The term speciesism was first used in the 1970’s to describe discrimination against nonhuman animals. Many different definitions have been proposed since then. Speciesism is complex, and it can be useful to look at it from different perspectives — psychological, philosophical, and sociological.
Discrimination is based on judging others not for who they are but for what they are not. The lives and experiences of nonhuman animals are usually considered less important than those of human beings simply because they are not like humans. Yet nonhuman animals have emotional lives and feel pain, pleasure, fear and joy. Devaluing their lives simply because they don’t have some characteristics that most humans have is discrimination.
Every characteristic and circumstance that is used to discriminate against nonhuman animals — such as lack of rationality, language ability, social connections — also applies to some humans. Yet we don’t use those things to measure the worth of humans. Adult humans who can reason, infants, the cognitively disabled and orphans are all considered equally valuable. The reason we try not to harm other humans is because they can feel and suffer.
The most common manifestation of speciesist discrimination is moral anthropocentrism, which is the devaluation of the interests of those who don’t belong to the human species. But speciesism includes favoring some nonhuman species over others. For example, usually greater moral consideration is given to dogs than pigs, simply because dogs belong to a certain species and pigs do not.
The sociological perspective views speciesism as an ideology and a social problem rather than as prejudice or discrimination. This most closely parallels the way other isms, like racism and sexism, are usually viewed currently. It views speciesist discrimination as an important outgrowth of an ideology that normalizes the devaluation of nonhuman animals.
Definitions of Speciesism
The term speciesism was coined by psychologist Richard Ryder in 1973.
I use the word ‘speciesism’ to describe the widespread discrimination that is practised by man against other species … Speciesism is discrimination, and like all discrimination it overlooks or underestimates the similarities between the discriminator and those discriminated against.
He never precisely defined it, but it has often been interpreted to mean discrimination against nonhuman animals based on species membership alone. Since then, many others have proposed their own definitions of speciesism. Some have defined it as discrimination against all nonhuman animals, or discrimination based on species membership alone. Some of the more widely used definitions were critiqued by Joan Dunayer in her book, Speciesism. She points out that such definitions may allow for equal moral consideration for some animals, such as mammals and birds, or animals with higher cognitive functions, while still discriminating against others. She offers the following definition:
A failure, in attitude or or practice, to accord any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect.
There are (at least) three ways of looking at speciesism:
Psychological: individually held prejudice
Prejudice is primarily a psychological term. It refers to an individual’s belief and can provide a justification for discriminating against others. There was a time when racism was considered a psychological disorder, but now racism and other “isms” like sexism, heterosexism and speciesism are more often viewed in a wider social context. Sometimes the term cultural prejudice is used to refer to a socially shared prejudice that is embedded in a culture and its institutions.
Moral philosophy considers the morality of actions and looks at speciesism in terms of whether or not speciesist actions (discrimination) are justified. The determination that speciesism is unjustified would be true whether there were prejudice involved or not.
The definitions used by philosophers are most often based on Richard Ryder’s view of speciesism, which is usually narrowly interpreted to include only discrimination based on species membership alone. Moral philosopher Oscar Horta defends the following broader definition, which includes any discrimination against nonhuman animals, whether the discrimination is based on species membership or not.
According to this definition, trying to justify unequal consideration of other animals because they are not smart in the way humans are or because they don’t have relationships with humans is speciesism, even if an appeal to species membership is never made.
Sociological: shared ideology
Currently the “isms” including racism, sexism, heterosexism and speciesism are most often looked at from a sociological perspective, which sees them as shared belief systems that give rise to and reinforce prejudices and legitimate discrimination. Sociologist David Nibert defines an ideology this way:
Sociologists may look at what social forces work to suppress the natural empathy people feel and make the oppression of others seem normal, natural, and sometimes even to the benefit of the oppressed. But they no longer look for the causes of oppression in individual beliefs, attitudes and actions. They tend to view prejudice (an individual attitude) and discrimination (such as mistreatment) as outgrowths of oppressive ideologies. Prejudice and discrimination support and perpetuate the ideologies, but do not cause them.
Speciesism is an ideology (a set of beliefs) that makes discrimination against the members of other species seem normal and natural. From our education and social experiences we learn to see human characteristics and abilities as the ideal standard against which all others are measured. It’s so embedded in our culture and in our thinking that it seems natural and inevitable to discriminate against other animals. But when we really try to justify it, we can’t. The value of nonhuman animals does not depend on how similar they are to humans any more than the value of women is dependent on how similar they are to men or the value of people of color is dependent on how similar they are to white people.
These three approaches to understanding speciesism are complementary.
What Speciesism Looks Like
Property rights are more important than preventing animal cruelty
Trivial human interests matter more than the wellbeing of other animals
Conflicts of interest are ignored