Speciesism: A Key Social Justice Issue of Our Time

By Gordon Kelley 

“The question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?”

– Jeremy Bentham

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well with others.” – Cesar Chavez

The pervasive mindset underlying human oppression is, “I and those like me are better and more important than others. Our feelings, wants, needs, desires, and very lives are worth more than theirs.” [Maier 2015] This results in issues such as patriarchy, racism, sexism, classism, violence, and war. Many people recognize that issues such as women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and civil rights for minorities are all linked as intersectional issues of social justice. However, even people who have a good understanding of progressive philosophy and the intersection among diverse social justice issues when it comes to humans too frequently ignore the rights of nonhuman animals.

Speciesism is “the prevailing belief that other animals are less than humans, that their bodies, their freedoms, their needs, their rights, are inferior or nonexistent compared to those of humans. And since they are less than humans we can exploit and oppress them for food, clothing, entertainment, ‘scientific research,’ and as pets.” [Smith 2014] Speciesism is a uniquely complicated social justice issue—there are common threads between animal, human, and environmental devastation.

Why should animals be considered in discussions of social justice? In short, because, just like humans, they are sentient. [McWilliams 2015, Francione 2008] Animals have rich emotional lives [McWilliams 2015], they feel pain and loss, they can suffer, and they have a desire to continue living and being with their families.

Understanding that other animals are worthy of our moral consideration is very much aligned with the values that propel many of us to work to address important human rights issues. For example, something as normal and mundane as, say, ordering an ice cream, fundamentally violates key values of feminism.[Rose 2014] Female dairy cows are imprisoned and repeatedly raped (artificial insemination is done on a “rape rack”). Then their babies are taken away from them so that humans can drink their milk. Eating dairy condones the abuse and objectification of female animals, condones the commodification of female reproduction, and condones the experience of mothers having their babies ripped away over and over again. Paying for dairy, or eggs, directly supports exploitation of females [Foer 2009].

Just like humans, other animals have the right not to be imprisoned, tortured, and mutilated. They have the right not to be forcibly impregnated, and they have the right not to have their children taken away and killed. That calf taken from a mother dairy cow is typically slaughtered for meat, as will be the mother when her milk production eventually slows.[HSUS 2014] These and more than 60 billion other land animals, along with trillions of marine animals, suffer and die every year in the name of profit, tradition, science, and pleasure, due to our unthinking speciesism.[Tuttle 2014] But our power to imprison, exploit, and consume animals does not trump their right to not be imprisoned, exploited, and consumed by us.

Oppressive ideologies require rational, human people to participate in irrational, inhumane practices and to remain unaware of this contradiction.[Joy 2014] And that is exactly what happens at the grocery store every day. All animal foods represent tremendous suffering and exploitation of animals, regardless of labels like “humane” or “free range.”[McWiliams 2015, Francione 2008, Moby 2010, Foer 2009] We are blinded to this horror because it is intentionally hidden from us, invisible when we pick up a neatly packaged piece of meat at the store or order the chicken special at the restaurant. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to describe the extent of animal suffering in factory farms, I encourage you to read thoughtful writing on the subject, such as Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer,[Foer 2009] and Modern Savages: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals, by James McWilliams.[McWilliams 2015] Here, it is enough to say that every decision to eat animal products promotes a level of cruelty you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

Speciesism has disturbing echoes in the way that humans justify abuse of other humans. Disempowering victims, both human and nonhuman, strips them of their identity, or reduces their identity down to just one purpose that serves the interest of their oppressors. This “disfigured identity” eventually becomes accepted as fact, a justification for treating victims as “others.”[Grillo 2014] Pro-slavery politicians of America’s 18th and 19th centuries defined all Africans as slaves, rather than members of free and ancient sovereign nations. The Nazis of 1930s Germany considered Jews to be vermin that must be exterminated from their Aryan world. And in the 1990s, Hutus who labeled their Tutsi neighbors cockroaches also sought to exterminate these “others” whom they no longer considered human. And, today many of us refer to animals in terms such as beef or porkers, which suggest that they exist only for human interests; indeed, that our desire for a taste sensation outweighs their very right to live.[Francione 2008]

The exploitation of billions of animals also intersects directly with the exploitation of humans. For example, at factory farms and slaughterhouses. Workers put in excessively long hours under highly dangerous conditions[Rodriguez 2010, HRW 2004, Robinson 2014], develop multiple work-related illnesses[Rodriguez 2010], and are often threatened for attempting to organize, denied compensation for injuries, and denied what most of us would consider common workplace rights.[Moby 2010, Ornelas 2014]

However, animal rights also intersect with human social justice issues in ways that are less obvious. Raising animals for food paradoxically squanders the very foods that could be used to feed hungry humans. The planet has a tremendous hunger problem—according to the United Nations, 1 in 8 people worldwide suffer from chronic undernourishment.[FAO 2013] Yet, three quarters of all the coarse grains grown in the world, such as corn, oats, and barley, are fed to animals, along with more than 90 percent of soy. [Oppenlander 2013] A recent analysis showed that reallocating crops used for animal feed and biofuels toward direct human consumption could increase the global availability of calories by as much as 70 percent.[Cassidy 2013] We have the ability to feed every human on the planet, but instead we choose to inefficiently convert large amounts of plant foods into small amounts of animal foods. [Pimental 2008]

Animal farming operations also use vast amounts of water, to the detriment of humans. For example, California is experiencing drought, yet 80 percent of the water used in that state goes to agriculture. [PINRDC 2014] It takes a very large amount of water to generate animal foods: one study found that a pound of animal protein requires 1600 gallons—more than 15 times the amount need to grow a pound of grain protein, which is only 102 gallons. [PImental 2003, Hoekstra 2006] In an era where water conservation is critically important and access to clean and safe drinking water is an increasingly urgent social justice issue [Maza 2013], this disparity is reprehensible, as well as unsustainable.

I’ll be blunt: Anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist is acting hypocritically if they also continue to consume animal products. In addition to water shortages, animal agriculture is associated with myriad other environmental problems. [Tuttle 2014,Bush 2010] Huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest have been, and continue to be, mowed down to make space for grazing and soybean production. The effluvia from large, industrial animal farms pollute the air and water of people living near them. Eating seafood supports indiscriminate fishing methods that are destroying marine ecosystems and cause incidental “bycatch” deaths of many other animals including endangered sea turtles and dolphins. [Kemmerer 2014]

The widespread acknowledgement of anthropogenic climate change has led to global clarion calls for lower vehicle and factory emissions. However, in addition to industrial causes, according to the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for more than half of greenhouse gases. [UNFAO 2006] Yet, the simple act of reducing emissions by not eating animals is almost completely ignored in discussions of effective ways to mitigate climate change.

Veganism—eschewing, to the greatest practical degree, the use of animals for food or other products—is the easiest, most effective way to help other humans and protect the environment that I have ever encountered. But as importantly, I now understand that veganism is a way to move toward social justice. Speciesism is a key social justice issue: the ultimate problem is not how we use animals but that we use them.[Francione 2008, Francione 2013] Our deepest values as humans include compassion, justice, fairness, and equality. It does not make sense to refuse to apply those values to nonhuman animals.[Herzog 2010] To help create a more compassionate, more just, less violent world, consider choosing to stop participating in the exploitation of animals by becoming vegan. How can we agitate for social justice issues, march for the rights of black lives, stand up against oppression of women, support the rights of the LGBTQ community to marry and be free from discrimination, work to protect the environment, then throw our underlying motivations for those causes in the trash when we sit down to dinner?


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Francione GL, Charlton A. Eat like you care: an examination of the morality of eating animals. 2013.

Herzog H. Some we love, some we hate, some we eat: why it’s so hard to think straight about animals. 2010.


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