Coined by British psychologist and philosopher Richard D. Ryder in 1970, the term speciesism refers to the belief that nonhuman animals are completely unlike humans in their ability to feel pleasure and pain and live an autonomous existence, and therefore are inferior to the human species. Speciesism also refers to systems and behaviors that perpetuate human exploitation and dominance over nonhuman animals. Like other “-isms” speciesism manifests itself many ways. However, at the core is a belief that non-human animals are of little or no moral or ethical concern to humans precisely because they are ‘not like us.’
Speciesists make several interconnected arguments regarding nonhuman animals and their relationship to human beings. Some insist that since nonhuman animals are a ‘lesser species’ who are here solely for human use, it follows that we can use them as we see fit. Indeed, there is no such thing as ‘cruelty toward animals’ since cruelty is a moral concern and nonhuman animals do not deserve moral consideration because of their inherent inferiority. Despite massive amounts of evidence to the contrary, speciesists also insist that nonhuman animals are inferior because they are irrational, unable to reason, incapable of suffering, and do not have intelligence nor the ability to communicate. Finally there are more benevolent but nonetheless pernicious form of speciesism. In one form, people argue that dominating nonhuman animals is in their best interests. Far from harming nonhuman animals, we are doing them a favor by keeping them in captivity, in cages and otherwise domesticating them. In another form, speciesists may allow that nonhuman animal interests have some moral validity. However, those interests come a distant second to human desires, no matter how trivial. So for example, a nonhuman animal’s desire to live is trumped by human desire for its flesh–even when other options are readily available. In all of these instances, nonhuman animals’ interests are trivialized in order to legitimate human use and abuse of other sentient beings.
Although speciesism is undoubtedly targets nonhuman animals, the logic that undergirds it is present in other forms of oppression. For example, feminists like Carol J. Adams (The Sexual Politics of Meat), Marjorie Spiegel (The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery) and writer Alice Walker have identified ways in which speciesism intersects with racism and sexism. A complete treatment of this topic is not possible in this short introduction. However, this section is a starting point for examining the roots of nonhuman animal domination and fostering resistance.
Articles for further reading:
Richard D. Ryder Web site — www.richardryder.co.uk