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.

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Where There is Life, There is Not Always Hope. Ethics, Futility and the Alfie Evans Case

by Dominic Wilkinson


[Updated 22/02/18]

This afternoon, in another case of disputed medical treatment for a seriously ill child, Justice Hayden in the High Court concluded that treatment should be withdrawn from toddler Alfie Evans against the wishes of his parents.

See below for a press release on the Alfie Evans decision. I will add further reports and links to the court transcript when it is available.

See here for ethics commentary and resources on the Charlie Gard case.

See also my recent blog on the Evans and Haastrup cases: Medical treatment disputes and the international second opinion

Details from the court ruling (Liverpool Echo)

Court judgement

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Announcement: The 4th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics Final Presentation and Reception

We are pleased to announce the five finalists for the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics and to invite you to attend the final where they will present their entries. Two finalists have been selected from the undergraduate category and three from the graduate, to present their ideas to an audience and respond to a short Q&A as the final round in the competition.

The Presentation will be held in Seminar Room 1, Oxford Martin School (corner of Catte St and Broad St), on Thursday 22nd February, 4.00 – 5.50 pm. This will be followed by a drinks reception in Seminar room 2 until 7:00 pm.


Jonathan Latimer: “Why We Should Genetically ‘Disenhance’ Animals Used in Factory Farms”

Brian Wong: “On Relational Injustice: Could Colonialism Have Been Wrong Even if it had Introduced More Benefits than Harms?”


James Kirkpatrick: “When is Sex with Conjoined Twins Permissible?”

Tena Thau: “Should Cryonics be Compulsory?”

Miles Unterreiner:  “The Paradox of the Benefiting Samaritan”

All are welcome to attend the final and are warmly invited to join the finalists for a drinks reception after the event. Please sign up at:

Please book now and support the next generation of Practical Ethicists.



Written by Stephen Rainey

Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), or brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), are technologies controlled directly by the brain. They are increasingly well known in terms of therapeutic contexts. We have probably all seen the remarkable advances in prosthetic limbs that can be controlled directly by the brain. Brain-controlled legs, arms, and hands allow natural-like mobility to be restored where limbs had been lost. Neuroprosthetic devices connected directly to the brain allow communication to be restored in cases where linguistic ability is impaired or missing.

It is often said that such devices are controlled ‘by thoughts’. This isn’t strictly true, as it is the brain that the devices read, not the mind. In a sense, unnatural patterns of neural activity must be realised to trigger and control devices. Producing the patterns is a learned behaviour – the brain is put to use by the device owner in order to operate it. This distinction between thought-reading and brain-reading might have important consequences for some conceivable scenarios. To think these through, we’ll indulge in a little bit of ‘science fiction prototyping’.

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Cross Post: In Defense of Offense

Written by Michael Robillard

*  Please note that this essay was originally published at Quillette Magazine


In Defense of Offense

“The urge to censor is greatest where debate is most disquieting and orthodoxy most entrenched…”

–Chief Judge Alex Kozinski

In September of last year, conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro, spoke at the UC Berkeley campus for approximately 90 minutes. The cost of security for the physical protection of Mr. Shapiro, an American citizen, and Harvard-educated lawyer came to approximately $600,000. Prior to Mr. Shapiro’s visit at the Berkeley campus, right-wing British speaker and internet provocateur, Milo Yiannopolis, was prevented from speaking on campus due to security worries caused by approximately 150 masked agitators who committed various acts of vandalism, arson, and violence, resulting in the harm of several innocent Berkeley students and local citizens and totaling around $100,000 in property damage. In May of last year, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, biology professor, Bret Weinstein, refused to participate in the “Day of Absence” in which “white students, staff, and faculty,” were, “invited to leave the campus for the day’s activities.” Weinstein’s refusal resulted in him being surrounded by an angry mob of 50 students who called him a racist and insisted that he resign. He was later advised by campus police to remain off campus indefinitely for his own physical safety. Weinstein and his wife, also a professor, did so, and eventually resigned from their positions at Evergreen in September. In March of 2017, at Middlebury College, demonstrators physically attacked libertarian author Charles Murray and his liberal host, professor Allison Stanger, pulling her hair and giving her whiplash, sending her to the ER.

Berkeley. Evergreen. Middlebury. Missou. Yale. Brown. McMasters. Wilfred Laurier. The list goes on. One must wonder where this trend will ultimately take us. There have been several justifications given for this increasing rash of no-platforming, shaming, and at times, physical violence on North American campuses. In essence, these justifications can be distilled into a triad of well-meaning but ultimately flawed theses, namely, 1.) that all discourse is  about power and that any speech that renders a listener physiologically uncomfortable therefore rises to the level of a physical attack upon that individual, thereby justifying actual physical violence in response, 2.) that for the sake of historically marginalized voices, persons who are members of historically privileged groups should forfeit their right to free speech or ought to remain silent, 3.) that certain assertions, even if possibly true, are nonetheless morally impermissible to make since to do so will likely create conditions whereby bad-intentioned persons will inevitably and successfully advance their morally heinous projects.

This first thesis—that all discourse is fundamentally about power—finds its philosophical origins in the likes of post-modernists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. To quote Foucault, “Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations.” Thus, on Foucalt’s view, if all discourse is, at heart, really just veiled force relations between competing groups; if language isn’t fundamentally capable of being about objective truth or about the world in any meaningful sense, then the ink symbols written on the page and the shaped air admitted from one’s mouth in the forms of ‘rationality’, ‘facts’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘truth’ are just another set of weapons in a person’s overall arsenal to seize and maintain power, no different in kind from weapons of a physical sort. To speak then, on Foucault’s view, is to wield a weapon, albeit a subtler and refined one. The uncomfortable physiological feeling of hearing offensive speech, it would then seem, vindicates this view that one is being attacked. One might thus conclude, “Why not attack back with heavier, more effective, and more expedient weapons?”

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Cross Post: The Discomforts of Being a Utilitarian

Written by Hazen Zohny 

Please note that this essay was originally published in Quillette Magazine.


The Discomforts of Being a Utilitarian 

I recently answered the nine questions that make up The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. My result: “You are very utilitarian! You might be Peter Singer.”

This provoked a complacent smile followed by a quick look around to ensure that nobody else had seen this result on my monitor. After all, outright utilitarians still risk being thought of as profoundly disturbed, or at least deeply misguided. It’s easy to see why: according to my answers, there are at least some (highly unusual) circumstances where I would support the torture of an innocent person or the mass deployment of political oppression.

Choosing the most utilitarian responses to these scenarios involves great discomfort. It is like being placed on a debating team and asked to defend a position you abhor. The idea of actually torturing individuals or oppressing dissent evokes a sense of disgust in me – and yet the scenarios in these dilemmas compel me not only to say such acts are permissible, they’re obligatory. Biting bullets is almost always uncomfortable, which goes a long way in explaining the lack of popularity utilitarianism enjoys. But this discomfort largely melts away once we recognize three caveats relevant to the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale and to moral dilemmas more generally.

The first of these relates to the somewhat misleading nature of these dilemmas. They are set up to appear as though you are being asked to imagine just one thing, like torturing someone to prevent a bomb going off, or killing a healthy patient to save five others. In reality, they are asking two things of you: imagining the scenario at hand, and imaging yourself to be a fundamentally different being – specifically, a being that is able to know with certainty the consequences of its actions.

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Medical Treatment Disputes and the International Second Opinion

By Dominic Wilkinson



Disputes about medical treatment for seriously ill children are in the news again. Last week, the High Court in London decided in favour of withdrawal of life support from a brain damaged 11-month old infant, Isaiah Haastrup, against the wishes of his parents (an appeal is pending later this month). This week, the High court, sitting in Liverpool, is hearing evidence in the case of 20-month-old Alfie Evans, an infant with an undiagnosed degenerative brain condition.

In both of these cases, as in the controversial Charlie Gard case from last year, medical evidence from UK professionals has been overwhelmingly in favour of withdrawing life support and allowing the children to die. However, in each case parents have sought and have obtained evidence from overseas medical specialists who have testified in favour of continued treatment. In the Evans case, as in the earlier Gard case, experts from the Vatican hospital in Rome have apparently offered ongoing treatment.

This suggests several questions. First, why is there a difference between the views of specialists in this country and those overseas? Second, if there are differences in expert opinion about treatment for a child, should courts give any more weight to the views of UK experts than those from overseas? Is there a valid reason to discount the international second opinion?

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The ‘Killer Robots’ Are Us

Written by Dr Michael Robillard

In a recent New York Times article Dr Michael Robillard writes: “At a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva in November, a group of experts gathered to discuss the military, legal and ethical dimensions of emerging weapons technologies. Among the views voiced at the convention was a call for a ban on what are now being called “lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

A 2012 Department of Defense directive defines an autonomous weapon system as one that, “once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator. This includes human-supervised autonomous weapon systems that are designed to allow human operators to override operation of the weapon system, but can select and engage targets without further human input after activation.” “

Follow this link to read the article in full.

The Disunity of Utilitarian Psychology: Runaway Trolleys vs. Distant Strangers

Guy Kahane**, Jim A.C. Everett**,

Brian D. Earp, Lucius Caviola, Nadira Faber, Molly Crockett,

and Julian Savulescu

Last week, we invited people to find out “How Utilitarian Are You?” by filling out our newly published Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. The scale was widely shared – even by Peter Singer (who scored predictably highly). The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale does a pretty good job of measuring how well people’s views match up with “classical” utilitarians (think Bentham and Singer), which is the form of utilitarianism we used to anchor the scale. But that’s not all it does. It also teases apart two different dimensions of utilitarian thinking, tracking two ways in which utilitarianism departs from common-sense morality. Our new research recently published in Psychological Review links these two factors to distinct components of human psychology.

The first peculiar aspect of utilitarianism is that it places no constraints whatsoever on the maximization of aggregate well-being. If torturing an innocent person would lead to more good overall, then utilitarianism, in contrast to commonsense morality, requires that the person be tortured. This is what we call instrumental harm: the idea that we are permitted (and even required) to instrumentally use, severely harm, or even kill innocent people to promote the greater good.

The second way that utilitarianism diverges from common-sense morality is by requiring us to impartially maximize the well-being of all sentient beings on the planet in such a way that “[e]ach is to count for one and none for more than one” (Bentham, 1789/1983), not privileging compatriots, family members, or ourselves over strangers – or even enemies. This can be called the positive dimension of utilitarianism, or impartial beneficence.

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How Utilitarian Are You? Measure on The Oxford Utilitarianism Scale

Blog Authors: Julian Savulescu, Brian D. Earp, Jim A.C. Everett, Nadira Faber, and Guy Kahane

This blog reports on the paper, Kahane G, Everett J, Earp BD, Caviola L,  Faber N, Crockett MJ, Savulescu J, Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A Two Dimensional Model of Utilitarian Decision-Making, Psychological Review [open access]

How Utilitarian are you? Answer these 9 questions to find out…

If you enjoyed taking our ‘How Utilitarian Are You?’ test,  read our new blog post discussing how we developed it, what it shows, and why it’s important

Utilitarianism is one of the oldest and most influential theories about what the right thing to do is. It says that the right act is the one which has the best consequences. In the first formulation by Jeremy Bentham, hedonistic utilitarianism, the right act is the one which maximises happiness and minimises suffering. Richard Hare and Peter Singer made preference utilitarianism famous: the right act is the one which maximises satisfaction of preferences.

Utilitarianism was a novel egalitarian theory when it was developed in the 1700s. It was a radical departure from authoritarian, aristocratic or otherwise hierarchical ways of thinking, positing that each person’s happiness and suffering was to count the same. In stark contrast to the social norms of the day, utilitarianism held that the happiness of the pauper is just as important as the happiness of the Prince or the Pope.

Utilitarianism has fallen into disrepute. It is now equated with Machiavellianism: the end justifies the means, whatever those ends may be. It is also seen as coldly calculating, or else simplistically pragmatic. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described it as a morality appropriate for shop keepers. Recently it has even been portrayed a doctrine for psychopaths. Pope Paul II put it succinctly in 1995:

“Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons,’ a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”

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