Speciesism: why do we love one animal but condemn the other?

| September 23, 2014

Speciesism is a term that describes our discrimination of animals on the basis of them belonging to a certain species. Emmanuel Giuffre from the animal protection institute Voiceless says it is time to rethink our inconsistent relationship with animals.

In Australia, we love our dogs and cats, yet continue to eat pigs, cows and chickens in their hundreds of thousands. We condemn other nations for hunting whales and dolphins, but happily consume seafood and hunt fish for sport.

Giving preferable treatment to one species over another is consistent with the notion of “speciesism” which was a term first articulated by Richard Ryder in the 1970s. Simply put, speciesism is a theory which seeks to explain mankind’s discrimination against or exploitation of animals on the basis of their membership to a certain species.

Traditionally, speciesism has focused on mankind’s discrimination of all animals on the assumption that we are somehow superior to them. Speciesism can also be applied to our preferential treatment of certain animals over others. In her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows, Melanie Joy labelled the invisible belief system that we use for consuming some animals while loving others as ‘carnism’ – a subset of speciesism. Dr Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales has also labelled our inconsistent treatment of animals as ‘the Meat Paradox’.

Both speciesism and carnism are belief systems or ideologies that are a deeply rooted, often unquestionably, in our cultural norms and collective psyche. And just as racist societies will have racist laws, a speciesist or carnistic society will give rise to speciesist and carnistic laws.

Speciesism has been entrenched within Western legal systems since ancient Roman law first categorised humans as ‘legal persons’ and animals ‘things’. As property, animals share the same legal status as inanimate objects and are capable of being owned by humans.

Animal cruelty laws also offer animals different levels of protections according to their species. Generally, the law operates to afford companion animals such as dogs and cats greater legal protections than those who serve a commercial purpose – such as pigs, chickens and cows.

In NSW, for example, farmers are not required to provide ‘stock’ animals – such as cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens – adequate exercise.[1] Industry guidelines also permit animals to be permanently confined in barren cages and stalls, whilst permitting a raft of cruel mutilation practices to be performed on them, such as tail docking, dehorning, de-beaking and castration.

If companion animals were treated in this way, it would undoubtedly be considered socially unacceptable and unlawful. For farmed animals, however, this cruelty is justified; often on the basis that there is an assumed intellectual and emotional gulf between those species that ‘matter’ and those that don’t.

Since the work of Charles Darwin, as well as a number of leading animal welfare experts, it has become abundantly clear that this gulf is significantly less apparent than once thought. Like us, many animals are intelligent, emotionally complex sentient beings, capable of having preferences, forming close relationships and feeling pleasure and pain.

This is as true of food animals – such as pigs, chickens and cows – as it is of domestic pets, dolphins, whales and the great apes.

While certain species may not be as intellectually or emotionally sophisticated as humans or other animals, this is not a valid justification for depriving them of our moral consideration.

As with race or sex, membership of a species or intellectual capacity is arbitrary and illogical reasons for prescribing or depriving individuals of moral worth. It is time to rethink our irrational and inconsistent relationship with animals.

In a new seminar series, Voiceless, the animal protection institute, will be looking at these issues from a legal, ethical and psychological perspective. The seminar will feature a panel of renowned speakers who will consider the psychological and ethical underpinnings of speciesism, the laws that regulate our relationship with animals and how these laws facilitate discrimination on the basis of species and commercial use.

Voiceless Rethinking: Speciesism will be held at the University of Queensland on Thursday 16 October. The event is free to attend.

[1] Section 9, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW).