Speciesism: Justifying Humanity’s Actions Against Other Animals

what is speciesism

Surprisingly, the notion of speciesism isn’t widely understood. Many people have never even considered the idea that something like this exists.

And because of the existence of speciesism, humans justify the inhumane treatment of animals across countless industries. The very nature of a speciesist attitude or someone that, actively or not, is a speciesist, contributes to the use of animals as if they are on this planet specifically for humans.

Because of speciesism, animals are bred into existence and most of the time raised on factory farms where they will endure a life of suffering before imminent slaughter.

When hearing the term speciesism for the first time, many people take a defensive attitude. Most people do believe that humans are superior to other animals and that animals are in fact here for our use. But this knee-jerk response is rarely thought through or explored to the point of obtaining a deeper understanding of what speciesism actually is or what the existence of it does to our relationships with other animals.

What is Speciesism?

Speciesism is the unspoken, most of the time unknown, assumption that humans are superior to non-human animals.

The attitude toward non-human animals that they are here for us has created human supremacy that allows, and even encourages, the mistreatment of animals.

The term speciesism first appeared in a pamphlet distributed in the United Kingdom in 1970. The pamphlet was created by a group called the Oxford Group and the idea was to spread awareness about the atrocities happening in the UK with animal testing.

In the pamphlet, British psychologist Richard Ryder wrote that “since Darwin, scientists have agreed that there is no ‘magical’ essential difference between humans and other animals, biologically-speaking. Why then do we make an almost total distinction morally? If all organisms are on one physical continuum, then we should also be on the same moral continuum.”

Ryder wanted to bring to the attention of the general public the suffering of animals at the hands of people. To him, and to those who believe speciesism needs to end, non-human animals should not be used at the beck and call of humans regardless of the reasons.

In the case of the pamphlet and the Oxford Group, the battle against the human exploitation of animals had to do with the 5,000,000+ animals in the UK that were used in a wide variety of tests experimentation for human benefit.

One side can argue that these tests were used to help advance human scientific discovery and to protect humans against any unforeseen negative side effects that products could potentially have on people. Others argue that we should be testing on people as that is where we will find the most accurate results.

Either way, the unspoken mindset that humans are automatically superior to non-human animals is a dangerous way of thinking.

Before discussing how this mindset can be a slippery slope, let’s first talk about how the idea of speciesism went from a small pamphlet in the UK to the world.

Peter Singer and Speciesism

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher and animal rights activist who rose to stardom in with the publication of his book Animal Liberation in 1975.

peter singer and speciesism
Image via TED

Singer defines speciesism as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.”

What is the Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests (PEC)

Speciesism is a moral issue. In order to analyze and compare moral issues and ideas, philosophers create analytical frameworks and principles, such as the principle of equal consideration of interests.

In a nutshell,this principle promoted by Singer states that in order for any idea to be considered a moral one, a person should never favor the interest of one group, whether it’s race, gender, or species, over that of another group and that equal weight should always be given when coming to a moral decision, even if the situation or roles of the actors change.

By keeping the playing ground level, we are able to keep equal respect across all beings as opposed to deeming one of being more deserving of respect or special treatment than the other.

To demonstrate, let’s think of two test subjects named John and Linda. If a third person was forced to deliver an electric shock to one of the two test subjects, the third person would face a major moral dilemma. Both subjects will feel the same amount of pain and suffer from the experience. This is PEC in action.

If the third person was a sexist, for example, their decision might be easier to make. This scenario is wrong as the third person is arbitrarily deeming that one of the test subjects is “more valuable” than the other because of their sex and nothing more. It is already understood they will feel the same amount of pain and suffer equally. Choosing to deliver the shock to one based on gender alone is not morally sound, just as it would be wrong to deliver the shock based on race, religion, age and so forth.

When it comes to speciesism, the same rules should apply. If John was a human test subject and Linda a cat, why is the pain and suffering of one more profound than the other? They will both still suffer equally and feel the same amount of pain.

So should the third person choose to deliver the shock to the cat simply because of the fact that it is a different species?

Defending Speciesism

Many people argue against speciesism because they truly believe that humans are superior to non-human animals.

It makes sense that so many people think this way. People are inculcated from a young age to believe that everything here on earth is for us. There is a common mindset that if something can benefit humanity then it should be pursued.

It’s the very reason that factory farming and animal testing exist even though they are not necessary for human survival. And beyond the fact that they are not necessary, they are not sustainable and dangerous for humanity in the long run.

Does Intelligence Equal the Justification of Speciesism?

Convincing most people that speciesism is wrong is a major challenge as most people assume without question the superiority of humans over non-human animals.

But many of the arguments that people present who are against speciesism can be combatted quite easily.

For example, some people argue against speciesism by saying that humans are more intelligent and advanced so therefore we are able to do things to advance humanity that other non-human animals simply can’t do. Animal testing for product safety or factory farming for mass food production are two examples.

However, where will we stand one day if a more intelligent lifeform comes to earth and decide that humans make a great meal? What happens if all of a sudden the tables are turned and humans are bred into existence to live imprisoned lives until imminent slaughter for meat? Or if female humans are constantly impregnated only to have their babies ripped away after giving birth so the aliens can consume human milk and make cheese?

Is this situation likely? No. Is it impossible? No. Without having to imagine the more agricultural uses for humankind, we already have a non-zero risk of artificial intelligence growing in power and capacity to the point that its intelligence will one day eclipse that of a human’s. Would we like that artificial intelligence to learn its moral code by observing the speciesism rampant in humanity of today?

And if it were to play out this way, how could we argue against their choice to use humanity for their benefit as they are the more intelligent and advanced being? If that’s the excuse people use now to justify our use of animals then we will be in a lot of trouble if the tables ever turn.

Do Culture and Tradition Justify Speciesism?

A very simple and common argument goes as follows: “It is what it is.”

If you ask a dozen people why speciesism exists, you will find this response. People think that because something has been happening for a long time or because it’s cultural then it is excusable.

But just because something has been happening for generations doesn’t automatically make it right. There are many things in human history that at one point have been considered normal and now exist only on the fringes if they exist at all.

Homophobia, racism, and sexism are all examples of attitudes that have declined over time. Do they still exist? Unfortunately, they do. But are they are not as widespread as they once were.

Think of it this way. Interracial marriage was not fully legal in the United States until 1967. Historically, that is but a blink of an eye.

And while racism is still a rampant problem in the US, there are more people fighting against it than there were just a few generations back when interracial marriage was illegal.

When it comes to speciesism, it can be hard to say that much has changed even though things have improved slightly.

When PETA exposed the Silver Springs monkeys case in 1981, there was international outrage over the treatments of the test-subject monkeys in Maryland. That case put PETA in the global spotlight and they, along with countless other organizations, have been fighting for the rights of animals ever since.

The Darwinian Argument Against Speciesism

Some people will use the Darwinian argument that humanity can do as it pleases when it comes to the use, consumption, and exploitation of animals because evolution has made humans the “strongest” species, able to survive and flourish against all odds.

While arguing against speciesism, one might ask if a lion is immoral for eating a zebra. Because surely, to many, that’s the food chain and many humans believe we are on top of the food chain (something that has been proven to be false).

So if a lion isn’t immoral for eating a zebra, why would a human be immoral for eating a cow?

The argument that other animals do something, therefore, we should be able to do it as well is flawed. Humans are logical thinkers and are able to reflect on their actions and choices. We don’t survive based on natural instinct alone like a lion.

Beyond that, we are consuming animals (or using them for our benefit) for survival. Lions eat zebras to survive.

This argument brings us back down the same slippery slope when it comes to justifying the use or exploitation of another species simply because humans are “stronger” in the sense of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest.

If anything, our ability to comprehend the world around us in such a complex way should make it so we care more about all living life.

If strength, power, or advanced abilities are all that is needed to justify the discrimination, abuse, or systemic slaughter of another species then we will be in real trouble if an alien lifeform every comes to earth or if (when) artificial intelligence surpasses human capabilities.

Ending Speciesism

Ending speciesism starts with reflecting on one’s own attitude and actions.

People need to start asking themselves why it is that humans believe they are superior to other non-human animals.

Is it because we are smarter? Define intelligence. What makes humans smarter? We are certainly more capable in many aspects but other animals are capable of doing things that humans can’t do.

Being against speciesism isn’t saying that humans are cats are the same. Of course, species differ greatly and each one has unique abilities and differences.

Combatting speciesism isn’t about claiming that all different species are 100% equal or deserve the exact same rights. No one is trying to grant the same rights to a dog that a human has. However, pushing back against the idea that one species is inherently better than another simply because of what species they are needs to happen.

These justifications for viewing animals as “lesser beings” don’t hold up as they are full of holes.

There is always a more reasonable and logical counter to the argument against speciesism. But that argument for ending speciesism needs to come from a place of compassion. Understanding that all living beings are in this together will help you understand your place as a human being among millions of different species on the planet.


The narrow-minded view that humans are superior to other non-human animals simply for being human needs to stop. Not just for the sake of the animals, but for the sake of positive and consistent moral development of humanity.

the end of speciesism

The bias toward other species the same way racists view other races or sexists view members of the opposite sex will never advance humanity. It will do the opposite. Look at factory farming as the perfect example of an unsustainable practice with negative global implications.

Humanity’s desire to dominate other species like cows, pigs, and chickens simply because people like to eat meat has created a global climate crisis that is getting worse by the day.

People will continue to justify their views as to why they believe humans deserve more consideration than other animals.

But all of these arguments have holes and logical thinking and reflection will bring you to the conclusion that all species deserve equal consideration.

Again, this isn’t meant to say that all species deserve the same rights as one another. Someone who believes speciesism is wrong doesn’t believe a dog should have the right to vote.

Ending speciesism is about having a more compassionate outlook and truly understanding that the world isn’t here for humans to do whatever it is we feel like without any regard toward other species. It is not in our actions towards those stronger than us that our moral worth is tested, but towards those weaker than us.

The world is here for all of us. And a world without speciesism will be a more just world for countless living beings.