Since this is my first post I should probably begin by introducing myself. My name is Nicholas Comparato (as will hopefully appear with this post) and I am currently an undergraduate philosophy major at the University of North Florida. Recently I attended a colloquium regarding the unequal ethical treatment of animals in current society based primarily on ideas borrowed from Peter Singer. The argument being presented relied heavily on the concept of ‘speciesism’ to suggest that there was no true justification for the ethical preference afforded humans over non-human animals.
As Peter Singer uses the term in his book, Animal Liberation, ‘speciesism’ is similar to the concepts of sexism and racism. It could be defined as the unequal ethical treatment of other sentient beings based on their membership in a certain species. The two key words in this definition are sentient and species. The latter term implies that humans feel justified in their unethical treatment of non-human animals because these animals are not of the species homo-sapiens and therefore deserve less ethical consideration. The former term, sentient, is used by Singer to mean the ability to feel pain and joy. This forms the foundation of Singer’s argument in Animal Liberation, for if non-human animals can feel pain and joy, then they can have interests (such as an interest in avoiding pain). Singer goes on to state that because many non-human animals have nervous systems just as developed as the human nervous system, they experience pain much in the same way humans do, and therefore the interests of a non-human animal deserves just as much consideration as the interests of a human.
Thus far, speciesism appears to be a plausible concept as long as it is only applied to humans. Yet if it is to be used in the same sense of racism and sexism as Singer suggests, it must mean that whenever I happen to catch my neighbor’s dog harassing the neighborhood squirrels, I can call it a speciesist? Some might object by claiming it is in the dog’s nature to attack squirrels and cats and other smaller animals. Yet if we can’t determine what our own human nature is, I can’t see how we could claim to understand what a dog’s nature is and for that matter it could be claimed that it’s in our human nature to treat non-human animals unethically and thus it is justified. Other’s may say that I don’t know the dog’s motivation and therefore I can’t claim the dog is attacking the squirrel on the basis that the squirrel is of a different species. To avoid a rather lengthy discussion of the impossibility of knowing the motivation behind any action that isn’t our own, perhaps I can just conclude that if I put the dog in a room with a squirrel and then replace the squirrel with a gold fish in a bowl and the dog responds differently, I have good evidence to believe the dog is just speciesist against squirrels (though have a suspicion that this issue may rise again in the comments).
Based on this and evidence I’m sure the reader of this post can supply from their every day lives, it’s a bit absurd to expect non-human animals to act ethically toward non-human animals of other species and humans as well. It seems non-human animals are actually very similar to humans in the fact that they don’t even act ethically towards other animals of their own species. Though I do not believe the current unethical atrocities committed towards non-human animals are justifiable, I certainly do not think that advocating the equal treatment of animals based on the concept of speciesism is any way to establish this. It seems Peter Singer was hoping to guilt his readers into vegetarianism rather than convince them to consider non-human animals as equals.
I am anxious to see how others feel about this!