For thousands of years up to the present day humans have viewed animals primarily as a resource. Our evolutionary history has been marked and in many ways driven by the tools and resources we have been able to exploit. Soon after our ancestors developed rudimentary stone tools they were able to shear flesh from animal carcasses. Over a million years ago they began actively hunting and over 7,000 years ago anatomically modern humans developed agriculture. Since this time humanity’s primary interactions with animals have been through agriculture, a system in which animals are utilized and viewed as resources. Having concluded that we are intelligent and special while other animals are stupid and trivial we have proceeded to use, and often abuse, them for our own benefit.

In the past the hunting, raising, and slaughtering of animals for food and other resources was often a necessity and human beings have been apex predators throughout most of our evolutionary history. Little concern was given to the suffering and death of the prey, and later of the livestock, and both the use of animals as resources and the indifference towards their suffering continues today. But what have we learned about animal species other than ourselves that should change the way we have been exploiting them and behaving towards them for millions of years? Is there anything wrong with treating animals as resources or denying them to the right to lives free of pain and suffering?

Due to scientific advances in ethology, neuroethology, and behavioral ecology we now understand that the cognitive differences between humans and many other animal species are not as cut and dry as they once appeared. Primates such as the common chimpanzee and especially the bonobo display complex social systems, tool making, and independent language. Dolphins have been observed to use tools as well and also form social groups as complex as great apes. Many scientists now believe that great apes, dolphins, elephants and possibly other species possess self-awareness. Scientific discoveries regarding what animals are capable of feeling, thinking, and understanding have fundamentally altered the way we view the boundaries of animal cognition, human cognition, and the nature of cognition itself.

In light of this knowledge, domestic pigs and cattle, laboratory rats and primates, circus elephants, and oceanarium cetaceans and pinnipeds are among the many animals that should be regarded as individuals potentially capable of full cognition and treated as such. To deny animals the right to life free of pain and suffering is an act of speciesism, the selective discrimination of species outside of humanity. Anthropocentrism can be blamed for many of the atrocities that have been and are currently being committed against animals across the world and despite the scientific discoveries regarding animal behavior and cognition too many of us continue to view them as resources that deserve little to no rights.

Should the exploitation of animals as livestock, laboratory research subjects, or obligatory entertainers end completely? It seems obvious to me that the raising and slaughter of animals for food will not end in the foreseeable future, despite the fact that the vast majority of wanton animal cruelty takes place in modern agriculture, and outside the First World the utilization of animals as food can still be a necessity, rather than a choice. But it seems equally obvious that the way we in America treat and exploit animals for our own ends must be radically changed. We must accept our ethical responsibilities towards animals and begin the process of ending speciesism.

9 comments on “Speciesism

  1. zerbage says:

    Just went to BARC yesterday (Houston’s municipal animal shelter). Terribly depressing. But it all boils down to what you referred to as viewing animals as resources, and disposable… If people would take the time to think about an animals best interests rather than their burning desire for a chubby puppy, then there wouldn’t be 100-150 animals brought in the doors of BARC every day.

    • If more people took some very simple steps such as eating less meat, buying humanely-raised meat, getting dogs and cats from animal shelters or reputable breeders, donating money to organizations like the ASPCA, etc, these would be sufficient to bring about very positive changes. These are little things, little sacrifices, but even these seem pointless if animals are viewed as resources. What needs to be changed first is how people (especially Americans) view animals and the value of animal welfare.

  2. W. Grimm says:

    I am a carnivore. Plain and simple. I say this often to friends and people who I dine with me because I love eating meat. There is nothing more enjoyable to me than a well made steak or hamburger. I acknowledge the preference of people to abstain from eating meat, and I equally acknowledge that eating things like veal – i.e. meat from animals that have endured harsh/unnatural conditions solely to serve me – is, at the very least, suspect if not downright wrong. But I am, in the truest sense of the word, a carnivore. I eat meat not because I have some sadistic view of animal pain or because I see them as beneath me and therefore worth of being eaten but because I need and want that form of sustenance.

    I will readily get on board for the cessation of animal cruelty and the exploitation of animals for laboratory (in some instances) experiments and probably for entertainment value (you would need to clarify that) but not for the food issue. It is true that monkeys and dolphins and even dogs show a higher degree of cognitive ability than most, but then, we don’t eat monkeys, dolphins, or dogs.


    “To deny animals the right to life free of pain and suffering is an act of speciesism”

    in my view is a ridiculous statement because it assumes that the goal of life is painlessness (which is an interesting valuation, but based on nothing) when, as any evolutionist would argue, is exactly the opposite of the truth. Life is struggle and inevitable death. In the struggle the ones who survive because stronger and pass on their strength to their offspring. I dont advocate at all the torture of animals for sport, but I perceive you to be taking the argument a step further than you can reasonably argue.

    • It is highly questionable that the vast majority of Americans ever truly need to eat meat, considering the fact that equivalent proteins and nutrients can be obtained from many other sources. Preference I understand, but claiming necessity is dubious. As to levels of cognition, it is my personal opinion that even the animals that show less cognitive ability than dolphins or great apes, such as common livestock animals, still deserve the upmost respect and decency of treatment. I suppose the disconnect would be related to exactly what counts as respect and decent treatment.

      While it is true that pain and suffering is a constant factor in nature, if human beings wish to be considered ethical we must hold ourselves responsible for the pain and suffering we purposefully or incidentally cause to other living things. Since we are capable of recognizing and rationalizing levels of suffering in cognitive living things we can, to a great extent, and should control the amount of unnecessary suffering we cause to animals.

    • W. Grimm says:

      What if it could be demonstrated that the animals in question – livestock, cattle and deer and such – did not suffer in their demise; that they were killed painlessly and came to be eat by only that method, would you be okay with it then? In other words, my query is about the core value at play. Is it that you don’t think we should eat other living things, or is it that we shouldn’t cause pain and suffering?

    • Zach says:

      Meat is not necessary for a balanced diet. End of story. Every single reputable independent health organization in America has made it clear that a well-planned vegetarian diet is perfectly sufficient nutritionally.
      As to your question of whether or not it would still be immoral to eat animals if they did not suffer pain in slaughter, I think it would not. Suffering is the issue, not the act of eating meat. However, it takes only the slightest amount of investigation to find that the animals we eat do suffer greatly, and in fact spend their entire lives suffering unimaginable cruelty, cruelty that causes them psychological and physical anguish (even fish).
      Human beings are responsible for the intense and constant agony of billions, BILLIONS of animals every year, and the number is growing. We view living things that communicate, feel pain, and create social structure as commodities (breeding livestock animals is referred to as “manufacturing” in the industry). This is immoral, and what’s more disturbing is that people don’t care. If you were acutely aware of what the pig had to go through that provided the bacon you eat, or the what the cow endured during its slaughter that provided you with your steak, every time you ate these meats, would you?

    • I agree with Zach that it is not inherently immoral to kill an animal if it is done in a sufficiently humane fashion. Of course the amount of suffering the animal experiences before death is an equally important concern, and if an animal has lived it’s life in “psychological and physical anguish” then slaughtering it humanly is only a small part of a much larger problem.

    • W. Grimm says:

      I am not a biologist or nutritionist so I don’t know that I can speak to your claim about human dietary needs, but it smacks to me as inaccurate. If you want to say that we can simply LIVE without meat, then sure, that is probably true. But you can also LIVE without a number of other things. If we take your core belief further then the next stage is to discuss the value of “life” and “living” over and against mere “survival.”

      I dont have a problem with being against animal cruelty. I strain to see how it is “immoral” or how you, as an atheist, can really talk about morality in any cogent way. We have talked about this in the past and I remain unconvinced of your argument so there is no need to rehash that at this point. For now, I will say that I am tentatively on board with your sentiment, though I have trouble buying fully into the notion that animals are no different than humans, and that they have any “rights.” Even being a Christian who provisionally supports some form of evolution I have no issues with animals killing other animals, for food or otherwise. Non-food related killing DOES exist in nature (e.g. killing for territory, killing for sport, etc), so you need to address that before you can talk about “morality” at least as it equates to humans and animals.

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