Is moral humanism a speciesist prejudice?

(This is one of my essays from my Honours degree. The website I originally had this published at the university is no longer functional, so I have moved it to my website.)

In this essay I will be answer the question of whether moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice. I will begin by clarifying what definitions of ‘moral humanism’ and ‘speciesism’ I will be using in this essay and will offer a brief justification to why I think these definitions are the most appropriate. Once the definitions are established, I will summarise the argument for moral humanism made by Bernard Williams and will analyse arguments made against Williams from Peter Singer and Julian Savulescu. After considering these objections, I will summarise an argument put forward by Shelly Kagan that supports privileging human beings over non-human animals, but from a position from modal personism instead of moral humanism. Once summarised, I will respond to some objections by Singer against Kagan, then will consider whether modal personism does any better than moral humanism. From this point, I will draw upon possible approaches to animal ethics that are consistent with moral humanism, specifically becoming a vegetarian. This essay will then conclude whether moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice.

Before attempting to answer the question whether moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice, I will first establish what moral humanism and speciesism entails by their definitions. In much of the literature on this subject, speciesism has been used in a variety of ways with different implications, so it is important to get this concept clear first. The definition of speciesism I will use is one provided by O. Horta (2010, p 243), which is: “the unjustified disadvantageous consideration or treatment of those who are not classified as belonging to a certain species.” As can be seen in this definition of speciesism, if this essay concludes that moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice, it is also making the claim that the speciesism is unjustified. Thus, I will not be making any attempt to defend speciesism, as to do so would be incoherent. Furthermore, when I appeal to literature that does claim to be defending speciesism are in fact claiming that their beliefs are not speciesist at all.

To some this may seem question begging, or overly presumptuous, to make speciesism an unjustified belief by its own definition. However, I would argue that this is the assumption that most would hold when using the term. For instance, T. Patrone (2013, p 27) mentions that Peter Singer, who popularised the term, uses it for the very purpose of demonstrating the similarity with racism and sexism. When we say that someone is being racist or sexist, we are not saying ‘you are being racist, we will hear your argument to see if it is justified’, we are saying it is unjustified, and if we were to hear an argument that would justify their behaviour, we would no longer claim they are being racist. So, if speciesism is meant to be used in this manner, it ought to have the same implications. If some readers of this essay remain unconvinced, they can interpret some of the arguments that moral humanism is not a speciesist prejudice as a defence of speciesism, should still be able to follow the arguments with relative ease.

Now to consider moral humanism. The understanding of moral humanism I will appeal to in this essay comes from Bernard Williams. Williams (2009, p 80-82) understands moral humanism to be the privileging of human beings in our ethical and moral considerations. However, Williams (2009, p 81-2) points out this is not to say that moral humanism entails that human beings are absolutely important, and that any other non-human animals are not worthy of any ethical and moral consideration. It is merely that we view human beings more than non-human animals in our ethical and moral considerations from the perspective of human beings. And this will be the understanding of moral humanism I will use in this essay. So, from this point I will analyse the argument that moral humanism is not a speciesist prejudice made by Williams.

Williams (2009, p 82-3) observes the argument that moral humanism is a speciesist prejudice which appeals to the historical racist and sexist claims that we ought to value men better because they are men, and white people because they are white, and that appealing to the fact that we are human beings is no different. He responds by making the point that racist and sexist beliefs are typically defended with deeper reasons which are based on false premises or are invalid, such as ‘whites are more intelligent than blacks’ or ‘men are more rational, and women are more emotional’. And in the cases where these beliefs were held without reasons, time came when the oppressed demanded from those who held such views to provide reasons. And this is what is different between moral humanism and the other ‘isms’. We privilege human beings. Full stop. Williams (2009, pp 84, 91) also mentions that since non-human animals will never engage in ethical discussion like other humans can and do, we will always be acting on their behalf and therefore will only consider how they should be treated. If a white man has an ethical outlook towards black women not as a human being, but how she should be ‘treated’ is indeed a prejudice. However, concerning non-human animals there can be no other way to understand the situation ethically and morally.

Williams (2009, p 86) responds to an approach made by Peter Singer and other utilitarians in place of moral humanism, which is the imagining of an impartial observer (IO). The impartial observer, according to Williams (2009, p 87-88), is the idea of an individual that takes on all the suffering in the world as an outside observer, and we use our imagination of what this would be like to guide our actions. This, Williams says, is how critics of moral humanism demonstrate that it really is nothing more than a speciesist prejudice, since the IO would take on all suffering equally. Williams (2009, p 89) however makes two challenges against such use. First, it is unrealistically demanding to the point of insanity. Second, to take on all the suffering in the world would lead us to destroy the planet.

Williams (2009, p 85) also addresses the argument that Singer makes concerning that some privileging of human beings over non-human animals, such as the degree of our moral outrage when we see a human killed as opposed to animal, can be justified through understanding human beings as persons. He says that typically the main attributes of being a person, which are morally relevant, seem to be our self-consciousness, ability to plan for the future, have desires beyond the hedonistic ones, and so on. One major problem Williams (2009, p 86) raises with looking at the properties of personhood as opposed to the fact we are human beings as the starting point for privileging our ethical thought, is the status we would have to give mentally disabled infants and the elderly with severe dementia. By these criteria of personhood, we would no longer see them as persons, and would hold them with at best the same moral status as other non-human animals, and at worst below the moral status as other non-human animals.

Williams (2009, p 93-6) puts forward a thought experiment of an arrival of aliens that are highly intelligent and moral. These aliens wish to rid us of all our prejudices and cultural properties. Williams asks us whether we would fight back against the aliens or collaborate with them? It seems that those against moral humanism would collaborate, but Williams (2009, p 95) points out such behaviour is analogous to dominant cultures enforcing their ways onto sub-cultures they deemed to be inferior; thus, there does appear to be moral relevance to loyalty to one’s group. Hence, Williams (2009, p 96) asks the question “Which side are you on?”.

Singer has provided some responses to this argument put forward by Williams. First, Singer (2009, p 97-8) observes that Williams does not believe that there is a cosmic point of view of the universe that judges what we do, something Singer agrees with. However, Singer disagrees with Williams that this means that to think of ourselves as holding significance in the universe is merely a muddle. Singer’s reply to this is that to believe that a world that once exist held more happiness and less suffering was better than one that held less happiness and more suffering is no muddle. This is true, but this is the point that Williams appears to be making in his rejection of the cosmic point of view. There is only one point of view to appeal to, and that is our point of view. It is part of the motivational set of human beings to typically wish to reduce suffering and promote happiness. So, this does appear to be any challenge to moral humanism.

Second, Singer (2009, p 98-9) claims that Williams’ conclusion that an impartial observer would destroy the world would only be the case if one were a negative utilitarian, one who is only concerned with minimising suffering. Singer says that he focusses on minimising needless suffering because it promotes more potential happiness, so if considering suffering and happiness on balance, one would be an extreme pessimist to conclude the world should be destroyed. However, even considering pleasure and pain on balance, it could very well be the case that we would still rather to cease to exist. If we are, as the impartial observer demands, to take on all suffering, this would include every animal in the wild that experiences a struggle for survival for their whole lives. Therefore, it is conceivable that the ideal observer would experience such a net negative of happiness in total, that they would wish to cease this experience at once. And there would be nothing pessimistic about this view.

Third, Singer (2009, p 100) agrees that the parallels between speciesism and sexism and/or racism are inexact. However, he claims these differences to do not challenge his view of speciesism, which he describes as “discrimination on the basis of species”, and is not based on attributes humans possess, such as superior mental powers, which is what he claims Williams is appealing to in his defence of moral humanism. Singer then gives an example of the fact we subject many animals to medical experiments that we would not subject mentally disabled infant human beings. In this objection, Singer seems to have misunderstood Williams when he describes the attributes humans typically possess over non-human animals. As noted earlier, Williams (2009, p82-3) explains that appealing to our attributes normally connected with personhood is not an adequate way of justifying moral humanism. Williams is claiming that moral humanism is in of itself a moral position, as is loyalty to one’s culture. Regarding discrimination on the basis of species, the difference of appealing to our humanity in of itself is far from a trivial difference of racists and sexists attempting to justify their racism and/or sexism with false claims or invalid arguments. Our basic reaction to jump in front of car to rescue a human child, and to not do so to rescue a dog, seems at an extremely intuitive level, to be the correct reaction. Whereas, to have the same reaction if we were to react differently if it were to be a black girl instead of a white boy, would indeed be a prejudice. Also, on order to defend such a prejudice, it would require quite a compelling argument beyond simply ‘because it’s a white boy’.

The fourth and final objection made by Singer, involves Williams’ challenge ‘Which side are you on?” Singer (2009, p 100-102) argues that this challenge by Williams parallels with accusations of treason made by the nation-state against those who would speak out against its practices. For example, opposers of the Vietnam War. Singer (2009, p 102) claims that the only relevant question in such circumstances is “What is the right thing to do?” It seems then that the side Singer would take in the alien arrival thought experiment would be with the collaborationists if the aliens were indeed much more intelligent and benevolent than us. Furthermore, if the aliens thought it would be better that world be rid of us, Singer may very well collaborate with them in this endeavour as well. In addition to this, Williams (2009, p 93-6) did mention that the loyalty to one’s social and cultural group can and has been defended as a moral principle against outsiders attempting to force the native inhabitants to assimilate. This understanding of the ‘which side are you on?’ question is quite different than the one imagined by Singer, so his attempt to parallel this question with accusations of treason fails.

I will now consider some objections to Williams’ moral humanism put forward by Julian Savulescu. Savulescu (2009, p 219-220) disagrees with Williams that appealing to the fact we are human beings is not enough to operate as reason, because it merely operates as a description of our biology. Also, Savulescu says that it does still parallel with racism or sexism, because just like racists or sexists, moral humanists could continue to treat non-human animals poorly without any self-reflection, just like racists and sexists can do. Or they can rationalise their prejudice with false beliefs, such as humans having an immortal soul. However, Williams (2009, p 90-1) does says that to have a concern over how non-human animals should be treated is a part of our human values, so to accept moral humanism does not entail a vicious attitude towards non-human animals. For instance, if I were to dismiss the cruelty of dog fighting on the basis that human life matters more than animal life, then this would tell you a lot about my character as a human being, and it would be a kind of character as a human being you would probably want to avoid. And as for appealing to rationalisations such as humans having a soul, I highly doubt that is the process going through one’s mind when we choose to save a human child instead of a dog. Regarding appealing to the fact an individual is a human being not being sufficient to operate as a morally relevant reason, A. Lynch (2015, para 11) provides a useful example of special relationships used as morally relevant reason. The example he gives is when we come to our sibling’s aid over a stranger’s, we will justify it by saying “she’s my sister!”. For many who would hear this, they would accept that this would indeed operate enough as a morally relevant reason.

The next objection from Savulescu involves Williams’ view on internal and external reasons. Williams (1995, p 35-6) says that internal reasons are when we say we have a reason for doing something because it is based on a sound piece of reasoning from our motivational set. External reasons, however, are when we have a reason to do something even if it is not in our motivational set. Williams rejects the existence of external reasons. The motivational set, according to Williams (1995, p 36), are all the desires, values, aspirations, goals that we hold to. Regarding the motivational set, Williams (1995, p 39) mentions that these are not necessarily only the superficial motivations. Through imagination, we can appeal to deeper motivations that may appeal to someone’s motivational set that they didn’t take into consideration to change their mind. Williams (1995, p 39) gives an example of trying to persuade a man to be nicer to his wife, and if he at first rejects this, we appeal to things we think would matter to him to convince that he should be nicer to his wife. And if nothing succeeds, it is not at all clear whether appealing to external reasons could do any better.

Savulescu (2009, p 223-5) understands Williams’ motivation set as ‘present desires’, and claims that if we accept this, then if happened to not care about our friends or family members, we would therefore have no reason to care about them. Savulescu (2009, p 225) defends external reasons by understanding it as ‘value-based’ reasons. Savulescu then argues that Williams’ defence of appealing to our humanity as morally relevant is based on the internal reason that we desire human well-being over animal well-being, but if we appeal to the external, or value-based reason that humans possess particular properties that make them persons, and the fact that other non-human animals possess some of the same properties gives us a reason to care about them as well. A response to Savulesu’s objection here has been provided by J. Patrone. Patrone (2013, p 33-4) points out that Williams’ account of the motivational set is not limited to only present desires. And this is correct, as the earlier example of the abusive husband case provided by Williams himself demonstrates. As for Savulescu’s claim that if we accept only an internalist view, then if we did not care about our loved ones, we would have no reason to, the same can be applied to any value. Conside the argument Savulesu provides of describing external reasons as value-based reasons. Savulescu (2009, p 255) argues for the description since it is the goodness of certain values that provide reasons for action, regardless of the desires one is holding at the time. This is most likely to Savulescu’s misunderstanding of the motivational set as only including ‘present desires’. And as can be seen, we could just as easily say to Savulesu ‘if someone had no values, they would have no reason to care about those values’. Therefore, Savulescu poses no threat to Williams’ internal reasons.

The next objection by Savulescu concerns Williams’ arguments concerning the impartial observer. Savulescu (2009, p 225-6), similar to Singer, argues that Williams’ comments that an impartial observer would destroy the planet is only a threat to a negative utilitarian, and my response to this has already been addressed. However, Savulescu (2009, p 226) takes this argument further by challenging Williams’ claim that we cannot equally care about all the suffering that exists in the world and does this by appealing to that there are many animal rights activists that do care equally about all suffering. This claim about animal rights activists can be seriously doubted. It can be confidently assumed that animal rights activists care a great deal about the suffering about non-human animals, but it would be an extraordinary assumption that many of the animal rights activists would treat the suffering of a non-human animal equally to a human being. If a puppy and a human baby were both in jeopardy and only one could be saved, only the most extreme animal rights activist would treat this as a dilemma. Patrone (2013, p 35-7) also has responded to Savulescu’s

(2009, p 226-7) claim that Williams’ discussion of impartial observers is a red herring due to that it moves the conversation to which point of view morality comes from, when the actual conversation should be about what are the morally relevant reasons? And Savulescu says that appealing to ‘it’s a human being’ is insufficient. Similar to Lynch’s response to this matter earlier, Patrone (2013, p 35-7) uses the example of ‘he is my brother’ as a morally relevant reason. Savulescu (2009, p 232) does however address the concept of special relationships and argues that it is consistent with personhood. This is because it involves properties in greater or smaller degrees that justifies the partiality, but also compels us to expand our concern beyond our kin. The example Savulesku (2009, p 232) gives is we care more about our brother than a stranger because some of the personhood properties are greater in that relationship than with a stranger. So, we can care more about our brother, but still care about the stranger. Personhood may be rationalised in this kind of way to make it consistent with our reactions regarding special relationships; but it seems to be far more plausible to say that when we are pressed to justify our partiality, we would more likely to appeal to our special relationships in of themselves, not the properties they possess.

So, Singer and Savulescu have not been successful in challenging moral humanism. Savulescu’s argument on justifying some degree of partiality towards human beings by appealing to properties of personhood was not very convincing. However, there has been a similar argument from Shelly Kagan which does attempt to justify preferences to human beings not by appealing to moral humanism or typical personhood, but modal personhood. And it is this argument I will now address.

Kagan (2016, p 2-3) addresses speciesism in the absolute sense of the concept, which he means humans matter more regardless of who’s perspective it comes from, hence it is different from William’s understanding of moral humanism. However, Kagan’s view is in line with Williams’ that moral humanism is not that humans matter in all aspects and non-human animals do not matter in any aspect, but that all things considered equal, humans matter more. From this point, Kagan (2016, p 4) explains Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interests as treating all ‘like’ interests equally. Kagan (2016, p 5-6) rejects Singer’s principle of equal consideration of interests for two reasons. The first is that the principle does not tell us anything about what are the morally relevant differences and what are the morally irrelevant differences. The second is that asking who has the pain can be morally relevant and gives an example of a guilty man in prison as opposed to an innocent man. And since this shows that who has the pain can make a morally relevant difference, it is logically possible to say that it is a human being receiving the pain is morally relevant, and Kagan (2016, p 5) claims that Singer makes no argument that it is not.

Kagan (2016, p 6) anticipates a possible objection by Singer that asserting that it is a human being is nothing more than a brute appeal to intuition. He responds to this objection by arguing that Singer draws a line on moral consideration based on sentience, since he favours the interests of sentient beings over non-sentient. Kagan (2016, p 6) gives an example of plants having an interest of being watered yet are not included in Singer’s equal consideration of interests, yet he agrees with Singer that favouring the interests of the sentient over the non-sentient is justified through its strong intuitive force. However, Kagan (2016, p 7-8) points out that even Singer admits that moral humanism, which he would call speciesism, is virtually universally widespread, hence if we can accept sentientism based on intuition then we can for humanism as well. For this reason, Kagan (2016, p 8) rejects Singer’s parallel of moral humanism with racism and sexism because the former appeals to intuition alone, whilst the latter normally depends on false premises or faulty reasoning.

However, Kagan (2016, p 9-10) does not think that we hold these intuitions on biology alone. He thinks that our position is not humanistic, but personistic. He supports this by appealing to what our reaction would be if we saw Superman, or ET, in danger, and that our reaction would be to help them just as much as we would for our fellow human beings. Kagan (2016, p 11) points out that Singer agrees that the death of human being is worse than the death of a non-human animal due to their higher status of personhood, but that Singer says that the pain experienced is equal. Kagan claims that the higher status of personhood can influence the significance of the pain being experienced. An example of this would be difficulties in social life due post-traumatic stress disorder. So, this allows us to change our views on the significance of pain based on who is receiving the pain.

From this point, Kagan responds to Singer’s argument from marginal cases. Kagan (2016, p 13-14) uses a thought experiment to justify the claim that either persons or person species matter more than non-persons. He asks us to imagine Martian dogs that on Mars are persons, but the environment on Earth makes them non-persons. He says with such knowledge we would give them extra consideration, since they are a part of a ‘person species’. He uses this thought experiment to explain why we give impaired humans greater consideration than non-human animals. Also, Kagan (2016, p 14) stresses that to say one is a person species is to say that it is generic of that species, so if a plague were to make humans non-persons for the rest of time, it was still generic of human beings to be persons. The main point, according to Kagan (2016, p 15-16), is the fact that matters morally is that by knowing the nature of particular species, we can thereby know that they ‘could have been a person’ or ‘could become a person’. And this is the intuition we are appealing to when we privilege human beings over non-human animals. Since this is the case, Kagan (16-17) says that the moral grounding is not biological, but metaphysical, which is why he calls this position ‘modal personism’. This modal personism, seeks to resolve the marginal cases objection by claiming that infants ‘could become persons’ and the elderly with dementia ‘could have been persons’. Kagan (2016, p 18-20) admits that this concept of modal personhood needs a lot more detailed analysis regarding ‘could become’ and ‘could have been’ and concedes that there will be many counterintuitive consequences arising from it. An example he gives is two infants born with a brain defect, one from genetic factors and the other from environmental factors. Depending on how we view these cases regarding ‘could have become a person’, we may end up calling one a modal person and the other not a modal person; but our intuitions would not see any morally relevant difference between the two cases.

This is Kagan’s argument for modal personism, so I will now consider some criticisms and see how it compares with moral humanism. Singer has responded to this argument. Singer (2016, p 31-2) first addresses Kagan’s claim that he does not provide an argument against speciesism by saying that he does provide an argument, which is the principle of equal consideration. And this is correct. However, the dispute between Kagan and Singer is whether we ought to treat the pain of all sentient beings equally. So, to argue by appealing to the equal consideration of interests is begging the question. And since Kagan and Singer both agree that most of us do privilege human interests over non-human animals, the burden of proof is on Singer to argue why we should adopt his principle. Singer (2016, p 32-3) does claim to provide an argument for the principle, by replacing sentences such as ‘they’re more important because they’re human’ with ‘they’re more important because they’re white men’. Singer (2016, p 33) says that Kagan’s argument that privileging human beings is not the same as racism or sexism is because racism and sexism is based on either faulty reasoning or false premises, whereas privileging human beings is based on intuition alone. His response to this is that the treatment of blacks by racists and of women by sexists far exceeds the false beliefs about them. Hence, the better explanation is that the racists and sexists simply don’t care about them. This is however not, in my view, the mainstream position humans hold towards non-human animals. Most of us would put ourselves at risk to save a baby instead of saving a dog, but based on this view, this does not mean we would arbitrarily harm or kill a dog. And those who do are viewed as despicable by the public. Therefore, Singer’s point about the treatment of minorities and women by racists and sexists demonstrates a further difference between racism/sexism and privileging human beings, in that we can differentiate between caring about human beings more, but still can condemn the callous treatment of non-human animals.

The next response by Singer concerns Kagan’s argument about the possibility of moral relevance based on who is receiving the pain, and his example of the innocent and guilty man in prison. Singer (2016, p 33) says that there can be utilitarian arguments to care more about the pain of the guilty than the innocent. But the utilitarian view on punishment has serious problems. As mentioned by I. Primoratz (1989, p 24-6), the utilitarian justification of punishment does not require guilt or innocence as long as it achieves the greatest amount of utility, even if it requires punishment of an innocent person. And this flies in the face of our view on justice. To quote Sir William Blackstone (1825, p 713) “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent party suffer”. Singer (2016, p 33) also in this response addresses Kagan’s point about Singer not considering the interests of plants. He says that he has addressed this in Practical Ethics, where he argues that the interests are not equal due to their lack of sentience. But this was Kagan’s point. He was demonstrating that Singer draws the morally relevant line at sentience, so there was no problem with Kagan pointing this out.

The final objection by Singer is against Kagan’s use of modal personism. Singer (2016, p 33) interprets this as ‘natural law theory’ and points us to his work in Animal Liberation where he responds to such a theory. In Animal Liberation, Singer (1995, location 4453-57) asks us to imagine a world where most women naturally were better housewives than workers, would we treat those women who were better workers as though they were better housewives? This thought experiment demonstrates a misunderstanding by Singer concerning Kagan’s argument. Kagan did not say that modal persons should be have greater consideration than non-modal persons who happened to be persons. He said that both modal persons and persons should have greater consideration than non-persons. To parallel this with Singer’s housewives example, we will call housewives ‘non-persons’, workers ‘persons’, women ‘non-human animals’, and men ‘human beings’. So, this would now say that there is a world where non-human animals naturally were non-persons, would we treat non-human animals that did happen to be persons as though they are persons? Kagan, whilst still staying consistent with modal personism, would say yes.

Thus, Singer’s objections do not pose any threat to modal personism. However, is modal personism a better approach than moral humanism? Kagan’s modal personism assumes the absolute importance of human beings as ‘modal persons’ over non-human animals which are non-persons, whereas Williams’ moral humanism is of relativistic importance, which is to say human beings are more important ‘to us’. Kagan seems to provide no argument to why he prefers the absolute importance of morality instead of the relativistic, and makes no comment concerning his opinion on the impartial observer. So, in absence of such arguments, Williams’ relativistic notion of morality is the superior position to hold. Also, the absolute importance of personism, modal or otherwise, carries a serious counterintuitive consequence when we consider family connections. As mentioned previously by Lynch regarding the moral statement “she is my sister!”, this is a claim that Kagan would likely agree is morally relevant due to its intuitive force; but how can we make sense of that in the concept of absolute importance? We can make sense of this in the relativistic sense, as in ‘she matters more because my sister matters more to me’ but would have a difficult time persuading someone that ‘she matters more because she holds greater absolute importance’. The relativistic moral humanism clearly does the better job here than absolute modal personism.

The main attraction Kagan appears to have with modal personism is its potential to resolve the counterintuitive problems with the argument from marginal cases. Moral humanism has no trouble with this argument due to that saying ‘human beings matter more’ clearly includes infants and the elderly; impaired or otherwise. Kagan’s possible reluctance to embrace moral humanism is likely due to that he does not view to appealing to biology as a morally relevant notion. But this would be the same misunderstanding as Suvlescu’s regarding moral humanism. Moral humanists are not saying that fellow human beings matter more to use because of our biological characteristics, they are saying that human beings matter more to us just as our family members matter more to us. When I say, ‘she is my sister’, I am not appealing to our biology, I am appealing to the relationship I have with her. Therefore, moral humanism is better than modal personism due to it maintains the same intuitive force as modal personism, can account for other special relationships, and does not carry any of the counterintuitive issues as modal personism does.

Most of this essay has been surrounding the issue of our consideration of human beings and non-human animals; but not so much about treatment, which is included in the definition of speciesism I have decided to use. Singer’s earlier objection against Kagan regarding the brutal treatment of minorities by racists can be useful here. This is because the treatment of minorities, women, and non-human animals tells us a great deal about what our considerations towards them are. If I were to kick a dog, this would obviously be unjustified treatment, hence qualify as speciesism. But is this moral humanism? Consider if I tried to justify this by saying ‘it’s not a human being, so who cares?’. Our reactions would be that I am being callous, obtuse, sadistic, and so on. As mentioned by Williams (2009, p 90-1), it is a part of our humanity that includes our interests in the humane treatment of non-human animals. Since this is the case, this raises the question of how should we treat non-human animals from a moral humanist standpoint?

As previously mentioned by Williams (2009, p 84), it is a part of our humanity that includes how we treat non-human animals. However, it is not at all clear what this entails. One possible answer to this question has been put forward by Andrew Oberg. Oberg (2016, p 47-9) argues that our capacity as human beings to recognise the interests of both human and non-human animals, gives us more responsibility and thus have moral duties towards them. Oberg says that regarding many injustices towards both human and non-human animals around the world, many of us will look away as opposed to speaking out. To speak out, is to appeal to our sense of justice as human beings. Another possible answer has been raised by Tony Lynch. Lynch (2017, para 25-32) takes an approach he calls “co-evolution”, which is the domestication of non-human animals from cooperation between human and non-human animals that result in a win-win for both species. From this, Lynch argues that the existence of such co-evolutions means that we inherit a social contract with non-human animals to hold up our end of the bargain.

Considering these two views, a conceivable argument can be made for vegetarianism, without the need to reject moral humanism. Taking Oberg’s approach, I can recognise the cruel practices of factory farming and assert that I will not contribute to those practices by not eating meat as a protest. And this does not require to have any consequential effect. It is part of our humanity to hold to our principles against injustice, even if they, at least at an individual level, will not bring about ending that injustice. Regarding Lynch’s approach, a similar argument can be made. Lynch (2017, para 37) himself mentions that many of the mainstream practices of factory farming clearly violate the social contract between humans and non-human animals, so I could make a similar protest by becoming vegetarian until the co-evolution has been restored. Becoming vegetarian may very well be not the only answer, and there may be better ones. However, this does demonstrate that we could accept many of Singer’s conclusions concerning our treatment of non-human animals whilst consistently believing that moral humanism is not a speciesist prejudice.

In conclusion, moral humanism is not a speciesist prejudice. Singer’s preference for an impartial observer would indeed result in unacceptable standards, such as destroying the planet, regardless of whether we take a positive or negative utilitarian standpoint. Moral humanism is different from racism or sexism in that it does not rely on any further reasoning like racism and sexism usually does. It is grounded in of itself, similar to other special relationships such as family and close friends. And it is not appealing to the biological facts or the properties of personhood, such as how many chromosomes we possess or that we can foresee the future, it is the special relationship itself that is being appealed to. Although Kagan’s modal personism survives Singer’s objections, moral humanism is the better position to take as it does not come with the counterintuitive baggage that modal personism does whilst still containing all the basic intuitions Kagan used to support modal personism. Moral humanism is also perfectly consistent with campaigning for animal rights and even being a vegetarian in protest, as it is part of our humanity to call out injustice and to hold to our principles.

Reference list

Horta, O. (2010). What is speciesism? Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics. 23(1). 243- 266.

Kagan, S. (2016). What’s wrong with speciesism? (Society for applied philosophy annual lecture 2015). Journal of applied philosophy. 33(1). DOI: 10.1111/japp.12164

Lynch, A. (2017). Where I’m at when it comes to animal ethics. In philosopher io. Retrieved from, https://philosopher.io/Where-I-m-At-When-It-Comes-To-Animal-Ethics

Lynch, A. (2015). Local concerns. In philosopher io. Retrieved from, http://philosopher.io/filter/Lynch/Local-Concerns

Oberg, A. (2016). All too human?: Speciesism, racism, and sexism. In philosopher io. Retrieved from, http://philosopher.io/filter/Oberg/All-Too-Human-Speciesism-Racism-and-Sexism

Patrone, T. (2013). In defense of the human prejudice. International journal of technoethics. 4(1). 26-38.

Primoratz, I. (1989). The utility of punishment: Bentham. In justifying legal punishment. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International.

Savulescu, J. (2009). The human prejudice and the moral status of enhanced beings: what do we owe the Gods? Human enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Singer, P. (2016). Why speciesism is wrong: a response to Kagan. Journal of applied philosophy. 33(1). 31-35.

Singer, P., Williams, B. (2009). Peter Singer under fire: the iconoclast faces his critics (ed: Schaler, J.A). Chicago: Open Court.

Singer, P. (1995). Animal Liberation, revised edition. London: The Bodley Head.

Williams, B. (1995). Internal reasons and the obscurity of blame. Making sense of humanity and other philosophical papers 1982-1993. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Is moral humanism a speciesist prejudice?”

  1. Interesting work! Do you still feel the same way about moral humanism; have your views changed much since you first wrote this paper? Yes I pretty much hold the same views. It would be a mistake for some to think this is an argument against veganism or campaigning against current farming practices, only that we do not need to place non human animals at the same level as our fellow human beings in order to do so.

    Thanks again

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jason. And thanks for taking the time to read it since it is significantly longer than the usual post (bloody university minimum word counts lol). Yes I pretty much hold the same views. Of course this is not an argument against veganism or campaigns against how we treat non human animals in current farming practices, only that we do need to place them at the same moral level as our fellow human beings to do so.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s