Introduction to speciesism

 by Sarah Albonesi

factory farm laying hens


 The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines speciesism as “prejudice or discrimination based on species; especially discrimination against animals,” or “the assumption of human superiority on which speciesism is based.” In other words, just as sexism is discrimination against someone of a different sex, and racism is discrimination against someone of a certain race, speciesism is discrimination against members of other species.


 While much of the developed world today strives to prevent discrimination against groups within the human species (such as women, or people of a certain race or religion), most people are unaware that speciesism exists as a form of discrimination.

 We discriminate against other species by using them in situations in which we would not involve human beings. For instance, we test harsh chemicals to be used in cosmetic products on animals, raise animals on factory farms for food products, and use animals for entertainment in circuses, marine parks, and for sport in dogfights and cockfights. These are all examples of speciesism because they involve using another species to our advantage in ways that we would never use human beings.

chained circus elephant

 In order to better understand how speciesism is just another form of discrimination, it can be helpful to draw an analogy to a different form of discrimination, such as racism. In the pre-Civil War United States, for instance, US society discriminated against blacks by exploiting their labor for the benefit of whites. While patrons of tobacco or cotton products might not have considered themselves racist, by buying products made by black slaves they were supporting discrimination against people of another race.

 We now look back on this pre-Civil War society as being racist, as it failed to guarantee rights to blacks equal to those of whites. Similarly, throughout the world today we use animals in ways in which we would never consider using our own species, and thus most societies are “speciesist.”


 While our world today clearly discriminates against other species, this fact does not answer the question of why we should not discriminate against them or, in ethical terms, why speciesism is unjustified. Human beings, after all, are an intelligent species – we have advanced societies, have made countless inventions that have greatly simplified our way of life, and have complex social systems. Why should we not use other species to our advantage?

 To address this, it is helpful to look at common philosophical arguments[1] for the continuation of speciesism and their counterpoints.

 1. We should favor our own kind.

A common argument for speciesism is that we have the right to speciesism because we should protect and support others of “our kind.” Yet, where do we draw the line in defining members of our own? We once favored whites over blacks, and men over women, which are just other forms of discriminating against those who are “different” from us.

 2. It might be wrong to discriminate against someone of a different race, gender, or religion because they’re just as intelligent as we are. But humans are more intelligent and self-aware than animals.

 Not all humans possess the same intelligence level. Animals such as dogs, pigs, and dolphins, for instance, all have IQs equal to or greater than those of babies or those who are mentally handicapped. We certainly don’t take advantage of babies or those who are mentally handicapped in our society; these human beings are considered members of our society, and have legal rights. Although some discrimination does occur against those who are mentally handicapped, it’s generally not considered acceptable. Most people would agree that it would be wrong to discriminate against another human being on the basis of their IQ level, and thus we cannot reasonably discriminate against animals based on their intelligence.

prairie dogs kissing

 3. Animals have no conception of morality.

 There are also many humans who have no conception of morality, among them, infants and young children, or those with mental disadvantages. Yet we don’t think it’s right to discriminate against these humans.

 4. It is natural for humans to eat other animals and use them for our purposes.

 As philosopher Peter Singer notes, something that is natural is not necessarily right. He says, for instance, “It is, no doubt, ‘natural’ for women to produce an infant every year or two from puberty to menopause, but this does not mean that it is wrong to interfere with this process…we do not have to assume that the natural way of doing something is incapable of improvement.”[2] Similarly, the fact that our ancestors consumed animal products and used animals for their own purposes does not inherently make this behavior ethical or necessary to perpetuate.


 From a philosophical standpoint, speciesism is just another form of discrimination, which makes it unethical to practice. Yet because our society accepts, or perhaps even embraces, prejudice against other species, it may be easier to continue a lifestyle of speciesism, than to consciously make a point to oppose it.

However, as moral beings, it is our duty to act against this discrimination and the prejudice that reinforces it, just as many of our predecessors acted against other forms of discrimination. If you ask a stranger on the street now whether they think that people of a different race, gender, or religion should be discriminated against, most would likely give an adamant, “No, of course not!” Yet ask the same question only a few hundred years earlier, and you might get a very different answer. People then might have told you that women should not have rights equal to those of men, or that blacks were unequal to whites, or that Jews should be treated differently than Christians. The idea of eliminating discrimination against animals might seem revolutionary – maybe even crazy – but keep in mind that people once thought that giving rights to blacks and women was crazy.

caged pigs

Animal activist Gary Smith sums up this thought nicely when he says, “150 years ago, they would have thought you were absurd if you advocated for the end of slavery. 100 years ago, they would have laughed at you for suggesting that women should have the right to vote. 50 years ago, they would object to the idea of African Americans receiving equal rights under the law. 25 years ago they would have called you a pervert if you advocated for gay rights. They laugh at us now for suggesting that animal slavery be ended. Some day they won’t be laughing.”


Besides the obvious individual choices that one can make to reduce the level of speciesism in their life – such as eschewing animal products, avoiding fur, leather, and other animal-sourced fashions, or reducing the consumption of animal tested products – it is important to define what a society without speciesism looks like.

 All sentient beings share basic common interests: to reduce pain and suffering and increase feelings of happiness and pleasure. Singer says, “If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering – in so far as rough comparisons can be made – of any other being.”[3] Thus on a most basic level, eliminating speciesism means giving consideration to the interests of nonhuman animals equal to those of members of our own species. This does not mean we should treat animals like humans and provide them with the right to vote and a right to education. As Oscar Horta says[4], considering the interests of animals as equal to those of humans does not mean treating nonhuman animals and humans exactly the same; it merely means treating all species in a way that is not disadvantageous to them. For instance, the interests of a pig might be to spend an afternoon basking in the sun, or rolling in a mud bath, or, as pigs are social animals, finding solace in the companionship of other pigs.

 It is our duty as moral beings to respond to and respect the interests of all beings. Leonardo da Vinci, who was known for his love of animals and vegetarian diet, said, “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” Here’s to hoping that that time is now.


[1]   Peter Singer discusses many of these arguments in his article “Speciesism and Moral Status” (Metaphilosophy 40:3-4, 2009), and James Rachels in “Morality without the Idea that Humans are Special,” in Created From Animals, (Oxford University Press, 1990). 173-223.

[2]    Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics: Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 71-72.

[3]    Regan, Tom, and Singer, Peter. Animal Rights and Human Obligations. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, 1989.

[4]   Horta, Oscar, “What is Speciesism?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2009.