A Simple Picture of Speciesism and Linked Oppression

The term “speciesism” is largely unknown to or misunderstood by the general public. The following post is not a detailed explanation of speciesism, but rather a brief illustration to help introduce the idea to some and clarify it for others. 

Consider a company whose employees work the same job for the same hours with the same results. White male employees are paid a certain wage while all of the other employees are paid half as much. After admitting that race and ethnicity are irrelevant characteristics for determining pay, the company agrees to pay its non-white male employees equally with its white male employees.

In response, the female employees argue the same case, claiming that just as race and ethnicity are irrelevant characteristics for determining pay, so are sex and gender. Being a “man” or “woman” is irrelevant to how much one should be paid for equal work. Disregarding the validity of their claim, the company responds with “But you’re not men” and does not change their pay. This denial of equal pay for equal work based solely on sex or gender membership is sexist and genderist, thus unfair and unjust.

The same mechanism of injustice operates with speciesism, or discrimination based exclusively on species membership. In the example above, imagine a nonhuman animal performing the same job for the same number of hours with the same results. It would only be fair and just to compensate the nonhuman employee equally with the human employees. It may be true that the nonhuman does not belong to the human species, but that fact is simply irrelevant for determining pay, just as it is with race, ethnicity, sex, and gender. Denying a nonhuman employee equal pay for equal work based solely on species membership is speciesist. It too is unfair and unjust.

Now most nonhuman animals do not possess the relevant characteristics to perform various human jobs. However, most if not all nonhuman animals possess the relevant characteristic, namely sentience, to qualify for ethical protections from harm and killing. All sentient beings possess, by virtue of their sentience, the interests in not being harmed and not being killed. Just as all humans are protected from harm and killing based on their common possession of these interests and not on their abilities to perform this or that job (or anything else), so too should any being possessing these interests. In short, a sentient being’s inherent possession of the interests in not being harmed and not being killed is the relevant characteristic for protecting that being from harm and killing. Disregarding the validity of this claim and responding with “But they’re not human” is no different than defending unequal pay for women with “But they’re not men.” To deny nonhuman animals protection from harm and killing when they possess the relevant qualifying characteristic for that protection is patently speciesist. Once again, unfair and unjust.

Note that all of these forms of discrimination—racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, genderism, speciesism—are linked by an appeal to irrelevant characteristics to justify the unequal treatment of those who should be treated equally. For this reason, any opposition to one form of discrimination is intrinsically linked to other forms of opposition through a shared rejection of the underlying mechanism. Anti-discrimination movements are thus mutually supportive, as opposition to racism only strengthens opposition to sexism only strengthens opposition to speciesism. The case against speciesism and for animal rights in no way diminishes the case for human rights. In fact it only emboldens it.

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