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In this essay, I will discuss whether non-human animals – herein ‘animals’ – deserve equal consideration of their interests and whether, by not doing so, we are being ‘speciesist’. I will also ask whether ‘speciesism’ can be equated to be as morally wrong as racism. To do this, I will look at rights-based conceptions of justice, concluding that whilst animals deserve not to be mistreated, they lack the ability to claim rights. As such, speciesism is not equatable to racism.

Racism is the structural oppression and the abuse of rights of others based on race, ethnicity or religion. It is considered egregiously morally wrong because race is a morally arbitrary characteristic on which to base the giving or abuse of rights.

“Speciesism” (Singer, 1983) is the systematic ignorance, de-prioritisation and disregard for the interests of other species – in our case, animals. Singer argues that treating animals in ways that we would not treat a human is egregiously morally wrong. This is based on the notion that by using animals for intensive farming or for research, we inflict unjustifiable suffering on the animal. Suffering, no matter what the benefit, is unjustifiable (Regan, 1975).

Singer and Regan argue that the basis of equality, is equality of interests. If we care about utility – and by implication the reduction of suffering and increasing of happiness – then we must give animals extensive protection from suffering, because that is in their interest.

For Regan, this goes one stage further than Singer. He argues that it is killing, more so than simply causing suffering, that is morally wrong. By extension, he argues, animals have a right to life.

The arguments for not causing animals harm, and giving them a right to life, are based on the exposure of humanity’s species-based prejudices. Their central thread relies on undermining the idea that animals lack advanced cognitive ability is a morally relevant characteristic on which to exclude animals from rights or protection of interests; many argue that humans can ignore the interests of animals because animals do not possess the same ability to act rationally as humans. Humans can think freely, are self-aware, rationalise, and so on. This much of course is true of most, but not all humans. Singer and Regan argue that if young children, the severely disabled, or comatose patients are deserving of rights despite lacking advanced cognitive ability or the ability to exercise it, why are animals not?

However, by using examples such as that of young children or the comatose, Singer and Regan are playing on our empathy in order to guilt us towards agreeing with their conclusion that animals deserve equality in the same way that those off different races do.

Fox (1978) argues that rather than arguing about individuals, we tend to focus on collectives when discussing the correct ways to treat their interests. If we take this collective notion as a basis for the comparison of racism and speciesism, the argument from Singer and Regan starts to become less robust. That’s because those of different races and ethnicities, on average, do not have differences in cognitive ability, whilst those of different species, on average, have vastly different ranges of capabilities; a human, on average, has far more advanced cognition than a mouse. Whilst we may have concern for their well-being, attributing rights to animals seems absurd. Taken to its logical conclusion, it either implies a levelling up, so that a mouse has equal rights to a human being – and of course our human rights (as per the UN declaration) extend to education and the like – or it implies a levelling down, where we exclude some humans from having the basic rights we would expect for them.

But why are advanced cognitive abilities – like the ability to be self-aware, or the rationalise – relevant to making these judgements in the first place?

Both Singer and Regan argue for a kind of lowest common denominator, suggesting our ability to suffer and be happy are the only morally important concepts on which to base a scheme of rights. This makes sense from a utilitarian perspective – greatest greatest happiness for the greatest number – but it is practically ignorant.

Whilst Fox argues that these views simply underestimate the magnitude of difference between man’s average capability and animals average capabilities, I believe a stronger argument comes from Cohen (1986). Cohen provides us with a conception of rights that justifiably excludes animals; at least when combined with Fox’s view of average capacity. Moreover, he also provides us with the view that severely weakens the speciesism argument and the equivalence to racism.

Cohen (1986) argues that rights are claims which a party is able to exercise against another within a moral community. As moral communities, they are necessarily human as, on average, they are the only species capable of partaking in these communities. By extension advanced cognition is, necessarily, morally relevant. People of different races can claim rights in a moral community; animals cannot defend or claim rights because they lack the ability to be members of moral communities. Animals cannot have their rights violated because they have no rights to violate; those of different races can. This is not to say we don’t need to treat animals with respect, but animals have no claim over us as a species. Instead, we could only ever have a moral obligation to reduce their suffering.

Cohen’s view provides the answer to our question. Racism, as seen as the structural oppression and abuse of rights based on race, is insipid because it infringes the rights of rational actors within a moral community, as well as causing suffering and reducing overall happiness. What separates slaves from cows on a farm is that racist slaveowners ignored the former’s cognitive abilities whilst a farmer can’t ignore the latter’s. Humans do not ignore animal cognition because there is none to ignore, and thus do not ignore a claim to rights. Racism cannot be equated to speciesism if we take a rights-based approach to the issue. Racists denying people’s rights, speciesists do not.

To conclude, it is not clear that animals deserve equal status as humans when we discuss rights. People of different races are not distinct from each other in their average capabilities, but people are distinct from other animals in morally relevant ways. Speciesism exists to the extent that we may ignore the interests of animals, but they cannot have rights and thus speciesism is not as bad as racism.