“Speciesism”: a red herring?

There have been some great comments on the “veganism versus vegetarianism” post below, which you should check out if you’re interested. But I thought I’d shift gears and look at some of the other arguments in Tzachi Zamir’s book.

A major concern of Zamir’s is arguing that “speciesism” is a red herring in arguments over animal liberation. He’s not out to defend speciesism per se but wants to argue that moral principles already firmly in place call for radical changes in the way we treat non-human animals.

I found one of the key points he made a bit difficult to grasp at first, maybe because once you do grasp it, it’s actually rather blindingly obvious. You can hold, he says, that humans are more important than animals, in the sense that human interests have priority over non-humans. However, it in no way follows that it’s permissible to harm animals for the sake of non-survival-related human interests:

Say that I believe that A’s interests take priority over B’s in the sense that they are overriding when in conflict. This can mean that I am obligated to help A or to promote any of A’s interests before I assist B (if I see myself as obliged to assist B at all). This is far from supposing that I am entitled to hurt B or curtail any of B’s interests so as to benefit A. This distinction is routinely recognized in human contexts: my commitment to assist my child does not extend to a vindication of me actively harming other children in order to advance my own. While aiding my child can be detrimental to other children, as long as I did nothing actively and directly against them, there is nothing immoral in my actions. (p. 9)

Even though we make this distinction all the time in intra-human contexts, it tends to be neglected in debates about animal ethics. Usually the argument focuses on whether human “superiority” can be established in some sense, with the implication that, if it can, then humans have a license to do basically whatever they want to animals.

But even if, according to Zamir, you’re a speciesist in the sense of believing that human interests always take priority over the interests of non-humans whenever they conflict and that we are obligated to help humans and promote their interests before helping animals, it still doesn’t follow that it’s okay to actively harm the interests of animals.

Zamir goes further: even an animal liberationist may agree that it’s sometimes permissible to actively thwart minor animal interests when they conflict with human interests and to thwart the survival interests of non-humans when they conflict with human survival interests (the “lifeboat” scenario). The only form of speciesism that is actually opposed to a robust liberationist agenda is one which holds that any human interest, no matter how trivial, trumps any non-human animal’s interest, no matter how significant. So, even if speciesism in some sense can be justified (which Zamir remains agnostic about), the only form of speciesism that is actually opposed to the liberationist agenda is this very strong, and correspondingly very shaky, version.

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7 thoughts on ““Speciesism”: a red herring?

  1. I need to go and respond to the thoughtful comments on the other post, but I want to start something here, first.

    I’m sympathetic (that seems to be my preferred word for the day) to this argument. As a matter of fact, when I taught my The Animal & The Ethical course, I would often suggest to certain students they should read this book (and then tell me how it was!). It is obvious, just as one could be a racist and still oppose slavery, that one could be a speciesist and still oppose many of the most extravagant injustices against other animals (viz., factory farming, fur industries, destruction of ecosystems, many forms of animal experimentation). But just as the racist can never truly have a relationship of justice and equality with people of color, the speciesist cannot have that sort of relationship with other animals. Just as privileging your child doesn’t justify racism, I don’t see how that analogy justifies speciesism.

    I guess it comes down to if you believe that we need equality as the bedrock of our ethical system. Now, equality is not sameness, ethics also have to take into account difference, but difference does not obliterate the radical egalitarianism in which anyone is equal to anyone else.

    • I should clarify: Zamir isn’t trying to justify speciesism. He’s saying that, even if you are a speciesist, there’s still no justification for treating non-human animals the way we do (in factory farms, laboratories, etc.). By analogy, even if you think your children’s interests are more important than those of others, that’s no justification for affirmatively harming those others.

      It’s essentially a strategic decision on his part–one that we could debate the pros and cons of–he’s trying to make the case for animal liberation with a minimal amount of theoretical apparatus.

  2. I don’t have a specific comment to this post but I just wanted to say I’m enjoying your blog – so far you’re the only other vegetarian I’ve come across.

  3. Oh sorry Lee. Re-reading I see where you say that. I clearly agree, you can oppose all sorts of vile things done to animals and not think much of equality. Much of my own work is dedicated along the lines of wanting to stop vile things to animals, even if you don’t care about animals at all.

    • I can see where the title of my post might have led to some misunderstanding here.

      I’m curious, though, if you see the notion of anti-speciesism doing some work over and above motivating people to stop doing bad things to animals. I.e., is there more to having just and equal relationships with animals in your view than not harming them? And if so what might that look like? I’m frankly pretty uniformed on the whole “continental” approach to this question and would be interested in getting a grasp on some of the perspectives out there.

  4. Lee, that sounds like a great idea for a blog post of its own, so maybe I will try to write a response sometime this coming week.

    Though the continental approach is still relatively new. Hegel and Heidegger were both extremely dismissive about animals. Adorno and Derrida are both the strongest response about our relationships with animals, and then you have a series of strange and not always useful comments and thoughts from Agamben and Deleuze & Guattari. There is developing (and quickly) a large literature of none big name thinkers approaching this question from the continental side. But almost all of the books in from the growing field have come out since I’ve been in grad school. So it is new, and scattered, and uneven.

    However, my primary focus is to create a better life for other animals. But I do think there is a lot more going oh with all of that, and and insisting on equality seems rather necessary. Though, that will probably be where the blog post takes up the question.

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