top of page

What is speciesism? Is it morally wrong?

The present reality for most animal species around the world is that they experience horrendous suffering and lack protection under the law due to their status as property, or little more. This common situation ultimately stems from a speciesist perspective in which nonhuman animals are viewed as worth less, morally, than humans. The consequences of this view include the suffering of millions of animals — whether they are being exploited for their bodies on factory farms or as entertainment in zoos.

Is speciesism a real word?

The term “speciesism” was first coined by Richard Ryder at Oxford in reference to a human-centered prejudice that results in favoring our own species while exploiting the members of other species.

Peter Singer, a more widely known philosopher, popularized the term in 1974. The term was first added to dictionaries in the 1980s and since then has gained recognition and popular usage. Following its original definition, which pertained specifically to humans being held above nonhuman animals, the term has developed to refer to the varying values assigned to an array of animal species.

Is speciesism real?

The common belief, held by many people, that humans are inherently better, or worth more, than all animals and should be prioritized in every situation is inherently speciesist. It lacks ethical nuance, specifically in situations where human desires unnecessarily result in negative consequences, or suffering, for other animals. An example of such a situation is the use of animals for food. Because people enjoy burgers or steak or “can’t imagine living without cheese,” animals are confined on factory farms and endure lives filled with suffering.

Speciesism is not just present in the relationship many of us perceive between humans and other animals, it also influences the way humans regard animals of different species. Many believe that certain animals, such as chickens or fish, do not experience pain or do not necessarily deserve to enjoy the same quality of life as dogs or cats. Eating chicken or fish is common practice, but eating a dog or cat is unimaginable for many of us — despite a similar ability to suffer and enjoy a quality life. Chickens and cats even make a similar purring noise when they are content.

What is speciesism?

Speciesism was originally conceived as a term to reference the reality that humans are privileged above other animal species, which are exploited for the welfare and enjoyment of humans. Since then the term has continued to develop and broaden to cover the ways different animal species are treated and privileged. For example, the tendency to take a pet dog or cat for veterinary care when ill or in need of medical attention but not a gerbil, guinea pig, or hamster.

What is speciesism in ethics?

In ethics, speciesism is treating certain species as though they are of greater moral importance than other animals as well as the belief that this treatment is justified. The philosophers most commonly associated with the term, Richard Ryder and Peter Singer, argue that it follows the same general principles as racism and sexism, as an irrational form of prejudice.

What does Singer mean by speciesism?

Peter Singer discusses speciesism as being a bias about species in that there is a powerful dominant group, in this case humans, that has assigned to itself the highest moral status and uses the other groups, who have been given a lower status, for the dominant group’s own ends.

In the case of speciesism, humans use animals for their flesh and fiber in order to produce food, entertainment, clothing, and even for companionship. Singer argues that humans use animals simply because they are of a different species. He argues that there are humans who are on a similar cognitive plane to many species of animal due to their age, to injury, or for other reasons, so the difference in treatment cannot be explained by a simple cognitive difference between humans and other animals.

What is an example of speciesism?

Speciesism is present in many of the ways that we interact with and think about animals. One example is the very belief that all people are superior to all animals and should be considered first in every situation. Another example is our willingness to slaughter and consume chickens and goats but not cats and dogs which are more likely to share our homes. We are happy to visit a zoo where animals are locked in enclosures and cages much smaller than the plains and oceans they would enjoy if they were in their native habits, but find animal shelters where dogs and cats spend much of their days locked into kennels prior to their eventual liberation with a newfound family sad.

Another example is the manner in which we treat people who have lost a human family member versus a pet. If a spouse is deceased the remaining loved ones are granted time off of work or school and are treated with much greater understanding and patience than someone who has lost a beloved pet, despite the heartbreak from losing an animal companion being overwhelming and deeply depressing.

Is speciesism morally wrong?

The moral question of speciesism remains a radical one. On one hand, a wide range of nonhuman species have been proven capable of thought and forming relationships in ways that the wider human population never thought possible. On the other, the idea that animals deserve the same rights and respect as your dearest friends and family can be a difficult one to wrestle with. The reality is that the speciesist outlook that has dominated the way we interact with nonhuman animals has led to unbelievable and unjustifiable animal suffering. Part of the journey toward reducing and eventually eliminating this suffering is to begin shifting our perspective and to view animals as the sentient beings that they are, challenging the speciesist assumptions under which we operate daily.

What are the arguments in favor of speciesism?

The primary argument used to support speciesism is that humans and nonhuman animals are simply different, with humans having a higher ability to think, reason, and experience life than animals. These heightened abilities justify the preferential treatment given to humans and provide a justification for the use of animals for human gain.

What are the arguments against speciesism?

One of the most prominent arguments against speciesism that does not center on the inherent value of animal life is that there are humans, such as babies or those who have experienced brain trauma, that have a similar cognitive state to many animals and yet those people are still afforded greater care than many animals.

Can we justify speciesism?

The underlying justification for speciesism is that it maintains the status quo. Speciesism allows us to continue eating the bodies of other animals and visiting zoos and aquariums to gawk at animals that belong on entirely different continents or a hundred feet below the surface of the water. These justifications, however, pale in comparison to the lived reality of being one of the animals who is slaughtered for food, or who is repeatedly impregnated just to have their young taken within hours of giving birth, or who spends their days locked into a cage hundreds of square miles smaller than the savannahs or oceans that they are hardwired to roam and explore.

What is anti-speciesism?

Anti-speciesism is the recognition that suffering of a similar scale should receive similar attention and consideration, regardless of the species experiencing it. It requires the realization that all species have an equal interest in being free and leading a life free of pain and suffering.

Speciesism in law and policy

For decades, in true speciesist fashion, nonhuman animals have been regarded as less than human and in many places as property similar to a table or other item of furniture. This trend is beginning to change, as can be seen in a 2019 decision from the High Court of Punjab and Haryana at Chandigarh. The court decided that animals including birds, fish, and other aquatic animals are legal persons and that people have the responsibility to care for them and provide for their welfare. In addition to this landmark ruling in India, there have been a number of wins for individual animals and entities that challenge speciesism. In 2016 Cecilia, a chimpanzee, was awarded legal personhood by a court in Argentina and recognized as having “inherent rights.” Thanks to the activism of Colombian young people, the part of the Amazon rainforest within the country was recognized as a legal person with rights in 2018.


The fight against speciesism has been an uphill battle, but progress is being made through the court systems in countries around the world. Due to the hard work of activists standing up for animals and combating the assumed superiority of humans, nonhuman animal suffering is being reduced. By adopting a plant-based diet you can add your voice and purchasing power to the ranks of people who have recognized that animals deserve the same moral consideration as humans and that they should not experience the suffering entailed by life on a factory farm.


bottom of page