The idea of speciesism is central for the proponents of animal rights. According to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, speciesism is “the practice of treating members of one species as morally more important than members of other species”. It usually refers to “human speciesism”, the exclusion of all nonhuman animals from the protections afforded to humans. The term speciesism was coined in 1970 by animal rights proponent Richard D. Ryder to argue that granting humans more rights than animals is an irrational prejudice. The term was popularized in 1975 by the philosopher Peter Singer, known for his contributions to Utilitarian philosophy and his book Animal Liberation.
The idea of speciesism is intrinsically linked to the idea that humans and animals have the same moral value. For the sake of clarity, in this discussion I will refer to “humans” and “animals” as separate categories, although it is clear that humans are an animal species. I will argue here that assigning the same moral value to all animal species is not just impractical, but ultimately absurd. Therefore, speciesism is unavoidable.
When one tries to argue that humans deserve a higher moral consideration than animals based on their ability to reason or their superior intellect, animal rights proponents answer that those characteristics are not morally superior; we simply choose them because they work in our favor. By the same token, for example, an elephant may reason that having a trunk makes him morally superior. This idea merits careful consideration in light of what we know about animals.
But, first of all, let’s establish that speciesism logically works between any two species of animals. If there is no reason to say that a human is superior to a dog, then by the same token we cannot say that a dog is superior to a rat. That gets us quickly in trouble, because the collection of animal species is vast and includes some whose lives we generally hold in contempt, like roaches, worms, ticks and mosquitoes. Regardless, committed animal rights activists will argue that all animal life deserves protection. “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”, remember? To that end, they were quick to criticize President Obama for killing a fly.
Ok, maybe some animal right activists will say that they are only talking about protecting mammals. How very speciesist of them! By what token would they prefer a stinky mouse over a beautiful (and highly intelligent) crow? Or a nice cuddly octopus, for that matter? The point is, any argument that you choose to decide that a species is better than another is going to be ultimately human-centric.
Or not? Can we come up with an idea that would let us decide who gets to live and who gets to die? Animal right activists are often vegan, which means that they think is justifiable to kill plants to eat them. Plants are living beings, too. And they come in species, just like animals. So what does an animal have that a plant hasn’t? A nervous system? Well, not all animals have neurons, sponges don’t (sorry, SpongeBob!). OK, so sponges are off, and so are other nerve-less animals. How about jellyfish, corals and starfish which have a nervous system so rudimentary that they can barely feel anything?
A while back, I presented animal rights philosopher Gary Francione with the following dilemma: “My dog has ticks, what do I do?” If I kill the ticks, that is morally wrong (according to his animal rights position), because I would be sacrificing the life of an animal (the tick) for the mere comfort of another (the dog). So obviously the only ethical action would be to leave the ticks on the dog. Any other action would be based on the assumption that the dog is somehow superior to the tick, which would be tantamount to speciesism. Gary Francione suggested that “sentience” has to be a factor in the decision. “Sentience” is a word that you hear animal right activists often toss around as the criterion to protect animal lives. But sentience is a notorious tricky concept. It is a synonym of “consciousness”, and understanding consciousness has been dubbed the “hard problem” by philosophers and neuroscientist alike. Some, like philosopher David Chalmer, even think that is intrinsically impossible to solve. Neuroscientists continue to work on this problem. Research on the neurophysiological correlates of consciousness is advancing at a good pace. Yes, we generally assume that a dog is conscious, but how about a rat, a fish, a roach? Is there a gradient or a scale in sentience?
If we are going to make any kind of assumptions on what animals are conscious (“sentient”) and which are not, we need to bring in our knowledge of their nervous system. And, in this regard, the overwhelming majority of animal species seem to fall woefully short. For example, the mollusk Aplysia californica (widely used in the lab to study synaptic connections) only has 20,000 neurons, while we have in our guts (the enteric nervous system) a hundred million neurons. So, if our gut is not conscious, we have no reason to think that Aplysia and any mollusk like it are conscious, either. So, there you go, now you can eat clams with a clear conscience, they are no more sentient than carrots!
The point is that we have come to admit that there is a scale of sentience: some animals are more sentient than others. We have also established the criterion of “sentience” as the one to decide on the moral value of beings. From there, it can be argued that humans deserve of special consideration because we have a special kind of sentience that no other animal has. But that is a discussion for some other day. The key issue is that we have sufficiently established that speciesism is unavoidable. No matter how we put it, we are always going to give some species a higher moral status than others.
This leads us to the animal welfare position on how to treat animals, which is quite different from the animal rights absolutist position. As proponents of animal welfare, we care for pain and distress that animals may suffer and try to diminish it, but not because animals have rights, but because our human nature compels us to do so. Moreover, we do not think that all animals should be treated the same. A chimpanzee, a dog, a mouse, a fish and a fly do not have the same moral status. You can do things to one of these animals that you should not do to the other. They cannot be treated as equals.
This may sound like a silly discussion, but in fact the issue of the value of the human life is hugely important because it goes to the very core of every system of ethics. If we say that a human life has the same value as the life of rat, that not only increases the moral value of the rat, it also decreases the moral stature of the human. Therefore, the argument for animal rights is a challenge to our more basic values and should not be taken lightly.
Furthermore, there is a logical connection between the core idea of “animal rights” – that human lives and animal lives have the same value – and the violence of animal rights extremists. If the life of an animal is so valuable, then that justifies extreme action to protect it. And if human life is as valuable as the life of an animal, then the calculus of destroying a few human lives to save many animal lives is nothing more than a logical conclusion. Yes, one may argue that the end does not justify the means, but in fact we, as a society, constantly break that principle. For example, most would believe it justified to kill an assassin to save the lives of its victims. By the same token, the animal rights terrorist finds justifiable to kill a few scientist if that is going to save the lives of many of animals used in research. To quote Jerry Vlasak: “So yes, I think the threat of violence would save lives, innocent lives”. His logic may be sound, what is profoundly wrong is his assumption that the life of an animal has the same value as the life of a human being.
Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D.