Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism
Free Inquiry, 24, no. 6 (Oct/Nov 2004), pp. 19-21

During nearly two millennia of European history in which Christian dogmas could not be questioned, many prejudices put down deep roots. Humanists are, rightly, critical of Christians who have not freed themselves of these prejudices-for example, against the equality of women or against nonreproductive sex. It is curious, therefore, that, despite many individual exceptions, humanists have on the whole been unable to free themselves from one of the most central of these Christian dogmas: the prejudice of speciesism.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this prejudice is plain and undisguised. The biblical story of creation states the Hebrew view of the special place of human beings in the divine plan:

God created man in his own image ... and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.1

But the creation didn't work out all that well. Wickedness prevailed upon Earth, so God sent a flood, drowning not only the wicked humans but almost all nonhuman animals on Earth as well, even though they were presumably innocent. He then repeated his grant of dominion in more ominous language:

And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.2

The implication is clear: to act in a way that causes fear and dread for everything that moves on the earth is not improper; it is, in fact, in accordance with a God-given decree. This was the thinking of mainstream Christianity for at least its first eighteen centuries. There were gentler spirits, certainly, like Basil, John Chrysostom, and (maybe, though there is no contemporary evidence for it) Francis of Assisi, but for most of Christian history they have had no significant impact on the dominant tradition. According to the dominant Western tradition, the natural world exists for the benefit of human beings. God gave human beings dominion over the natural world, and God does not care how we treat it. Human beings are the only morally important members of this world. Nature itself is of no intrinsic value, and the destruction of plants and animals cannot be sinful, unless it leads us to harm human beings.

The difficulties that Christians have had, over many centuries, in taking seriously the interests of animals should be yet another reason for humanists to reject the narrow Christian outlook. As humanists, we should scorn a religion that honors a man like Paul, who-along with his prejudices against women and homosexuals-could ask "Doth God care for oxen?" as if it were obvious that the answer must be negative. Paul's question led Christians to disregard those passages in the Hebrew scriptures that did suggest some compassion for animals.1' His attitude to animals, firmly reinforced by Augustine and Aquinas, dominated Roman Catholic thinking right up to the middle of the nineteenth century, when Pope Pius IX refused to allow a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to be established in Rome on the grounds that to permit it would imply the false belief that humans have duties toward animals.4

It is significant that, at least in the West, all the most philosophically important advocates for animals-Plutarch, Montaigne, Hume, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Salt, George Bernard Shaw-have been skeptical about religion. Even in recent times, leaders of the animal movement-the late Henry Spira and Ingrid Newkirk (and if it were not too immodest, I would include myself)-have tended to be nonrcligious. The organizations that have done the most for animals have been independent of religion. There are exceptions, but-in contrast to many other social issues, like racism, poverty, and peace-no one could claim that religious organizations have been especially prominent in the modern movement Io free animals from the misery and suffering that humans inflict upon them.

Humanists, of course, don't believe the old creation myth told in Genesis. They know that, to quote the American Humanist Association's recent Humanism and Its Aspirations, also known as Humanist Manifesto III, "Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change." In other words, we are animals, with no God-given or inherent right to subdue other animals. As Bertrand Russell once wrote, "Since Copernicus, it has been evident that Man has not the cosmic importance which he formerly arrogated to himself. No man who has failed to assimilate this fact has a right to call his philosophy scientific."

And yet, the thoroughly religious idea that humans are at the center of the moral universe still seems to be alive and well in humanist circles. Last year, I was invited to sign Humanism and Its Aspirations, and so I took a elose look at the document. To my surprise, in the paragraph that follows the one about humankind being the result of unguided evolutionary change, I found the following sentence: "Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond." Despite the sop to broader concerns at the end of the sentence and another remark at the end of (,he manifesto about "a planetary duty to protect nature's integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner," the manifesto obviously gives precedence to the interests of members of our own species.

I did not sign Humanism and Its Aspirations, for my aspirations go beyond human interests and the global ecosystem. Why should we ground values in the welfare of human beings rather than in the welfare of all beings capable of having a welfare at all? That many nonhuman animals have interests and welfares is difficult to deny, for they are certainly capable of feeling pain and suffering as well as pleasure and joy. There is no nonreligious reason why the pains and pleasures of nonhuman animals should not be given equal weight with the similar pains and pleasures of human beings. (Of course, if the superior intellectual capacities of one being enable that being to have interests that a being with lesser capacities is unable to have, that may make a difference to how we ought to treat them. But this is not a distinction between humans and nonhumans, for some nonhuman animals are superior in their capacities to some humans, for instance, those suffering from profound intellectual disabilities.5)

In what it says about nonhuman animals, the Council of secular Humanism's The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles is a little better than Humanism and Its Aspirations, but not a whole lot. It says that as humanists, "We want... to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species." That at least recognizes that the suffering of nonhuman animals matters. But what is "needless" suffering? If confining calves and pigs in crates too narrow for them to turn around makes veal and pork cheaper for those who want to eat it, some will say that the suffering of these animals is not "needless." Ten billion animals are killed each year for food in the United States alone, and the overwhelming majority of them live miserable lives in factory farms. In the light of pervasive human prejudices that cause such systematic suffering, a stronger statement is needed. It is time for humanists to take a stand against this ruthless exploitation of other sentient beings, which is so powerfully buttressed by the religious view that human beings are God's special creation and that he gave them dominion over animals.

"... despite many individual exceptions, humanists have on the whole been unable to free themselves from one of the most central of these Christian dogmas: the prejudice of speciesism."


1. Genesis 1: 27-28.

2. Genesis 9: 1-2.

3. Corinthians 9: 9-10.

4. E.S. Turner, All Heaven in u Rd(/e (London: Michael Joseph, 1964), p. 163.

5. For further discussion, see my Animal Liberation, 2nd cd. (New York: Iicco, 2002), especially Chapter 1.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism'