On speciesism.

There has been a lot of discussion on the science blogs about “animal rights” recently. Most of the argument has centered around whether animals are necessary for research, but of course the animal rights movement includes issues such as factory farming, using animals for entertainment, the pet industry, and others. I am a scientist, in particular a zoologist, meaning that I study animals, and of course I agree that many medical advances would be impossible without research using animal models, short of using human models.

That said, I have been amazed at the lack of sophistication in the arguments I have seen. In fact, some of the positions expressed I have not actually encountered since the 8th grade, such as mocking vegetarians or invoking tu quoque arguments about those who oppose some or all animal research but eat meat. Moreover, some bloggers seem to believe that the animal rights movement is populated by only two varieties of people: those who blow up science labs, and those who argue that we should rename the Green Bay Packers because this makes reference to the meat industry. It’s “us versus them”, and they are all either criminal or silly such that the issue can be ignored. This “us versus them” mentality also is relevant in another capacity that I will discuss in a moment.

The issue of animal experimentation has been a contentious one since the 1800s, in particular with reference to vivisection. Many of the same arguments are still being used by both sides, with no resolution in sight. The question, from a philosophical point of view, is not whether animal research works. Yes, some opponents try to make a case on this front, and yes, there are problems with non-human models of human disease, but clearly one cannot do certain things — such as be a zoologist — without studying animals. It’s simply not effective to argue on the basis of whether it works, because obviously it does (with limitations) but this in itself provides no ethical justification. Experimenting on infants would presumably work even better, but I sincerely hope that no one would consider this alone as justification for the practice.

To many of the philosophers and scientists who have discussed this issue over the past 150 years, the central issue is the need to provide justification for inflicting suffering on some (non-human) individuals for the benefit of other (human) individuals. Both sides have invoked the standard moral philosophies, including utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative, and again there has been no resolution. I would argue that neither side will convince the other on the basis of traditional moral philosophy either.

What it boils down to is a philosophical decision that human life is more important that non-human life. Many take this as a given, but a philosophy based on rationality demands that this be justified. Obviously the creationists have their explanation handy: Genesis 1:26-28. Non-religious arguments require a little more consideration than this.

And so I ask, on what basis do you draw the sharp moral line between “humans” and “animals”, “human rights” and “animal rights”, “us” versus “them”? What rational argument do you bring in defense of speciesism? Perhaps you argue that only humans are capable of suffering, or that our intellectual capabilities are of a different kind from those of other animals. As Dawkins has noted, neither is compatible with what we understand about evolutionary history.

I think that opening a discussion about the use of non-humans for human gain is useful. However, I think that simply rhyming off ways in which non-human research is beneficial and dismissing anyone who opposes some or all of it is not. It is a complex issue, and should be treated accordingly.

In one of the more balanced discussions I have seen on this topic, Madhusree Mukerjee made the excellent point that

Animal liberators need to accept that animal research is beneficial to humans. And animal researchers need to admit that if animals are close enough to humans that their bodies, brains and even psyches are good models for the human condition, then ethical dilemmas surely arise in using them.

And, of course, I am not the only biologist with an interest in knowledge about animals to note that the issue of speciesism is one that we cannot ignore.

31 thoughts on “On speciesism.

  1. How come these “speciesism” arguments only seem to be applied to fellow members of Kingdom Animalia? Surely “speciesism” must be wider than this? Where is the microbial rights movement?

  2. I assume you’re being facetious, but it does raise a good point. The argument is not for unilateral rights, obviously. Rather, the point is that you decide why it is wrong to do things to humans (e.g., it causes suffering) and then you have to apply those same principles to other species that meet the same criteria. Or you can just be speciesist and not justify this division.

  3. Right. But the whole argument hinges on “other species that meet the same criteria”. And in the case of our fellow mammals, especially, it is often too easy to fall prey to personification.

  4. I am not aware of any characteristic of relevance for which there is not obvious overlap between some non-humans and some humans, and thus the distinction based purely on species membership is speciesist. This is why there is a mountain of articles in the philosophical literature on this issue. No criterion proposed thus far has been definitive. If you know of one, I am certain that they would be very interested!

  5. Language use is an obvious example of something so far limited to humans; although one would think that at least our fellow primates would be able to handle a language, all attempts to date (Koko, Alex, Nim Chimpsky, etc.) to try to teach a language to a non-human animal have been unconvincing (yes, the handlers often insist that their subject is using language, but outside experts have been unimpressed).

  6. Both the language proposition and the more general solipsist argument you made in the previous post have been well considered form this perspective. Not all humans are capable of language, and some other species clearly have some form of communication.

    These are very old arguments that have led absolutely nowhere for either side.

  7. And, incidentally, on what basis do you argue that capacity for language precludes one from protection against suffering? Why not use “ability to breathe water” or “ability to fly” or “ability to carry out photosynthesis”? There has to be a link to the moral issue at hand.

  8. What is “suffering”? If it is just an ability to show a reaction to a negative stimulus, then there’s nothing at all facetious about “microbial rights”, as they can “suffer” in this manner, If on the other hand suffering is a deeper thing, requiring consciousness, than language is a very important component. I would have more sympathy for the “suffering” of an conscious, language using artificial intelligence (such as HAL 9000 from fiction) than I would for a mouse, for example.

  9. This subject opens Pandora’s can o’ worms, that’s for sure. Perhaps we can start by distinguishing clearly between the conservation issue (concern for the continued existence of populations–and therefore species and other ESUs–of non-human organisms) and the animal rights/welfare concern for individual animals; and then between animal welfare (the desire to minimize the pain and suffering of individual animals) and animal “rights.” Because the issue of “rights” can be philosophically sticky even for humans, by which I mean only that the concept of which humans deserve rights clearly varies in time and space among and within cultures.

    Having had these discussions with friends and acquaintances when living in LA, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Boston, I am absolutely certain that no consensus is remotely possible on the question of which animals deserve what rights. Bowhunting, cockfighting, carnivory, vivisection, museum collecting, and pet ownership are all OK with some intelligent and reasonable people and not with others. There are also people in today’s world who see nothing wrong with killing chimpanzees for bushmeat and selling the orphans as dress-up-dolly pets.

    When we are starting with that range of opinions, arguments seem rather fruitless. At some point it becomes primarily a matter of personal choice: some people put stainless-steel screws into cat skulls and others wear surgical masks to avoid inhaling gnats.

    At this point in the planet’s history it seems far more important to me to talk instead about how the loss of populaitons can be minimized. But that’s my opinion; yours is likely to vary.

  10. Sven,

    I agree, and the fact that it is a complex ethical question was the point of my post.

  11. I’m not as bothered by people who oppose research for moral grounds. My moral philosophy differs, so what.

    My objections are the animal rights movement, including PETA and PCRM and radicals like Vlasak lie about science.

    If you want people to give up on medical research that’s fine by me. I disagree, but go nuts. But what you can’t do is say that animal research is not beneficial, or that biomedical research will be able to dispense with animals for the vast majority of biological research anytime in the foreseeable future.

    That’s my take. I don’t feel like I need to justify the moral case for research, I’m a rank speciesist who values human life over other types of life. What I object to is the attacks on the research itself, as if it is not valuable, or possible without animals which I know to be false.

  12. It seems that one would have to deny quite a bit of science to accept a position based on “rank speciesism” as well.

  13. Did I say that science tells us that rank speciesism is the only way to go? C’mon man, do better than the cheap “you’re the denialist” retort.

    Where do I misrepresent science?

    You may disagree with the morality of speciesists like me, but I don’t lie about science to justify my position. I value human life more than life other other beings on the planet. I see science as part of our struggle for dominance and survival as a species, one of the things that has improved and extended our lives – yes at the cost of other species – but ultimately, as I value human life more, this is acceptable to me. That’s all I mean by speciesist.

  14. One can defend the data of science (i.e., that non-human experimentation works) or one can defend the basis of science — rational justification for positions taken. You have clearly indicated that your interest is in the former. I do not dispute the point there, so my interest is the latter. We have little more to discuss, it seems. And yes, I do think your position is a denialist one, since you deny, out of hand with no justification, that there are aspects of non-human animals that make the issue complex.

  15. And yes, I do think your position is a denialist one, since you deny, out of hand with no justification, that there are aspects of non-human animals that make the issue complex.

    Two problems with this statement which I find careless. One, denialism doesn’t mean “disagreement”, which is the shorthand for people who don’t want to appreciate there are specific criteria that should be met before such a label is applied. I spend a significant amount of time trying to make it possible for people to identify pseudoscience based on these criteria, and it is not aided by this kind of sloppy analysis.

    Second, I don’t know who you’re arguing with, but it’s not me. I’m not denying the complexity of the issue, I’m only stating my moral position of one in which I feel human survival is paramount. You are reading things into my arguments which simply are not present. I do not object to arguments for animal rights, or animal welfare (which is what I think you’re actually arguing for), I merely object to the dishonesty of the ideological movements involved.

    I have said, in this thread and on the thread which generated this discussion, that the issue for me is not the moral issue of animals research but rather the tactics used by the violent, and non-violent animal rights movements that I find irritating. If people feel there is moral reason not to use animals I am not upset by this even while I disagree.

    You are suggesting that I am somehow anti-science or dishonest because I simply possess a different set of moral rules for using animals in research, even though I have not misrepresented any facts, any science, or any arguments of others, if anything, I agree strongly with the argument made at the end of your post.

    I would like to understand the basis of your attack on me. I am sincerely confused as to what the origin of this hostility is. What is it that you think I’m saying that is so offensive?

  16. Sorry Mark, please show me where I mentioned you specifically in my post or anywhere else. I made a general comment about discussions in the blogosphere, which includes posts and comments on several blogs going back a month or more. I didn’t comment on your blog or link to your posts — you came and commented on mine.

    Here is what I said:

    I have been amazed at the lack of sophistication in the arguments I have seen. In fact, some of the positions expressed I have not actually encountered since the 8th grade, such as mocking vegetarians or invoking tu quoque arguments about those who oppose some or all animal research but eat meat. Moreover, some bloggers seem to believe that the animal rights movement is populated by only two varieties of people: those who blow up science labs, and those who argue that we should rename the Green Bay Packers because this makes reference to the meat industry. It’s “us versus them”, and they are all either criminal or silly such that the issue can be ignored. This “us versus them” mentality also is relevant in another capacity that I will discuss in a moment.

    Did you make any such claims? If so, then there’s why I would have been offended. If not, then obviously I was not talking about your statements.

    You’re welcome to keep the term “denialist” and to define it however you like.

  17. I didn’t think you were attacking me in your original post. I only commented because I think that your evaluation of the current discussion in the blogosphere was flawed from the point of view that scientists were also behaving in an immature way. From what I’ve seen it’s mostly just been an angry response against lies and nonsense spread by the ARAs and shameful attacks on scientists. I’m not sure how it’s our side that is lowering the debate as I’ve not seen bloggers make the arguments you describe. Our commenters maybe…

    I’m now merely responding to your assertion that speciesism requires denial of science. I don’t see it. One can say one values human life more than that of other species for purely selfish reasons without having to deny that animals feel pain or suffer. The justification is simple. I’m human. Out of self interest for my species and my own personal survival I will use animals as tools. Is this a coherent moral philosophy generated from the ground up based on arguments from first principles? Nope. Who cares? Those never work anyway.

    I don’t think that this is necessarily sociopathic, it’s just the rules of the game. It’s how we got to where we are as a species, and I don’t think in the context of a struggle for survival against nature we need to pull any punches.

    Further I think the burden is on the ARAs to justify why humans killing animals is wrong? (the old “animal rights for the cat or the mice” joke applies) Why must we be the exceptions to the animal kingdom? Because of our “morality”? Because animals are “innocent” – sorry but I see that as buying into Adam and Eve nonsense and a culturally-inflicted prelapsarian view of animals.

    Why can’t we kill animals to benefit humans? I’ve never seen this argument made to my satisfaction that we should be the exception to the animal kingdom. As far as this being the naturalistic fallacy I think that’s a simplistic dismissal of the argument that ARAs are unwilling to face. What makes humans exceptional in this regard? Why can’t we use nature as other species do?

    The usual arguments I see fall back on this idea of superior human morality, or that because animals are like us (experiencing suffering, pain, emotion etc.), we should treat them like us because that’s what we would like if our roles were reversed. I’m not satisfied by these arguments, not just because of the inevitable salami-slicing arguments that are made, but because I don’t see why similarity necessitates treating them the same as us. Our species has a separate self-interest from that of others on the planet, that enables our survival. I think if we’re honest with ourselves we admit we would sooner see any other species go the way of the dodo than have humans disappear. In fact, our continuing existence on the planet is leading to the inevitable extinction of many other species – including many primate species very close to ourselves in terms of intelligence and emotion. Is the right thing to do to off ourselves? If no then we are implicitly saying our survival is more valuable than that of other species on this planet, for no other reason than biological necessity – the selfishness needed to survive. We are all speciesists. Some of us just admit it. It’s required for survival.

    That’s the best I can do to create a moral argument for speciesism. It’s not too bad, it serves me well enough. We either protect our species against all the sickness, diseases, cruelties of nature, critters and bugs that would eat us alive, or we die (or die sooner). Real simple.

  18. “I didn’t think you were attacking me in your original post.”

    Then point out where I made an “attack on [you]” in my comments or retract this accusation.

    I reject the following argument on principle: “The justification is simple. I’m [a member of a specific group]. Out of self interest for my [group] and my own personal survival I will use [all non-members of my group] as tools.”

    Perhaps speciesism does not require a denial of science, in particular evolutionary science, but it clearly requires a misunderstanding of how evolution works.

  19. The attack I saw was suggesting I was denialist for having a speciesist view or saying that it would require denying science. Now you’re saying I don’t understand evolution. Clearly speciesism touches a nerve.

    You reject my argument on principle, but will you off yourself and everyone else to save species from extinction via human activity? Are you more concerned with genocide in Darfur or the extinction of the fuzzy wuzzy marmoset?

    I think people are unwilling to acknowledge that in the end the reason we use animals the way we do, for food, for clothing (not even talking about fur) for science, and kill them wantonly as we drive, build houses, clean our lodging, and protect our crops is that because we have to. The absence of such use impinges on our ability to survive as a species. We couldn’t grow as much food as we do if we didn’t shove animals out of habitats, throw poison on everything, kill pests, and drive over squirrels on the way to market. We couldn’t live as long as we do if medical research didn’t have viable species with which we can study comparative physiology. The fact is we kill things constantly, for a variety of reasons because we just can’t be bothered to risk our lives, our time, or our comfort to avoid it.

    I think we should be willing to acknowledge that we do consider human survival and happiness paramount because we’re human, and that’s OK. It’s the speciesism-acceptance movement. No more guilt and bad karma for being the humans that we are, and ultimately can’t avoid being without a massive suicide pact (or very draconian birth control measures).

  20. I simply corrected my comment to be more accurate; you don’t deny evolution, you just misunderstand it.

  21. I frankly don’t even see where I mentioned evolution. Let alone where I misunderstood it.

    But nice “see my original post” dodge. You asked people to provide an argument for speciesism, I did, and you just react with nothing but hostility. I ask, where did science bloggers post on the 8th grade level? I haven’t seen it, I don’t know what your talking about. I feel like we have an argument between three people, you, me and an opponent in your head. Until I see what he’s saying, I’m left mostly confused.

    Can’t we do better than this?

    I have no ethical problem with using animals as we currently do because I feel it enhances our survival as a species. Using animals for human advantage allows us to feed huge numbers of people, it allows us to understand the diseases that attack and kill us. It’s good for us as a species, and is a large part of our success from domestication to scientific knowledge.

    I like your blog TR. I think your posts on genome size are some of the best science posts I’ve seen all year, and learned a great deal from them. I would rather not have hostility in our interactions and I’m not trying to antagonize you. If this is something you can’t talk about without seeing red, let me know and we’ll avoid the topic. But that doesn’t seem healthy.

  22. I’m not sure where you’re coming from on this, but on the upside thanks for the kind words about the blog.

  23. You’re welcome.

    Now about those examples of 8th grade arguments from science bloggers?

    Or an argument for why killing things is unethical for humans but not other creatures?

  24. Mark, I really don’t think it is useful for either of us to engage on a lengthy debate about this. Your position is clear and I am not really interested in trying to change your mind.

    What I said about hearing some of the arguments in 8th grade was sincere. In your last comment you make the following rhetorical point: “will you off yourself and everyone else to save species from extinction via human activity? Are you more concerned with genocide in Darfur or the extinction of the fuzzy wuzzy marmoset?”

    I literally heard these arguments in the 8th grade. The other one was, “If you were on a deserted island, wouldn’t you kill a dog to keep yourself alive?”

    There is far more nuance to the issue than your premise allows, which is why I have not engaged. My position should be clear: I *am* a scientist and I *do* work on animals, but I *also* am concerned about the moral issues and I do not think that this is an all or nothing question. Could we reduce the number of non-humans used? Could we try to make it more ethically sound? Is there any difference between sacrificing non-humans to cure diseases that are unavoidable versus ones that are preventable? Could science not be an example for how to make effective use of non-humans while still adhering to solid moral principles? Can we try to come up with some justification for what we’re doing, and let that attempt guide our actions more effectively? The only argument in my original post was that simply showing that experimentation on animals works is not a justification from an ethical standpoint, and that there should be some basis for considering humans as separate from the rest of the world. This is not new to me. Other scientists, Dawkins for example, have made the same point many times.

    I should also note that I am not at all seeing red. I am currently working on some committee responsibilities and just popping in to reply when I get the notification emails. I have heard all your points too many times to remember, so this is not anything that shocks my sensibilities.

    As to your misunderstanding of evolution, this was not said as an upset commenter, it was said as a professional evolutionary biologist. Competition among species as a whole is not how it works. Instead, the most intensive competitive interactions are generally among conspecifics, or, in the case of social animals like humans, perhaps kin groups.

  25. This is a great post. Mark and the rest did a great job on explaining why animal research will stay with us, probably indefinitely. But I found that I didn’t agree with all of his points in the comments to his post.

    I do think that there are practical benefits from acknowledging that we have practical, moral and ethical concerns for other organisms, and in that sense codify some as regulations. (Rather than vacuous and hard to manage “rights”, I think.) In fact, we already do. “Welfare” doesn’t quite cover that aspect.

    But there isn’t any sense that other species will necessarily be considered having equal rights, for obvious reasons. And as this has moral aspects, I’m not sure that it is derivable from any ethical principle and I don’t see why we necessarily have to.

  26. Hi Torbjörn,

    I agree, “rights” is a difficult issue. I don’t envision equal rights for all species, of course, any more than I think all humans should have equal rights across the board — children can’t drive or drink or vote, for example, and I don’t have a problem with that. Some rights, such as the right not to be tortured, I would say are better candidates for universal implementation. The point about addressing the issue of speciesism is not that all animals should be treated the same way we treat humans, but that there are no clear-cut lines of separation on any ethically relevant trait, and so *some* non-humans may be entitled to *some* rights.

  27. I think we’re competing with other species for resources, habitat etc. (and winning hands down). Competing with other animals evolutionarily? Not at all.

    As far as my eighth grade example arguments, they were rhetorically light, yes, but I think that they are helpful in that ultimately we are all speciesists. We care about humans more. I don’t think we should feel bad about that, or that there is a moral failing in that. We wouldn’t have been successful social animals if this weren’t built into us.

    And if we aren’t speciesist, are we equals with animals as the more radical ARAs suggest? Even they don’t believe that when you salami-slice them down to nematodes. So then it becomes an endless argument that is about arbitrarily placing values on different species based on the anthropomorphism and our navel-gazing criteria of being “like us”. I’ve never found that very compelling, and don’t think a consistent ethical framework can be decided based on such arbitrary values. Are gorillas really more valuable then say, honeybees? If gorillas croak, the ecosystem might not blink, certain pollinating insects? Or microscopic ocean dwellers? It could be a total disaster.

    I’ve had these arguments a lot too, inevitably when I attack some idiotic pronouncement by PETA that some chickens are as smart as humans (I’m not kidding – it was an ad). So those are my imaginary opponents in this debate.

    As far as the ethics of mitigating the numbers and reducing suffering I figured those are a given. Although I think such interventions are as good for the human researchers as they are for the animals.

  28. Mark, the problem is that group-based arguments like yours can be, and have been, applied to all sorts of groups like race, sex, age, country, religion, mental ability, and other criteria, some artificial (e.g., nationality) and some biologically real (e.g., sex). Presumably you think it unproblematic to apply it in the case of species but not in any of the other situations, and I simply disagree that species membership differs fundamentally there. In every single argument you have raised one could substitute “caucasians” or “men” or “Americans” and find that people have said those same things.

    Imagine someone said, “We’re competing with other countries, and we need their resources to survive. I think it should be fine to say that we care more about Americans because we’re Americans. This in itself justifies our action.” I hope that most people’s next question would be: On what basis do you assign higher value to an American versus anyone else? You would demand some justification for this. The same is true for those who oppose speciesism without justification. It does not follow that no exploitation of non-humans is justified, any more than no military interventions are ever justified, but the issue is not something to be dismissed as all or nothing.

    When the chips are down, would you sacrifice a terminally ill person you’ve never met to save your own child? Would you not prefer that a natural disaster strike overseas rather than in your home town? Are we not competing most directly with other humans, usually on the basis of group membership? Can you not imagine a morally relevant character (say, ability to experience fear or pain) that is the basis for not mistreating humans that also occurs in some other species? You really don’t see any way that people could draw a line between gorillas and bees that would be far less arbitrary than drawing it between humans and gorillas?

    Why do you limit it to Homo sapiens? Why not, say, the family Hominidae or the order Primates? Or, worse, why not limit it to certain populations of humans? Consistency is important here, and it is why philosophers have argued about things like this for decades.

    I reject the approach on principle because if you are not required to rationally support the ethical chasms you create, then it is a free for all and every group can claim moral certitude in exploiting other groups.

    And it’s not either-or for the suffering of humans in Africa or preventing the loss of biological diversity — some of us care deeply about both.

  29. But wait, I said this applies to our species, that’s all humans, sexes, ethnic groups etc.

    While I do realize, it does not lead to a coherent ethical code that works from first principles and applies to all possible contortions, neither do the salami-slicing arguments used by people like Singer, which even in their estimation reduce the humanity of infants, retarded persons etc., to that of animals. Equally problematic.

    I realize the common retort to the speciesist position is that it’s just like racism, or you could justify slavery etc on the same principles. Quite true really. We enslave cows for meat and milk, all sorts of other domestic animals fall into this, but I think this is ultimately disingenuous. After all, the arguments that Africans or whatever race that was enslaved were inferior to other humans were patently false. However, I suspect that when it comes to our domestic animals, there are of course real differences between us, and we’ve modified them so much over the centuries that they are now dependent on us. I don’t think it would benefit them at this time to set our dogs free and put the cows out in the wild. We’re responsible for them.

    I don’t pretend to have a uniform ethical system here, it has inherent flaws. However, I don’t find the alternative systems any more consistent in dealing with our animal companions.

  30. Well, this shouldn’t count either, as it doesn’t add any substance:

    there are no clear-cut lines of separation on any ethically relevant trait, and so *some* non-humans may be entitled to *some* rights.


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