Peter Singer: On Racism, Animal Rights and Human Rights



George Yancy: You have popularized the concept of speciesism, which, I believe was first used by the animal activist Richard Ryder. Briefly, define that term and how do you see it as similar to or different from racism?

Peter Singer: Speciesism is an attitude of bias against a being because of the species to which it belongs. Typically, humans show speciesism when they give less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than they give to the similar interests of human beings. Note the requirement that the interests in question be “similar.” It’s not speciesism to say that normal humans have an interest in continuing to live that is different from the interests that nonhuman animals have. One might, for instance, argue that a being with the ability to think of itself as existing over time, and therefore to plan its life, and to work for future achievements, has a greater interest in continuing to live than a being who lacks such capacities.

On that basis, one might argue that to kill a normal human being who wants to go on living is more seriously wrong than killing a nonhuman animal. Whether this claim is or is not sound, it is not speciesist. But given that some human beings – most obviously, those with profound intellectual impairment – lack this capacity, or have it to a lower degree than some nonhuman animals, it would be speciesist to claim that it is always more seriously wrong to kill a member of the species Homo sapiens than it is to kill a nonhuman animal.

G.Y.: While I think that it is ethically important to discuss the issue of failing to extend to other (nonhuman) animals the principle of equality, we continue to fail miserably in the ways in which we extend that principle to black people, the disabled, women and others, here in the United States and around the world. What is it that motivates the failure or the refusal to extend this principle to other human beings in ethically robust ways? I’m especially thinking here in terms of the reality of racism.

P.S.: Although it is true, of course, that we have not overcome racism, sexism or discrimination against people with disabilities, there is at least widespread acceptance that such discrimination is wrong, and there are laws that seek to prevent it. With speciesism, we are very far from reaching that point. If we were to compare attitudes about speciesism today with past racist attitudes, we would have to say that we are back in the days in which the slave trade was still legal, although under challenge by some enlightened voices.

Why do racism, sexism and discrimination against people with disabilities still exist, despite the widespread acceptance that they are wrong? There are several reasons, but surely one is that many people act unthinkingly on the basis of their emotional impulses, without reflecting on the ethics of what they are doing. That, of course, invites us to discuss why some people have these negative emotional impulses toward people of other races, and that in turn leads to the old debate whether such prejudices are innate or are learned from one’s culture and environment. There is evidence that even babies are attracted to faces that look more like those of the people they see around them all the time, so there could be an evolved innate element, but culture certainly plays a very significant role.

G.Y.: Having referenced the slave trade, I think that it is important to keep in mind that it was partly constituted by a white racist ideology that held that Africans were sub-persons. There was also the European notion that nonwhites were incapable of planning their own lives and had to be paternalistically ruled over. As a white Australian, are there parallels in terms of how the indigenous people of Australia have been treated, especially in terms of sub-personhood, and paternalism?

P.S.: Yes, unfortunately there are parallels. The early European settlers regarded the indigenous people as an inferior race, living a miserable existence. Because the indigenous people were nomadic, they were regarded as having no ownership of their land, which in British colonial law therefore belonged to nobody – the legal term was terra nullius – and so, very conveniently, could be occupied by Europeans. In some cases, when indigenous people killed cattle that were grazing on their traditional lands, Europeans went out in “shooting parties,” killing them indiscriminately, as they would animals. Some of the Europeans justified this on the grounds that the indigenous people, like animals, had no souls. Although such killings were never permitted in law, enforcement was another matter.

[...] G.Y.: [...] returning to what you said earlier, do you think that racism is innate or cultural? Even if there appears to be a proclivity toward a kind of xenophobic tribalism expressed within the human species, racism seems to be of a different order, yes?

P.S.: Racism is certainly different from xenophobia, or tribalism. Racism develops its own ideology and, as you pointed out, institutional structures. But if by “a different order” you mean that racism and xenophobic tribalism have distinct origins, I am not sure about that. It’s possible that xenophobia is the underlying impulse that, in different cultures, expresses itself in varying forms, and racism is one of those forms.

[...] G.Y.: To what extent do you think that biases against nonhuman animals are grounded within a certain unethical stewardship toward nature itself? Do you think that this is a specifically Western approach to nature where nature is conceived as an “object” over which we ought to have absolute control? Certainly, Francis Bacon seems to have had this idea. Of course, then there was René Descartes, who argued that nonhuman animals are mere machines.

P.S.: It is true that Western thinking emphasizes the gulf between humans and nature, and also between humans and animals, to a far greater extent than Eastern thinking, or the thinking that is characteristic of indigenous peoples. Yet it is also true that the treatment of both animals and nature is, today, generally worse in the East than in the West. Every visitor to Beijing has breathed in evidence of what China has allowed its industries to do to the air. Laws protecting the welfare of animals in Europe are far in advance of those in Eastern countries, including those with strong Buddhist traditions like Japan and Thailand. China still doesn’t even have a national animal welfare law. So if the domination of nature and of animals was originally a Western idea, the sad fact is that it is being taken up avidly in the East, precisely at the time when it is being vigorously challenged in the West....

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