Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Last in the Crisis Series: Transcending Logically Incoherent Definitions of Speciesism

As a side-note, some will have noticed my renaming my website "The Science of Duty," which is the meaning of "deontology." "Liberation Unlimited," the previous title, while a noble idea, does not reflect certain unavoidable limitations in the way that I would like. The new title also captures something distinctive in what I am doing.

Note that technically this would be Crisis #7 in the crises listed in blog entry (37). I am skipping Crisis #6, and reserve addressing that and the remaining crises I listed to my upcoming book, Universal Animal Rights.

Joan Dunayer, in her book, Speciesism, takes to task, for their inadequate definitions of speciesism, the two most well-known writers in animal ethics: Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Singer defines speciesism as “a prejudice or attitude of bias towards the interests or members of one’s own species and against members of other species.” (Singer, 1990, p. 1) She rightly objects that this definition only allows favoring the human species over nonhuman species, but humans can also favor one nonhuman species over another, such as more humanlike creatures (e.g., chimpanzees) over other species, or domesticated animals over wild animals (Dunayer, 2004, p. 2)—or, I would add, wildlife over domesticates. She also observes that Singer defines speciesism in another context as a preference for humans simply on the ground of species, (Singer, 2003, p. 23) but this is like saying that racists only discriminate on the basis of so-called “race,” as opposed to (supposedly) associated characteristics such as skin color. (Dunayer, 2004, p. 2) She is right that it would be wrong to discriminate on the basis of skin color just as it may well be wrong to discriminate on the basis of characteristics supposedly associated with certain species, such as superior rationality. She notes that Regan also defines speciesism merely as favoring humans, (Regan, 2001, pp. 170, 181) although, as I readily concede, speciesism is not necessarily limited to that. I believe she is right that a precise and functional definition of speciesism is required for ethics, and she makes some good points against previous definitions. However, I do not find that her own attempt to define “speciesism” is always more successful or rigorous than the efforts of her intellectual predecessors.

Dunayer defines speciesism as: “A failure, in attitude or practice, to accord any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect.” (Dunayer, 2004, p. 5) I would mount five criticisms of this concept:

  1. A stone is a “nonhuman being,” so according to this definition any granting of unequal consideration to a pebble is “speciesist.”
  2. If she insists that stones are not of any living species and are therefore ruled out (although not, I would add, by her actual definition), it must be conceded that plants are nonhuman beings of different species, and so her definition logically requires that we not discriminate against them either (which is certainly not her actual position). In her book she routinely refers to “nonhuman rights” instead of animal rights when she means “nonhuman animal rights,” but again her language, on the face of it, refers to the rights of rocks and roses (which again she does not mean—but she should say what she means).
  3. She observes, in agreement with the philosopher, Paola Cavalieri, that speciesism could “be used to describe any form of discrimination based on species.” (Cavalieri, 2001, p. 70). Yet veterinarians routinely discriminate treatments or foods for animals on the basis of species. It is unjust—and frequently harmful—discrimination that is the problem in oppression, not just any form of discrimination.
  4. Her definition is oddly anthropocentric, or it only allows for speciesist discrimination against nonhumans. However, there are important cases of arbitrary and harmful discrimination against human animals:
    1. a misanthrope may revere nonhuman animals while detesting human beings and so discriminate against humans in a speciesist fashion; or
    2. a thought experiment sometimes used in animal ethics is that an alien species could conquer Earth and enslave humans or eat them, etc., which would also arguably be speciesist.
  5. Finally, built into her definition is the strong presumption that all nonhuman beings, by which she actually means nonhuman sentient beings, morally need to be given equal consideration in all contexts, and she seems to imply that if it came to a choice between saving a human or a grasshopper, both would have to be equally weighted—however I develop this last line of criticism in my book.

I anticipate my book, which will be out there in about five months’ time, by defining speciesism simply as unjust discrimination on the basis of species or species-characteristics. These characteristics may be real or only alleged. This should capture all true cases of speciesism and not encompass other forms of discrimination that are not speciesist. Some will immediately question whether justice applies to those of other species. However, justice involves equitable allotments of benefits and protections (i.e., no one could coherently state that inequitable benefits/protections are just). Benefits and protections can fully meaningfully apply to nonhuman sentient beings, so a refusal to be equitable in this respect is therefore precisely the willful negation of equity, or inequitable—ergo unjust. Speciesism is not just a case of being nonequitable, as we may be in deciding the fate of rocks, since equity does not logically apply to stones. It is a category mistake to apply equity to stones. However, equity does apply to beings with interests, otherwise it could not apply to human interests. So negating equity for beings with interests is an arbitrary refusal or unwillingness to be equitable, or a negation of logically applicable equity, and so is inequitable. Being nonequitable to stones is not a vice, but being inequitable to sentient beings is. Justice does straightforwardly apply to beings of other species even if someone is simply unwilling to apply it.

Justice, or equitable allotment of protections and benefits (the highest form of justice on best caring is championing the best for each and every sentient being), is not the same as equal consideration, a concept favoured by Peter Singer, Gary Francione, and Joan Dunayer, for example. Equal consideration means treating like cases alike unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. However, any ethical theory can provide equal consideration, including ethical egoism, which also has an intrinsic reason to deny favorable treatment to animals—i.e., it is not in the interest of human egoists. We cannot deny this to be a “good” reason without simply begging the question against the theory. Yet ethical egoism, for all of its equal consideration, is unjust, since it is manifestly inequitable to seek to benefit and protect ego above all, and only to benefit/protect others in essentially self-serving ways. Ethical egoism is just only if inequity is justice.

It might be objected that speciesism is a form of oppression rather than injustice. However, oppression is conceptually linked to injustice. To oppress linguistically derives from “pressing down” upon others. Yet although defending against an attacker may “press down” upon that individual, it is not necessarily oppressive since it is not automatically unjust to defend against violence. Or it is not unjust to suffer unavoidable pain at the hand of a surgeon. So oppression is actually essentially linked not only to harm but also to injustice.

Speciesist discrimination need not even be harmful, at least in any straightforward sense, since it would also be speciesist to exercise favoritism in the dispensation of benefits. As well, not all harmful discrimination is unjust, such as when we punish a criminal. It may not be unjust, as well, to judge or discriminate arbitrarily, e.g., with respect to a medical patient’s line of treatment, which we might only be able to guess at, in trying to discriminate what is best, among other possible paths for treatment (note that guessing involves arbitrariness). My definition of speciesism, unlike Singer’s and Regan’s, accounts for:

  1. unjustly favoring certain nonhuman species over others;
  2. discrimination based on species characteristics;
  3. ruling out as unacceptable, unlike Dunayer, equality for gravel and grass—let alone (in all contexts) grasshoppers;
  4. rejecting speciesist misanthropy; and
  5. ruling in as acceptable many forms of beneficial species-discrimination.
We therefore have, through careful thinking, a concept of speciesism that we can use in the animal rights debate which survives all known objections, unlike earlier conceptions.

Works Cited

Cavalieri, Paola. 2001. The animal question: why nonhuman animals deserve human rights. 2d ed. Translated by Catherine Woollard. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dunayer, Joan. 2005. Reply to a self-proclaimed speciesist. Vegan Voice 14 (September-November).

Dunayer, Joan. 2004. Speciesism. Derwood: Ryce Publishing.

Regan, Tom. 2001. The case for animal rights. In Carl Cohen and Tom Regan, The animal rights debate. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Singer, Peter. 2003. Animal liberation at 30. New York Review of Books, 15 May: 23-26.

Singer, Peter. 1990. Animal liberation, 2d ed. New York: Avon Books.

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