January 19, 2011

An Exploration of Speciesism Continued

In my last post I gave a brief overview of speciesism and showed how we are all speciesists. This post will pick up where the last one left off. People treat different species differently, which is fine to an extent, but it can also go too far in either direction. 

1. The first direction that goes to far is the life is equal approach.Taking a page out of difference feminism some might argue the principle of different but equal. Meaning different species deserve to be treated equally well, but that equality obviously doesn't mean they should be treated the same. Yet, this principle would be strong enough to put one animals death, be it coral or an amoeba on equivalent terms with any other animals death (cat, dog or human), and it is unclear to me if it would extend further to carrots or potatoes, but I don't see an reason why it wouldn't if the value is strictly something being living.

While this is a position that can be maintained, at a great cost, it doesn't seem either realistic or ideal. There is a qualitative difference between a chimpanzee and an amoeba, and between a human and any other species. While all life should be valued all life isn't equal and no one, despite their best effort, treats life as it is.  

For instance, take parasites. I don't know of one person who values their life equally to the lives of harmful parasites within their body. Ticks aren't invited and welcomed to peoples body, and neither are intestinal flukes, pin worms or tapeworms. Once infected with such creatures their right to life doesn't ever come up, nor should it, but it would if people really wanted to be non-speciesists.

There also wouldn't be any wind power if the lives of birds and  bats were weighed equivalently with that of humans, as thousands and thousands of birds and bats are killed each year by the silent green killer. The American Bird Conservancy notes that, 

"Recent U.S. studies indicate that bird mortality at wind turbine projects varies from less than one bird/turbine/year to as high as 7.5 birds/per turbine/year. This means that between 10,000 and 40,000 birds may be killed each year at wind farms across the country - about 80% of which are songbirds, and 10% may be birds of prey. While not a large figure, local or regional impacts may be significant, and the rate of increase in turbine construction has conservationists concerned that new generators be built to standards that minimize the potential for bird kills. Bats are also subject to high mortality at wind farms frequently at considerably higher rates than birds."

Could you imagine if wind turbines caused that many human deaths? People would be up in arms, heck even if turbines caused that many deaths in cats or dogs people might take a different stance on wind power.

2. There is another direction that goes to far the other way and doesn't value animal lives, except in how they affect humans.

Immanuel Kant and his theory of ethics is one where animals have no moral value, except in how they can change human behavior, i.e. People shouldn't kick cats because it might get them into the habit of kicking young adults.

Penn and Tell in season 2 of Bullshit! also echo this type of moral reasoning when they say that they, "Would personally strangle every chimpanzee to save one street junkie with aids." I know what your all thinking, isn't there a less labor intensive way to do that, I mean wouldn't your hands get sore?

While the elimination of a species like that seems immoral it seems less so when a little logic is applied. Almost all people would agree that one human life is more valuable then the life of a Chimpanzee, so if they had to kill one Chimpanzee to save a human life, it would be bye bye Chimp. Yet, this question starts to really get interesting when a second chimp is added to the equation.

I don't think that the second Chimpanzee would effect anyone's choice of what to do, if you wouldn't do it in the first place then the second chimp wouldn't have an effect and a person willing to kill one chimp would pass a threshold where a second chimp wouldn't affect the choice very much. What the second chimp really does is create a slippery slope, where if you are willing to kill 2 chimps then why not 3, 30, or 300.

Like the Milgrim Shock Experiment when people are willing to go a certain distance, they end up going the rest of the way.

Yet, I don't think that many people would be willing to eliminate a species to save one human life and human actions support that belief. Lots of different types of animals kill people and no one is seriously trying to eradicate those human killing species from existence. While Penn and Teller would strangle every Chimpanzee, they should also be getting rid of every Lion, Bee, and even possibly peanut, as they kill many more than one junkie with aids a year.

There has to be a middle ground between the two beliefs that really accounts for both how people act and how people think about animals, but finding that ethical middle means wading through a ton of problems to which there is no clear answer.

The first problem that really stands out is something that has been expressed by both Jarred Diamond and Richard Dawkins previously. People value even perceived humanity over reasonable expectation of pain, or consciousness.

Dawkins express this by saying, "Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, that the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection."

While Diamond says with less venom that, "...it's considered acceptable to exhibit caged apes in zoos, but it's not acceptable to do the same with humans. I wonder how the public will feel when the identifying label on the chimp cage in the zoo reads 'Homo troglogytes'"(page 29 of The Third Chimpanzee).

The perception of being human or even close to human is what seems to have ethical value, not the ability to feel pain or be conscious. As Sam Harris would say, there are many peaks and valleys in morality. The perception of humanness is a valley we have yet to fully climb, while other summits are still just being looked at.

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic


  1. Firstly, very thought provoking essay. Secondly, it depends on which human and which chimp. If we say randomly chosen specimens, then the human wins. Thirdly, I am not convinced that the human is more worthy of saving by virtue of his humanness. I have been conditioned to feel this way, emotionally, and the proposed dilemma is an emotional one.

  2. I totally agree with the thing pointed out in the essay

  3. 1. Many people who view non human animals as equal to human animals would tell you that the limit is drawn where there is pain or sentience. For instance it is proven now that fish feel pain. But are potatoes sentient? I'd say no, but someone else will say that we don't really know for sure. But what is unknown doesn't prevent us from acting in known matters. So we still have moral obligations towards animals such as chimps, cows and fish regardless of our current (lack of) knowledge about sentience of plants. As far as we know one can't torture a potato. (although this doesn't say anything about ethical value of plants only that it's easier to mistreat a cow than a potato)

    2. The fact that most people would agree that chimps are less valuable than humans doesn't make it so. Or that most humans believe in an invisible old man in the sky doesn't make the invisible old man in the sky real. ;) Or the fact that there was a time when many people believed that black people were inferior to white ppl, or that women should stay at home and raise children and not worry about education or politics, etc made none of this true or right, as we now know.

    So maybe we should just stop relying on what people believe about animals (or about anything else) and focus on FACTS. And since pure facts are not tempered with moral values we can never arrive at a conclusion that a chimp or a cow or a fish is inferior to a human, even though such a conclusion would work so well with our interests.

    3. I recommend these books wholeheartedly to anyone interested in examining the issue of speciesism and human ego. I found them very helpful, educational and "awakening" in so many ways. So many DUH moments:

    Anthropocentrism and its discontents: the moral status of animals in the history of Western philosophy - Gary Steiner

    An Unnatural Order- Jim Mason

    and from animal rights point of view (deals with speciesism): Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation by Gary Francione