The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Confessions of a Speciesist

published January 2014
Where do nonhuman mammals fit in our moral hierarchy?
magazine cover

The case for exploiting animals for food, clothing and entertainment often relies on our superior intelligence, language and self-awareness: the rights of the superior being trump those of the inferior. A poignant counterargument is Mark Devries’s Speciesism: The Movie, which I saw at the premiere in September 2013. The animal advocates who filled the Los Angeles theater cheered wildly for Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer. In the film, Singer and Devries argue that some animals have the mental upper hand over certain humans, such as infants, people in comas, and the severely mentally handicapped. The argument for our moral superiority thus breaks down, Devries told me: “The presumption that nonhuman animals’ interests are less important than human interests could be merely a prejudice— similar in kind to prejudices against groups of humans such as racism—termed speciesism.”

I guess I am a speciesist. I find few foods more pleasurable than a lean cut of meat. I relish the feel of leather. And I laughed out loud at the joke about the farmer who castrates his horses with two bricks: “Does it hurt?” “Not if you keep your thumbs out of the way.” I am also troubled by an analogy made by rights activists that animals are undergoing a “holocaust.” Historian Charles Patterson draws the analogy in his 2002 book Eternal Treblinka, and Devries makes visual reference to it by comparing the layout of factory-farm buildings to that of prisoner barracks at Auschwitz. The flaw in the analogy is in the motivation of the perpetrators. As someone who has written a book on the Holocaust (Denying History, University of California Press, revised edition, 2009), I see a vast moral gulf between farmers and Nazis. Even factory-farm corporate suits motivated by profits are still far down the moral ladder from Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler. There are no signs at factory farms reading “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

Yet I cannot fully rebuke those who equate factory farms with concentration camps. While working as a graduate student in an experimental psychology animal laboratory in 1978 at California State University, Fullerton, it was my job to dispose of lab rats that had outlived our experiments. I was instructed to euthanize them with chloroform, but I hesitated. I wanted to take them up into the local hills and let them go, figuring that death by predation or starvation was better than gassing. But releasing lab animals was illegal. So I exterminated them … with gas. It was one of the most dreadful things I ever had to do.

Just writing those words saddens me, but nothing like a video clip posted at Appropriately entitled “saddest slaughterhouse footage ever,” the clip shows a bull waiting in line to die. He hears his mates in front of him being killed, backs up into the rear wall of the metal chute, and turns his head around seeking an escape. He looks scared. A worker then zaps him with a cattle prod. The bull shuffles forward far enough for the final death wall to come down behind him. His rear legs try one last time to exit the trap and then … Thug! … down he goes in a heap. Dead. Am I projecting human emotions into a head of cattle? Maybe, but as one meat plant worker told an undercover usda inspector, who inquired about the waste stench: “They’re scared. They don’t want to die.”

Mammals are sentient beings that want to live and are afraid to die. Evolution vouchsafed us all with an instinct to survive, reproduce and flourish. Our genealogical connectedness, demonstrated through evolutionary biology, provides a scientific foundation from which to expand the moral sphere to include not just all humans—as rights revolutions of the past two centuries have done—but all nonhuman sentient beings as well.

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26 Comments to “Confessions of a Speciesist”

  1. Chris Reynolds Says:

    I am currently exploring the idea that the brain’s neural code is a protocol which is resistant to evolutionary change and at the biological level works in the same way in all mammals. The model predicts failings in human intelligence such as confirmation bias and the tendency to behave like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (whether the giants be religious leaders or famous scientists) and unquestioningly accept too much of what we are told as true.

    What humans appear to have done is to weaken the power of the neural code to work things out for itself – and instead used language to allow the brain to fast track cultural information without any “security checks”. This works because cultural information is much more “intelligent” than the biological intelligence of the neural code. It has the interesting side effect that, at the genetically controlled level, we may actually be less intelligent than animals – who have think for themselves – and are unable to fall back on cultural knowledge supplied by others.

    If my model can be substantiated it makes one think about animals and animal suffering in a very different light.

    I plan to post full details on my blog later this month.

  2. Stefan Soltysik Says:

    I do not think that predation, or infestation with parasites (ticks on a moos), i.e., “natural” causes of death are any better than chloroform or other gas. Predation with teaching the pup how to kill (in feline species or orkas) must be much worse.
    Pain, fear and death ARE natural parts of life, sentient or not. The task of empathic individual is to shorten them and not necessarily forbid and condemn.

  3. Eleanor Thomas Says:

    You can be a speciesist and still know that cruelty to animals is wrong.

  4. Brian Swinehart Says:

    It would seem that, in the case of the experimental rats, Dr. Shermer was ENDING their suffering with the use of gas to euthanize them. This was obviously the more humane way to handle them.

  5. Dave Salvatore Says:

    Even if you try to argue that some mammals have a higher mental capacity than sime humans, it still comes to survival of the fittest. I do believe that Eleanor is 100% correct. I am a speciesist but do not condone animal cruelty. Its OK to kill animals for food or clothing but not need for the animals to be tortured in the process.

    Of course there is the exception to the rule which is medical testing on animals to save humans, but we’ll save that topic for another day.

  6. don anon Says:

    According to the ancient Avatars who had and have the responsibility as Guardians of the human race held to the belief that Ahimsa, or harmlessness, was the number one duty of humanity. If modern scientists could ever get beyond the ubiquitous mechanistic paradigm they would realize their scientific efforts are misdirected. A spiritual paradigm is on the way in this Age of Aquarius. If we only realized that the human kingdom stands as the Macrocosmic for the lower three kingdoms, which are our Microcosmic responsibility, just as humanity is the Microcosmic kingdom relative to the Macrocosmic Hierarchy. But how many really understands this simple statement of Divine Truth. Humanity is slowly waking up and when it does scientists will realize just how confused they have been regarding genuine Truth of Life and the Meaning of universal Existence. But Evolution never hurries.

  7. don anon Says:

    The future of humanity now resides in human hands.The Hierarchy can only try to influence humanity by evoking Cosmic Ideas for the rare human mind that can tune in to these,but since we have a certain degree of free-will, the Guardians of our race will not control our destiny. We must develop the power to heed these Cosmic Ideas and understand that all in energy and all energy vibrates at various rates and our human bodies can learn to become sensitive receivers of these immense higher vibrations. But first, we need to get out of our now way, overcome the self-imposed limitations of our thinking and come to the realization we are each a Divine Being. Our individual Souls are the “”God Within,” and it is our Cosmic destiny to become perfect examples of God, just as the Christ depicted for us what a perfect human being looks like.

  8. Jobe Says:

    Don? Ubiquitous mechanistic paradigm? Huh? Oh well, Good article Michael, it really made me think. I am an omnivore and an animal agriculturist. I raise cattle and my cattle live peaceful, comfortable lives relative to wild animals. They graze in the field and are well taken care of. They don’t have to worry about finding food or fighting off predators and parasites and receive medical treatment when they need it. But not all livestock are cared for as well. And your conclusion was interesting that perhaps one day our moral spheres of what constitutes humane treatment of animals will expand. I think that sphere will definitely expand, but how far it will expand is the question. Universal veganism? I think we have a long way to go. Last night at a new year’s eve party, I had a good friend try to tell me that we should bring back slavery. He wasn’t joking. He was drunk, but wasn’t joking. I did not let him get away with it, I laid into him. My wife said I should have just changed the subject. I disagree. It seems to me our first priority should be to combat the massive amount of racism and irrational hatred toward our fellow human beings that still exists before we get too far down the road of whether we are prejudiced against chickens. But it is an interesting topic. As for Mr. Anon’s comment, I guess you can count me among the unenlightened masses who do not understand his simple statement of divine truth. Perhaps I’m stuck down in one of the lower Microcosmic Kingdoms. But maybe if I keep working at it, I can climb my way up the macrocosmic hierarchy so I can go hang out with some Avatars. Those blue chicks are hot.

  9. David G. Says:

    I too, am a speciesist. I was raised on a farm by a father who taught the moral imperative, “If you’re not going to eat it, then don’t kill it.” Simple enough for his time but now we demand cheaper and cheaper food, delivered in such a way as to disguise its origins.

    We all need a personal trip to a slaughter house (or at the very least read “The Omnivores Dilemma” by Michael Pollan). We have lost all respect for the animals that make our meals possible,although vestiges of that respect remain in some cultures (i.e. Kosher or Halal rules for slaughter).

  10. Oly Says:

    Huh? halal is a respectful way to slaughter animals? By slitting their throats and letting them bleed out?

    I guess I’m a speciest and a racist because I enjoy a nick steak and don’t agree with the animalistic “religon” of Islam.

  11. Christoffer Says:

    Dave Salvatore: You do know that evolutionary theory is not meant to be a moral imperative? It is a descriptive theory, not a normative one. So, I do not understand why you write that it all comes down to survival to the fittest. Why should it? We are free to be more empathetic than that.

  12. Joe Says:

    Ah, a new year and Michael Shermer begins with yet another example of his confused and confusing thinking and writing. (For other examples see any of his “Oswald Did It” articles on the assassination of Pres. Kennedy.)

    Shermer tells us up front that he is a “speciesist” and about the emotional pleasures he derives from feeding off animal carcasses and wearing their skins, but goes on to conclude that “Our genealogical connectedness, demonstrated through evolutionary biology, provides a scientific foundation from which to expand the moral sphere to include not just all humans . . . but all nonhuman sentient beings as well.”. So which is it? Is Shermer a “speciesist” who will continue to indulge his sensory pleasure at the expense of another sentient being’s pain and suffering, or will he expand his moral sphere beyond his own species? Perhaps to his title of “King of Skeptics” must also be added “King of Hypocrites”.

    And how does Shermer, who claims to value critical thinking, manage to regurgitate the idiotic “Farmers are Nazis” conclusion from the comparison of concentration camps to factory farms? It should be obvious to any reasonable thinker that providing illustration of how humans were treated in concentration camps to how animals are treated on factory farms is not to demonstrate how farmers are morally equivalent to Nazis nor that their motivations are the same. The obvious point behind such illustration is to show that in the same way that Nazis treated human beings as “worthless animals”, factory farmers treat animals as “worthless beings”. Shermer almost sees that light when he states that he “cannot fully rebuke those who equate factory farms to concentration camps”, but his thought process apparently won’t take him all the way to understanding.

    Oh, and for the record Michael, the reason “There are no signs at factory farms reading ‘Arbeit Macht Frei'” is because animals can’t read.

  13. bee Says:

    i don’t want to be tortured or killed or end as a cheap hamburger so i try not to torture or kill animals. it’s simple.

    i’m not a lion and i live in 2014, i have a choice. i don’t need to eat meat and wear fur and leather. and who knows, maybe we’d even be better off if we didn’t rely on animal testing?

  14. King Dave @Newsvine Says:

    They would do it to us without remorse.

    We were once on the menu of many animals,and still are. I doubt those animals ever suffered emotional distress after the kill.

    And if they don’t like how we taste, they simply leave us to rot.

  15. Mary Kate Smith Says:

    King Dave, “they would do it to us without remorse?” That’s dire. Should dairy farmers be sleeping with a shot gun and one eye open?

    The fact is ‘lower’ animals don’t have options and we do. ‘Lower’ animals aren’t moral beings, they are directed by instinct and behavior patterns that they can’t think their way out of. We presume a moral superiority for ourselves, but we are pretty selective about how we apply it. Regardless whether we like the taste of steak, we do have the option of choosing to inflict suffering or not to.

  16. Ian Says:

    Ok, Consider this situation.You are shipwrecked on a desert island with your two pet dogs. NO FOOD and rescue boat eight weeks away.You have been a vegan, so are thin, and will not survive on body stores waiting for the rescue boat.
    You take the decision to all starve?
    Let your dog’s eat you?
    Kill your pets, and survive?

  17. Hermes Says:

    The title of the article should have been “Confusions of an speciecist”. Sad to see an avowed skeptic drinking the Kool Aid of animal rights. And not a word about animal research…

  18. Randy Grein Says:

    Hmm. Temple Grandin did a lot to minimize the suffering of animals in agriculture – but you probably already knew that Michael. Odd thing is that by showing management and workers how to make them more comfortable she improved production while reducing or eliminating torture.

    Still, most of us could do with less animal in our diet, no argument. I could happily live vegetarian (except shrimp – food of the gods, or at least whales!), and may do so someday.

  19. Oly Says:

    Vegetarian is just an old Indian word for “Bad Hunter”…

    I’m not going to throw mankinds ascent to the top of the food chain over the last few thousand (or 10s of thousand if uou don’t believe in Genesis) to the wayside just to eat the same food as my prey.


  20. Chris Reynolds Says:

    I read Joe’s comments about the moderation with interest as my contribution has not appeared, despite the fact that if did not breach the comment policy. Perhaps I did not make my views clear enough – so lets put the argument in a different form.

    Religious people believe that God did something special to make humans different, and many scientists are busy looking for that critical genetic change (the philosopher’s stone of intelligence) that makes us different. Anyone who believes that humans think in a fundamentally different way to animals is less likely to treat animals as sentient beings which deserve respect. This means that in discussing morality we clearly need to know more about the evolution of the differences between human and animal brains.

    One possible model starts from the assumption that the neural code (the brain’s internal communication language) is part of the mammal body plan which evolution finds difficult to change. Provisional research on this basis suggests that our apparent greater intelligence evolved because of the ability to fast-track cultural learning (via language) and not by evolving a more powerful genetically controlled neural mechanism. While faster uncritical learning may have significant overall advantages there are also some important disadvantages. The model explains why human thought suffers from confirmation bias and also makes it easier to accept nonsense, such as religion, as fact. As a result we know much more, and can do much more, than animals but the way we do it has some unintelligent flaws.

    One consequence is that some animal species, which have to live by their wits because they lack a reservoir of cultural knowledge, may well be more intelligent than we would be if we were denied the benefits of cultural learning. If research shows that some animal brains are inherently more intelligent at the genetically controlled level it becomes very hard to justify treating them as second class creatures.

  21. Dr. Strangelove Says:

    “Where do nonhuman mammals fit in our moral hierarchy?”

    Dr. Shermer, animals don’t fit in our moral hierarchy because morality is a human invention. Morality is not a law of nature. It is a law of man, made by humans for humans. The law of nature is survival of the fittest. The food chain of nature is literally dog eats dog, man eats dog or dog eats man. If pigs were as smart as humans, pig rights would be in the Constitution and humans would be in the menu.

  22. Mark Says:

    I am a great admirer of Dr. Shermer’s writing, most of which is concerned with empirical issues and the scientific method. In this column, we see an empiricist struggling, understandably, with an ethical issue. As a scientifically-oriented skeptic, I too am dismayed by the is-ought problem, by the fact that science cannot provide value judgements, and that philosophy has at best provided us with so many conflicting moral systems.

    Morally, I am a consequentialist, and I believe that the question of animal exploitation should be decided on utilitarian grounds. In particular, it would seem to me that animal exploitation can be justified if it can be demonstrated clearly that the animals are better off overall with their captive life than in the wild.

    It is clear to me that modern factory farming methods do not fit the bill in this regard, and should be prohibited on moral grounds. Also, the animals should put down humanely (some fear at death is acceptable; fear always precedes death). This seems to be the rough consensus of those who comment above.

    I discuss this is some detail at Note that I am not a speciesist: This argument would apply equally well humans as to animals. However, there is great value to humans in using animals for food and clothing, whereas there is no value in holding or slaughtering humans. Note that there is implicit inter-species comparison of well-being here, which is philosophically extremely controversial (and also discussed further on the site above).

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