E. Specific Issues - Speciesism
- Chief Advocates
- Richard Ryder
- Peter Singer
- Similar sentiments from previous centuries
- Continuities with earlier shifts in sensibilities regarding animals
- The Christian tradition has encouraged 'speciesist' thinking
- Christian regard for animals
- The abolition of animal sacrifice
- Future mutuality
- The good shepherd metaphor
- The Roman Catholic Catechism
- More radical Christian exposition of the interests of animals
E6 a) Introduction
The term 'speciesism' is relatively new, but not notions behind it. It has gained wide currency amongst 'animal liberationists' in the course of the last quarter century. In effect, it challenges the anthropocentric assumption that human beings matter more than all other living beings. It does so by asserting that species each matter in their own right. Any thinking or behaviour to the contrary is consciously or unconsciously engaging in negative discrimination.
Areas in which it is claimed that there is strongest evidence of the interests and rights of animals being abused are: hunting, intensive farming, laboratory testing, and meat-eating.
E6 b) Chief Advocates
6b) i Richard Ryder
"In 1970 I produced a leaflet entitled Speciesism - an idea that had come to me in the bath one day, and circulated it in Oxford. It received no response at all. Undaunted, I asked a friend, David Wood, to add his name to a second (illustrated) version in order to give it a university address and circulated this version in the Oxford colleges. Again, no response! Still unabashed I went on to write three leaflets (published by Clive Hollands) all with an ethical theme, and all attacking speciesism. In all these I opposed the infliction of suffering upon animals and drew attention to the similarity between species. I referred to Darwin, identified pain as the essential harm and rejected justifying the pain of one in terms of the aggregated benefits to many. My chapter in Animals Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, and published in 1971, contained the same ideas.
When first I met Peter Singer, in the same year, I believe, I remember discussing all this with him on several occasions. I list all this to indicate that my ethical ideas have not much changed since 1970. I have consistently believed that suffering is the basic evil and that the individual - not the species nor the aggregated experiences of the group, are the focus of concern."
Dr. Richard D. Ryder is a psychologist, ethicist, historian and political campaigner. He is also a past chairman of the RSPCA. His books include Animal Revolution: changing Attitudes towards Speciesism (2000), Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research, The Political Animal: The Conquest of Speciesism and Animal Welfare and the Environment. As Mellon Professor, he taught Animal Welfare at Tulane University. Most recently he has coined the term 'painience'.
6b) ii Peter Singer
In a succession of books since 1975, Singer has mounted an academic campaign to match his personal conviction that that human abuse of animals, not least in eating them, amounts to mass murder
The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognise that our obligations extend to all human beings. The process should not stop there. In my earlier book, Animal Liberation, I showed that it is as arbitrary to restrict the principle of equal consideration of interests to our own species as it would be to restrict it to our own race. The only justifiabe stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism. This means that all beings with the capacity to feel pleasure or pain should be included; we can improve their welfare by increasing their pleasures and diminishing their pains.
The expansion of the moral circle should therefore be pushed out until it includes most animals. (I say "most" rather than "all" because there comes a point as we move down the evolutionary scale - oysters, perhaps, or even more rudimentary organisms - when it becomes doubtful if the creature we are dealing with is capable of feeling anything.) From an impartial point of view, the pleasures and pains of non-human animals are no less significant because the animals are not members of the species Homo sapiens. This does not mean that a human being and a mouse must always be treated equally, or that their lives are of equal value. Humans have interests - in ideas, in education, in their future plans - that mice are not capable of having. It is only when we are comparing similar interests - of which the interest in avoiding pain is the most important example - that the principle of equal consideration of interests demands that we give equal weight to the interests of the human and the mouse.The Expanding Circle. Ethics and Sociobiology (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1981) pp 120-21
Comprehensice gateway site to Peter Singer's CV, publications (including extensive on-line versions) and interviews
6b) iii. Similar sentiments from previous centuries
Jeremy Bentham 1789
The day has been, I grieve to say in many places it is not yet passed, in which the greater part of the species, under the denominatinof slaves, have ben treated by the law exactly on the same footing as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animals creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them, but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered (Louis XIV's Code Noir) that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer? Jeremy Bentham The Principles of Morals and Legislation 1789 Ch 17, Section 4, note 1
Charles Darwen c.1871
"As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts, and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shows us how long it is before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions.....This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually through public opinion."
Charles Darwen Descent of Man pp 100-1 John Murray 1871
6b) iv. Continuities with earlier shifts in sensibilities regarding animals
In his study of Man and the Natural World. Changng Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Allen Lane 1983), the Oxford historian Keith Thomas give detailed documentation of heightening concern for the fate of animals. In closing, he draws a challenging parallel with today:
"Oliver Goldsmith wrote of is contemporaries that 'they pity and they eat the objects of their compassion.' The same might be said of the children of today, who nourished by a meat diet and protected by a medicine developed by animal experiments, nevertheless take toy animals to bed and lavish their affections on lambs and ponies. For adults, nature parks and conservation areas serve a function not unlike that which toy animals have for children; they are fantasies which enshrine the values by which society as a whole cannot afford to live."
Op.cit OUP edition 1996, p: 301
E6 c) The Christian tradition has encouraged 'speciesist' thinking
The charge is made that mainstream Christianity, consciously or otherwise, has actively promoted the attitude of human superiority over animalkind in such a way as to encourage treatment which was and is both unfair and wrong. It has done so under the influence of two very influential resources: the Bible and Thomas Aquinas.
6c) i. Biblical licence from God in Genesis
Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image and likeness to rule the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild animals on earth, and all reptiles that crawl upon the earth.' So God created man in his own image; in the image of god, he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-7
God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall fall upon all wild animals on earth, on all birds of heaven, on everything that moves upon the ground and all fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Every creature that lives and moves shall be food for you; I give you them all, as once I gave you all green plants. Genesis 9: 1-3
6c) ii. Aquinas drawing on the Bible and Aristotle
Let him rule the fishes of the sea and the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. In nature the less perfect serve the more perfect: plants feed on the earth, animals on plants, and men on both plants and animals.. Moreover, the instincts of animals to behave in certain particular ways is a sort of sharing in man's universal practical sense which can reason our all behaviour. So the subordination of animals to man is natural…He shares reason with the angels, natural vital powers with plants, and the body itself with all non-living things
Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae (vol 13:96:1) ed Timothy McDermott (Methuen 1989) p 146-7
Strictly speaking we cannot will good to creatures lacking reason, since only reasoning creatures possess goods in the strict sense, having authority to use them as they will. Moreover, friendship builds on life in common, which we have with non-reasoning creatures only metaphorically. Charity, especially, is based on sharing an eternal happiness of which non-reasoning creatures are incapable. But we can love non-reasoning creatures as good things to be conserved to the honour of God and the serving of man; which is the way God loves them too.
(vol 34: 25:3) Summa Theologiae p 354-5
Plants - the lowest level of life - exist for animals, and animals for men; so there is nothing wrong in using plants for the sake of animals, or animals for men's sake. However, what animals most need plants for, and men animals, is food, and for that they must be killed. So it is legitimate, As Genesis teaches, for animals to kill plants and men to kill animals for their respective benefits. Moreover, every individual person is as it were a part of the whole community. If a man is a danger to the community threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the general good is to be commended. In doing wrong men depart from their human dignity in which they are by nature free and exist for their own sake into the subject state of animals that must serve the needs of others. So it becomes justifiable to kill a malefactor as one would kill an animal. An evil man, says Aristotle, is worse than an animal and more harmful.
(Vol 38: 64 1-2) Summa Theologiae p 389.
General impressions would confirm that this thinking has predominated within the orbit of Christendom. Christians have been carnivores. They have also been very pleased by the products of animal hide - not just for leather shoes and saddles, but once upon a time for writing on:
"It took the skins of some 350 calves and innumerable hours of scribal labour to produce a whole Bible of moderate size.."
Dennis Nineham Christianity Mediaeval and Modern SCM 1993 p 41
E6 d) Christian regard for animals
In spite of their traditional affirmations of human sovereignty over animals and of their greater reasoning powers, Christians have commonly demonstrated high regard for the welfare of animals:
6d) i. The abolition of animal sacrifice
The sacrificial killing of animals has been widespread across civilisations and cultures. It may have been an act of penitence on the one hand or celebration, praise and thanksgiving on the other. This was standard practice in the parental Jewish tradition from which Christianity emerged. From its inception, however, it has regarded such sacrifice as wrong. It was seen as subject to the kind of criticism found in the writings of earlier eighth century prophets, like Amos, first Isaiah and Hosea:
Therefore have I lashed you through the prophets
And torn you to shreds with my words;
Loyalty is my desire, not sacrifice,
Not whole-offerings but the knowledge of God
It was also ended once and for all by the death of Jesus, which seen as moving the world beyond one in which it was any longer necessary to use that kind of language:
…in these sacrifices year after year sins are brought to mind, because sins can never be removed by the blood of bulls and goats…First he says, 'Sacrifices and offerings, whole offerings and sin offerings, thou dost not desire or delight in' - although the Law prescribes them - and then he says, 'I have come to do thy will.' He annuls the former and establishes the latter. And it is by the will of God that we have been consecrated, through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all….Through Jesus, then, let us continually offer up to God the sacrifice of praise, that is the tribute of lips which acknowledge his name, and never forget to show kindness and to share what you have with others; for such are the sacrifices which God approves.
Hebrews 10: 4,8-10; 13: 15-16
6d) ii. Future mutuality
Then the wolf shall live with the sheep,
and the leopard lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall grow up together,
and a little child shall lead them;
the cow and the bear shall be friends,
and their young shall lie down together.
The lion shall eat straw like cattle;
The infant shall play over the hole of the cobra,
And the young child dance over the viper's nest.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
For as the waters fill the sea,
So shall the land be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.
Isaiah 11: 6-9.
6d) iii. The good shepherd metaphor
Attributed to Jesus himself in the gospels and widely used by subsequent Christian writers and artists, the force of the image depends upon the cherishing of animals which is regarded as normal. For instance, this is an extract from one of Chrysostom's reflections on the text of Romans. It was written around 395AD:
For the souls of the Saints are very gentle and, loving unto man, both in regard to their own, and to strangers. And even to the unreasoning creatures they extend their gentleness. Wherefore also a certain wise man said, "The righteous pitieth the souls of his cattle." But if he doth those of cattle, how much more those of men. But since I have mentioned cattle, let us just consider the shepherds of the sheep who are in the Cappadocian land, and what they suffer in kind and degree in their guardianship of unreasoning creatures. They often stay for three days together buried down under the snows. And those in Libya are said to undergo no less hardships than these, ranging about for whole months through that wilderness, dreary as it is, and filled with the direst wild beasts (qhria may include serpents). Now if for unreasonable things there be so much zeal, what defense are we to set up, who are entrusted with reasonable souls, and yet slumber on in this deep sleep? For is it right to be at rest, and in quiet, and not to be running about everywhere, and giving one's self up to endless deaths in behalf of these sheep?
St. John Chrysostom Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans: Homily 29 on Romans 15 (verse 24).
6d) iv. The Roman Catholic Catechism
The action of Pope Pius IX in opposing the establishment of a Society opposed to cruelty to animals in Rome in the1860s is often cited to illustrate the typical stance of the Church regarding animals. The current catechism is more representative and authoritative:
2416 Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.197 Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.
2417 God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.
2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.Catechism of the Catholic Church G Chapman 1994
E6 e) More radical Christian exposition of the interests of animals
6e) i. Introduction
The account of animals represented by Chrysostom and the Catechism does not meet the criticisms of those who campaign for Animal Rights. It would still be perceived as speciesist in the rank inferiority of all animals in relation to human beings. It continues to chew the flesh of other creatures and it is ever ready to invoke 'human interest' as a basis for treating animals in ways which would now largely never be used with fellow humans.
But if the likes of Richard Ryder and Peter Singer would not be satisfied, neither would be some individual Christians who present a powerful plea for urgent re-think on the part of the Churches world-wide.
6e) ii. Albert Schweitzer
Schweitzer's decision to spend fifty years of his life and Christian ministry in Africa was based in part on his conviction that European Christendom had got the gospel wrong. In seeking to promote 'reverence for all of life' he had animals as well as humans in mind.
The basic principle of the moral which is a necessity of thought means, however, not only an ordering and deepening, but also a widening of the current views of good and evil. A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. He does not ask how far this or that life deserves one's sympathy as being valuable, nor, beyond that, whether and to what degree it is capable of feeling. Life as such is sacred to him. He tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower, and takes care to crush no insect. If in summer he is working by lamplight, he prefers to keep his windows shut and breathe a stuffy atmosphere rather than see one insect after another fall with singed wings upon his table.If he walks on the road after a shower and sees an earthworm which has strayed on to it, he bethinks himself that it must get dried up on the sun, if it does not return soon enough to ground into which it can burrow, so he lifts it from the deadly stone surface, and puts it on the grass. If he comes across an insect which has fallen into a puddle, he stops a moment in order to hold out a leaf or a stalk on which it can save itself.
He is not afraid of being laughed at as sentimental. It is the fate of every truth to be a subject for laughter until it is generally recognized. Once it was considered folly to assume that men of colour were really men and ought to be treated as such, but the folly has become an accepted truth. To-day it is thought to be going too far to declare that constant regard for everything that lives, down to the lowest manifestations of life, is a demand made by rational ethics. The time is coming, however, when people will be astonished that mankind needed so long a time to learn to regard thoughtless injury to life as incompatible with ethics.
The Philosophy of Civilization (originally published in 1923) trans. by C. T. Campion Buffalo: Prometheus, 1987, ch 26. Full text:
6e) iii. Stephen R L Clark
Clark's writings as a moral philosopher are informed from start to finish by a Christian theism that makes radical assertion of the value of all being to God. Each and every being deserves its own freedom, however anarchic the consequences. The moral worth of all animals must be affirmed. These views have been expounded by him based principally at Liverpool University. They are set out initially in his 1977 book The Moral Status of Animals Clarendon Press:
He is critical of process theologians like John Cobb who speak confidently of the 'biotic pyramid' with human beings at the apex, justified in that position by their capacity for richer experience:
My own suspicion is that a 'healthy biotic pyramid', at best, means only that every individual has enough to breathe, eat, drink as long as it lasts (which may nopt be very long) and nothing gets eaten by an individual with a 'poorer' sense-experience. Some people influenced by this appear to find the existence,say, of bird-eating spiders more offensive than that of spider-eating birds, and moralistically condemn 'man-eaters'. My further suspicion is that the criterion of richness (since we cannot actually apply it) will turn out in practice simply to excuse the old familiar hierarchy: men, women, children (especially if they are civilised), dogs and cats and chorses, donkeys and other 'higher' mammals, 'lower' mammals (as long as they aren't rats), birds, fish and reptiles, creepy-crawlies, vermin and the rest. And a special thank-you for what 'kills all known gernms'. In brief the attempt to justify human pre-eminence by talking about the richness and intensity of our personal lives will end up by excusing all the old ways. How to think about the earth. Philosophical and theological models for ecology - Mowbray 1993, p 107
More details of Stephen Clark's publications can be found on his website:
6e iv) Andrew Linzey
The radical nature and extent of Andrew Linzey's stance is first articulated in his Animal Rights: a Christian Assessment which was published in 1976. He has continually developed and expressed his position in subsequent years, perhaps most fully in Animal Theology SCM 1994. He takes issue with the anthropocentrism of 'Liberation Theologians' and brands animal experiments, hunting and genetic engineering as, respectively 'un-Godly sacrifices', 'the anti-Gospel of predation' and 'animal slavery'. In contrast, vegetarianism is a Biblical ideal.
Shifts of consciousness, sometimes gradual, sometimes dramatic, are not beyond the wit of the human species. What is significant is that sometimes dream-like, visionary hypotheses suddenly acquire a powerful hold on the collective imagination and release new bursts of moral energy. The divine right of humans may be an idea whose time has gone. That humans should use their power in defence of the weak, especially the weak of other species, and that humans should actively seek the liberation of all beings capable of knowing their oppression and suffering may be an idea whose time has come.
Animal Theology p 74
It is for this reason that I also want to conclude that vegetarianism - far from being some kind of optional moral extra or some secondary moral consideration - is in fact an implicitly theological act of the greatest significance. By refusing to kill and eat meat, we are witnessing to a higher order of existence, implicit in the Logos, which is struggling to be born in us. By refusing to go the way of our 'natural nature' or our 'psychological nature', by standing against the order of unredeemed nature we become signs of the order of existence for which all creatures long.
Animal Theology pp 90-1
A detailed study guide to Animal Theology is available at: