What Is Speciesism?

Speciesism is the idea that only humans are worthy of moral consideration.

what is speciesism

Explainer Science Sentience

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The idea that animals and humans share a fundamental likeness that makes them both worthy of similar moral consideration has been around for centuries. Within western traditions of thought, however, this idea only truly rose to prominence from the 1970s after the publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. At that time, the idea of the moral worth of animals was defined against its opposite, the assumption of humans’ superior moral worth, which was labeled “speciesism.” The works of Singer and others have inspired waves of animal rights activists and vegans as they seek to bring about the end of animal suffering. 

What Is Speciesism?

There are two facets to speciesism: a way of thinking and a way of acting. As a way of thinking, speciesism can be summarized as the belief that humans are worthy of moral consideration whereas non-human animals are not, or are at least less worthy. This way of thinking is embedded throughout our society in the ways that animals are talked about and treated. The term “speciesism” is also frequently used to discuss the ways in which the belief in human moral superiority has practical effects. 

One clear example of speciesism as a common way of thinking and how that belief structure plays out in the ways we behave can be seen in the widespread belief that humans are somehow fundamentally separate from other animals. This is despite humans sharing about 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos. 

What Is Speciesism in Philosophy?

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, speciesism, as a philosophy, is the idea that “only humans are morally considered.” Peter Singer, who is often considered the father of anti-speciesism, though he was not the first to explore the idea of animals’ moral worth, has likened speciesism to racism and sexism as a specific kind of discrimination. 

The notion of granting moral consideration to humans alone is closely linked to the idea of human exceptionalism. The idea behind human exceptionalism is that humans are unique and set apart from other animals. The desire to find a scientific basis for human exceptionalism has led to researchers proposing a variety of standards by which human uniqueness might be established. Some examples that have all been disproven include the belief that only humans have sex for fun, solve social problems or develop familial bonds. Scientists are discovering that nonhuman animals are also able to reason, socialize and learn, which challenges our existing ideas of human exceptionalism.

Preceding Ideas

The idea of moral equity between humans and other animals predates the relatively new ideas of speciesism and anti-speciesism. Many Indigenous communities and cultures around the world were living in harmony with nature and honoring animals as equals and teachers long before western scholars considered the topic, assigned it a formal name and wrote about it in books. 


Animism is the belief that all living things have souls and is a widespread understanding in many Indigenous belief systems. Adherents of this belief seek to live in harmony with nature, honoring both the environment and animals. 

When it comes to western philosophy, anti-speciesism has been argued from a variety of different perspectives. Perhaps most prominent is utilitarianism, however, deontological perspectives on speciesism have also been explored. Both of these traditions of thought existed before debates over speciesism. Though these two philosophical theories are at odds with one another when it comes to determining how moral decisions should be made and why actions should be taken, philosophers in each area have argued against speciesism. 

Utilitarian Speciesism

Utilitarianism hinges on the idea that the correct thing to do is that which stands to bring about the greatest amount of good or happiness. Peter Singer made his anti-speciesist case by redefining within a philosophical context the beings that should be considered in this standard to include animals other than humans. In this he drew on the thought of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who almost 200 years earlier had said of animals: “The question is not, Can they reason? … but, Can they suffer?” Bentham, and Singer, were suggesting that when determining the actions to take to achieve the greatest amount of good or avoid the greatest amount of suffering, animals should also be considered, because they have the capacity to suffer the consequences of the action. 

Deontological Speciesism

Simply put, deontologists believe that actions are either intrinsically good or bad regardless of the outcome. Animals were explicitly left out of the moral theory of the most famous deontological philosopher, Immanuel Kant, due to his belief that humans are uniquely rational. Yet since then some philosophers have argued that his assessment of the status of animals was incorrect. One of the first philosophers to seek to expand Kant’s original standard to include nonhuman animals as well was Tom Regan. Regan argued that even though animals may not be rational in the same ways that people are, they have their own lives with experiences and expectations. Because of this, nonhuman animals should not be used as a means to an end (for example, raised as a means of feeding humans) but rather should have their autonomy respected. 

Spread of the Idea

Though the concept of “speciesism” was originally coined by Richard Ryder in the 1970s, it was popularized by Peter Singer, most notably in his book Animal Liberation, which was first published in 1975. Singer’s work helped to catapult the animal rights movement forward and today many animal rights activists cite his work as the reason that they entered the movement and dedicate their time to fighting for animals. 

Within the community of philosophers, Singer paved the way for other western thinkers to have their ideas published and spread more widely. Among them were Tom Regan, who argued that animals have certain intrinsic rights from a Kantian perspective, and Martha Nussbaum, who argues that ethics need to revolve around the freedom to achieve well-being. 

Anti-Speciesism Movement

The anti-speciesism movement is closely linked to the animal rights movement, in that they both seek to refute the idea that animals are ours to be used. One core tenet of both movements is that many of their adherents follow and recommend a vegan lifestyle. If, after all, animals are moral equals to humans, then eating them or using their fur or skin for clothes becomes incredibly difficult to justify. 

What Is an Example of Speciesism?

One example of speciesism is the fact that we treat animals differently based on their species, often in arbitrary ways. For example, even though a pig is more intelligent than a dog we, in western society, are perfectly happy to subject pigs to immense suffering such as tail docking without anesthesia, whereas doing the same thing to a dog would cause public outcry. 

Can Speciesism Be Justified?

As with any philosophical concept, speciesism is surrounded by debate. While there are a number of compelling arguments that support adopting an anti-speciesist approach in our own lives, there are also counter-arguments suggesting the opposite. 

Arguments in Favor

Animals Are Simply Not Moral Equals to Humans

There are different ways in which it can be argued that nonhuman animals are not morally equal to humans, but there is also a general pattern to almost all such arguments. This pattern suggests that even if nonhuman animals should be treated with empathy because we understand their ability to suffer, they nevertheless lack certain key capacities, such as the ability to reason or enter into agreements, which means that they cannot be afforded the same moral consideration that is given to humans, and that any framework of rights is not applicable to them.

Speciesism Is Connected to Racism

Critics of Singer’s anti-speciesism philosophy argue it risks creating a continuum of suffering in which human beings themselves are graded in value, including disabled people. The philosophy also lends itself to likening the suffering of animals with BIPOC people, women and other oppressed human groups. Likening animal suffering to BIPOC people is inherently problematic given the history of comparing these communities to animals. 

Arguments Against Speciesism

Animals Possess Souls

Some researchers argue nonhuman animals have a soul and are therefore worthy of being treated with respect. Any use of animals must be carefully considered and minimized, in other words, and the animal should be treated with honor. 

Animals Can Suffer

Under the utilitarian view endorsed by Bentham and Singer, more than human animals are capable of suffering. Animals must therefore be considered when we are determining which actions and policies will result in the greatest amount of good and the least amount of suffering. Factory farming results in a massive amount of animal suffering, which is why this argument points to its elimination in favor of other forms of food production, and a shift in dietary habits away from animal farming. 

Animals Have Lives

From a deontological perspective, it’s important that animals other than humans have lives and the ability to have unique experiences. Because non-human animals have this ability, they should be respected in their own right and not be used as a means to an end. Using any living being as merely a means to an end, their reasoning goes, is inherently wrong even if the end is to feed the masses. That animals have their own lives and seek to further their own happiness is yet another important element supporting the argument that they should be free to pursue their own goals.

What You Can Do

Speciesism can be a confusing idea with which to wrestle. There are many different perspectives to consider, as well as actions that you can take to become more informed. Researching the topic from various perspectives, including those of Indigenous cultures and traditions from other parts of the world alongside western philosophy can help to inform your opinions. But you can also just reflect on what you think makes a living being worthy of moral consideration, and how that applies to animals.

While you seek to learn more about speciesism and animal sentience, consider taking steps to decrease the amount of suffering that your individual choices are causing, or even implementing a wider anti-speciesist perspective in your thoughts and actions. 

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