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.
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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.
Cognitive dissonance also arises when we hold mutually inconsistent beliefs. But I will not be concerned with such cases.
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.
All materials and data are publicly available at https://osf.io/kv7b6/?view_only=63d40ee8e578412a95bdfd7a9967eda8.
For Studies 2 and 3, our hypotheses were pre-registered on the Open Science Framework (see link above).
Not quite so, as we shall see shortly. I nonetheless assume that it is, for the sake of presentation.
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).
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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.
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Jaquet, F. A debunking argument against speciesism. Synthese 198, 1011–1027 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02080-5
- Debunking argument
- Reflective equilibrium
- Cognitive dissonance
- Meat paradox