Discussing speciesism: the moral failings that mark human relationships to non-human animals 
Nigel Pleasants (University of Exeter)
Jessica Groling (University of Exeter)
Room 1
Start time:
16 September, 2011 at 11:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

An influential approach to the moral failings that mark human relationships to non-human animals gives central stage to the notion of ‘speciesism’.. Others have questioned the implied analogies with racism and sexism, and the exclusive emphasis on a narrow conception of ‘interests’ that may mark this approach. The panel will explore these differences.

Long Abstract

While there is, in certain circles, substantial agreement that we must overcome a human centred morality and implicit anthropomorphism in our treatment of non-human animals, and that current relationships between human and non-human animals are marked by very serious moral failings on the part of humans, there exists much less consensus on how those failings are to be characterized and addressed. One particularly influential approach, championed by the philosopher Peter Singer, gives central stage to the notion of ‘speciesism’, defined here as ‘a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species’ (Animal Liberation p 7). In opposition to speciesism, Singer has advocated widening the moral circle by extending the principle of ‘equal consideration of interests’ to non human animals and notes that ‘taken in itself … membership of the human species is not morally relevant.’ (Singer (ed.) In Defence of Animals p 4.) Others, such as Cohen (1980) and Diamond (1978), remain skeptical, arguing that this approach, along with its sometimes explicit appeal to the supposed analogues of racism and sexism (Nibert 2003), casts the key issues entirely in the wrong light, and in so doing provides a significantly impoverished model of human relationships, both with each other and with non-human animals. The panel invites papers from anthropologists and philosophers, whose research touches on any aspects of this crucial and fascinating moral debate.

Accepted papers:


Matthew Cole (Open University)
Kate Stewart

Paper short abstract:

This paper expands on a model of hierarchical relations which focuses on the differential ascription of levels of subjectivity, and the relative invisibility of the experiences of oppressed groups. The model is applied to the co-constitution of speciesism and homophobia and the enforcing of heteronormativity on both human and nonhuman animals.

Paper long abstract:

This paper expands on a conceptual model of oppressive hierarchical relations (Stewart & Cole, 2009) which focuses on the foundational role played by two inter-related social processes: the differential ascription of levels of subjectivity on the one hand, and the invisibilisation of the experiences of oppressed groups on the other. The model has been primarily applied to speciesist human-nonhuman animal relations in Western societies (see for instance Stewart and Cole, 2009), but has also been used in the context of hierarchies of 'race' and gender (Cole and Morgan, forthcoming 2011). In this paper we explore the relevance of this model to the co-constitution of speciesism and homophobia, by examining the enforcing of heteronormativity on both human and nonhuman animals.

This analysis includes a consideration of how 'deviant' sexualities are both invisibilised and objectified in both material and discursive terms, with violent consequences for non-normative humans and other animals. The paper therefore analyses how speciesist and homophobic hierarchies both recall and reinforce each other, for instance through the heteronormative control of the reproductive processes of 'farmed' animals on the one hand, and 'animalizing' discourses of homosexuality on the other. These processes normalise violence against oppressed Others and habituate 'toleration' of differential levels of harm. The paper therefore makes a novel contribution to forging intersectional analyses of hitherto isolated topics of social science investigation.


Lynne Sharpe

Paper short abstract:

Peter Singer claims to give an objective and non-speciesist way of showing that the lives of ‘normal human beings’ are of greater value than those of either ‘marginal’ human beings or animals. I argue that his work betrays an underlying anthropocentric speciesism.

Paper long abstract:

Although it is generally agreed that 'speciesism' - usually defined as a prejudice against creatures not of one's own species - is analogous to racism and sexism and therefore unacceptable, the work of many philosophers who write on the animals issue seems to honour the letter rather than the spirit of the principle of unbiased objectivity. This is especially evident in discussions of the 'value of life' put forward by such writers as Peter Singer, Thomas Reagan and others, whose arguments reveal a prejudice that is even more pervasive than speciesism. Although the charge of speciesism is avoided by agreement that the lives of some animals are 'more valuable' than those of some humans, the criteria for inclusion in the category of 'normal human being' or 'person', taken as the paradigm of the valuable life, are such as to exclude not only animals but such a wide range of humanity that it seems reasonable to interpret this use of 'normal human being' as 'person like us' (the 'we' perhaps referring to the writer and his readers), so that speciesism is replaced by what might be called 'us-ism'.


Hushang Philsooph (University of Aberdeen)

Paper short abstract:

This paper attempts to show that preliterate cultures, namely bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and so-called “primitive” states, do not and cannot have vegetarianism. It also tries to show in what type of cultures vegetarianism, which has bearings on gender and changes in modernity, came into being.

Paper long abstract:

Anthropologists have paid no attention to vegetarianism in preliterate cultures, despite their interest in ecological issues and in different culture-bound attitudes towards plants and animals. The reason for the lack of attention seems to be that in these cultures anthropologists have found no vegetarianism to study. My research indicates that, on the whole, there is indeed no vegetarianism in societies at the level of bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and so-called "primitive" states. This cannot, however, be the end of the matter, as the absence of vegetarianism is a puzzle, given, for instance, the fact that in these societies people have very close relations with plants and animals, and an strikingly empathetic and humanizing attitude towards them. The present paper examines the puzzle in the light of a number of factors, such as speciesism and preliterate religious beliefs. It will be argued that vegetarianism cannot develop in these cultures. Apart from comparative data, I rely on my two-year fieldwork in New Guinea.

The paper also tries to show when and why and in what type of societies vegetarianism came into being. In modernity the context and meaning of vegetarianism tend to change. It is not, for instance, intrinsically related to asceticism and other-worldliness any longer. The study of vegetarianism has unconsidered bearings not only on beliefs and values in relation to plants, animals and nature, but also on issues such as sexuality and gender. And it provides us with significant clues to people's basic orientation and worldview in different cultures.