When the term “speciesism” gets overused

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I think most of us are attracted to the term speciesism. It seems such an elegant concept. And it’s a strong one. In many cases, when you use it correctly and cleverly, it’s a prety nice argument that makes sense. Especially when you talk to progressive minded people. They see that you have a point, and that there is an analogy with racism etc.

What is speciesism about? It’s about discrimination solely on the basis of species, just like racism is discrimination solely on the basis of “race”.  I remember reading the following illustration or explanation of speciesism (I think it was in James Rachels’ Created form Animals). If you test cosmetics on the eyes of rabbits, you need to ask: why don’t we do this on people? The first answer would be: we don’t do this on people because people’s eyes would hurt. Then we ask: is this different in the case of rabbits? If no (if rabbits experience the same discomfort), then we are being speciesist if we test on rabbits but not on humans. The species, in this case, is the only reason for the difference, and that’s not right. If, on the other hand, we could say something like: because rabbits don’t experience pain in their eyes (which is not true), our acting wouldn’t be speciesist but would be inspired by a morally relevant criterium.


Like I said, I think that’s a good argument. The way I use it in discussions is that say: “If you do x to animals but not to people, you have to give me a morally relevant reason.”

I don’t think there are many good arguments against speciesism. Some people would suggest that people have a different moral standing, were created with souls, or whatever, but these things are not convincing to me.

Now, because speciesism is such an elegant concept, we tend to use it in all kinds of circumstances, and that is where, in my humble opinion, we may err. I’m talking (among other things) about where we apply the speciesism-argument to outreach and communication, within the animal rights movement.

I have heard it a thousand times, and every time I hear it, I inwardly sigh in furstration. The argument takes the same shape: you can’t do x regarding animals, because it would be immoral if we did it regarding people. In this case x is about a certain way of communication, a certain argument, a campaign… Again, it sounds good at first sight, but let me fill it in with some concrete examples

  • When I recommend meat reduction or Meatless Mondays, I get to hear that that is speciesist, because we wouldn’t approve of something like Child Abuse Free Mondays in the case of humans.
  • When I recommend that we should encourage people when they have taken steps to reduce their meat consumption, some people will reply that’s speciesist because we wouldn’t praise a murderer or abuser who is presently murdering or abusing less people.
  • When I advocate that we should try to be gentle and sensible and patient etc when talking about animal suffering and veganism, I get to her that “people who are against rape and have been victims of rape should be able to educate people about rape and not be found annoying.”
  • Another quote in the same vein: “Would anyone advocate for the abolition, or the regulation, of child sex slavery? All of us would say it is our moral obligation to advocate for the absolute END of child sex slavery, and that “improvements” are wholly inadequate, and speciesist.”

I think you get the picture. In my humble opinion, the speciesist argument the way it is used in the above cases is false. We are in no way talking about the same things. We are talking about practises in society that are seen entirely, fundamentally different. If you want to keep saying that it is the same thing, you can of course say it, but it won’t be effective.

Moreover, if in our activism and outreach we should only say or advise things regarding animals that we also feel we can advise regarding humans, there would be a lot of stuff we shouldn’t say (which of course is exactly what a part of the animal rights movement believes). We couldn’t encourage or praise people for doing anything less than veganism; we couldn’t tell people to try out a vegan challenge like Veganuary (you can’t tell rapists to try to stop raping for a month!); we can’t just give leaflets to people in supermarkets because we wouldn’t give leaflets to rapists; we couldn’t support any government’s initiative to encourage people to eat less meat because a government wouldn’t encourage people to abuse children a bit less.

And so on, and so forth. The more of these examples I write down, the more absurd the argument gets. The deplorable thing is that all these recommendations that some people in the movement would not have us make, are the claims that psychological and sociological research shows work best: small steps, small wins, rather than big challenges.

As I have written before, you can be truthful to your own rules about what to say and what not (ignoring all the research, and no matter how many times you hit a wall), or you can look for what actually helps people be open and change.

Let’s use the term speciesism cleverly, in the right context.




37 thoughts on “When the term “speciesism” gets overused

  1. Silly, Tobias! Nobody ever learned to walk by taking small steps.
    No team ever got to the World Cup by winning all the previous games leading up to it.

    1. Ok, here is my “real” reply… 🙂

      I agree, Tobias…the more you examine it, the more absurd it gets, and thoughts that seem logical at first begin to not follow the logic.

      I wonder…just like speciesism is discrimination against a certain species, I wonder if there a word for discrimination against a certain diet, such as discrimination against non-vegans?

      While some activists may continue to use the word “speciesism” at will, many of these same activists are guilty of the very same concept & discrimination inherent in speciesism, but towards non-vegans.

      If I could also reply regarding the statement you mentioned that you’ve heard, that “people who are against rape and have been victims of rape should be able to educate people about rape and not be found annoying.”

      I agree completely…but unfortunately being found annoying is the opinion of others…we can’t force somebody to think something’s not annoying if they find it annoying. If we want others to hear and receive our message, our only real option left is to try and be less annoying, more positive, etc., in others’ eyes.

      A message spoken but not heard is the equivalent to no message at all.

  2. I’m sorry Tobias but you forgot the most important misuse of speciesism. The one when we, vegans, are called speciests because we irrationally think that plant species are less important than animal species. 🙂

  3. Furthermore, being vegan isn’t enough. You wouldn’t just not rape people in a society with pervasive rape — you would go to jail to try to protect people from rape. If you aren’t in jail, you are a speciesist!

  4. Without a doubt the best critique of the ‘Rape-Free Mondays’ argument. Nice work, Tobias 🙂

    I wonder if the purist vegan’s refusal to accept gradual change (even if they, themselves have arrived at veganism through such) is due to their own insecurities? Like, if you encourage and applaud reducetarian approaches, then people might think that you’re *gasp* not a vegan! And we all know what the first rule of Vegan Club is, right?

    I’m pretty sure that if I applaud someone for ruling out pork from their diet, that they won’t think that I believe their eating of cows is just fine and dandy. I mean, let’s give people the benefit of the doubt, yeah?

  5. Thanks for this! I also think vegans lose credibility when they use the speciesism argument in the way you have described.

    We don’t do X to humans therefore we should not do X to non-human animals = speciesism (and a really great example of it).

    But, saying X (eating meat) is equal to Y (rape/murder/child abuse) and therefore saying we wouldn’t do Y so we shouldn’t do X is where it all unravels, and the credibility goes with it. I guess what we want or mean to say is “non-human animals are as ‘important’ as humans to me” but of course, these comparisons usually fall flat because they are fundamentally flawed.

    I really liked the recent article about veganism and the use of ‘props’ which relates to this, I think: http://strivingwithsystems.com/2016/01/07/veganism-and-the-problem-of-props/

    Thanks again for sharing 🙂

    1. Jenny, that article touches on another issue about vegan activism – is the way veganism and AR is advocated inclusive of poc or does it alienate them? To be blunt, from what I see, the public face of veganism is white and middle-class and the mind behind that face mostly doesn’t care. Lip service is ofcourse given, “ofcourse we are against all oppression”, but when people point out the racism within veganism – both as a community AND in terms of advocacy and theory – the white vegans don’t want to know, and indeed get angry and defensive. In my opinion poc, poor, working-class, etc need to form their own vegan communities. This is why I support Black Vegans Rock in the US. And I am sure they won’t be telling poor people in food deserts that if they are not eating vegan, they are immoral (“veganism is the moral baseline”). BTW I am white.

    2. I think Tobias has deliberately left out the F word from his post.

      The concept of specieism is problematic in many ways. For example, how can any of us stop being specieist? Vegans like to think that the killing of animals with regard to crops is only incidental and unintentional – but it isn’t. It isn’t just mice shredded in combine harvesters, animals are deliberately shot and poisoned to protect crops. If humans were being shredded and intentionally shot and poisoned, we’d all have something to say about it. But vegans mitigate the shredding of animals by saying oh it’s unintentional and we have to eat something. Most seem to be ignorant of the intentional shooting and poisoning. As far as I can see humans ARE specieist, all of us, and there is no forseeable way out of it. But I was reading someone recently pondering what he called “benevolent specieism”. I think that’s about it. Benovolent specieism, and within this veganism would be a personal, symbolic commitment to the maximum benevolence.

      1. Leone, I think that traditionally, veganism, AR and environmental movements are NOT very inclusive of marginalised or oppressed groups. Definitely not :/ I do think that is beginning to change though, in pockets. I am always open to learning how my veganism can be more inclusive. I have a lot to learn!

        1. i dislike how often the accusations of racist and ableist are being used too: just in the same way as speciesist: to undercut someone and to try to make their argument and their person of no value (if you can accuse someone of racism, in a lot of cases you have already won, whether it’s true or not). However, i do agree that when we say that veganism is easy for everyone and that everyone should be vegan, we are not taking into account some realities, in which there’s a high correlation, as it were, with race and class.

          1. “i dislike how often the accusations of racist and ableist are being used too: just in the same way as speciesist: to undercut someone and to try to make their argument and their person of no value”

            I’ve never encountered this as a derailment tactic, to be honest; if it’s a valid point, it should definitely be made. To me, speciesism is a very simple/pure concept, and it’s a shame when it’s used in a way that limits credibility and is harmful.

          2. I have no doubt that some individuals use charges of racism, etc, in that way, Tobias. While in the other ear, you get the F-ers screaming “specieism!” However is possible that some people think that the reducetarian approach (if I could call it that) also needs to mention and support food justice? So it would be actively promoting reducetarianism,vegetarianism and veganism, acknowledging that not everyone can make these choices and why they can’t and vocally supporting food justice campaigns.

            1. i can certainly see that point. my own approach and strategy, however, is more behavior based than ideology based (my upcoming book and several of the posts here are about that). i see that as a first phase, after which we will be able to be much more ideology based.

              1. I am not clear about your distinction between behaviour and ideology. I understand that your focus is how to achieve a move towards more vegans, and that a major part of this is fostering a move by individuals and society to eating less animal foods. This softening up process would create a culture where the vegan message is more acceptable. Are you saying that adding food justice into that first phase would be counterproductive? That individuals and society as a whole would be resistent to the reducetarian message because of the food justice message? If this is the case, the obvious question is what individuals would be so resistent and what part of society? I think the problem may be, Tobias, of a scenario where what you are saying looks white and middle-class simply because you are not giving any word to those in need, and you won’t be able to mitigate such an appearance by saying “yes, ideology will come in the second phase” because that will just confirm that food justice is a lesser concern that can wait for a later date. It may also confirm in some minds that veganism and ar really are about middle-class, white people – in this instance that a concern to make reducetarianism acceptable to more middle-class white people is more important making it an inclusive message from the start. In such a scenario, nobody should be surprised if large numbers of poor people and poor poc simply close their ears and turn their backs. Also it might confirm in some minds that middle-class, whites vegans really do care more about animals than poor people and poor poc. You will be aware that that view is not uncommon.

                1. i’ve written about it here several times (and it’s also explained in the first video on the video page on this site), but basically the idea is that we need to pay attention not just to attitude –> behavior change but also to behavior –> attitude change. Put very succinctly, it’s not because we don’t talk about ethics, justice etc… that we’re not working on it 🙂 And i think it would be beneficial for everyone if some of the ideologists would give pragmatists the benefit of the doubt, and not immediately think they don’t take minorities into account just because they’re not talking about them 🙂 When i suggest we don’t overemphasize the ethics etc, it is exactly because i think it is the fastest road to justice for all 🙂

                  1. OK, so behaviour-reducetarianism leads to attitude-more accepting and positive about veganism. Are you also saying that behaviour-reducetarianism leads to attitude-more accepting of helping everyone to be vegan and therefore accepting of food justice as the way to achieve this?

                    1. (just to be clear, i don’t mean only beh –> att, but ALSO)
                      the idea in general is that if we want people to care or something, make it easier to care about it by getting them to do the behavior first, without them caring why. This can be applied to many things and probably also to the causes you are talking about.
                      Also, i don’t believe we have to tackle it all at once. Often it’s a trickle down effect. Does that mean we’re postponing to work for some minorities? Not if the alternative is investing a lot in them while circumstances are not optimal so that in the end you move slower that way.
                      (this is a quick and dirty answer, i need to think about it more. can you tell me which issues concretely you are thinking about?)

                    2. I am still not clear how behavior-reducetarianism can lead to attitude- food justice/”I care about food justice”. I get that reducetarianism can lead to a more positive attitude towards veganism. But food justice is a lot more complicated, isn’t it? It touches all sorts of political issues. And to honest I can’t think of any important political change that started off with people adopting a consumption behaviour that then helped them to care more. Perhaps there is such an example. You see, as far as I understand it, your focus is ultimately political change, achieving a vegan critical mass which will bring in animal rights. Tbh, I’m not clear where food justice fits in in this trajectory. Not in the first phase. In the second? But why should greater acceptable of veganism and greater ease in being vegan, necessarily include caring more about food justice. In the critical mass phase? This presumes that all those vegans are necessarily going to be in favour of the political changes required for true food justice. They might be vegans and they might want animal rights, but can we assume they’re going to want other political changes? Perhaps you could explain why veganism will logically link to such political changes?

                      Another point is political in a different way (and I am not trying to attack you, simply trying to illuminate something). What you have said so far about “minorities”, has created a picture where some people called “pragmatists” think about minorities even if they don’t talk about them, where it wouldn’t be productive to tackle everything at once, where minorities might benefit from “trickle down”, where not focussing on them now, might work out better for them in the future. I am sure you can see the dichotomy between the ones who are doing all the thinking and planning, who are weighing up what is best to do now and to leave to a later date, who are thinking about the minorities even if they don’t talk about them, and, on the other side, the actual minorities. Now let’s change everything – the “minorities” are now the ones doing the thinking and the planning for themselves, they don’t need whoever the “pragmatists” are to do this, though they are happy to work with these pragmatists so long as they understand that issues that affect the basic needs of the minorities are going to be talked about and are not going to be left until a later date. Now let’s swap the word “pragmatists” for white people, and the word “minorities” for black people, in both the scenario where the pragmatists lead and the second scenario where the minorities lead – I think that really makes everything clearer. I’m sure you get my point.

        2. Jenny, I would still urge a very critical approach to those who “talk” oppression – ” oh yes, we are against racism, etc” – and do nothing about understanding that veganism and ar are, as you say, traditionally, not inclusive and often worse. The whole food deserts argument is a classic. Poor people and poor poc talk about their multiple difficulties around food and what do they get? Oh there is beans and rice and veg. What, like beans and rice are nutritionally adequate (never heard of Vit B12, vegans?)? What, like these people haven’t already told you that the veg available to them is limited and often already starting to perish? I could go on and on here, but it all boils down to one thing – most vegans don’t want to know because it is too challenging. They don’t want their little, simplistic vegan bubble burst. They don’t want to hear about systemic inequality that, while it exists, makes veganism as a consumption practice a choice for some, but not an accessible choice for everyone. The worst part of it all is the implication that poor people and poor poc could if they really wanted to, but they are just lazy and apathetic. This is where veganism connects with neoliberalism and morality-politics. And this is where veganism is actually a threat. As I said poor people and poc need to organise for themselves and construct their own veganism.

      2. hi leone, yes, i could of course mention the F-word related to many of the things i write, as he is co-responsible for some of the worst arguments and the worst communication in the movement, but i try to keep it objective now and then 🙂
        I entirely agree with you, it’s impossible not to be speciesist today, and to say that someone or something is speciesist is often a very spurious argument. (so maybe we should change that into: “that’s malevolently speciesist!” 😉

  6. Tobias, re “post-vegan”. I can only tell you what it means in my case. First of all, I no longer buy the vegan boycott strategy – it is grossly simplistic in terms of modern, global capitalism. I have grave doubts about veganism as the vehicle for achieving substantial progress for animals – veganism has A role, but can’t be the main facilitator. Because veganism is almost always promoted as a consumption practice it runs into severe difficulty in a world where many people have a problem getting good food or even enough food. I am also critical now about whether the vegan diet is applicable to all people in terms of nutrition. The vegan diet IS a restricted diet that requires a significant level of care and diligance, and also requires supplementation and food fortification. This is especially true for pregnant women, lactating mothers, young children, teenage girls, menstruating women, menopausal women, and elderly people. In a vegan world it would be easy nutritionally because (I presume) in a vegan world everything would be done to ensure everyone gets the nutrition they, individually, need. But we ain’t in a vegan world. Furthermore the mainstream vegan movement, is, as we have discussing , deeply problematic in terms of race and class, and vegan advocacy and theory is problematic with relation to racism, classism and other issues. There’s other stuff, but I think that gives you a taste why I consider myself post-vegan.

    Jenny, if you are reading this, and you haven’t come across her, google “Kathryn Paxton George”. You might find her interesting with regard to women, feminism and veganism.

    1. Thank you Leone, I am aware of KPG (I’m currently studying a Masters degree in Anthrozoology). Personally, I fall down on the side of Carol J. Adams when it comes to this stuff, but KPG’s writings are certainly interesting.

    2. Leone,

      I’ve come to similar conclusions about the boycott and nutrition aspects of veganism. I ate a “plant-based” diet for years but we changed things when my wife got pregnant, for one, she had so many food aversions that getting sufficient nutrients was difficult while pregnant. For kids the diet seemed very restrictive and socially constraining……and I worry a bit about the lack of research on vegan child development. With that said, my kids (and myself) are more or less lacto-vegetarians with a bit of seafood here and there which works out well here in terms of food availability, etc.

      In terms of vegan options that are available, I’ve noticed a big discontent between what is being made and practiced and what satisfies our nutritional needs. And to make matters worse, the vegan community itself circulates a good deal of nutritional misinformation. At times I wonder why its all such a disaster……and then I wonder if its by design. Not by vegans, of course, but circulating poor nutritional ideas, etc….is a great way at getting people to fail and think that “meat is necessary”.

      1. Mr Toad – I am afraid that less than full nutritional information is presented by vegan organisations that would otherwise appear trustworthy. Just a few issues – 1) iodine, an essential nutrient, which vegans can ONLY, reliably, get from supplements or sea vegetables (seaweed); 2) long-chain omega 3 DHA: while short-chain ALA is quite easy to get, and while long-chain EPA may be sufficiently created from ALA, DHA seems more problematic, and if vegans want to achieve the same omega 3 profile as oily fish eaters, they probably need to take an algae supplement; Vitamin A: vegans rely on, mostly, their body converting betacaotene to Vitamin A, and they are best advised to eat betacaotene rich foods everyday (e.g. carrots), however it appears that efficiency in converting betacaotene to Vit A varies amongst individuals, so it is quite possible that some individuals are rather poor at it. There is of course more issues than this. In my opinion, it is irresponsible to take the position that a vegan diet is suitable for everyone. Furthermore it is, imo, completely irresponsible to propose that a vegan diet is suitable for everyone regardless of health or circumstance. I, personally, am sick and tired of seeing vegans say that poor people living in “food deserts” can live cheaply on beans and rice. I am afraid that vegans who think that being vegan is an univeral, no exemption, moral imperative are basically enemies of many of the world’s poor and hungry.

      2. Mr Toad – as I have said I really think that the vegan diet is one that requires supplementation (and not just with regard to B12) and a significant level of care and diligence to ensure adequate nutrition. I really am doubtful whether a diet that entails such demands can be one that any responsible body can propose for the general population – anything proposed for the general population surely needs to as simple and as easy as possible so as to have a good chance of success. I am also interested in questions about how sustainable a vegan diet is. If in terms of environmental sustainability and food security, food needs to be as local as possible, then a vegan diet is obviously not viable in some parts of the world. I don’t know if you have ever come across a blogger called pythagorean crank – a vegan who is critical of veganism. He argues that vegans need to embrace BigAg, biotechnology, GMOs, etc, if they are serious about feeding the world on a vegan diet. But ofcourse all that has political repercussions – I wonder how many self-identified vegans think about such things?

        1. Leone,

          I’m not so sure I agree, plant-based diets really don’t need a “significant level of care and diligence”….at least no more than omnivorous diets. The difference is that we are raised with, let’s call them “food rules”, that tell us how to combine the various foods in ways that tend to make a balanced diet. The need for fortification of the standard diet came from, I think, the increased consumption of highly processed foods which were largely stripped of their nutritional value which created a mismatch between the traditional “food rules” and nutrition. So what we need are cultural appropriate “food rules” that guide people in building a balanced plant-based diet and not so much fortification. Though fortification may also be required on some level given the reality of processed food consumption.

          I don’t know how a purely vegan agricultural system would work out in developed countries…..but I don’t think it needs to be “as local as possible”. I’ve heard of pythagorean crank and he seems to be oblivious to the political and economic consequences of biotechnology and GMO crops, for example, the ability to collect economic rents on food crops. But I don’t see any reason to believe these would be required to feed the world a vegan diet…..people figured out how to subsist on near-vegan diets thousands of years ago.

  7. PS I don’t think being post-vegan need be synonymous with no longer following a vegan diet or becoming anti-vegan – for some these things may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I see post-vegan as primarily becoming seriously critical of veganism.

  8. See Christopher Sebastian’s critique on the obsession with food deserts as barriers to veganism.
    He’s a very influential PoC in the vegan movement.

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