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Why Speciesism Is Not a Prejudice

color photograph of tiger at zoo with family posing in black and white

Despite some notable dissenters, it has become a near-article of faith in applied ethics that “speciesism” — giving greater moral consideration to one individual or group than to another based merely on their membership in a certain species — is a prejudice indistinguishable from racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. Daniel Burkett succinctly states the dominant view when he writes that the argument that the suffering of animals counts for less “simply because they are animals” is “the same (very bad) rationale that justifies” these discredited prejudices.

But the rationale for speciesism is different in key respects from that for racism or other forms of bigotry.

The typical justification for racism consists of two claims. First, it is claimed that some phenotypic trait — in this case, skin color — maps onto, or is at least a reliable indicator of, some other characteristic. Second, it is held that the latter characteristic determines, or is at least relevant to, the degree of moral consideration to which an individual is entitled. The first is an empirical claim, while the second is a moral claim. Both claims may be false, but need not be for racism to count as a prejudice. For example, in the nineteenth century there was widespread agreement among white scientists that African-Americans were impervious to pain — in effect, that they were less sentient than whites. Today, almost all moral philosophers agree that sentience is, if not the sole basis for moral consideration, then at least one of the main ones. Thus, those who used racist science to justify differential treatment of African-Americans were not mistaken in focusing on sentience as a characteristic relevant to moral consideration. Rather, their racism was a prejudice because it rested on a false and unjustified empirical belief that African-Americans have “duller sensibilities” than whites.

This analysis of racism suggests that there are actually two kinds of justification for speciesism.

The first, mirroring the typical rationale for racism in its basic structure, is that species membership maps onto or is a reliable indicator of some other characteristic, and this characteristic is relevant to moral consideration. Call this justification “Empirical Speciesism.” The second is that species membership itself is relevant to moral consideration. Call this justification “Categorical Speciesism.” Either justification differs from the typical rationale for racism in key respects. First, the empirical claim in Empirical Speciesism need not be false or unjustified. For example, the Empirical Speciesist might claim that membership in the species homo sapiens maps onto enhanced sentience. That may very well be true, and even if it is false we may be justified in believing it. Second, Categorical Speciesism does not rest on any empirical claim. Thus, neither Empirical Speciesism nor Categorical Speciesism makes speciesism a prejudice on a par with racism. Philosophers who use that analogy as a way to dismiss speciesism out of hand are simply mistaken.

But perhaps what philosophers have in mind when they compare speciesism to racism is racism justified in a manner analogous to Categorical Speciesism. Instead of partially relying on an empirical claim, this justification for racism simply asserts that skin color is the morally relevant characteristic. The anti-speciesist argument would then be that both justifications are erroneous for similar reasons: neither species membership nor skin color is a morally relevant characteristic.

What justifies our confident conclusion that skin color itself is not a morally relevant characteristic? It can only be that this claim does not cohere with our other settled moral judgments. For example, everyone, including racists, believes that very similar phenotypic traits — for example, eye color or hair color — are morally irrelevant. Skin color, a superficial phenotypic trait, differs markedly from other characteristics everyone agrees are morally relevant, such as sentience. In light of these judgments, it seems arbitrary to hold that skin color is morally relevant.

If a white racist’s friends and family woke up one morning with brown skin, it is doubtful that the racist would consider this sufficient reason to treat them differently. This tends to show that the racist is either an Empirical Racist, or his beliefs are simply incoherent. And so on.

But unlike Categorical Racism, Categorical Speciesism coheres fairly well with our other settled moral judgments. There are no other characteristics that are suitably similar to species membership and that we generally hold to be morally irrelevant. Species membership is not a superficial phenotypic trait: it is part of an individual’s biological essence. For most people, if their friends and family woke up one morning transformed into cockroaches — not cockroaches with human minds, just cockroaches — that would give them sufficient reason to treat them differently. Granted, we seem to have strong intuitions that membership in the species homo sapiens is not necessary for moral consideration — even the strong moral consideration to which humans are thought to be entitled. Any given episode of Star Trek suggests as much. But it does not follow that membership in that species is not relevant to moral consideration: for example, it may still be sufficient for it. In other words, while the argument that insects are not entitled to consideration because they are not human may fail, the argument that humans are entitled to consideration because they are human may still succeed. In addition, species membership may justify differential treatment of two individuals alike in all respects except their species — for example, Vulcans and humans.

The upshot of my argument is not that speciesism is justified. Rather, it is that it cannot be easily dismissed as belonging to the same category as racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. When Peter Singer popularized this argument in Animal Liberation, he may have done a tremendous amount of good by calling attention to the morally relevant characteristics that animals and humans share. But as the sometimes slipshod reasoning in certain seminal Supreme Court civil rights opinions demonstrates, there is no guarantee that moral progress will be grounded in sound arguments.

The Capitol Coup and the Rhetoric of Essentialist Exceptionalism

photograph of a burning tire with the feet of a crowd of protestors in the background

On January 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, disrupting Congress’s certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral college win for a few hours. Law enforcmenet deployed tear gas in the Capitol Rotunda, and at least four people died; one woman was shot and killed. It was a deeply depressing spectacle that underscored two facts: that millions of Americans live in an alternative reality in which President Trump, the nemesis of shadowy, rootless “globalists” and other vaguely Semitic “swamp-dwellers,” won a second term in a landslide; and that Trump himself, pathologically fixated on his electoral loss, will gladly incite violence against his own government in order to cling to power.

Even as it was happening, media commentators registered their bewilderment that something like this was happening here, and not some other place — Iraq, maybe, or perhaps (as CNN’s Jake Tapper imagined) Bogotá. The by now well-worn cliché that it was something that might happen in a “banana republic” was trotted out. Echoing these sentiments, in his remarks on that day, President-elect Biden said that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America.”

There is, I think, a deep connection between the commentators’ surprise and Biden’s rhetoric. Many people in this country seem to subscribe to a metaphysics of America, or of American political culture, that is essentialist in that it says that there is something that the culture essentially or truly is — that there are qualities which define America and without which America as we know it would not exist. Usually, the outlines of this conception of America’s essence are drawn by exclusion: by saying what America is not. Thus, Biden tells us that the “true” America is not whatever-it-is that the Capitol insurrection represents — probably that it is not violent or lawless. Other invocations of America’s essence have claimed that America is essentially liberal or conservative, or essentially tolerant. In general, we can say that American essentialism defines what America is in terms of what the one doing the defining thinks it ought to be. Frequently combined with this claim about America’s essence is the idea that this essence is exceptional; that America has a unique essence that distinguishes it from other countries. Thus, those who hold to American essentialism often define America not only by what it is not, but they suggest that what it is not is what other countries are. 

Put these two beliefs together — that America has an essence, and that this essence is unique — and you can readily explain why it should seem shocking or unbelievable that something like the Capitol coup occurred. If America is essentially not what, say, Iraq is — violent, lawless, prone to coup attempts — then what happened at the Capitol is almost unthinkable.

But American essentialist exceptionalism is doubly untrue. First, even if America’s political culture had an essence, it would be implausible to claim that this essence is peaceful or law-abiding. Since its founding, America has been the site of extreme political violence. Periods of relative peace have, if anything, been the exception, not the rule. Second, it is simply implausible to think that political cultures have essences. What makes this particular political culture American is simply that it is comprised of the political beliefs and practices of citizens of the United States, a particular political entity. Those beliefs and practices can (and have) changed dramatically over time and yet remain American. 

Defenders of the rhetoric of essentialist exceptionalism might call on Plato or Government-House utilitarians for support, arguing that even if untrue it is a “noble lie” that helps bind the political community together. On this view, saying that America is essentially good motivates its citizens to love it, thus making it more likely that they will help preserve it across time.

However, we must balance this benefit against the costs, which in my view are considerable. First, the exceptionalist aspect of American essentialist exceptionalism encourages Americans to view the political cultures and systems of other countries with unthinking disdain. That disdain was on full display in commentators’ casual invocation of Iraq, Ukraine, and other countries as examples of places where a Capitol coup would somehow be more appropriate. In fact, Americans likely have much to learn from the struggles of other democracies.

Second, the essentialist aspect of American essentialist exceptionalism may encourage complacency about America’s prospects: if America is essentially democratic, non-violent, tolerant, law-abiding, and so on, then the acts of individual political actors seem to matter less in the scheme of things — it just can’t happen here. Put another way: if in some sense we already are what we ought to be, then what’s the point in struggling to achieve our ideals? It is perhaps just this sort of complacency that was at play in the acts of the Republican congressmen and -women who chose to contest Biden’s electoral win, or the failure of the Capitol police to anticipate the possibility that Trump supporters might assault the building. Now the costs of that complacency are available for all to witness.

Third, the idea that there is a true America can easily be hijacked to serve nefarious political ends. Instead of arguing that American political culture is essentially tolerant, liberal, and democratic, some on the far right believe that it is essentially white, Christian, and patriarchal. Thus, the belief in American essentialism can motivate the exclusion of many members of actual American society as fundamentally “alien” to the culture.

The best course, then, is to jettison both our essentialism and our exceptionalism. There simply is no “true” America, and there are no qualities, good or bad, which define our political culture for all time. There are only the beliefs and practices of Americans in their roles as citizens, jurors, office-holders, and the like; and whether these beliefs and practices are, on the whole, good or bad depends upon the choices of each and all of us.