December 15, 2010

Speciesism: Everyone is a Speciesist

Happy holidays to all the Speciesist's out there, which refers to everyone as we are all Speciesists. Yet, the term speciesist isn't often used, even though it applies universally to everyone and it's really a poorly understood and underused concept. Speciesism can be defined simply as the different treatment of between ranging species of animals.

I'll start with some common examples of speciesism, and factors that lead people to be speciesist's and talk about the problems it creates in my next post.

1. I was volunteering with an organization and they brought in people from prison to talk about some of the pitfalls that led them to be incarcerated and what it was like to live in prison. Now three prisoners were brought in and one really impressed the students and people I volunteered with. He had be 'turned around' by the book The Secret, which creates a false understanding of the power of positive thinking, but that's worthy of its own post and I'll just talk about one little thing from the book's website that he brought up. 

The guy had printed the Optimist's Creed and given a copy to everyone and said that he read it each morning and lived by it through the day. While, it isn't realistic to live up to that creed for a number of reasons, there is a speciesist reason that really amused me. One of the creeds is, "To wear a cheerful expression at all times and give a smile to every living creature I meet." 

This can't be realistically done unless one either greatly changes the definition of creature or meeting. If creature means animal than the smile would never leave your face, as anyone who took a microscope to pond water would know. Our world is absolutely filled with living creatures, and they are absolutely everywhere, in fact within the mouth that would be doing the smiling over 80 different species live.

Yet, many people have this misunderstanding and when people think of smiling at creatures they are thinking about bunnies, birds and other people...then maybe further down the line they start to think about smiling at insects and ugly creatures and possibly smiling at fish, but micro-organisms and small creatures like lice or fleas nearly never come to mind.

This shows a speciesist error, even in the definition of what an animal is.  Size is a determining factor in what makes up an animal to many people, with many people not considering about anything smaller than a mouse. This definition of animal is far far to narrow, and needs to be rectified before any issue of morality towards animals can be talked about. 

2. I was watching TV with a girl and she says something to the effect of, 'Ahhh, that's so sad when a dog is being mistreated like that (referencing the television show she was watching)', which is a totally normal and appropriate response. Probing the issue and asking what is wrong, and it was clear to her that animals shouldn't be treated like that, but then I ask her if she swats the mosquito that lands on her arm, and I got another totally normal an appropriate response. It is swatted. She than realized at that moment and perhaps for the first time, she, like the rest of us are Speciesists. 

Different animals are valued at different levels based on familiarity with the species, perceived cuteness, perceived threat, cultural/religious value, and natural fear. 

A death of a family pet is viewed as a much greater loss than the snake that is killed because it is near your house for all 5 of the reasons stated above. The typical American family knows and loves dogs and cats, they are found to be attractive to us, protect the home, and are valued culturally. While there is less natural fear for species like small cats.

Where as snakes are really on the opposite end of the spectrum in all five factors. The majority of people don't have any experience with snakes, they don't look attractive, and are potentially very dangerous. While there is also an ingrained cultural acceptance for not liking snakes.  It was also the snake that tricked Eve into eating the apple, and being called a snake is rarely taken as a compliment. Yet, the biggest reason may be a natural fear.

Psychology, eight edition, by David G. Myers, points this out on page 534, when he sates that, "We may be biologically prepared to learn some fears more quickly than others. Monkeys learn to fear snakes even by watching videotapes of monkeys reacting fearfully to a snake; but they don't learn to fear flowers when video spicing transposes the seemingly feared stimulus to a flower (Cook & Mineka, 1991). We humans quickly learn to fear snakes, spiders, and cliffs--fears that probably helped our ancestors survive. (Ohman & Mineka, 2003). But our Stone Age fears leave us unprepared for high-tech dangers-cars, electricity, bombs, and global warming--all of which are now far more dangerous (Lumsden & Wilson, 1983, McNally 1987)."

People are naturally speciesists and it's a good thing we are. There is such thing as a healthy fear of snakes and other dangerous animals, and is appropriate, yet it can also go to far. Some people might kill every snake that they see, even when they are far away or pose no threat to them. When speciesism goes to far, and some of its other problems/solutions will be the subject of my next post.

Goodbye fellow speciesists,
-the moral skeptic

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