Speciesism, Dominionism and the Last Frontier of Social Justice
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Heidi Stephenson
February 2017

This keynote feature by Dr. Tom Regan was commissioned by British writer and activist Heidi Stephenson for a special edition of Resurgence magazine, entitled Animals: A New Ethics, which she guest-edited in 2012. It was first published in March 2012.

"Speciesism is a moral prejudice and it’s wrong," says Tom Regan.

To outsiders, animal rights advocates look like a strange lot. We don’t eat meat, avoid cosmetics tested on animals, and boycott performing animal acts. Drape ourselves in fur? Forget it. ARAs don’t even wear leather or wool. Many people view ARAs as certifiable, grade-A, top of the class nut cases. Reduced to its essentials, however, what we believe is just plain common sense.

What ARAs Believe

We believe the animals killed for food, trapped for fur, used in laboratories, or trained to jump through hoops are unique somebodies - not generic somethings. We believe that what happens to them matters to them. Why?  Because what happens to them makes a difference to the quality and duration of their lives.

In these respects, ARAs believe that humans and these animals are the same, are equal. And so it is that all ARAs share a common moral outlook: We should not do to them what we would not have done to us. Not eat them. Not wear them. Not experiment on them. Not make them jump through hoops. “Not larger cages,” we say, “empty cages.”

The Spectre of Speciesism

The argument for animal rights just sketched implies that humans and other animals are equal in morally relevant respects. Some philosophers, Carl Cohen principal among them, repudiate any form of species egalitarianism. According to Cohen, whereas humans are equal in morally relevant respects, regardless of our race, gender or ethnicity, humans and other animals are not morally equal in any respect, not even when it comes to suffering.

Here are a few examples that will clarify his position. First, imagine that a boy and girl suffer equally. If someone assigns greater moral weight to the boy’s suffering because he is a white male from Ireland, and less moral weight to the girl’s suffering because she is a black female from Kenya, Cohen would protest—and rightly so. Human racial, gender and ethnic differences are not morally relevant differences.

According to Cohen, however, the situation differs when it comes to differences in species. Imagine that a cat and dog both suffer as much as the boy and girl. For Cohen, there is nothing morally prejudicial, nothing morally arbitrary in assigning greater importance to the suffering of the children, because they are human, than to the equal suffering of the animals, because they are not.

Proponents of animal rights deny this. We believe that views like Cohen’s reflect a moral prejudice against animals that is fully analogous to more familiar moral prejudices, like sexism and racism.  We call this prejudice “Speciesism.” (An important term first coined by Richard Ryder in his book Victims of Science.)

For his part, Cohen takes pride in being a speciesist but denies it is a prejudice. Human suffering, he writes, does “somehow” count for more than the equal suffering of animal suffering. Why? Because (he thinks) while there are no morally relevant differences between human men and women, or between whites and blacks, “the morally relevant differences [between humans and other animals] are enormous.” In particular, human beings but not other animals are “morally autonomous;” we can, but they cannot, make moral choices for which we are morally responsible.

Why Speciesism is a Prejudice

Cohen’s defense of speciesism is no defense at all. Not only does he conveniently overlook the fact that a very large percentage of the human population (pre-verbal infants and young children, for example) are not morally autonomous; moral autonomy is not relevant to the issues at hand. An example will help explain why. Imagine someone says that Jack is smarter than Jill because Jack lives in Syracuse, Jill in San Francisco. Where the two live is different, certainly; and where different people live is sometimes a relevant consideration (for example, when a census is taken or taxes are levied). But everyone will recognize that where Jack and Jill live has no logical bearing on whether Jack is smarter.

The same is no less true when a speciesist says (using two important characters from The Wizard of Oz) that Toto’s suffering counts for less than the equal suffering of Dorothy because Dorothy, but not Toto, is morally autonomous. “Does Toto's pain count as much as Dorothy's?” We are given no relevant reason for thinking one way or another if we are told that Dorothy is morally autonomous, Toto not. This is not because the capacity for moral autonomy is never relevant to our moral thinking about humans and other animals.

Sometimes it is. If Jack and Jill have this capacity, then they (but not Toto) will have an interest in being free to act as their conscience dictates. In this sense, the difference between Jack and Jill, on the one hand, and Toto, on the other, is morally relevant. But just because moral autonomy is morally relevant to the assessment of some cases, it does not follow that it is relevant in all cases. And one case in which it is not relevant is the assessment of pain. Logically, to discount Toto's pain because Toto is not morally autonomous is fully analogous to discounting Jill's intelligence because she does not live in Syracuse.

The question, then, is whether any defensible, relevant reason can be offered in support of the speciesist judgment that the moral importance of human and animal pain, equal in other respects, always should be weighted in favour of the human being over the animal being. To this question, neither Cohen nor any other philosopher, to my knowledge, offers a logically relevant answer.

To persist in judging human pains (the same applies to equal pleasures, benefits, harms, and so on) as being more important than the like pains of other animals, because they are human pains, is not rationally defensible. Speciesism is a moral prejudice. Contrary to Cohen’s assurances to the contrary, it is wrong, not right.


People sometimes attempt to defend speciesism by appealing to the dominion God gave to humans. The oft-recited passage from Genesis 1.26 (English Standard Version) reads:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
What could be clearer than that the Bible teaches human superiority over other species, from which it follows (speciesists like Cohen will contend) that we do nothing wrong when we turn animals into food, or clothes, or performers. After all, it’s not as if animals are given dominion over humans.

Yes, but. . . . we need to remember that the Bible also teaches that God has dominion over us, and though God could use divine power to exploit us to divine ends, that’s not what the Bible teaches, especially in the books of the new testament. Rather than God exploiting humans, for divine glory, God sacrifices God’s own son for humans.
Note as well that, in Genesis, God grants humans dominion after the fall—after Adam and Eve commit the original sin. Before the fall--before they disappoint God’s hopes as the jewels in the crown of creation--the circumstances are quite different. Recall the relevant passage (Genesis, 1:29):

 And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.

In other words, before the fall, while they lived in paradise, Adam and Eve were vegans. They did not eat animal flesh or animal products. Indeed, they did not wear animal skin or fur. Adam and Eve: the original ARAs.

For those of a certain religious inclination, then, God’s hope in creating the world included peaceful relations between humans and other animals, as exemplified in the Garden of Eden. ARAs who have this same inclination see themselves--in their everyday decisions, concerning what they eat and wear, for example--as taking small but meaningful steps on their journey back to Eden—back to the inter-species peaceful world God created in the first place.

“Humane treatment” is the law

Comparatively speaking, few people are Animal Rights Advocates. Why? Part of the answer concerns our disparate beliefs about how often animals are treated badly. ARAs believe this is a tragedy of incalculable proportions. Non-ARAs tend to believe mistreatment occurs hardly at all. That non-ARAs think this way seems eminently reasonable. After all, we have laws governing how animals may be treated and a cadre of government inspectors who make sure these laws are obeyed.  Right?

And what do our laws require? In the language of America’s Animal Welfare Act, animals must receive “humane care and treatment.” In other words, animals must be treated with sympathy and kindness, with mercy and compassion, the very meaning of the word ‘humane’. It says so in any standard dictionary.

If things were as bad as ARAs say they are, there should be an enormous amount of inhumane treatment brought to light by government inspectors. Yet this is precisely what government inspectors do not find.  For fiscal year 2009, the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) conducted 11,179 compliance inspections. Of that total, only 43 sites received formal complaints that were sent to the Administrative Law Court. An apparent compliance rate of over 99%.

No wonder the general public believes that, with rare exceptions, animals are treated with mercy and kindness, with sympathy and compassion.

The myth of “humane care and treatment”

Tragically, the public’s trust in the adequacy of government inspections is misplaced. What APHIS inspectors count as ‘humane’ undermines the inspections before they are conducted. Consider some examples of what happens to animals in research laboratories:

  •  Cats, dogs, nonhuman primates, and other animals are drowned, suffocated, and starved to death.
  • They are burned, subjected to radiation, and used as “guinea pigs” in military research.
  • Their eyes are surgically removed and their hearing is destroyed.
  • They have their limbs severed and organs crushed.
  • Invasive means are used to give them heart attacks, ulcers, and seizures.
  • They are deprived of sleep, subjected to electric shock, and exposed to extremes of heat and cold.

Every one of these procedures and outcomes complies with the Animal Welfare Act. Each conforms with what APHIS inspectors count as “humane care and treatment.” 

It only gets worse

Per annum, the number of animals used in research laboratories subject to APHIS inspections is estimated to be twenty million. This figure, though large, is dwarfed by the ten billion animals annually slaughtered to be eaten, just in the United States alone.

Remarkably, farmed animals are explicitly excluded from the legal protection provided by the Animal Welfare Act. Here is what the AWA says: 

“The term ‘animal’. . . excludes horses not used for research purposes and other farm animals, such as, but not limited to, livestock or poultry, used or intended for food or fiber . . .”

Moreover, after due-diligence hearings and debate, the United States Congress, in 2002, voted to continue to exclude birds, rats and mice from AWA protection too.

But if not our government, who decides what humane care and treatment means for farmed animals, for example? In the real-politik of American animal agriculture, it’s the farmed animal industries who get to write the rules. And what treatment might those rules allow? Here are some examples:

  • “Veal” calves spend their entire lives individually confined to narrow stalls too narrow for them to turn around in.
  • Laying hens live a year or more in cages the size of a filing drawer, seven or more per cage, after which they are routinely starved for two weeks to encourage another laying cycle.
  • Sows are housed for four or five years in individual barred enclosures (“gestation stalls”), barely wider than their bodies, where they are forced to birth litter after litter.
  • Until the “Mad Cow” scare, beef and dairy cattle too weak to stand (known as “downers”) were dragged or pushed to their slaughter.
  • Geese and ducks are force-fed the human equivalent of thirty pounds of food per day to enlarge their livers, the better to meet the demand for foie gras.

All these conditions and procedures demonstrate the relevant industry’s commitment to mercy and kindness, compassion and sympathy.

Don’t forget the fibre

In the newspeak of the Animal Welfare Act, not just “food” animals fail to qualify as “animals.” The same is true of any whatcha-ma-call-it (aka animals) used for fibre. For leather, for example. Or wool. Or fur.

This is fact, not fiction.

Fur bearing animals, whether trapped in the wild or raised on fur farms, are exempt from the legal protection, scant though it is, provided by the AWA. As is true of animal agriculture, the fur industry gets to set its own rules and regulations of “humane care.”

And what might “humane” fur farming or trapping permit? Here are some examples.

  •  On fur farms, mink, chinchilla, raccoon, lynx, foxes and other fur bearing animals are confined in wire-mesh cages for the duration of their lives.
  • Waking hours are spent pacing back and forth, or rolling their heads, or jumping up the sides of their cages, or mutilating themselves, or cannibalizing their cage mates.
  • Death is caused by breaking their necks, or by asphyxiation (using carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide), or by shoving electric rods up their anus to “fry” them from the inside out. (Anal electrocution.)
  • Animals trapped in the wild take, on average, fifteen hours to die. Trapped fur-bearers frequently chew themselves apart in a futile attempt to save their lives.

All perfectly legal; every bit of it in keeping with industry standards for kindness and mercy, sympathy and compassion.

Time to get mad

Those of us of a certain age remember the immortal words of the television presenter Howard Beale, in the film Network. “Things are crazy,” says Beale. “The world is a mess. People need to get mad. Real mad. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs,” he says to his viewers, “go to the window, open it, stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”

People who trust what industry spokespersons and government inspectors tell them about the “humane care and treatment” of animals need to follow Howard Beale’s admonition. They need to get mad as hell, and this, for two reasons.  Firstly, because of how they have been abused. The plain fact is, they haven’t been told the truth. Instead, they’ve been misled and manipulated by industry and government spokespersons. “Trust us: All is well at the lab, on the farm, in the wild. Animals are being treated humanely.” Secondly, people need to get mad as hell because of how animals are being abused. When the organs of animals are crushed and their limbs severed; when they are made sick by the food they are forced to eat and spend their entire lives alone, in isolation; when they are gassed to death or have their necks broken: no propaganda machine in the world can turn these appalling facts into something they are not. 

If the day finally comes when the general public does get mad as hell, the ranks of animal rights advocates will grow in unprecedented numbers. When that day comes - but not until it does - our shared hope for a world in which animals are truly treated humanely will finally have some realistic legs to stand on.

The Last Frontier of Social Justice

In the spirit of Howard Beale, ARAs call upon humans everywhere to understand where we are coming from. We are abolitionists, not reformists. We want to end humanity’s exploitation of other animals, not make it ‘nicer.’ Why? Because we believe that the recognition of animal rights represents the last frontier of social justice.

Those who opposed human slavery were not reformers either. They were abolitionists. They fought to end slavery, completely. Those who worked for (and continue to work for) women’s rights and the rights of gays and lesbians are not reformers. They are abolitionists too. They fought (and continue to fight) for an end to all forms of discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, completely.

ARAs invite others to join us on this last frontier of social justice. Human exploitation of other animals is rooted in deep, speciesist prejudice. There is no getting around that fact. Because speciesism is indefensible, this exploitation is indefensible too. When the dust of debate settles, there is only one adequate response: to abolish the tyranny we exercise over other animals. Completely.

Tom Regan is emeritus professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University. Identified as “the philosophical leader of the animal rights movement,” the editors of Utne Reader also named him, along with the Dali Lama, as one of “fifty visionaries who are changing the world.” His many books include: Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights, The Case For Animal Rights and Animal Rights: Human Wrongs: An Introduction To Moral Philosophy.

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