Speciecism and the Argument from Marginal Cases

In her book The Animal Question : Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human RightsPaola Cavalieri describes our current moral beliefs about animals in the following way:

Clearly, what we are dealing with today is a stratified moral community. Both we and the members of other species belong in it, but while we are first-class moral patients, members of species other than Homo sapiens are confined to second-class status. Phrases such as “to love animals” and “to be kind to animals” well summarize an attitude based not on respect but on a more or less benevolent condescension.

This kind of attitude is sometimes called “speciesism,” and is likened to other forms of prejudice like racism and sexism. We all recognize that most animals we interact with are sentient creatures, that they can feel pleasure and pain, and that like us, they have interests. So why do we think their interests don’t matter, or don’t matter as much as our own? Why do most people believe that even trivial interests of ours, like the pleasure we experience when eating meat, consistently override the much more fundamental interests of farm animals, such as their interest in staying alive or avoiding suffering? We don’t think we can treat other human beings this way, so why is it acceptable when done to animals, simply because they belong to a different species? How are we different from those who think it’s acceptable to treat certain people differently because they belong to a different race?


The most common line of response to this charge is to claim that this difference in treatment is not based on something arbitrary like species membership. Those who reject the accusation of speciesism usually point to significant differences in the cognitive abilities of humans and nonhuman animals. The claim is usually that human beings, unlike nonhuman animals, are rational, autonomous agents and have superior intellectual capacities, and hence possess certain rights that must be respected. The problem with this view is that some humans, like those who suffer from severe and irreversible brain damage, don’t have all of these capabilities. Their powers of cognition are usually similar to those of farm animals like pigs or cows and often even less developed. Do we think it would be acceptable to kill them (even painlessly) to serve relatively minor interests of ours? Of course not – we would be horrified by such a suggestion. In fact, we usually think that we have an even greater responsibility to treat such people with care and respect. But notice that if we think this about humans but not about animals with similar cognitive abilities simply because they belong to a different species, the charge of speciesism continues to stick.

The argument I outlined above has come to be known as “the argument from marginal cases” and is one of the most widely discussed arguments in the animal rights debate. How might one respond to it? Well, there’s a family of counter-arguments that focuses on the moral relevance of what is normal for a member of a certain species. Carl Cohen, Tibor Machan, Robert Scruton and several other moral philosophers have argued along these lines. Here is Carl Cohen’s take on the subject in The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research:

The capacity for moral judgement that distinguishes humans from animals is not a test to be administered to human beings one by one. Persons who are unable, because of some disability, to perform the full natural functions to human beings are certainly not for that reason to be excluded from the moral community. The issue is one of kindWhat humans retain when disabled, animals never had.

Kenan Malik says something very similar in his debate with Peter Singer on granting rights to animals:

Most intellectually disabled people are sufficiently socialised to be members of the moral community. There are, certainly, a small number who are so disabled that they are denied a moral sense. (There, but for an accident of nature, go you and I.) But children and the mentally handicapped are of the same kind as you and me: the kind whose normal instance is a moral being.

I think this argument should immediately strike you as somewhat odd, because it seems to be based on a view that beings should be treated not on an individual basis, but based on what is normal for their kind. Where else do we apply this kind reasoning? In The Animal Question, Paola Cavalieri argues that such a view is not just odd, it is downright irrational. She responds to the argument by asking what we would do if we discovered that women are generally not as good at performing certain jobs as men, though some women are still better than some men at those jobs. If someone said that we should still give those jobs to men who were not as gifted as those few women because men are usually better at the job, or because it is normal for their kind to be better at it, we would (rightly) find that irrational and unacceptable. Why should it be any different when it comes to moral rights or obligations? Shouldn’t we be looking at individuals, and not kinds?

There are other ways of attacking Cohen’s and Malik’s argument. In Darwin, Species and Morality, James Rachels asks what we would do if a chimpanzee somehow (as the result of an advanced science experiment, perhaps) gained the ability to speak, read, write and reason like human beings. Would we think that this chimp should be denied the opportunity to go to university, or that it should be confined in a zoo, simply because normal chimps don’t have the ability to reason and use language like us? That just doesn’t feel right.

It doesn’t end there. Cohen and proponents of similar arguments must also explain why humans with severe intellectual disabilities share all the rights that other humans do, but none of their responsibilities. Usually, we think of human beings as moral agents who can be held accountable and sometimes punished for their actions. Why not extend this to the marginal cases too, since it’s normal for their kind? Would we think it’s acceptable to morally condemn or punish unfortunate victims of severe brain damage if they did something we would under normal circumstances find blameworthy? I don’t think too many people would be willing to bite the bullet here.

One last thing that needs to be said here is that any statement of the sort “Humans have capabilities X, Y and Z, while animals don’t” is almost certainly going to turn out to be false. Whether it’s rationality, self-awareness, the ability to use language, or the ability to experience complex emotions and be part of sophisticated social structures, it’s simply not true to say that humans have these abilities and nonhuman animals don’t. All of these capabilities come in degrees, and some animals possess them to a greater degree than others. They aren’t all-or-nothing issues. To illustrate this with even greater clarity, I turn to a point often made not by an ethicist but by an evolutionary biologist.

Richard Dawkins asks us to imagine what we would do if all the intermediates that connect us to chimpanzees, like Homo habilis and Australopithecus and the rest – all of whom were very similar to us – turned out not to be extinct. If they were all around today, we would have an unbroken chain of intermediates that extended from modern Homo sapiens to chimpanzees. We would have the ability to interbreed with a lot of these intermediates, and they would be able to interbreed with each other and so on, all the way back to our common ancestor with the chimpanzee. What would speciesists and proponents of the normal-for-their-kind arguments do in such a situation? How would they decide if a certain individual had human rights? Would they propose, asks Dawkins, that we set up courts to decide if a particular individual “passed for human,” like courts in apartheid South Africa were set up to decide if someone passed for white? I trust that I’m not the only one who finds such a suggestion obscene.

What we are left with, then, is what James Rachels calls “moral individualism.” When we want to know how we should treat a certain being, we look at the being itself, not what groups it may be a member of. I think it is safe to conclude that this is the simpler, more compassionate, and, as I have argued, more rational approach. It also has the consequence that what applies to the marginal human cases applies equally to nonhuman animals. They should be given the same rights and protections.

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4 Responses to Speciecism and the Argument from Marginal Cases

  1. David says:

    Hey there. I enjoyed the piece, but that’s not why I’m here. This is Mr. Raccoon Hands, and Twitter misses you a whole hell of a lot and everyone wants to know how you’re doing. Hopefully you’ll get some sort of email notification from this comment. Comment back or pop in to Twitter to let us know you’re ok!




  2. Pingback: Leslie Cannold on Veganism Animal Rights | The Skeptical Stingray

  3. Pingback: Leslie Cannold on Veganism and Animal Rights | Defending Animal Rights

  4. Matter says:

    The idea that we use only general categories to assess rights and obligations of humans is not entirely true. There is plenty of exceptions.
    Elders are entitled to seat on busses and trains and infants are usually entitled to better seats on airplanes (together with their tutors, obviously). Thus, an adult travelling with an infant has more rights than the same adult travelling alone.
    Most of the time, we decide case by case.
    However, we still need to generalize moral codes and obligations (universalism), since if we start to assign rights and obligations on a singular basis, we risk the opposite effects: a systematic discrimination based on abilities, or – in the worst case scenario – on gender, colour of the skin, religious faith, etc.
    Watch out in dismantling the concept of universalism: it has given us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
    We should work to extend the concept of universalism (the Universal Declaration of Animals Rights, including Humans), not to trash it, because the opposite is South Africa’s Apartheid, Sharia, Nazism, or the like…


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