Racism, Sexism, and Speciesism

Posted on Posted in Animal Rights, Ethics, Kantian Ethics, Political Philosophy

Q. Is there a difference between racism and sexism and speciesism. One school of thought would suggest that there is no difference between them. Peter Singer famously argues that in his paper “Unsanctifying Human Life.” The claim is not that there is no difference between them, literally, like they are just as bad, but that there is no difference in the sense that both are morally wrong. My view is that there is some truth to the claim that that there is no difference but I also believe there is a crucial difference. The Similarity The similarity lies in the fact that if you use a “golden rule” type argument, or a Tom Reganesque Kantian argument you get the claim that both speciesism and racism and sexism are wrong. The arguments would look like this:

1. I wouldn’t want to be discriminated against based on my sex. 2. So I should discriminate based on sex.


1. I wouldn’t want to be discriminated against based on my race. 2. So I should discriminate based on race.


1. I wouldn’t want to be discriminated against based on my species. 2. So I should discriminate based on species.

The difference The above type of ethical reasoning is was contractualist in nature. Let’s now consider a contractarian or Hobbesian account. But let’s do it in story form. Imagine you are shipwrecked on an Island with a group of people. You are now in what Hobbes calls the state of nature. This means there is no morality, no rights, no responsibilities. But that is a bad situation for everyone, because in that situation everyone is danger from everyone else, so everyone agrees to follow certain rules. The rules ensure that we don’t hurt each other or take each other stuff. We all have incentive to agree to the rules, so we all agree to the rules. This is called a social contract. What kind of rules would we agree to? I think we would agree that sexism and racism are not okay. It is important to note by “racism” and “sexism” we don’t mean merely personal sexists or racists views. The types of racism or sexism that wouldn’t be okay would be a rule that only men or only white people are allowed to harvest coconuts. Someone might think that women are not as smart as men but we’re not going to agree to outlaw personal beliefs like that. It wouldn’t be in our self-interest to invest the group with that kind of power over the individual. What about animals? What kinds of rules would we agree to regarding how we treat animals? Say John suggests that we all agree to not harm any of the animals on the island for any reason. Jane likely to say “Hell no!” From a purely survival perspective she wouldn’t give up her right to survive. The whole point of the rules is to help everyone better survive. But it doesn’t even have to be about survival. Jane may just like the taste of meat. And according the basic rules of the contract John can’t force her to do something that doesn’t benefit her. Put simply humans gain nothing from allowing animals into our social contract. It doesn’t benefit us to give animals rights. So, they don’t have the same right humans have, assuming of course rights are derived from a social contract. This doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t set down some rules regarding how we treat animals. We might all agree that no one is allowed to torture animals. Why? Because we all have an interest other people not torturing animals based on the fact that torturing animals would make a person more likely act violently towards us. So, it looks like eating animals is more like sexist or racist personal views that are not moral, according to contractual or Kantian types of ethical theories but people are entitled to hold racist or sexist views and they are entitled to eat animals if they so choose. But again no one is entitled, or has a right to, torturing animals the way animals are tortured in modern day factory farming. And of course no one has a right to waste resources in meat production in a way that harms other human beings. To use our island example we are not going to allow Jane to harvest extra coconut to feed to her pigs. It is worth noting most people who are not vegan do ascribe Kantian style ethical theories. That is to say that killing animals for food is inconsistent with their overall ethical views. So, while a vegan cannot legitimately deny someone their right to eat meat they can point out that eating meat is not consistent with their core ethical views. It is an interesting question whether we could ever get to the point, as a society, where we legislate a contractarian style morality. If we did then eating meat could be made illegal. I don’t think that would make sense. I don’t think you would ever want to legislate morality. What can happen however is that as a society we decide on some issue that we want act according to a contractarian standard of morality, or at least it could be the norm. It is a norm that we help old ladies across the street but I don’t think it ever makes sense to make it illegal to not help old ladies across the street. So, I can imagine a future in which veganism in the norm and factory farming and industrial agriculture is nonexistent, although I’m guessing we’ll probably kill ourselves before we get there.

One thought on “Racism, Sexism, and Speciesism

  1. “This means there is no morality, no rights, no responsibilities. But that is a bad situation for everyone, because in that situation everyone is danger from everyone else, so everyone agrees to follow certain rules.”

    This is where your entire argument fails. If you create a social contract based on what’s best for the individuals on the island, they could make a social contract just for the whites on the island and make the one black guy into their slave to collect coconuts for the white people. It would be beneficial to everyone who agree to the social contract and you said that there is no morality in this situation so it would be the most logical thing for the whites to do. The whites wouldn’t benefit at all by letting the black man into their social contract just as it wouldn’t benefit them to include animals in their social contract. Similarly if there was a baby on the island, it wouldn’t benefit anyone but the parents to include it in a social contract.

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