Skip to main content

A debunking argument against speciesism

Abstract

Many people believe that human interests matter much more than the like interests of non-human animals, and this “speciesist belief” plays a crucial role in the philosophical debate over the moral status of animals. In this paper, I develop a debunking argument against it. My contention is that this belief is unjustified because it is largely due to an off-track process: our attempt to reduce the cognitive dissonance generated by the “meat paradox”. Most meat-eaters believe that it is wrong to harm animals unnecessarily, yet they routinely and deliberately behave in ways that cause great unnecessary suffering to animals. As recent research suggests, this practical inconsistency puts them in an unpleasant state of dissonance, which they try to escape by resolving the paradox. And they do so in part by adopting the speciesist belief—if animal suffering matters much less than human suffering, then harming animals cannot be so wrong after all. Since this belief-forming process does not track moral truth, I conclude that we are not justified in believing that human interests matter more than the similar interests of non-humans.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    This is not to say that all biological differences are morally irrelevant. Some biological properties do matter from the moral point of view, such as possession of a central nervous system complex enough to allow sentience. But these properties are not merely biological. They are morally relevant indirectly, because they ground morally relevant psychological properties, such as sentience. Only biological properties that do not ground psychological properties in this sense are considered irrelevant by the egalitarian belief.

  2. 2.

    Cognitive dissonance also arises when we hold mutually inconsistent beliefs. But I will not be concerned with such cases.

  3. 3.

    Among a series of fifteen questions presented in a randomized order. The other six questions probed their beliefs about animals’ ability to feel pain and the necessity to eat meat.

  4. 4.

    All materials and data are publicly available at https://osf.io/kv7b6/?view_only=63d40ee8e578412a95bdfd7a9967eda8.

  5. 5.

    For Studies 2 and 3, our hypotheses were pre-registered on the Open Science Framework (see link above).

  6. 6.

    Not quite so, as we shall see shortly. I nonetheless assume that it is, for the sake of presentation.

  7. 7.

    Kumar and May raise analogous objections against Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s debunking argument targeting moral intuitions that are sensitive to framing effects (2018, pp. 32–33) and against Daniel Kelly’s debunking argument targeting moral beliefs that are caused by disgust (2018, pp. 33–34).

  8. 8.

    Pooling participants of all three studies together—but excluding vegetarians, who might artificially drive the correlations—we found a significant correlation between frequency of meat consumption and speciesism scores: r(1508) = .17, p < .001, dementalization of animals r(1508) = .17, p < .001, and belief that eating meat is necessary: r(1508) = .35, p < .001. These correlations held even when keeping only control participants, who were exposed to vignettes which did not induce dissonance (r respectively: .19, .14, and .37).

References

  1. Allen, M., Hunstone, M., Waerstad, J., Foy, E., Hobbins, T., Wikner, B., et al. (2002). Human-to-animal similarity and participant mood influence punishment recommendations for animal abusers. Society and Animals, 10, 267–284.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bastian, B., Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Radke, H. R. M. (2012). Don’t mind meat? The denial of mind to animals used for human consumption. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(2), 247–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bratanova, B., Loughnan, S., & Bastian, B. (2011). The effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals. Appetite, 57(1), 193–196.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Cohen, C. (1986). The case for the use of animals in biomedical research. The New England Journal of Medicine, 315, 865–870.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Daniels, N. (1979). Wide reflective equilibrium and theory acceptance in ethics. The Journal of Philosophy, 76(5), 256–282.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. De Grazia, D. (2016). Modal personhood and moral status: A reply to Kagan’s proposal. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 33(1), 22–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. de Lazari-Radek, K., & Singer, P. (2012). The objectivity of ethics and the unity of practical reason. Ethics, 123, 9–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Fotuhi, O., Fong, G. T., Zanna, M. P., Borland, R., Yong, H. H., & Cummings, K. M. (2013). Patterns of cognitive dissonance-reducing beliefs among smokers: A longitudinal analysis from the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Four Country Survey. Tobacco Control, 22(1), 52–58.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Greene, J. D. (2014). Beyond point-and-shoot morality: Why cognitive (neuro)science matters for ethics. Ethics, 124, 695–726.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Harmon-Jones, E., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2002). Testing the action-based model of cognitive dissonance: The effect of action orientation on postdecisional attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 711–723.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Huemer, M. (2005). Ethical intuitionism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  13. Huemer, M. (2008). Revisionary intuitionism. Social Philosophy and Policy, 25(1), 368–392.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Joyce, R. (2007). The evolution of morality. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Kagan, S. (2016). What’s wrong with speciesism? Journal of Applied Philosophy, 33(1), 1–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Kahane, G. (2011). Evolutionary debunking arguments. Noûs, 45(1), 103–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Kumar, V., & May, J. (2018). How to debunk moral beliefs. In J. Suikkanen & A. Kauppinen (Eds.), Methodology and moral philosophy. Abington: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Loughnan, S., Bastian, B., & Haslam, N. (2014). The psychology of eating animals. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(2), 104–108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Bastian, B. (2010). The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite, 55, 156–159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Marcu, A., Lyons, E., & Hegarty, P. (2007). Dilemmatic humananimal boundaries in Britain and Romania: Post-materialist and materialist dehumanization. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 875–893.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. McMahan, J. (2016). On ‘modal personism’. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 33(1), 27–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Piazza, J., & Loughnan, S. (2016). When meat gets personal, animals’ minds matter less: Motivated use of intelligence information in judgments of moral standing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(8), 867–874.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Plous, S. (1993). Psychological mechanisms in the human use of animals. Journal of Social Issues, 49, 11–52.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Rothgerber, H. (2013). Real men don’t eat (vegetable) quiche: Masculinity and the justification of meat consumption. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14(4), 363.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Rothgerber, H. (2014). Efforts to overcome vegetarian-induced cognitive dissonance among meat eaters. Appetite, 79, 32–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Sandberg, J., & Juth, N. (2011). Ethics and intuitions: A reply to singer. The Journal of Ethics, 15(3), 209–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Singer, P. (1976). Animal liberation. London: Jonathan Cape.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Singer, P. (2016). Why speciesism is wrong: A response to Kagan. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 33(1), 31–35.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Tersman, F. (2008). The reliability of moral intuitions: A challenge from neuroscience. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 86(3), 389–405.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Williams, B. (2008). The human prejudice. In A. W. Moore (Ed.), Philosophy as a humanistic discipline. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Martin Gibert, Oscar Horta, Benjamin Matheson, Jussi Suikkanen, Alastair Wilson, and two anonymous reviewers gave me precious feedback based on previous drafts of this paper. A special thanks goes to Florian Cova for his invaluable help during all stages of revision. I am also grateful to audiences at the University of Birmingham’s Department of Philosophy, at the Irish Philosophical Society Annual Conference 2017, and at the Society for Applied Philosophy Annual Conference 2018. Finally, I would like to thank the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, whose financial support made this work possible.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to François Jaquet.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Jaquet, F. A debunking argument against speciesism. Synthese 198, 1011–1027 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02080-5

Download citation

Keywords

  • Speciesism
  • Debunking argument
  • Reflective equilibrium
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Meat paradox