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Speciesism and tribalism: embarrassing origins

Abstract

Animal ethicists have been debating the morality of speciesism for over forty years. Despite rather persuasive arguments against this form of discrimination, many philosophers continue to assign humans a higher moral status than nonhuman animals. The primary source of evidence for this position is our intuition that humans’ interests matter more than the similar interests of other animals. And it must be acknowledged that this intuition is both powerful and widespread. But should we trust it for all that? The present paper defends a negative answer to that question, based on a debunking argument. The intuitive belief that humans matter more than other animals is unjustified because it results from an epistemically defective process. It is largely shaped by tribalism, our tendency to favor ingroup members as opposed to outgroup members. And this influence is distortive for two reasons. First, tribalism evolved for reasons unrelated to moral truths; hence, it would at best produce true moral beliefs accidentally. Second, tribalism generates a vast quantity of false moral beliefs, starting with racist beliefs. Once this intuition is discarded, little evidence remains that speciesism is morally acceptable.

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Notes

  1. A reviewer for this journal suggested including a normative element in the definitions of racism and speciesism, which would then be characterized as unjustified discrimination based on, respectively, race and species. As I have criticized this move elsewhere (Jaquet, 2019b), I will stick to a descriptive account. Nothing substantial I will say hinges on this point.

  2. Most speciesist philosophers do defend their reaction. However, their defenses do not ground it in more intuitive propositions. For example, it is not self-evident that entities that belong to a kind whose typical members are persons count more than those that do not (Cohen, 1986; Scanlon, 2000), nor is it especially intuitive that beings who possess the genetic basis for moral agency count more than those who do not (Liao, 2010). These defenses of speciesism are best construed as attempts to make sense of a deeply intuitive belief.

  3. One might object that tribalism does produce a whole range of true moral beliefs—namely, beliefs about special duties. Intuitively, we owe our loved ones more than we do strangers. Some amount of partiality for friends and family members seems not merely permissible but required. But isn’t this intuition one more manifestation of our tribalistic psychology? And, if so, does this not show that many moral beliefs generated by tribalism are perfectly fine? Is it so plain, then, that moral beliefs based on tribalism are unjustified? My response will be twofold.

    First, remember that tribalism’s function is to foster cooperation within large groups whose members do not know each other. For smaller social units, other psychological mechanisms take place. Thus, beliefs in special obligations are arguably due to kin altruism (in the case of family members) and reciprocal altruism (in the case of friends) rather than tribalism. Second, we should not take these beliefs for granted. Just like tribalism, kin altruism and reciprocal altruism are the products of evolution. The moral beliefs that were shaped by these mechanisms might therefore be unjustified (de Lazari-Radek & Singer, 2012).

  4. This observation is even more credible once we recall the obvious fact that our speciesist beliefs are moral beliefs. Because they are moral beliefs, the evidence of unreliability provided by their origin in tribalism really adds to the (weak) evidence of their unreliability qua moral beliefs. They are less justified than other moral beliefs to the extent that they are shaped by tribalism.

  5. Whether we will is a separate matter—there is no doubt that some people are strongly attached to their speciesist beliefs, to the point that any argument will be ineffective in their case. They will not do what they should. The epistemically rational agents among us, by contrast, will abandon this belief.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation as part of the project “Debunking Arguments in Animal Ethics”. For helpful discussion and feedback, I would like to thank Charles Côté-Bouchard, Florian Cova, Nicolas Delon, Rainer Ebert, Luc Faucher, Diana Fleischman, Valéry Giroux, Martin Gibert, T J Kasperbauer, Arturs Logins, Angela Martin, Pierre Sigler, Silvan Wittwer, and two anonymous referees.

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Jaquet, F. Speciesism and tribalism: embarrassing origins. Philos Stud 179, 933–954 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-021-01700-6

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Keyword

  • Speciesism
  • Debunking arguments
  • Tribalism
  • Racism
  • Evolution