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.