The Psychology of Speciesism: How We Privilege Certain Animals Over Others

Written by Lucius Caviola

Our relationship with animals is complex. There are some animals we treat very kindly; we keep them as pets, give them names, and take them to the doctor when they are sick. Other animals, in contrast, seem not to deserve this privileged status; we use them as objects for human consumption, trade, involuntary experimental subjects, industrial equipment, or as sources of entertainment. Dogs are worth more than pigs, horses more than cows, cats more than rats, and by far the most worthy species of all is our own one. Philosophers have referred to this phenomenon of discriminating individuals on the basis of their species membership as speciesism (Singer, 1975). Some of them have argued that speciesism is a form of prejudice analogous to racism or sexism.

Whether speciesism actually exists and whether it is related to other forms of prejudice isn’t just a philosophical question, however. Fundamentally, these are hypotheses about human psychology that can be explored and tested empirically. Yet surprisingly, speciesism has been almost entirely neglected by psychologists (apart from a few). There have been fewer than 30 publications in the last 70 years on this topic as revealed by a Web of Science search for the keywords speciesism and human-animal relations in all psychology journals. While this search may not be totally exhaustive, it pales in comparison to the almost 3’000 publications on the psychology of racism in the same time frame. The fact that psychology has neglected speciesism is strange, given the relevance of the topic (we all interact with animals or eat meat), the prevalence of the topic in philosophy, and the strong focus psychology puts on other types of apparent prejudice. Researching how we assign moral status to animals should be an obvious matter of investigation for psychology.

Together with my colleagues Jim A.C. Everett and Nadira S. Faber, I recently published a paper on speciesism in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Caviola, Everett, & Faber, 2018). Our aim was to establish speciesism as a topic in the field. To that end, we developed a Speciesism Scale: a standardised, validated, and reliable measurement instrument that can assess the extent to which a person has speciesist views. Our research demonstrated that there is indeed a unique psychological construct — speciesism — that determines to what extent people discriminate individuals on the basis of their species membership. This construct is not captured by other measures of prejudice or prosociality and it shows some interesting properties.

Our research showed that the philosophers were right when they drew an analogy between speciesism and other forms of prejudice. Speciesism correlates positively with racism, sexism, and homophobia, and seems to be underpinned by the same socio-ideological beliefs. Similar to racism and sexism, speciesism appears to be an expression of Social Dominance Orientation: the ideological belief that inequality can be justified and that weaker groups should be dominated by stronger groups (Dhont, et al., 2016). In addition, speciesism correlates negatively with both empathy and actively open-minded thinking. Men are more likely to be speciesists than women. Yet, there are no correlations with age or education.

Speciesism also manifests in real world behavior. In our studies, speciesism predicted whether people are more willing to help humans than animals, or “superior” animals to “inferior” animals. For, example, when given the choice of donating to a charity that helps dogs or pigs, people are more likely to help dogs than pigs the higher they score on speciesism. Similarly, the higher people score on speciesism, the more willing they are to invest time to help homeless people than to help establish basic rights for chimpanzees. Finally, speciesism is related to ethical vegetarianism. Even though our studies showed that not everybody who rejects speciesism believes that eating meat is wrong, we still observed that people higher on speciesism tended to prefer a meat snack over a vegetarian snack.

Critics of speciesism as a concept sometimes argue that the reason we care less about animals is not due to species membership per se, but due to animals not being intelligent or not being able to suffer to the same extent as humans. Our research, however, showed that this objection doesn’t hold. It is true that people perceive animals or “inferior” animals to be less intelligent or less able to suffer than humans or “superior” animals. However, in our studies, people’s beliefs about individuals’ level of intelligence and capability to suffer only explains a small part of their behavior directed towards them. By far the strongest explanation of people’s behavior is speciesism itself. For example, even though people know that dogs and pigs are roughly similarly intelligent and similarly capable of suffering, they still are much more likely to help dogs than pigs. And, when asked whether they would rather help a chimpanzee or a human being who is mentally severely disabled, people are much more willing to help the human being than the chimpanzee, even if they believe that the chimpanzee is more intelligent and more capable of suffering than the human being. This clearly suggests that an individual’s species membership itself is a key determinant of how we value, perceive and treat that individual.

What can we make of these psychological findings? It’s important to note that this research is purely descriptive. It primarily tells us that speciesism is a psychological reality and that it shows up in our attitudes, emotions and behavior towards animals. As the philosophers argued, speciesism is indeed psychologically analogous to other forms of prejudice. What we want to make of these findings is a separate, moral question. And yet, these insights into the psychology of speciesism could inform our thinking about how we want to treat animals. If we consider racism to be wrong, and know that racism and speciesism are psychologically related, this might make us question whether speciesism shouldn’t be considered wrong as well. Either way, we have only just begun to understand the psychological aspects of speciesism. Hopefully, more researchers will recognize this and help to explore this phenomenon in greater depth.

Caviola, L., Everett, J.A.C., Faber, N.S. (In Press). The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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25 Responses to The Psychology of Speciesism: How We Privilege Certain Animals Over Others


    Your article is interesting. Using the word moral in preferring one animal over another is interesting. I would add that the only moral consideration in my relationship with any living creature is the treatment of that creature. I prefer cats in my world but I would treat a pig or any species with the same concern as I would my cat. The success of caring for that pig is my only moral obligation. Preferring my cats over the pig would not be a moral failure in my view. It’s a matter of simple preference. Animals are not on the human plain, they were created by God for food, companionship and for their place in creation in general. Wild animals and all domestic animals serve a purpose as God intended. One is no more important than another, as no human is more important than another. We have our place in creation and animals as well as this is the order of things as God saw fit. We should all have compassion for all living creatures and realize no animal was made superior to humans and that humans always take precedence over animals. Thank you. God bless all humans and their pets!!!

    • Nina says:

      Animals evolved by evolution and have no pre-defined purpose or place. Religion facilitates speciesism.

      • confused reader says:

        How can someone simultaneously uphold the idea of evolution and the idea that ‘speciesism’ (or ANYTHING else) is morally wrong? If you believe in evolution, you believe that every living creature in the universe merely evolved through the processes of natural selection and survival of the fittest (according to Darwin). If you ALSO believe that ‘speciesism’ is somehow morally wrong, you are committing two fallacies:
        the idea that blind natural forces came together by chance to form the world does not leave any room for the existence of a moral standard that humans are somehow not living up to. What standard are you comparing us to when you condemn anything as ‘wrong’ if there is nothing else to the universe besides a bunch of atoms bouncing around?
        if you were to say that natural selection and survival of the fittest were not only INEVITABLE but NECESSARY for the progression of nature, you would then have no problem with one species prioritizing their own kind over another. In fact, this is to be expected if survival of the fittest is indeed the predominant factor in evolution. How in the world could a species survive if they didn’t put more importance in their own safety than in the safety of another species?
        Lastly, if speciesism really is wrong, every single animal on the face of the planet is a perpetrator. there isn’t one species on earth that does not prioritize its own kind over another. The continuation of any species depends on this, in fact.
        DISCLAIMER: i do not necessarily agree with natural selection or evolution, or that ‘speciesism’ is justifiable. I am merely pointing out that the two points you are arguing are mutually exclusive.

    • Steve says:

      God created animals so man wouldn’t be lonely. It was never about food.

      • Ken says:

        Being able to regurgitate the “story” of creation doesn’t make you credible in telling about one. Your statement “God bless all humans and their pets,” is actually a prime example of speciesism itself. As long as you do not escape the anthropocentric justifications of inflicting unnecessary harm and suffering on other sentient beings, you will never see the picture as it actually is.

  • Keith Tayler says:

    Your post reminded me of Thomas Nagel’s review in the London Review of Books (Vol. 28 No.9 11 May 2006) of Bernard William’s last three posthumously published books. I will quote at length the relevant passage.

    ‘The Human Prejudice is a major essay, previously unpublished, analysing and defending our special concern for our fellow humans. Williams wonders mischievously whether Peter Singer, a leading critic of such ‘speciesism’, feels uncomfortable about his position as a professor at Princeton’s Center for Human Values: ‘I should have thought it would have sounded to him rather like a Center for Aryan Values.’ Williams’s main point is that being partial to humanity does not require a belief in the absolute importance of human beings. There is no cosmic point of view, and therefore no test of cosmic significance that we can either pass or fail. Those who criticise the privileged position of human beings in our ethical thought are confused:

    “They suppose that we are in effect saying, when we exercise these distinctions between human beings and other creatures, that human beings are more important, period, than those other creatures. That objection is simply a mistake . . . These actions and attitudes need express no more than the fact that human beings are more important to us, a fact which is hardly surprising.”

    ‘So humanism is just a form of group loyalty. Williams doesn’t suggest that this warrants our brutality towards other species or complete indifference to their suffering, but he thinks our partiality to those who share our form of life does not need justification. He illustrates this with a wonderful science-fiction fantasy of superior but disgusting visitors from outer space. And he concludes:

    “When the hope is to improve humanity to the point at which every aspect of its hold on the world can be justified before a higher court, the result is likely to be either self-deception, if you think you have succeeded, or self-hatred and self-contempt when you recognise that you will always fail. The self-hatred, in this case, is a hatred of humanity. Personally I think that there are many things to loathe about human beings, but their sense of their ethical identity as a species is not one of them.”

    • J.D. says:

      “So humanism is just a form of group loyalty. Williams doesn’t suggest that this warrants our brutality towards other species or complete indifference to their suffering, but he thinks our partiality to those who share our form of life does not need justification.”

      Having an instinctual partiality toward humanity over animals is understandable, and can in many circumstances be a harmless partiality, but it is very common for that partiality to transform into a sense of unjustified superiority. If one closes off any further consideration with, “our partiality…. does not need justification,” it sets the stage for making serious ethical blunders when the greater moral significance of an animal’s interests is pitted against the lesser interests of a human, as in the case of needless meat consumption or cosmetics testing. So even if we do not need to justify our feelings of partiality, we still must justify many of our behaviors resulting from partiality since partiality is not in itself a form of justification.

      Since I haven’t read the book I cannot say if this point was neglected, but the partial quotation left enough doubt I thought I’d address it here.

    • Lena says:

      >>but he thinks our partiality to those who share our form of life does not need justification<<

      The amazing thing about being human is that we have the capacity for introspection about why we do something and how to do it better. To declare that something "does not need justification" is a way to shun this wonderful capacity that we have. Whether or not we will ever succeed in living completely "justified" existences is besides the point; the goal of a good life in my opinion is to keep trying. Of course we will fail – the human life and mind are paradoxical. But to take things for granted as they are is a less desirable state of being.

  • Max says:

    Clearly an area that needs more research . From my perspective I was taught as a child that dogs are dirty , and that human beings are made in shape of god . This was Islamic teaching which I gave rejected along with any paradiagm that puts any living thing as somehow inferior to us . Perhaps one approach would be to look at neurobiology , all mammals , birds and many marine creatures ( not all ) have very similar neural network with similar limbus system that allows them to feel pain and fear death and hurt along with other emotions that some people deemed only experienced by humans alone . This is not the case . So it’s important to encourage the next generation to view all living things with the current scientific findings . Personally I don’t feel
    Comfortable eating any animal or harming any for my survival or pleasure ie eating them because they taste good. I find it distressing that others do even though their survival is not reliant on this . Add to this the chimerical nature of animal products and industry , we get significant animal welfare issues . All of which has enormous impact to our planet , including the death of the humble bee . We need to change our approach and learn from patadiagms such as bhuddism whereby life is respected no matter how simple or complex

    • Hayden says:

      I believe that being a vegetarian is good, but being an extremist vegetarian is bad, completely removing meat from your diet can have bad influences on your body, especially considering that most, if not all, plants are low in saturated fat which is required to survive, so eating animals for survival, or because they taste good, is more than just because people want to kill animals and eat them, it is also for literally living

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I’m just wondering if someone happens to know of an effective charity which comes to the aid of cockroaches, slugs and termites – the article has convinced me that I have been guilty of speciesism and that I ought to make amends for mistakenly making (admittedly very small, but misguided) contributions destined for humans.

    • Ken says:

      At least we are not artificially inseminating and bringing cockroaches, slugs and termites into this world for the sole purpose of using them.

    • Macha says:

      This is a typical comment against veganism, much like a carnist saying “hey, plants are living beings, too.” The thing here is that when survival or well-being is threatened, it is natural to protect ourselves. I don’t think many people would argue that if a bear is attacking you that you would do what you needed to survive. If my kitchen is overrun with bugs and it’s making my family sick, I do think that it’s understandable to control that. I don’t believe my life is more important than a cockroach, but in the same way all animals naturally want to preserve their own lives, we also instinctually want to protect our environment from disease and threat. Speciesism is when you ideologically believe that the cockroach or bear only has a right to exist in the relationship to humans, not in their own right. Killing a spider for no other reason than “eww, a spider!” or hunting bear because that’s “what we do in this family” or internalizing the sad, old, convenient Christian doctrine of “this god gave us dominion over animals” is speciesism. I wouldn’t say a bobcat fighting one coyote over a meal, or cleaning its own fur of fleas, is speciesist because that is ridiculous. When we systematically destroy and/or enslave entire communities and animal species for greed, profit, sport, gluttony, or out of irrational fear, well, that is speciesism.

  • Alan Duval says:

    “If we consider racism to be wrong, and know that racism and speciesism are psychologically related, this might make us question whether speciesism shouldn’t be considered wrong as well.”

    This seems like a stretch. The neotenic aspects of human male sexual attraction to females are pretty well-documented, and a decent argument could be made that it is a misapplication or over-extension of this that leads to paedophilia, are we to therefore find a preference for large eyes and small chins in women disgusting because it is “psychologically related” to paedophilia? I think not.

    • Ken says:

      You could argue that having a preference for such and such traits are indicative of being a pedophile to varying degrees. Okay. This would be in their heads still just as having a prejudice toward someone solely based on his or her race is wrong. When it comes to animals, however, we breed them on a massive scale and actually abuse them. “Prejudice is different from discrimination.” We inflict a great suffering on their individual lives by bringing them into existence for the sole purpose of using them not to mention the detrimental environmental impact the animal farming causes. We cannot neglect the environmental and practical aspects of consuming animals when talking about the philosophical aspects because we are talking about the animals on this particular planet and it carries a high potential for serious consequences. When we see the slaughterhouse footage, our natural tendency is to be disgusted and horrified instead of to be hungry and content or assured of our every contributions to the violent acts. The main point author is making, in other words, is that many of us fail to see the prejudice and injustice when they are part of the system we ourselves participate in and rely on to maintain our state of deep trance.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    I’m afraid I have not read Williams’ essay or Nagel’s review, but, while I agree that speciesism can be understood in terms of identification with and preference for one’s “own group,” I would point out that the same can be said for racism, sexism, and for that matter nationalism, and that when such “group loyalty” translates into harmful treatment of others, it does indeed call for justification, assuming any can be had. Moreover, that we humans exhibit a predisposition to identify so strongly with certain subgroupings of our own species can be seen as a primate characteristic, one which places us squarely within the spectrum of animal life, not “above” it–although our “wonderful capacity” to consider what we do and make moral choices about it can be considered a counterbalancing, species-specific characteristic, at least when we choose to exercise it.

    I don’t quite get where Williams is coming from in finding “many things to loathe about human beings,” and I hope he is not accusing those critical of speciesism of having a “hatred of humanity” here, but if he is, it will not be unlike accusing those who suggest that we humans rein in our population growth as well as our growing aggregate consumption in the interests of maintaining biospherical life of “hating human beings.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It seems clear that limitless growth in either one is both a logical and a biological impossibility within a finite system, and since our human species depends for its own existence upon the integrity of that system, clear-sighted species loyalty would advocate that we overcome our anthropocentrism and start putting the biosphere first among our decision-making priorities. (I take it that “speciesism” is being used here to refer to discriminatory attitudes and behavior at the individual level, “anthropocentrism” analogously at the species level, although these terms are often used interchangeably.)

  • Keith Tayler says:

    Obviously it is not possible to give full of an explanation of Williams’s objections to what Nagel’s described as ‘the view from nowhere’ in a short post. The problems of this ‘position’ spans the history of philosophy, mathematics, science and the arts, and is of particular interest now when the problem of “machine intelligence” has remerged. In modern times, it can be found, in part, in philosophical approaches that have used terms such as Lebenszusammenhang,lebenswelt, doxa, atomic facts, form of life, Dasein/ Being-in-the-World, knowing-how, etc.. Williams and Nagel would say “in very small part”, but, as the following quote from Williams shows, he does take a similar position to that taken by the many Continental philosophers.

    “The belief that you can look critically at all your dispositions from the outside, from the point of view of the universe, assumes that you could understand your own and other people’s dispositions from that point of view without tacitly taking for granted a picture of the world more locally familiar than any that would be available from there; but neither the psychology nor the history of ethical reflection gives much reason to believe that the theoretical reasonings of the cool hour can do without a sense of the moral shape of the world, of the kind given in everyday dispositions.”

    When Williams says, “human beings are more important ‘to us’, a fact which is hardly surprising”, he is saying that we cannot forget or try to get behind this fact. (I would not use the word ‘fact’ without some explanation, but here is not the place for further explanation.) This does not prevent us from analysing our understanding and treatment of animals, nor should it stop us from recognising in ourselves and others the difference between our ‘prejudice’ towards animals and prejudices towards humans like racism. We should not, therefore, make following error.

    The Lucius Caviola et al claim their study is not concerned with the normativity of speciesism and is confined to a description of speciesism as “psychological phenomenon”. However, they also claim that all forms speciesism is a ‘prejudice’ that is coextensive with “racism, sexism, homophobia along with ideological constructs associated with prejudice such as social dominance orientation”. The post finishes, as Alan Duval points out, with “[if] we consider racism to be wrong, and know that racism and speciesism are psychologically related, this might make us question speciesism shouldn’t be considered wrong as well”. So it would appear that speciesism is morally wrong because this ‘descriptive’ study has linked it with racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.. This is, of course, hardly surprising, for the authors accept in their paper that “[s]peciesism manifests itself in the near-universal belief that humans are intrinsically more valuable than individuals of other species.” Given that speciesism is near-universal, we will obviously find it in racist, sexist and just about every other group we wish to identify; which means we cannot make the inference that it is morally wrong because racism is moral wrong any more than we can make the inference that it is morally right because there are morally right groups that are also speciesists.

    To me, it seems perfectly raeasonable to favour some life forms over other life forms. That does mean I enjoy killing rats and mice, culling squirrels, or swatting flies, but they have to be done, especially if you live in the country as I do. I prefer my dog to other dogs, and I may indeed express this prejudice if it came to choosing to save the life of my dog over that of another dog. I would never place the life of my dog above that of a human’s. I was a vegetarian but now eat a small amount of meat which mostly comes from the surrounding hilly land that is not arable. In short, I give my ‘speciesism’ some thought and would like others to do the same. Of course, I understand how this ‘prejudice’ may become confused in the minds of some people who are racially prejudice, not least because the distortions of scientific racism are still with us. But the notion that my so-called speciesism is morally equivalent to racism is a grotesque distortion and, if it ever were to be seriously believed, could lead some, as Willaims says, to self-hatred and self-contempt.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Keith Tayler, I see you rather completely ignore the issues that I find most interesting: that racism, sexism, nationalism, and speciesism are, to different degrees, manifestations of “own-group loyalty,” and also that we humans, as a species, if we do not soon change our ways, are on a collision course with the finitude of the biosphere. I see a great deal wrong with racism, sexism, and speciesim insofar as these prejudicial attitudes can result in a great deal of suffering on the part of human and/or nonhuman individuals, as the case may be. But, morally offensive as these may be, they generally constitute stable situations–dark-skinned people aren’t usually (though there may be exceptions) threatened with all-out genocide by racist attitudes and practices, and farm animals continue to be “produced” in great numbers, though their suffering in confinement operations may be great; nationalism is the one exception to these group-identification-generated prejudicial attitudes, since in the extreme case the ever-present potential for nuclear war does threaten humans and nonhumans alike with extirpation from the Earth.

    The anthropocentrism that has us acting as though we humans can expand our numbers and the toll our increasingly ravenous consumption takes on nonhuman habitats and nonhuman organisms generally, all around the planet, however, is not something that is manifested as part of a stable situation, i.e., something about which one might say, “yes, well, it’s too bad many people feel that way and orient themselves such that the harm this attitude does to other beings gets ignored, but given another generation or two, with education and enlightened discourse, it will eventually lessen,” as one might say with respect to racism and sexism. Frankly put, we do not have TIME to wait for this to happen, since the present state of our technology is allowing us to destroy huge chunks of habitat and destabilize critical planetary systems at an increasingly rapid rate. And yes, I am well aware of the criticisms that have been made, by Continental philosophers and others, of the possibility of “seeing oneself from the outside” of the common, culturally conditioned, egocentric point of view, but I have come to see this position as largely one of seeking to justify quite a large amount of intellectual denial on the part of those who assert it. OF COURSE one can look at one’s own trajectory through life as if “from afar”–Iain McGilchrist terms our ability to make this move one of adopting the “necessary distance,” and links it to the remarkable expansion of our frontal lobes in recent evolution, which makes it possible–and, similarly, we can make the effort to see the trajectory of our human species as we have come to dominate the systems of the Earth in what scientists are now terming the Anthropocene epoch. We’ve all become accustomed to seeing those J-curves–all ultimately driven by that ominous J-curve of human population growth–all over the place, heralding (once we dare to step out of our short-term, what’s-good-for-me-today “locally familiar picture of the world”) specific processes that, if continued, are manifestly unsustainable. Seeing ourselves in the larger context is not only possible, it’s necessary if we are to have any hope at all of pulling ourselves and the rest of Life on Earth out of the present extinction-spiral. Unfortunately, many philosophers, trained exclusively in a syllogistic logic that cares little about the empirical accuracy of its premisses, seem to be blissfully unaware of the fact that we humans are the perpetrators of the sixth major extinction spasm ever to grip this planet–arguably the Greatest Moral Wrong of which we are collectively capable, since it kills at a level of grouping far beyond that of human subgroupings, even as it ultimately will, if not halted, obliterate all of these as well.

    • Keith Tayler says:

      Ronnie Hawkins: I was not just replying to you (I didn’t use the ‘Reply’ on your post), but I did include some of the points you raised. I think I did cover the issue of linking speciesism with racism, sexism, etc. by outlining the non sequitur in the paper. I understand your concerns about our planet, but they cannot be used to criticise my position because, as I said, I do not accept that it means I am acting immorally or mistreating animals. Obviously I cannot give a full exposition of this position in a short post, but I can assure I have been living within the ‘one planet’ limit for decades and do not go around trashing the planet.

      I think you are somewhat confused about this position and especially its history within Continental philosophy. There were from at least the early 20th century Continental philosophers who were highly critical of the way science and technology used the Earth as, so to speak, an ‘exploitable resource’. Their thinking, that was essentially that of criticising the view from nowhere position of science and technology, was rejected then and now. To suggest they were or are engaged in intellectual denial is simply not true. Some of them were and are anti-science, but, just as there is scientism, bad science and pseudo-science to be found among scientist, we should not simplistically reject the position just because some have misused it to mount an attack upon all science.

      You seem to think I and others are say you cannot, as you put it, ‘look at one’s own trajectory through life as if “from afar”’. Of course it is possible; what we are saying is that this position is not always the best position to understand the world, especially when considering our moral disposition. We should nonetheless never forget our own view point when doing mathematics, logic, science, technology or any ‘systems’ discipline (much of the most interesting and intractable issues in the philosophy of science emerge from ‘positional’ problems).

      Finally, I can assure you that at no time have philosophers been ‘trained exclusively in syllogistic logic’.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    I’m not convinced that there is a “non sequitur” in the paper; looks to me like Keith Tayler is the one who tried to make a move from “is” to “ought,” if that’s the idea.

    True, some Continental philosophers have been “highly critical of the way science and technology used the Earth as, so to speak, an ‘exploitable resource,’” as have many philosophers (a growing number, I hope) on the other side of the Atlantic. But the context in which this “view from nowhere” charge is leveled by Williams (or is it Nagel?): “There is no cosmic point of view, and therefore no test of cosmic significance that we can either pass or fail. Those who criticise the privileged position of human beings in our ethical thought are confused” is clearly meant to discourage people from considering the abundant evidence from science that attests to our human continuity with other forms of life and the remarkable intelligence of many organisms that our culture has heretofore demeaned. Science does not have to be coming from”a cosmic point of view.” The primatologists and cognitive ethologists, among others, who have been busily correcting our species-centered arrogance are very much human beings with their own, situated points of view. And, in part because of their work, our culture IS changing–“the fact that human beings are more important to us” is not necessarily a “fact” that we all share.

    Moreover, dismissing the paper with the claim that it is guilty of a “non sequitur” is a very good example of a philosopher (though please note I said “many” phuilosophers, since not all do fall into this category) being more concerned about “logic” than about the empirical accuracy of what is being proposed.

    • Keith Tayler says:

      We are going round in circles, but I will have one last attempt to clarify this ‘position’.

      Firstly, it was Nagel who wrote a book entitled ‘The View from Nowhere’ and Williams in his book ‘Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy’ that continued his criticism of ethical thinking that takes this ‘external’ position. If you read either of these works, I would hope you would not subsequently make the claim that their work was “clearly meant to discourage people from considering the abundant evidence from science that attest to our human continuity with other forms of life…” Their work, inter alia, is explicitly directed to getting people to think about these issues. You may disagree with them, but please do not suggest they are deliberately discouraging people from thinking about these issues. Neither Williams nor Nagel are in the slightest anyway anti-science, but they are anti-scientism and simplistic rationalisation.

      As to the “non sequitur” problem: I thought I made it clear that the authors stated their paper was confined to a description of speciesism as a “psychological phenomenon” and was not normative. However, they then went on to suggest that because racism is morally wrong we should question whether speciesism is also morally wrong because they were “psychologically related”. The problem is that they found speciesism to be “near-universal”, which means of course that just about all human ‘prejudices’ – be they morally bad or good – are to be found in the class of speciesism prejudice. Indeed, the inference they draw can be stood on its head. If, as is evident, the vast majority of humans believe speciesism if morally correct, does that not suggest that racism, sexism, etc., are also morally correct? Of course, such an inference is just as nonsensical as the original inference.

      Picking out the bad prejudices and then suggesting speciesism is bad because it is related to them is nonsense unless you have found evidence that all ‘prejudice’ is morally wrong. Here again there may be some confusion about the pejorative and non-pejorative meaning of ‘prejudice’. Obviously not all prejudice is morally wrong, but, at the level of data and explanation of the authors’ paper, there is no way they can making a meaningful distinction between the types of human prejudice.

      Not sure why you believe philosophy should be able to do without logic. ‘Empirical evidence’ without logical inference and reason cannot exist for they are required, for example, when determining what counts as good or bad evidence. It is not possible to do science without logic and mathematics (I am not saying mathematics is reducible to logic). Philosophers study logic (syllogistic logic fell out of favour in the 19th century), many, as in my case, to understand the limits and the failure of what might be called the ‘logic project’ of the late 19th early 20th century. Most philosopher do not ‘just’ use logic, they try to understand its strengths and weaknesses.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    I am familiar with Nagel’s work but not that of Williams in this regard. I was not claiming that “their work” was “clearly meant to discourage people [from considering scientific evidence],” I was stating that, in my experience, the criticism that certain understandings come from “a view from nowhere” or a “god’s eye view” is often–not always–USED in such a way as to cast doubt on a certain scientific finding, as if the intersubjective agreement among scientists (sometimes termed “objective”) has somehow been presumed, as in this particular case, to be coming from “a cosmic point of view”; since such a view is not to be had, the implication is that the observation is to be disregarded, or that considering a situation in light of such evidence is somehow illegitimate. I do find that to be the case here, at least insofar as the Williams/Nagel position has been presented in the context of this blog. (An attempt to dismiss the viewpoint that conceptualizes the growing human population and its growing consumption of the rest of the living world, and that considers relationships among species to be a morally relevant level of concern, is sometimes made on similar grounds.)

    It is also the case that, historically, a large percentage of people, very likely the majority in most societies, have held racist, sexist, ethnocentric and homophobic attitudes; many still do today, as even a slight familiarity with the news will make evident. The fact that a growing number of people now seem to think that such attitudes are not morally correct reflects a cultural change. Many factors may have been at play in bringing this change about, from personal interaction with people of other races, cultures, genders, and sexual proclivities to intellectual consideration being given the fact that we humans are all members of one species, with far more in common than our differences, this latter realization possibly bolstered by exposure to scientific evidence of our similarities. Overcoming racism can be conceptualized as transcending the boundary demarcating one’s “own group” as that marking the limit of moral concern to recognize the boundary demarcating the human species as this limit. Overcoming speciesism can similarly be conceptualized as transcending the species boundary to recognize the even larger circle inclusive of all living organisms as the appropriate limit of moral concern, and it too may come about as a result of a number of factors, from personal interaction with other orgamisms to consideration of scientific evidence. When Caviola et al. say “If we consider racism to be wrong, and know that racism and speciesism are psychologically related, this might make us question whether speciesism shouldn’t be considered wrong as well,” they are NOT moving from “is” to “ought,” nor are they guilty of a “non sequitur”: they are SUGGESTING that we consider the similarity in thinking that marks all of these attitudes. And Williams, in my view, is right on target by declaring speciesism/anthropocentrism as “a form of group loyalty”; indeed, just as speciesists, standing on the “majority rule” of the current status quo, can unashamedly declare “human beings are more important TO US,” so can outspoken racists declare, e.g., “white people are more important TO US” (and so might closet racists, should they be honest with themselves). Regarding the issue of cultural change, moreover, the original research paper by Caviola et al. notes (p. 11 in pdf) that “the observation that speciesism correlated negatively with actively open-minded thinking supports our assumption that those who accept antispeciesism are more willing to think beyond contemporary social norms.”

    At no point, however, did I say that philosophy (or science) should do without logic (and I am beginning to notice a distinct tendency for words to be incorrectly put in other people’s mouths here, in lieu of attempting to present the other person’s position fairly and address it). What I am pointing out seems to be a kind of confabulatory response that I have observed, made by some (not all!) philosophers (but often by those with little familiarity with the relevant science), to bat away a scientific point–to hit it back over the tennis net without considering it further–by trying to find fault with “the logic” of an argument–the correctness of the starting assumptions, ie., the actual facts of the matter, be damned. While I have seen little or no direct acknowledgment of the scientific evidence for ontological continuity among lifeforms here in this discussion—an “is” that might well influence an informed decision as to what our “oughts” should be—I have had a distinct sense of tennis balls whizzing by my head.

    • Keith Tayler says:

      I think we have done the Caviola et al paper to death. They explicitly stated that their paper was confined to a descriptive “psychological phenomenon” and then engage in chopped logic to suggest that near-universal speciesism could be morally wrong because it is psychologically related to racism which is morally wrong. I am quite prepared to accept the possibility (but not on the evidence of the paper), that some racist might link their racism with their speciesism and/or such a link could be found, but that in itself would not make ‘all’ speciesism morally. I strongly disagree with most speciesists, but, for the sake of the arguments, am prepared to be identified as a speciesist. I am quite clear in my mind that my speciesism is not related to racism because I believe all humans are equal, i.e. we are all persons of equal value and have moral agency. I therefore have reject the authors’ and your assumption.

      At the risk of being accused of playing intellectual tennis, I place very little credence in psychology studies that get self-selecting groups to answer a few questions and then go on to conclude that “the observation that speciesism correlates negatively with actively open-minded thinking supporting our assumption that those who accept antispeciesism are more willing to think beyond contemporary social norms”. This type of bias speculation might at best meet the journalistic standards of a tabloid press “survey”. Okay, not a great fan of psychology – to quote a famous philosopher on psychology “[the] problem and the method pass one another by.”

      I recognise that I have a shared evolution with all lifeforms and that I share much of my DNA and habitat with animals (as I do with plants, viruses, etc.), but I do not recognise animals as persons having moral agency. Although I have used science to inform my ethical beliefs, I reject what I believe to be the irrationalism that many scientists have about animals and the unethical use of animals by science. My objection to vivisection, for example, can perhaps be summed up by: If animals are required for experimentation because they are physiologically and/or psychologically ‘close’ to us, it would in most cases be unethical to use them because of their ‘closeness’, If they are not ‘close’ to us, they are of doubtful use to science and therefore in most cases it would be unethical to harm them by experimentation. That is not say that ‘closeness’ includes any meaningful sense of personhood and moral agency. There are also far too many scientists involved in the antibiotic, growth hormone and genetic modification factory farming industry.

      Making a distinction between humans and animals is not the same as making a distinction between human and human. When some scientists claim they have found evidence that it is and are backed by the arguments of some philosophers, I have to look at the evidence, methodology and arguments. This is what philosophy is about. It is about, as you put it, ‘trying to find fault with “the logic” of an argument’ (the insertion of “the logic” is somewhat dated now), or pointing out that little or nothing of any meaning has been stated, or that a category mistake has been made, etc.. Philosophy is not a branch of science that accepts the “actual facts of the matter”, for it is by no means clear that we agree what a ‘fact’ is, or indeed that it exists (in philosophy we never found an ‘atomic fact’). Nor do some philosophers forget the mistakes of science or indeed philosophy. The (mis)use of statistics and (misunderstanding) of evolution theory (in some instances by Darwin) gave us scientific racism, eugenics and, so to speak, ‘colonial’ zoology and botany. These were all founded upon what were then ‘starting assumption’ and ‘facts’.

      You say you have “seen little or no direct acknowledgement of the scientific evidence for ontological for continuity among lifeforms here in the discussions”. My earlier reference to Continental philosophy was directed towards their ontological approach. As I pointed out, this approach is fraught with difficulties and can quickly become anti-science or worse. Within mainstream science we should never forget the dangers of the shift from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’. That is not to say we should not cautiously consider whether we have moved to a point where we can make a meaningful ‘ought’. However, on the matter of speciesism, I see nothing in science that leads me to believe we have reached such a point so I will continue to look upon animals from my ethical position.

      I have enjoyed our little exchange of views and hope we can at least agree to disagree. Time is always short, so I think this must be the last have to say on this issue and will have to take my ball home 🙂

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    You know, I do a lot of thinking about what could possibly lead us to stop our headlong rush into the Anthropocene, with all its mega-technology and the desperate dash to embrace “the next new thing”—new roads being cut through the Amazon, a generation of un-evolved, CRISPR-engineered organisms about to be released, a new technology for bigger, faster pig slaughter, 50 million wading birds facing extermination with the “reclamation” of the Yellow Sea tidal flats by South Korea and China (see “Saemangeum”), escalating habitat destruction enabled by executive contravention of land use laws in a place I used to call home, to name just a few with implications for Life on the planet that have come by me recently. It seems we humans have a tendency to appreciate our own tools and the things we have constructed far more than we do the workings of nature, and of course we can also better understand the things we have made (because we made them! and this includes language and our socially constructed symbol-systems) than we can the complex workings of nature, which we now interfere with ignorantly and at our peril. Since I care about humans as well as nonhumans, I hope for our own sakes that we find a way to stop this headlong rush—which seems, in many cases, to be driven by the desire to “make money” (there’s a phrase that could use some philosophical analysis!) and probably by the feeling of being “in competition” with conspecifics, a biological driver—because our present trajectory is clearly not a sustainable path for any of us living things. But short-sighted human interest—on the part of individuals, of subgroupings, or of our entire species, conceived in abstraction from its ecological context—seems not to have an internally generated limit (witness the widely held if unspoken notion that we—our species or our own favorite subgrouping, be it by race, ethnicity, nation-state, etc—can grow in numbers and in material consumption without end); after all, how could there be too much of a good thing (meaning us, and the objects of our “preference satisfaction”? Memories of Derek Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion” dance in my head.)

    If an external limit were to be recognized, however—a moral limit on how much we could take away from the natural world, a moral limit on the extent to which we could legitimately impact the lives of other beings (given the different ecological roles we all evolved to fill)—perhaps there would be an activation of the sorts of neurological pathways that lead most of us to limit the swinging of an arm well before it strikes another human’s face. A few philosophers (the paucity of their numbers being remarkable in itself) have been arguing for a reining-in of this headlong rush in the face of accelerating climate change and the difficulties it will predictably generate for future human beings, but apparently the displacement in time is sufficient to dampen the effects of this moral concern. Nonhuman life, on the other hand, is being drastically affected NOW, and in ways many people are beginning to appreciate, whether it’s by noticing a sharp diminution in bees and other insects the place they live or by seeing lurid pictures of animal abuse and rampant ecological destruction on Facebook. It is possible that our social media will eventually provide, if not a “cosmic view,” enough of a LOOK AT OURSELVES to see what we’re doing “from the outside,” not just from within our self-justifying belief systems, and to be appalled by it. (The bull in the china shop wakes up—Gee, I caused ALL THAT DAMAGE???) When you actually care about “the Other,” whatever form that “Other” takes, paying attention to where your swinging arm touches down ceases to be a chore and becomes a welcome responsibility, perhaps even an act of love.

    It seems there was a time when many humans of our western culture recognized something greater than themselves, a something that they revered; they called it God, and recognized the Creation as something to be treated with respect, if not with awe. In my understanding, this attitude was fairly widespread up through the time of Newton and his contemporaries, although the subsequent scientific/industrial revolution, with its billiard-ball metaphysics, Cartesian caricature of animals as machines and an economism that replaced “God” with “money,” rather quickly made short shrift of it. We seem to be increasingly enclosed within a belief-bubble that is now exclusively centered on “US,” with nothing of importance lying outside its bounds. I sense a growing realization that something is missing, however, a dim awareness that perhaps there IS something Other than ourselves that is of value—we’re not “all alone in the universe,” after all. And I see the very fact that psychologists have seen fit to recognize and devise a scale for measuring speciesism/anthropocentrism as evidence of a coming moral awakening. I only hope it comes in time.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    In response to “confused reader”—
    Well, I’m not a reductionist, so I don’t actually believe that “blind natural forces came together by chance” to create the world we live in, nor do I believe that “there is nothing else to the universe besides a bunch of atoms bouncing around”—though you are correct that many people do seem still to hold on to that outmoded metaphysical cartoon, a legacy of the mechanistic paradigm embraced following the success of Newtonian physics several centuries ago. We are still far from understanding what Life is, though we have made great progress in recognizing its enormous complexity in recent times, much of it since the turn of the millennium, following great leaps forward in genomics, proteomics, molecular and cell biology, neural connectivity, et cetera. While many subdisciplines in the biological sciences still tend to be locally “mechanistic,” other subdisciplines necessarily take the opposite approach, notably ecology, organismic biology, ethology, psychology, and so on, moving toward a global holism. There is a robust “re-emergence of [interest in] emergence,” to quote the title of a fairly recent book, and a growing number of studies are starting to show evidence of what is sometimes called “top-down causation” operative at the same time as “bottom-up causation” within living organisms. “Causation,” however, seems to be an increasingly problematic term, since it does tend to conjure the mindlessly bumping billiard balls, and—thanks to our culture’s ingrained anthropocentrism— it often gets treated as an exclusive contrast class, dualistically opposed to linguistically formulated, belief-desire human “action,” leaving all nonhuman organisms still conceived in the mold of mindless Cartesian machines, as if never the twain shall meet. Fortunately, thanks to newer generations of field biologists, primatologists, cognitive ethologists, and others willing to pay close attention to nonhuman lifeforms with an openness to their potentialities, we are discovering among them some remarkable powers of communication and awareness that are steadily undermining the stultifying reductionistic-mechanistic-deterministic paradigm that has for so long stoked our species-ego, allowing us to go on clinging to the delusion that we are the only intelligent beings in the known universe.
    I have thus come to hold a very different metaphysical picture than the one left over from the days of Newton and Descartes. I believe that Life is an inner-directed, self-organizing phenomenon that has unfolded on Earth over the last three to four billion years, diversifying into our magnificent Biosphere, each living organism being, in the words of Paul Taylor, a “teleological center of life,” pursuing its own good in its own way, and that “mind”—the awareness needed to grasp one’s environmental context and devise an appropriate response to it—is coextensive with life (Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life provides a good exposition of this view). I also reject the “survival of the fittest” cartoon that considers competition to be the exclusive “mechanism” driving the evolutionary process, since there is a great deal of mutualism, cooperation, and yes, even empathy and compassion that can be discerned in nature, once you break out of the old machine-model.
    I do, however, recognize that our own species’ evolution has produced an organism that is cognitively unique in certain respects, one of them being that it is capable of prospectively evaluating its intended actions and making moral decisions about them weighing their effects on other living beings—i.e., that human individuals have moral agency. But I disagree with Kant’s assertion that the possession of moral agency is necessary for the possession of moral worth, rather recognizing a large class of “moral patients,” including human infants, humans with mental impairment, and many kinds of nonhuman animals, as beings capable of experiencing pain and pleasure and fully deserving of respectful and compassionate treatment regardless of their inability to carry out moral decision making themselves.
    Clearly, then, my metaphysical/ontological understanding of the world we live in is quite different from yours (or at least from the supposedly “scientific” picture of the world you seem to be sketching), and therefore the starting assumptions in my ethical reasoning lead me to reject anthropocentrism/speciesism as heartily as I would reject racism, sexism and homophobia. I believe there is a coherence to a Life-centered philosophy that is lacking in the anthropocentric worldview, which imposes a dualistic divide between humans and all other lifeforms in order to shore up our human self-importance. And one final point—in conceiving of the universe itself as an unfolding, self-evolving system, and taking Life in all its forms to be of ultimate value, there is no need to postulate a humanlike “God” that is somehow separate from the universe, creating it as a passive artifact of “molecules in motion,” let alone imagining an all-powerful father-figure dictating our morality “from above” and punishing those of us who “disobey.” A Life-centered philosophy places the responsibility for choosing our actions wisely and compassionately squarely on us, as the “dependent, rational animals” that we are, in the terminology of Alasdair MacIntyre.

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