Speciesism – A Critical Book Review


In the last post we have mentioned Joan Dunayer’s definition of speciesism and it seems that the spirit of some of the ideas she argued in her book Speciesism from a decade ago are expressed in the World Day for the End of Speciesism, so we thought that for a completer view, a critical review of the book is necessary.

Basically the book deals with the definition of speciesism, with what Dunayer calls old-speciesist philosophy, old- speciesist laws and old-speciesist advocacy, then with what she calls new-speciesist philosophy, new-speciesist laws and new-speciesist advocacy, and eventually with how to advocate for animals in a non-speciesist way.

Many authors before her have exposed the inconsequent, random and biased perceptions of the old-speciesist philosophy (denial of animals’ emotions, ability to feel pain, consciousness, intelligence, or simply “argue“ that they are non-human), her innovation is in her criticism of the new-speciesist philosophy. Along the book she criticizes Peter Singer and Tom Regan among others (the new-speciesist philosophers according to her), for setting speciesist criterions for moral consideration. She argues that the ability to experience is the one and only criterion for moral consideration, and as opposed to the new-speciesist philosophers, with no difference or distinction between sentient beings.

It might sound a bit trivial at first, but she states that what she calls the new-speciesist philosophy, still thinks in terms of hierarchy. She argues that though these thinkers have certainly expended the moral consideration to include sentients, they haven’t made it a one level ground. It is still a tower with humans on top, specific mammals (mainly great apes, dolphins, whales, elephants, dogs and pigs) on the second floor, some put other mammals on the second floor for the benefit of the doubt and others on the third floor, birds are on the next floor, fish on the bottom and insects are ignored by some, while others are willing to make another floor for them right bellow fish for the benefit of the doubt.

Basically she argues that in the old-speciesist philosophy only humans’ lives have value, and in the new-speciesist philosophy all sentient lives have value, but not an equal value. All sentient lives are worth something, but are not equal to each other. She opposes this hierarchical structure and thinks all sentients have an equal right to life.

The book’s strength is in the parts arguing against the new-speciesist philosophy (including Gary Francione who might seem very close to her views but gets personal and directed criticism in the last parts of the book). Its weak points are Dunayer’s outline of the non-speciesist philosophy, which among other things, reveals the flaws within the rights philosophy.

Flipping a Coin

One of the most outstanding examples for both the strength and weakness of the book is Dunayer’s counter argument to Tom Regan’s lifeboat scenario from The Case for Animal Rights.

The scenario in her words is:
Regan imagines four normal adult humans and one dog in a lifeboat that can support only four individuals. If anyone is to survive, someone must go overboard. In Regan’s view, it would be morally right to kill the dog because life offers more “opportunities for satisfaction” to humans than to dogs.”

And Dunayer’s counter argument is that Regan’s assumption is false in itself:
As discussed earlier, that premise is speciesist and lacks factual support. A dog may have more opportunities for satisfaction than a human. If canine pleasures do tend to be simpler than human ones, they may easily be more satisfying and abundant. “

And argues that Regan contradicts himself:
A dog is innocent. Is the same true of most human adults? Humans who eat flesh are parties to an unjust practice, Regan notes. If, in a crisis, I don’t know the extent of a human’s guilt (for example, I don’t know whether they eat flesh) and I possess no other morally relevant information regarding the particular and human, I have no solid basis for saving a dog rather than a human, or vice versa. However, whereas a dog is innocent, an adult human is likely to be guilty, involved in the unjustly inflicted suffering and death of nonhumans. Therefore, by Regan’s own standards the dog probably is the lifeboat occupant most entitled to live.

And finally her moral solution:
Because all sentient beings are equal, we’re perfectly entitled to save the dog over any of the humans. It’s no more acceptable to kill a healthy dog than it is to kill a healthy human.
And that “We aren’t morally obligated to choose the human any more than we’re morally obligated to choose the dog. It would be perfectly moral to flip a coin.”

The coin flip “solution” Dunayer suggests contradicts other arguments she makes in her book. One is that animals are innocent and humans are almost never innocent, if so, why doesn’t she determinedly suggest saving the innocent being and throwing the guilty one?
Apart from innocence, her second claim is that animals are not less capable of opportunities for satisfaction, as speciesists tend to argue, but are even more capable of opportunities for satisfaction. So again, if so, why not determining we must save the being which is more capable of opportunities for satisfaction?
As ironic as it may sound given the book’s title and purpose, her refusal to make a clear decision, in a very clear moral situation, seems biased if not speciesist.

But that is not our main problem with her “solution”. Our problem is that to emphasis the equality principle, she throws away what must be the one and only criterion for morality – suffering.

The lifeboat scenario doesn’t decide who gets to live and who gets to suffer and die only among those on the lifeboat. It mainly determines the fate of all of those who are affected by the decision of who is saved. The decision is supposed to be based according to the implications on everyone, in and outside the boat. And in that sense it is supposed to be very easy. Humans cause much more suffering than dogs, therefore the one we must throw out of the boat is a human. The chances for the 4 humans on the lifeboat to be vegan activists is extremely low, and in any other case the chances that they cause less suffering than the dog are extremely low.

The focus of moral decisions is not supposed to be on the victimizers but on the victims. A moral decision is one that produces the least harm. Humans cause the most.
It is sad that it is even considered a moral dilemma. It is sad that most philosophers think that it is absolutely obvious that we must save the humans. It is sad that even the author of Speciesism gives such a speciesist answer. Not speciesist towards the dog, which she said she wouldn’t automatically throw since dogs have equal rights to humans, but speciesist towards each and every animal the human she may save would hurt. And statistically it is probably thousands of them.

While we were glad to read an assertive criticism of Regan’s utterly speciesist answer, we were also disappointed of her narrow view of the situation. If the coin “decides” that a human is saved, all the animals this human will hurt are not. She is right that the dog mustn’t be thrown just because s/he is a dog, but wrong that a human mustn’t be thrown just because s/he is a human.

Obviously we are not stuck in a lifeboat or on a deserted island. But in this case it is not idiot meat eaters trolling, it is Tom Regan’s scenario and Joan Dunayer’s response to it. And they are both wrong. Regan for deciding that since (according to him) humans’ lives are more important than dogs, it is morally acceptable to throw the dog, and Dunayer for ignoring the fact that by choosing a coin flip she condemns all the nonhumans hurt by the human she refuses to condemn, to a life of suffering.

It is more than just a bad answer. It shows how the rights philosophy is invalid.
Rights are fragile terms, and this lifeboat scenario, in which we are asked to decide whose inviolable rights would be violated among the 5 rights holders, proves how fragile rights are. When the first conflict of interests rises, the theory collapses, and the rights are stripped away.
When the theory of inviolable rights meets a lifeboat scenario in which all the partakers are rights holders, instead of making a moral decision, it can only offer a coin flip, despite the substantial potential of making the world a little bit worse.

It is impossible to grant everyone with inviolable rights, let alone equal ones. The practical meaning of stating that every sentient being has an equal right is that when two rights holders are in conflict of interests, either the stronger would win or a third party (like in the lifeboat scenario) would domineeringly choose for them, or let the coin “decide”.

For a decision to be moral it is not sufficient that it is not-biased, it must also at least not make the world a worse place. It is very unlikely that saving a human instead of a dog would make the world better. In the lifeboat scenario there are much more morally relevant participants than the 5 beings on the boat. There are thousands of sentient beings who are ‘right holders’ too, but are absent from this discussion. The conflict between rights holders is unavoidable.
Dunayer understands that by balancing the options she would practically ditch the rights view and make a utilitarian decision. To avoid that she is ready to take the chance and make the world worse, by suggesting to flip a coin. That’s an inherent flaw within the rights view. In any case it collapses, it either collapses into utilitarianism, or into itself by compromising on its own fundamental principles – the rights of rights holders.

The whole point of inviolable rights is that individual’s most basic interests cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of others, they cannot be violated no matter how much others would benefit from their violation. There is no room for circumstances in a consistent rights view. Circumstantial ethics is utilitarianism. So in case of conflict of interests between rights holders, the choice is either flipping a coin or “might is right”.

The rights view doesn’t have a serious real ability to face conflicts without an additional moral criterion. Dunayer refuses to accept that and so is bound to go with coins flipping. No matter the consequence of the decision, as long as they are not based on species, in her view it is morally acceptable.
A world in which flipping a coin is perfectly moral, is perfectly immoral.

In the lifeboat scenario Dunayer chooses to flip a coin. Elsewhere in the book she chooses might is right.

Might is Right

“If I am starving in the arctic and kill a polar bear in order to survive, haven’t I violated the bear’s right to life? No. I have an equal right to life. In such a situation, one individual’s right to life competes with another’s. If I have no other food source, I – like the polar bear – must kill prey if I want to survive.“

The bear’s rights were violated since as argued in the former point, the whole point of rights is that they are supposed to defend their holder against the interest of others. One’s rights are not dependent upon the needs of another.

When it was a human or a dog, Dunayer solved the conflict of interests with flipping a coin. When it is a nonhuman or herself, she doesn’t suggest to flip a coin but to compete. She knows that by flipping a coin her chances are 50/50. And since she picked the word ‘competing’ with a polar bear we guess she doesn’t mean a barehanded fight since then she wouldn’t use the word competing but committing a suicide. Our guess is that she means hunting the polar bear using some technological means. The only reason she suggests that fighting the bear is right is because she is on the might side.

Dunayer picked a relatively easy scenario. What if she encounters a reindeer? A polar bear would kill her if she won’t kill him first so it is supposedly easier to decide. A reindeer won’t kill her or anyone else to survive (at least not directly, as reindeers don’t eat others but they do eat instead of others). In the case of a polar bear it easier to frame it as survival. She chose a polar bear since choosing a reindeer would have emphasized what she wants to conceal – that under her suggestion of equal rights lays the unavoidable conflict of interest, which in this case she suggests to overcome by overpowering.

She could have suggested flipping a coin like in the lifeboat case, after all, the lifeboat scenario is a survival scenario just as much. How is it justifiable to flip a coin when 4 humans and one dog are in a danger of drowning but not when she is starving? If her so called right to survive entitles her to kill a polar bear, why doesn’t the same reasoning apply to the humans in the lifeboat?

Like in the case of the lifeboat, it is most likely that humans cause much more harm than nonhumans. (Probably not in the case of a vegan activist such as herself let alone competing with a predator like a polar bear, but in the case of an average human against an average nonhuman, it is extremely unlikely that the human causes less suffering and therefore is not entitled to kill an equal rights holder who causes less suffering). If she had argued that her case is different since she is causing less suffering than a polar bear and she devotes her life to animal advocacy, not only would we think it is a valid argument, we would totally agree. But as a rights advocate she can’t make this utilitarian balancing. So instead she is again bound to choose between flipping a coin and might is right and in this case she chose power over random luck.

If competing for survival is the moral criterion, isn’t it obvious that the stronger would prevail?
Isn’t it what happened in the last tens of thousands of years since humans figured that they are stronger than their competitors?

Again, to stick to her rights view and avoid moral calculation, Dunayer suggests a very power based world. And again it is not Dunayer herself (who we are sure is anything but a forceful person), it is her insistence on rights view that forces her into solving conflicts of interests between rights holders with power.

In an equal world the life of one rights holder can’t be worth more than the life of another rights holder. What if the life of one rights holder depends on the violation of many other rights holders? Is it still morally acceptable for the one who wants to survive to kill others who want to survive just as much but lack the ability to fend for themselves?

What she calls the situation in which “one individual’s right to life competes with another’s” is usually called life. And for that matter what is the point of stating that every sentient being has rights if they are violated every single second for billions of beings around the world?

Apparently Dunayer conveniently overlooks that question, and many other of this sort, by inexplicably stating that: “Except that humans shouldn’t interfere with predator-prey relationships among free-living nonhumans, I also think we’re morally entitled to kill someone who directly, immediately threatens our life or that of another.“ No given reasons whatsoever. Not even a brief and shallow excuse why we must ignore systematical rights violations and more importantly so much suffering of so many sentients every single moment, everywhere.

She doesn’t bother to explain why she thinks so or how come in a book with such a strong emphasis on language, where she preaches not to call animals by their exploitative functions and strictly avoid of doing so herself, but when it comes to “nature” all of a sudden some animals are predators and some are prey. No animal was born to be killed by another. It is not the function of any sentient being to be the “prey” of another. Prey is just another euphemism for systematic mass scale hurting and killing. The fact that it happens in what is called “nature”, and the fact that it happens for hundreds of millions of years and the fact that the “predators” can’t stop chasing and killing sentients, doesn’t make the fear and pain of the killed animals less horrible. It doesn’t make them “prey”, it makes them helpless victims of a very cruel world.

Acting to protect nonhumans from other nonhumans’ attacks is a logical outcome of her self-defense and survival exemptions. Arguing that we are entitled to save humans from predators, despite their immense suffering accountability, but are not at all entitled to save nonhumans with an incomparable suffering accountability, is speciesism. Especially when it is displayed with no further explanations.

And regarding the second part of the sentence: “I also think we’re morally entitled to kill someone who directly, immediately threatens our life or that of another.” Isn’t it a moral entitlement to kill non-vegans? Aren’t they directly, immediately threatening the life of another?
Supposedly it is slaughterers, fishermen, vivisectors, poultry farmers and etc. which directly, immediately threaten the life of others. But they are merely the characters in the verges of an exploitive and violent system which is based on moral norms and consumer demand. It’s not the suppliers that are the problem, but the demanders. And the demanders are most of the human race. That is by the way why suggesting killing humans one by one is so ridiculous, and suggesting killing them all at once is so essentialness.

Dunayer may not agree with the practical implication of her moral guidelines, but apart from the social bias against killing, and of course the legitimate fear of getting caught, it doesn’t make sense not to infer that killing non-vegans is derived from the moral entitlement of killing whoever attacks another.

Or in her words in another part of the book:
“I think we have a right to kill anyone who is invading our body or that of another (again, with the exception of natural situations among free-living nonhumans). For example, it’s justifiable defense of self or another, such as a dog or cat, to kill parasites (unless they’re external and can be removed benignly) everyone has a right to bodily integrity.”

Why is it morally acceptable to defend herself or cats and dogs (or her hypothetical child in the case of a tiger attack as she wrote in a different part of the book), but not a chicken in the case of a human attack?

We argued against the self-defense exception which is common among the allegedly non-violent, but Dunayer is not using the self-defense exception. Consciously or unconsciously she theoretically supports killing humans attacking others, unfortunately, practically she supports keep asking humans to stop attacking others.

Greater Good

Probably the most significant and renowned part of the book is Dunayer’s arguments against welfarism. Just one example out of many:
Most organizations that consider themselves animal rights actually conduct old-speciesist campaigns. Rather than advancing nonhumans emancipation, these campaigns perpetuate nonhumans’ property status. Directly or indirectly, they sanction nonhuman exploitation. Old-speciesist advocacy includes appeals to human self-interest, language that trivializes or legitimizes abuse of nonhumans, and “welfarism”, which seeks to modify, rather than end, some form of speciesist exploitation.”

“Animal rights advocates shouldn’t be drawn into debating the “merits” of a moral wrong. They simply should explain why it is wrong.“ And there are more from where this came from.

We find her criticism over welfarism and speciesist advocacy to be highly essential. However, as counterintuitive as it may sound, it too clashes with a rights view.
Her equal rights view sounds very right and virtuous in theory but it fails when it meets practice. Not because it is unrealistic (it is, but that would be an argument from a totally different order) but because again and again, it collapses when encountering a conflict of interests between right holders.

For example she argues that: “Welfarist laws never will genuinely benefit nonhumans. They’ll continually defer emancipation by keeping the focus elsewhere. Even if welfareist measure helped some exploited hens or mice, it wouldn’t help hens or mice overall. On balance, it would hurt hens and mice by perpetuating their exploitation. “

That statement is in conflict with the rights view, since one’s rights can’t be compromised for the sake of others.
Once again, when her rights view encounter a conflict of interests it fails to deal with it. In this case it is the interests of current exploited rights holders and future rights holders.

The only way Dunayer can morally defend her justification of violating the rights of the individual hens and mice that potential welfare measures can help, is by balancing it with the rights of future hens and mice. She can’t help but compromise the rights of current exploited individuals for the sake of future exploited individuals. When a moral theory compromises on its most fundamental principle, it actually collapses.

Even though she is balancing rights and not utilities, as long as she makes balances, she thinks in terms of better outcome and no matter how you formally frame what you are balancing, it is utilitarianism.

Again this criticism is not particularly about Dunayer but principally about the rights view.
The argument that in the long run welfare reforms will hurt more individuals, is of course a valid argument, but it is a utilitarian valid argument. When argued by a rights advocate, it is absolutely invalid.
Opposing the option to improve the life of individual hens and mice under the justification of a greater good is not seeing them as individuals, and definitely not as equal rights holders.
Telling them that they will have to stay extremely crowded since if they are spaced a little bit, humans might think it is ok to exploit them, is putting an idea above them.

Don’t get us wrong, we are not saying that welfarism is better at acknowledging individuals. Dunayer and many others are against welfarim exactly because they think about individuals, individuals who will be exploited in the future. That’s why they are ready to compromise on the welfare of current living individuals. But by that they lose the validity of their allegedly rights view.

In this world balancing is inevitable. The only difference between rights and utilitarianism in that sense is self-awareness. Utilitarians know they compromise on individuals’ interests, the rights people are in denial. But bottom line, there is no valid ethical theory in this world. Practically we must balance, but morally we mustn’t.
It might sound like a hypothetical argument. But it isn’t. For us to exist, others must not. But we are not morally entitled to compromise on others’ lives. We just have to.
A world in which we are inherently bound to do what we morally mustn’t, is a world that shouldn’t exist.

Both moral theories desert individuals for the sake of greater good. It is unavoidable.
Our solution, which seeks the end of sentient life, might also be regarded as sacrificing individuals for a greater good. We don’t see it as sacrifice, especially for the animals who would be living at the time of the execution, since the lives of most of them is suffering from birth to death. However, even if you insist that it is a sacrifice, the difference is that in our case this “sacrifice” is not inherent to the desired reality which we aim for. The “sacrifice” is only inherent to the solution method, but once it worked – no individual would ever be sacrificed for anything ever again. Not as a consequence of conflict of interests with another rights holder, not as a consequence of their suffering was found smaller than the happiness of others, and not because someone’s survival was depended on it.

The understanding that there is no greater good than the good of each individual, while in this world individuals must be sacrificed, is one of the reasons for our solution.
We are not compromising living individuals so the other individuals would have better lives. It is not for a greater good, but for the end of all bad.

Veganism is Welfarism

If the various lifeboat scenarios demonstrate the inherent problems with Dunayer’s arguments specifically and with the rights view in general when they are brought to their verges, her moral justification for veganism demonstrates how her basic arguments fail even in the face of the most conventional scenario.

When we cause no more harm than we must to survive, we too are innocent. We’re innocent when we sustain ourselves by growing crops for human consumption. Inadvertently, nonhumans will be hurt or killed, but far fewer than in “animal agriculture”, which entails feeding crops to nonhumans who are intentionally killed. We’re innocent when we hurt or kill someone who directly threatens us or another. It isn’t wrong to kill a tiger who leaps at our throat or a tapeworm who invades a dog’s body. “

If you know harms would inevitably happen you cannot say it is inadvertently. If you know your “equal” rights resolution will systematically violate the rights of billions of sentients, you can’t call yourself rights advocate.

The same person who rightly attacked other animal advocates for compromising on other sentients’ rights is principally doing the same. Dunayer justifies doing so by arguing that far fewer would be hurt and killed, which is by no doubt true, but is inconsistent with most of the arguments in her book, which aims to be essentially anti-welfarism.
When she excuses humans’ existence, as opposed to almost every ethical claim she argued in the entire book, it becomes morally acceptable to discuss killing, reduction and not prevention of suffering, and violations of the rights of others.
This is the integral flaw of trying to construct moral guidelines that work within the framework of accepting humans existence as a given. It will always end in animals’ suffering.

Agriculture is never innocent. Even plant based one. It goes to show how civilization, such an utterly violent and speciesist system, is taken for granted. For humans to cause no more harm than they must to survive they must go back and live like other species. As mentioned in the former post, this is not the world we wish and advocate for since it would still be a world full of violence and suffering but advocating for such a world would at least be consistent with her moral guidelines.
Radical compromises are still compromises.

But the saddest thing about her compromises is that they are truly radical. While so many organizations are still not even ready to demanded out loud that humans must be vegans, she seriously suggests that nonhumans must be declared as persons. Unfortunately she expects humans to do that, and unfortunately that would never happen.

And regarding the third sentence in that paragraph: ”We’re innocent when we hurt or kill someone who directly threatens us or another. It isn’t wrong to kill a tiger who leaps at our throat or a tapeworm who invades a dog’s body“.
Excluding nonhumans from a particular area, tearing out the native vegetation and planting one that suites humans’ desires, fencing the area, constantly poisoning nonhumans in it, changing the composition of the soil, dividing the nearby lands with roads to the farms, plundering water from other habitats, making noises with heavy machinery, crushing nonhumans with heavy machinery, polluting the area with humans’ waste of many kinds and etc. is not hurting or killing someone who directly “threatens us or another”. It is not killing a tiger that leaps at a human throat, but a field mouse that leaps to eat a plant. This ridiculous analogy goes to shows exactly how lost she is defending veganism.
If anything the tapeworm who invades a dog’s body example is much more relevant, only that dog is analogical to nonhumans, and the tapeworm to humans.

In one of the harshest versions of victim blaming, Dunayer pulls the self-defense card for humans’ global invasion to nonhumans’ territories and systematically hurting and killing billions of them.

There are several arguments along the book that Dunayer aims at welfare reform and fails to see how relevant they are in the case of veganism just as much. Just replace welfarism with veganism, welfarists with vegans and slaughtering with poisoning:

Welfarists seek to change the way nonhumans are treated within some system of speciesist abuse. They work to modify, rather than end, the exploitation of particular nonhumans. In effect, “welfarists” ask that some form of abuse be replaced with a less cruel form. In contrast, rights advocates oppose exploitation itself.”

“Nonhumans have a right not to be needlessly imprisoned, killed, or otherwise harmed by humans. If we advocate that they be imprisoned or killed less cruelly, we act as if they don’t have such rights; we convey an anti-rights message.”

“Like other attempts to make abuse less severe, a cage ban focuses on one particularly cruel aspect of exploitation rather than exploitation itself, the cause of all the cruelty.”

“Endorsing any form of nonhuman exploitation is inconsistent with animal rights”

“If you don’t respect someone’s right to live, you don’t respect that individual at all. You don’t even see them as an individual. To slaughter nonhumans is to commit murder. To advocate slaughtering them – in any manner – is to advocate murder. If humans were being mass murdered, we wouldn’t ask that they be killed more “humanely.” “

Right, but we also wouldn’t ask to reduce that amount of murdered humans either. Let alone call it self-defense.

“Giving humans complete power over nonhumans invites sadism, especially when the nonhumans have been designated commodities. The problem is the whole system. Focusing on sadism implies, instead, that the problem is aberrant depraved acts. Cruelty statutes, you’ll remember, do the same; they regulate the primary problem – institutionalized exploitation – to the background and direct attention and resources to “unproductive” cruelty. Whenever helpless beings are left in the hands of their abusers, they’re going to suffer. Attempts to reform such situations are fundamentally futile.”

 “Contrary to what many activists believe, bans that leave animals to suffer or die – that is, leave them within a situation of abuse – aren’t abolitionist. They’re not emancipationist. In fact, they’re inconsistent with nonhuman rights. “

And finally Dunayer asks her readers a question:
Please ask yourself which makes more sense: to oppose a form of speciesist exploitation or to oppose, one after another, the countless abuses that it breeds? Welfarists are on a treadmill. While they jog in place, abolitions walk forward”.
We have. And our answer is that it makes more sense to oppose the root of the suffering instead of opposing one occurrence after another of the countless abuses that it breeds.
All the animal advocates are on a treadmill. While they jog in place, annihilators walk to stop all the suffering.

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