From Speciesism to Equality

By Joan Dunayer

Reprinted with the author's permission, September 2015

Originally published in The Vegan, Summer 2005, pp. 14-16
Copyright 2005 Joan Dunayer

It’s speciesist to deny any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect either because they aren’t human or because they aren’t human-like.

Whenever you see a parrot in a cage, goldfish in a tank, or dog on a chain, you’re seeing speciesism. If you believe that a turtle or wasp has less right to life and liberty than a fox or human, or you consider humans superior to other animals, you subscribe to speciesism. If you visit aquaprisons and zoos, wear cow skin and sheep hair, or eat flesh, eggs, or cow-milk products, you practice speciesism.
Old Speciesism
What exactly is speciesism? Psychologist Richard Ryder coined the word speciesism in 1970. Although he didn’t explicitly define the term, he indicated that speciesists draw a sharp moral distinction between humans and all other animals.[1] Similarly to Ryder, philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan define speciesism as bias against all nonhumans.[2] That definition is too narrow. Racism isn’t restricted to bias against all nonwhites; it encompasses bias against any number of races (for example, against all nonwhites except for Asians, against only blacks and native Americans, or against only Australian aborigines). Analogously, speciesism isn’t limited to bias against all nonhumans; it includes bias against any number of animal species, such as all animals other than great apes, all nonmammals, or all invertebrates.
What Ryder, Singer, and Regan call “speciesism” actually is only one type of speciesism: the oldest and most severe form, which I call “old speciesism.” Old-speciesists don’t believe that any nonhumans should receive as much moral consideration as humans or have basic legal rights, such as rights to life and liberty. Most humans are old-speciesists.
New Speciesism
In contrast to old-speciesists, a growing number of people believe that moral and legal rights should extend beyond our species. However, most of these people are not egalitarian; they display a brand of speciesism that I term “new speciesism.” New-speciesists favor rights for only some nonhumans, those who seem most human-like. Believing that most humans are superior to all nonhumans, new-speciesists see animalkind as a hierarchy with humans at the top. Typically they regard chimpanzees, dolphins, and other select nonhuman mammals as more important than other nonhumans. They also rank mammals above birds; birds above reptiles, amphibians, and fishes; and vertebrates above invertebrates.
Singer exemplifies new speciesism. In his view humans of at least normal intelligence have more value than any nonhumans.[3] Moreover, he advocates a right to life and liberty only for humans, other great apes, and possibly other mammals, provided that they possess as much self-awareness as a normal human beyond earliest infancy.[4] Why a normal human? Why not a normal octopus or crow? Singer’s criterion clearly is human-centered and human-biased: speciesist. Singer deems all nonmammals “replaceable” (his word).[5] He isn’t categorically opposed to vivisection on nonmammals.[6] Also, he considers it morally acceptable to rear birds, fishes, and other nonmammals for slaughter if their lives are pleasant (extremely unlikely) and they’re killed quickly and painlessly (also extremely unlikely).[7] “It is not speciesist,” he claims, to think that the killing of several thousand humans is “more tragic” than the killing of several million chickens.[8] Of course it’s speciesist.
Rejecting the notion of human superiority, nonspeciesists advocate basic rights for all sentient beings. Nonspeciesists don’t want relatively few nonhumans to be honorary humans; they want sentience to replace humanness as the basis for rights.
Sentience should suffice for basic legal rights because anyone who can experience has an interest in staying alive and faring well, and the whole point of laws is to protect interests.[9] In the eyes of the law, the most mentally incompetent humans have interests that warrant protection. Further, their interests don’t count for less than those of humans with normal or high IQs. Humans who lack language and abstract reasoning still have rights. So why shouldn’t all nonhuman beings also have rights? Consciousness of any type and degree creates a need for protection. Any sentient being loses everything when they die. Any sentient being can suffer. Freedom from deprivation and pain is as relevant to lobsters and snakes as to gorillas and humans.
Nonspeciesists envision all nonhuman beings as legal persons rather than human property. Personhood would emancipate nonhumans from servitude to humans, who couldn’t legally compel nonhumans to labor, perform, compete, or provide any service. No longer would horses pull carriages, tigers jump through hoops, or elephants bear humans on their backs. The law would prohibit human ownership of nonhumans. Humans couldn’t breed, buy, or sell nonhumans for any purpose, from vivisection and food production to pet keeping and the propagation of endangered species.
By the time of emancipation, a much larger percentage of the public would support animal equality and be vegan than today, so far fewer nonhumans would be captive. Upon emancipation dogs, cats, and other “domesticated” animals living with loving, responsible human companions would stay with those humans.[10] Liberated from exploitation and other abuse, other “domesticated” animals—such as chickens freed from egg factories and rats freed from vivisection labs—would receive any needed veterinary care, be euthanized if experiencing apparently incurable suffering, and otherwise be fostered at sanctuaries and private homes until adopted. Nonhumans in human care would have essentially the same legal rights as children.
Nonhuman captivity would be phased out. To the fullest possible extent, “domesticated” animals (including dogs and cats) would be prevented from breeding—for example, through surgical “neutering.”[11] The number of “domesticated” animals would rapidly decline.
Non-“domesticated” captives would be set free if, after any necessary rehabilitation, they could thrive without human assistance and if appropriate habitat existed. If not, they would be permanently cared for at sanctuaries. As much as possible these sanctuaries would provide natural, fulfilling environments. Like “domesticated” animals, non-“domesticated” captives would be prevented from breeding. Eventually, virtually all nonhumans would be non-“domesticated” animals living, free of human interference, in natural habitats.
Full personhood would give nonhumans all relevant legal rights, such as a right to life. Like all other nonhuman rights, a nonhuman right to life would constrain human, not nonhuman, behavior. Humans wouldn’t interfere with predator–prey relationships among free-living nonhumans. Unlike humans, predators must kill prey to survive. Under nonspeciesist law it would be illegal for a human to intentionally kill a nonhuman except under extraordinary circumstances. If you were stranded in a frozen wasteland or famine-stricken area devoid of plant food and you faced imminent starvation, you’d be entitled to kill an animal for food. If a lion were leaping at your throat, you’d be entitled to kill in self-defense. You’d be free to kill internal parasites threatening a dog’s health and free to euthanize a cat experiencing incurable suffering. In contrast, it would be illegal to kill mice for experimental data, cattle for their flesh, fishes for sport, minks for their pelts, spiders out of aversion, or any other nonhumans for uncompelling reasons.
Personhood would give nonhumans a right to liberty: physical freedom and bodily integrity. With the temporary exception of “domesticated” animals, and some non-“domesticated” animals captive at the time of emancipation, nonhumans would have complete liberty. Humans couldn’t legally hold them captive by chaining, caging, fencing, confining to a building, or any other means. It would be illegal to torture or sexually assault a nonhuman, as well as to maim, batter, or otherwise injure a nonhuman except in someone’s direct defense.
Nonspeciesist law also would accord nonhumans a right to property. They would own the products of their bodies and labors. Oysters would own the pearls they create, robins the eggs they lay, and honeybee colonies the honey they produce. Nonhumans would own their nests, burrows, and hives. A dam built by a family of beavers would belong to those beavers and their descendents. It would be illegal for humans to take, intentionally damage, or intentionally destroy anything that nonhumans produce within their natural habitats. Further, nonhumans would own their habitats. All nonhumans living in a particular area of land or water would have a legal right to that environment, which would be their communal property. Land currently inhabited by nonhumans and humans could remain cohabited, but humans wouldn’t be permitted to encroach farther into nonhuman territory (for instance, by building more houses on land occupied only by nonhumans). It would be illegal to intentionally destroy or dramatically alter any “undeveloped” habitat.
To be equitable, the law must be nonspeciesist. The vast majority of the world’s living beings are nonhuman. Speciesism is the most deeply entrenched and harmful form of injustice.
Both an attitude and a practice, speciesism includes any prejudice or discrimination based on species. It’s speciesist to deny any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect either because they aren’t human or because they aren’t human-like. In terms of their right to justice, all sentient beings are equal. They not only have a moral right to life and freedom from abuse; they have an equal right.


1. See Richard Ryder, “An Autobiography,” Between the Species, Summer 1992, 168–73, at 171.
2. See Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2d ed. (New York: New York Review of Books, 1990), 6; Tom Regan, “The Case for Animal Rights,” in Carl Cohen and Tom Regan, The Animal Rights Debate (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 125–222, at 170.
3. See Singer, Animal Liberation, 19–21.
4. See Paola Cavalieri, Peter Singer, et al., “A Declaration on Great Apes,” in The Great Ape Project: Equality beyond Humanity, ed. Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (New York: St. Martin’s, 1993), 4–7, at 4; Singer, Animal Liberation, 19–21, 228–29; Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 90, 95, 101, 119–20, 131–32.
5. Singer, Practical Ethics, 131.
6. See Joan Dunayer, Speciesism (Derwood, Md.: Ryce, 2004), 78–79.
7. See Singer, Animal Liberation, 229–30; Singer, Practical Ethics, 133.
8. Peter Singer, “Animal Equality: Language and Liberation by Joan Dunayer” (book review), Vegan Voice, Dec. 2001–Feb. 2002, 36.
9. Lacking awareness, insentient things such as plants and rocks have no interests. When we safeguard natural objects, we do so for the sake of sentient beings, human and nonhuman.
10. The term domesticated appears in quotation marks because it euphemizes longstanding captivity and genetic manipulation.
11. The word neutering somewhat misleads. Removing the testicles or the ovaries and uterus does not, of course, render an animal genderless (neuter).

Joan Dunayer is the author of Animal Equality: Language and Liberation (2001) and Speciesism (2004).

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