Note: The essay does not intend to argue against animal rights or veganism or claims that speciesism is a “good” thing. It aims to challenge the dogmatic mindset of some animal rights advocates and fanatics who use the label “speciesist” to degrade anyone who doesn’t agree with their ideology. Stray dog advocates in Turkey often try to shut off any criticism by accusing their enemies of being “speciesists”.
The idea of speciesism is central to the advocates of animal rights and vegan movement. Anti-speciesism ideology appears like a solid ethical system, but many overlook that anti-speciesism is also in denial of the reality of its flaws.
What is anti-speciesism and how it relates to animal rights? Which animals get rights and which do not? Can we really avoid being speciesists?
Humans have complicated relationships with animals. Some animals are valued highly as pets – they receive our love and care, a nutritious diet and a health care better than poor people in the developing countries. Other animals are less fortunate. Cattle, chickens, and others spend their lives within the four walls of factories until they are slaughtered so that their bodies can provide the meat for us and our pets. Some animals, in particular rodents, are unwilling participants in scientific experiments, often lethal. This relationship that favors human species and some animals like cats and dogs over others, for example, cows and chickens, have been called “speciesist” by vegan and animal rights movement. Speciesism also seems like a nice and meaningful word for ordinary people – who, let’s be honest, neither have a deeper understanding of the concept nor do they practice the vegan lifestyle.
Many people confuse animal welfare with anti-speciesism ideology and animal rights. The approach of animal welfare does not oppose the use of animals for human benefit but demands to treat animals with kindness by preventing any unnecessary harm or pain. Animal welfare is usually science-based and practically applicable, on the other hand, animal rights and one of its ideologies, anti-speciesism, is a political movement that largely disregards science.
The founding father of anti-speciesism idea is philosopher Peter Singer, although the term itself was coined in 1970 by animal rights activist Richard D. Ryder.
The anti-speciesism is derived from the utilitarian moral theory which aims to produce the greatest good and happiness for the greatest number of people or animals. But anti-speciesism goes beyond utilitarianism. Anti-speciesism is a part of veganism which is more than just a way of life – it is a philosophy that seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation and cruelty to animals.
Anti-speciesism opposes the traditional human-centered view of animals and claims that animals should be seen as equals to humans. The ideas of Gary Francione, a creator of the vegan abolitionist movement, go even further by stating that no animals, should be “enslaved” by humans or treated as a property: having cats and dogs as pets violates the rights of these animals (making domesticated animals extinct is the only way to end the “slavery”).
The capacity to suffer and feel pain constitutes the only possible criterion when comes to which animals deserve to have rights. Since animals are also capable of suffering, anti-speciesism proponents like Singer and Francione think all sentient animals have equal moral worth like humans and this is why we cannot deny animals their legal rights.
Anti-speciesism benefits some species but excludes many others
Animal rights movement tends to romanticize and humanize wildlife and life in the wild. They appear to be ignorant to the harsh fact that evolution shaped the wild with abusive, cruel, and destructive activities through natural selection. Nature is not a paradise and the lives of animals are fairly miserable: parasites and hunger weaken them; viruses and toxins invade their bodies, other animals steal their resources and potential mates to exploit them.
The principle of equal consideration of interests promoted by Singer seems to be absent in relationships among animals. “A fox does not ask the question of the interests of the rabbit before devouring it. Each animal is generally prey and predator, exploited and exploiting.” (Muraille, 2018). The exploitation is part of nature, but so is rape, violence, murder, necrophilia, and speciesism itself – just because something occurs in nature, it does not mean it is justified or ethical.
The advocates of anti-speciesism fail to comprehend the complexity of the animal kingdom. When it comes to what we define as an animal, taxonomy is replaced with anthropomorphism.
For the animal rights movement, animals mean mostly mammals which are approximately 5,000 species, a tiny piece of the kingdom Animalia. But there are about 1,250,000 animal species in the world – more than 1.2 million are insects and other invertebrates (Chapman, 2009). Even though spiders, snails, flies, and mosquitoes are animals, they do not get equal consideration like dogs, pandas, dolphins, and cows. Animal rights movement behaves as if these animals do not exist. Is it even possible to avoid harming these over one million animal species through our simple existence? What would the world be like if insects had rights and we jailed everyone for the horrific murders of innumerable ants, mosquitoes, and spiders?
The truth is, advocates of anti-speciesism do not believe that every animal, in particular, insects, should be treated equally – they accept that there is a hierarchy within animal species, which is kind of hypocritical knowing that no species should be discriminated against, based on the definition of anti-speciesism. To fall into the trap of speciesism is easy if we consider that the suffering of flies is less important than that of apes.
And why flies remain “invisible” in a discussion of animal rights? That’s because we think that only those animals which are the most similar to us are equal to humans. Yet, scientific research demonstrates the sentience and complex emotional states in animals we think as “primitive”. For instance, insects are capable of experiencing not only pain but also anxiety and depression (Anderson and Adolphs, 2014). The complex emotional states and sensitivity to environmental changes are vital adaptations that may be present in all animals. It follows that much of animal rights rhetoric concerning the sentience of animals is not grounded in science, but relies on a subjective and anthropomorphic belief system.
Are animals aware of their rights? Who decides what kind of rights are granted to animals?
Anti-speciesism is inseparable from the animal rights movement. But do we really understand what animal rights are? In this section, we will take a closer look at animal’s rights and its weaknesses in order to demonstrate that just like anti-speciesism, animal rights ideology itself has inconsistencies and self-contradictions.
One may argue that the reason why children and animals are given protections but not rights, that they are incapable of accepting responsibility because – having rights means being held accountable for one’s actions. You cannot expect a small child to take a responsibility for causing a fire if you allow her/him to play with matches. Neither small children nor animals are capable of comprehending and predicting that their actions lead to consequences.
To take responsibility for their actions, animals should be able to distinguish between right and wrong in a moral sense. But animals are not like humans – they lack a sense of morality (Haksar, 1998). But let’s say there is no requirement for animals to be moral in order to gain their rights. Still, can rights be disconnected from duties? Somehow, humans are required to fulfill duties to respect the rights of animals to life and freedom from human-induced suffering and confinement, but animals are not required to reciprocate with similar duties, not even to each other. This creates an unsolvable ethical dilemma (Duckler, 2007).
Prohibitions against animal mistreatment “allow” animals to be cruel to each other but prohibits humans from being cruel to animals. If animals are rights-holders, then animal cruelty laws should apply to them. And, we know it would be absurd if we tried to hold the lion legally accountable for its natural predatory behavior – killing other animals.
So it seems that the rights given to animals will never be respected between and among animals other than humans. Since animals are not aware of having rights, they cannot demand their rights – this means that only humans can decide what rights animals are allowed to have.
If one animal species are granted rights, then shouldn’t animals of those species retain the same rights under all circumstances? To understand the contradiction better, imagine this: There was an explosion in a laboratory that left a human injured and a mouse trapped in a cage. You have limited time for deciding who will you save from the burning building – a mouse or a human? For the majority of people, the answer is clear. Anti-speciesism advocates, however, insist that the life of the laboratory mouse is worth the same as the life of a human being. Yet, paradoxically, followers of anti-speciesism care very little about the lives of mice outside the laboratory. No one talks about the extraordinarily large numbers of mice and rats that are poisoned routinely and suffer as a result.
The root of all evil
We do not see the world through the eyes of animals – each animal has their own reality, their unique needs, and desires that differ from species to species – we rely on anthropomorphism and empathy (“mind reading”) as tools to interpret the feelings and desires of animals. Philosophers and ethicists have been quick to point out that anthropomorphism and empathy are unreliable ways for understanding the feelings and perceptions of animals (Mameli and Bortolotti, 2006). It appears we should not be so certain that we have such a good understanding of what animals want or need. Science could, at least partially, overcome our human-centric biases regarding animals, but the animal rights movement claiming to be “a voice of animals”, often ignores science.
The animal rights and anti-speciesism movement are similar to religious or political movements which claim to serve a social good. These movements use political power to reach their goals. But the problem with the animal rights movement is, that the movement is becoming a caricature of itself. Animal rights advocates employ vague clichés and slogans like “all animals have equal rights”. No effort is given to explain what they mean with “animals” and “rights” or them being equal. What’s more, animal rights activists try to convince that the treatment of factory-farmed animals have similarities with the Holocaust (systematic killing and torture of Jews and other minorities during World War II), and speciesism is as bad as racism. These analogies downplay the suffering of real victims of the Holocaust and racism.
Many animal rights activists not only place a higher importance on animal suffering but they also see humans as a “root of all evil”: humans are to blame for animal suffering.Maybe this is why they see speciesism as no different from racism and eating meat as murder. Misanthropy, which is a hatred of human species, unfortunately, is way too common among animal rights activists.
But ending the exploitation of the animals does not require to hate humans. In contrast, the animal rights movement would be better off if they abandoned this irrational misanthropic philosophy which is counterproductive if we seek to bring positive social change and gain more supporters.
Ultimately, questioning the anti-speciesism and animal rights ideology does not imply that animals cannot have rights or that we should accept speciesism as the “natural order”; it only shows that living by strict principles of anti-speciesism is a fantasy, especially if we decide to give rights for all animals not only for some cuddly mammals we like– an impossibility even for those who preach it.
Is anti-speciesism ideology out of touch with reality?
Finally, the acceptance of anti-speciesism ideology requires humans to become vegans to end the exploitation of animals used for food. It is difficult to imagine the developing countries or even Turkey supporting a vegan policy while the consumption of meat is increasing and the meat itself is still a commodity.
Another important question is what could be offered to people who live off of animal exploitation. There are many human societies that sustain themselves through fishing and livestock production. Without population control, the vegan societies that aim to minimize harms to animals, may not be possible to attain, due to human existence alone (even if all humans consumed a vegan diet!). Some animals will be harmed because humans pollute the environment, invade the natural habitats and cause animal extinctions. Besides, the process of farming vegan foods also causes animal deaths (Keim, 2018). And finally, if lots of people stopped eating meat, what would we do with billions of domestic animals around the world that cannot live in nature without human assistance?
The idea of anti-speciesism is based on an idealized and simplistic vision of the animal kingdom and symbiotic relationships within it (Muraille, 2018). It is time for the animal rights movement to face its own limitations and contradictions and shape the movement in the way that works for animals, not a movement that works for organizations and activists themselves.
To find new and creative ways to fight speciesism and oppression of animals, we should openly discuss its inconsistencies and limitations that plague, and ultimately undermine, the animal rights movement. We should strive for more rational and honest advocacy without dogmatism and misanthropic mindset. Therefore, mainstream animal rights activism needs to cultivate open mindedness, creativity, scientific literacy and a willingness to negotiate (Wrenn, 2015).
To organize human societies according to anti-speciesism principles is a difficult perhaps impossible task. But if we keep our expectations low enough and accept the harsh reality that even if we do our best, we can only prevent the suffering of some animals – not all animals, unfortunately!
At the end, animal advocacy should simply accept its flaws and move on. Because everyone is speciesist, even if you try not to be one.
Anderson, D. J., & Adolphs, R. (2014). A framework for studying emotions across species. Cell, 157(1), 187-200.
Chapman AD (2009) Numbers of Living Species in Australia and the World (Australian Biological Resources Study, Canberra, Australia).
Muraille, E. (2018, July 23). Debate: Could anti-speciesism and veganism form the basis for a rational society? The Conversation
Haksar, V. (1998). Moral agents. Concise Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Duckler, G. (2007). Two Major Flaws of the Animal Rights Movement. Animal L., 14, 179.
Keim, B. (2018, 18 July). The surprisingly complicated math of how many wild animals are killed in agriculture. Anthropocene
Mameli, M., & Bortolotti, L. (2006). Animal rights, animal minds, and human mindreading. Journal of medical ethics, 32(2), 84-89.
Wrenn, C. L. (2015). Rationality and Nonhuman Animal Rights. In A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Palgrave Macmillan, London.