, Men and Morals (1971), a collection of essays on animal rights edited by philosophy graduate students Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, who were also members of the Oxford Group. Ryder wrote:
In as much as both "race" and "species" are vague terms used in the classification of living creatures according, largely, to physical appearance, an analogy can be made between them. Discrimination on grounds of race, although most universally condoned two centuries ago, is now widely condemned. Similarly, it may come to pass that enlightened minds may one day abhor "speciesism" as much as they now detest "racism." The illogicality in both forms of prejudice is of an identical sort. If it is accepted as morally wrong to deliberately inflict suffering upon innocent human creatures, then it is only logical to also regard it as wrong to inflict suffering on innocent individuals of other species. ... The time has come to act upon this logic.
Those who claim that speciesism is unfair to non-human species have often argued their case by invoking mammals and chickens in the context of research or farming. However, there is not yet a clear definition or line agreed upon by a significant segment of the movement as to which species are to be treated equally with humans or in some ways additionally protected: mammals, birds, reptiles, arthropods, insects, bacteria, etc.
The term was popularized by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation (1975). Singer had known Ryder from his own time as a graduate philosophy student at Oxford. He credited Ryder with having coined the term and used it in the title of his book's fifth chapter: "Man's Dominion ... a short history of speciesism", defining it as "a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species":
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.
Singer argued from a preference-utilitarian perspective, writing that speciesism violates the principle of equal consideration of interests, the idea based on Jeremy Bentham's principle: "each to count for one, and none for more than one". Singer argued that, although there may be differences between humans and nonhumans, they share the capacity to suffer, and we must give equal consideration to that suffering. Any position that allows similar cases to be treated in a dissimilar fashion fails to qualify as an acceptable moral theory. The term caught on; Singer wrote that it was an awkward word but that he could not think of a better one. It became an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1985, defined as "discrimination against or exploitation of animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind's superiority". In 1994 the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy offered a wider definition: "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."
More recently, animal rights groups such as Farm Animal Rights Movement and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have attempted to popularize the concept by promoting a World Day Against Speciesism on June 5.
Paola Cavalieri writes that the current humanist paradigm is that only human beings are members of the moral community, and that all are worthy of equal protection. Species membership, she writes, is ipso facto moral membership. The paradigm has an inclusive side (all human beings deserve equal protection) and an exclusive one (only human beings have that status).
She writes that it is not only philosophers who have difficulty with this concept. Richard Rorty (1931–2007) argued that most human beings – those outside what he called our "Eurocentric human rights culture" – are unable to understand why membership of a species would in itself be sufficient for inclusion in the moral community: "Most people live in a world in which it would be just too risky – indeed, it would often be insanely dangerous – to let one's sense of moral community stretch beyond one's family, clan or tribe." Rorty wrote:
Such people are morally offended by the suggestion that they should treat someone who is not kin as if he were a brother, or a nigger as if he were white, or a queer as if he were normal, or an infidel as if she were a believer. They are offended by the suggestion that they treat people whom they do not think of as human as if they were human. When utilitarians tell them that all pleasures and pains felt by members of our biological species are equally relevant to moral deliberation, or when Kantians tell them that the ability to engage in such deliberation is sufficient for membership in the moral community, they are incredulous. They rejoin that these philosophers seem oblivious to blatantly obvious moral distinctions, distinctions that any decent person will draw.
Much of humanity is similarly offended by the suggestion that the moral community be extended to nonhumans. Nonhumans do possess some moral status in many societies, but it generally extends only to protection against what Cavalieri calls "wanton cruelty". Anti-speciesists argue that the extension of moral membership to all humanity, regardless of individual properties such as intelligence, while denying it to nonhumans, also regardless of individual properties, is internally inconsistent. According to the argument from marginal cases, if infants, the senile, the comatose, and the cognitively disabled (marginal-case human beings) have a certain moral status, then nonhuman animals must be awarded that status too, since there is no morally relevant ability that the marginal-case humans have that nonhumans lack.
American legal scholar Steven M. Wise argues that speciesism is a bias as arbitrary as any other. He cites the philosopher R.G. Frey (1941–2012), a leading animal rights critic, who wrote in 1983 that, if forced to choose between abandoning experiments on animals and allowing experiments on "marginal-case" humans, he would choose the latter, "not because I begin a monster and end up choosing the monstrous, but because I cannot think of anything at all compelling that cedes all human life of any quality greater value than animal life of any quality".
Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, argued against speciesism in The Blind Watchmaker (1986), The Great Ape Project (1993), and The God Delusion (2006), elucidating the connection with evolutionary theory. He compares former racist attitudes and assumptions to their present-day speciesist counterparts. In the chapter "The one true tree of life" in The Blind Watchmaker, he argues that it is not only zoological taxonomy that is saved from awkward ambiguity by the extinction of intermediate forms, but also human ethics and law. Dawkins argues that what he calls the "discontinuous mind" is ubiquitous, dividing the world into units that reflect nothing but our use of language, and animals into discontinuous species:
The director of a zoo is entitled to "put down" a chimpanzee that is surplus to requirements, while any suggestion that he might "put down" a redundant keeper or ticket-seller would be greeted with howls of incredulous outrage. The chimpanzee is the property of the zoo. Humans are nowadays not supposed to be anybody's property, yet the rationale for discriminating against chimpanzees is seldom spelled out, and I doubt if there is a defensible rationale at all. Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection of any number of intelligent adult chimpanzees! ... The only reason we can be comfortable with such a double standard is that the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead.
Dawkins elaborated in a discussion with Singer at The Center for Inquiry in 2007, when asked whether he continues to eat meat: "It's a little bit like the position which many people would have held a couple of hundred years ago over slavery. Where lots of people felt morally uneasy about slavery but went along with it because the whole economy of the South depended upon slavery."
David Sztybel argues in his paper, "Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?" (2006), that the racism of the Nazis is comparable to the speciesism inherent in eating meat or using animal by-products, particularly those produced on factory farms. Y. Michael Barilan, an Israeli physician, argues that speciesism is not the same thing as Nazi racism, because the latter extolled the abuser and condemned the weaker and the abused. He describes speciesism as the recognition of rights on the basis of group membership, rather than solely on the basis of moral considerations.
"Libertarian extension" is the idea that the intrinsic value of nature can be extended beyond sentient beings. This seeks to apply the principle of individual rights not only to all animals but also to objects without a nervous system such as trees, plants, and rocks. Ryder rejects this argument, writing that "value cannot exist in the absence of consciousness or potential consciousness. Thus, rocks and rivers and houses have no interests and no rights of their own. This does not mean, of course, that they are not of value to us, and to many other painients, including those who need them as habitats and who would suffer without them."
A common theme in defending speciesism is the argument that humans have the right to exploit other species to defend their own. Philosopher Carl Cohen argued in 1986: "Speciesism is not merely plausible; it is essential for right conduct, because those who will not make the morally relevant distinctions among species are almost certain, in consequence, to misapprehend their true obligations." Cohen writes that racism and sexism are wrong because there are no relevant differences between the sexes or races. Between people and animals, he argues, there are significant differences; his view is that animals do not qualify for Kantian personhood, and as such have no rights.
Nel Noddings, the American feminist, has criticized Singer's concept of speciesism for being simplistic, and for failing to take into account the context of species preference, as concepts of racism and sexism have taken into account the context of discrimination against humans. Peter Staudenmaier has argued that comparisons between speciesism and racism or sexism are trivializing:
The central analogy to the civil rights movement and the women's movement is trivializing and ahistorical. Both of those social movements were initiated and driven by members of the dispossessed and excluded groups themselves, not by benevolent men or white people acting on their behalf. Both movements were built precisely around the idea of reclaiming and reasserting a shared humanity in the face of a society that had deprived it and denied it. No civil rights activist or feminist ever argued, "We're sentient beings too!" They argued, "We're fully human too!" Animal liberation doctrine, far from extending this humanist impulse, directly undermines it.
Another criticism of animal-type anti-speciesism is based on the distinction between demanding rights one wants and being put into those one may not want. Many people who are now over 18 but remember their time as minors as a time when their alleged children's rights was legalized torture doubt if animal rights do animals any good, especially since animals cannot even say what they consider to be horrible. A distinction is made between people who are extrinsically denied their possibility to say what they think by 18 year limits, psychiatric diagnoses based on domain-specific hypotheses, or other constructed laws on one hand, and marginal case humans intrinsically incapable of opining about their situation on the other. The former is considered comparable to racism and sexism, the latter is considered comparable to animals. This extends to questioning and rejecting the very definition of "wanton cruelty". One example that has been pointed out is that since we do not know whether or not animals are aware of death, all ethical considerations on putting animals down are benighted. Advocates of this way of partly accepting speciesism generally do not subscribe to arguments about alleged dehumanization or other legalistic type arguments, and have no problem with accepting possible future encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence or artificial intelligence as equals.
Ayn Rand's Objectivism holds that humans are the only beings who have what Rand called a conceptual consciousness, and the ability to reason and develop a moral system. She argued that humans are therefore the only species entitled to rights. Randian philosopher Leonard Peikoff argued: "By its nature and throughout the animal kingdom, life survives by feeding on life. To demand that man defer to the 'rights' of other species is to deprive man himself of the right to life. This is 'other-ism,' i.e. altruism, gone mad."
The British philosopher, Roger Scruton, regards the emergence of the animal rights and anti-speciesism movement as "the strangest cultural shift within the liberal worldview", because the idea of rights and responsibilities is, he argues, distinctive to the human condition, and it makes no sense to spread them beyond our own species. Scruton argues that if animals have rights, then they also have duties, which animals would routinely violate, with almost all of them being "habitual law-breakers" and predatory animals such as foxes, wolves and killer whales being "inveterate murderers" who "should be permanently locked up". He accuses anti-speciesism advocates of "pre-scientific" anthropomorphism, attributing traits to animals that are, he says, Beatrix Potter-like, where "only man is vile." It is, he argues, a fantasy, a world of escape.
The Rev. John Tuohey, founder of the Providence Center for Health Care Ethics, writes that the logic behind the anti-speciesism critique is flawed, and that, although the animal rights movement in the United States has been influential in slowing animal experimentation, and in some cases halting particular studies, no one has offered a compelling argument for species equality.
Some proponents of speciesism believe that animals exist so that humans may make use of them. They argue that this special status conveys special rights, such as the right to life, and also unique responsibilities, such as stewardship of the environment. This belief in human exceptionalism is often rooted in the Abrahamic religions, such as the Book of Genesis 1:26: "Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." Animal rights advocates argue that dominion refers to stewardship, not ownership. Jesus Christ taught that a person is worth more than many sparrows. But the Imago Dei may be personhood itself, although we humans have only achieved efficiencies in educating and otherwise acculturating humans. Proverbs 12:10 mentions that "The righteous one takes care of his domestic animals."
The first major statute addressing animal protection in the United States, titled "An Act for the More Effectual Prevention of Cruelty to Animals", was enacted in 1867. It provided the right to incriminate and enforce protection with regards to animal cruelty. The act, which has since been revised to suit modern cases state by state, originally addressed such things as animal neglect, abandonment, torture, fighting, transport, impound standards, and licensing standards. Although an animal rights movement had already started as early as the late 1800s, some of the laws that would shape the way animals would be treated as industry grew, were enacted around the same time that Richard Ryder was bringing the notion of Speciesism to the conversation. Legislation was being proposed and passed in the U.S. that would reshape animal welfare in industry and science. Bills such as Humane Slaughter Act, which was created to alleviate some of the suffering felt by livestock during slaughter, was passed in 1958. Later the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was designed to put much stricter regulations and supervisions on the handling of animals used in laboratory experimentation and exhibition but has since been amended and expanded. These groundbreaking laws foreshadowed and influenced the shifting attitudes toward nonhuman animals in their rights to humane treatment which Richard D. Ryder and Peter Singer would later popularize in the 1970s and 1980s.
Great ape personhood is the idea that the attributes of nonhuman great apes are such that their sentience and personhood should be recognized by the law, rather than simply protecting them as a group under animal cruelty legislation. Awarding personhood to nonhuman primates would require that their individual interests be taken into account.
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