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Speciesism as a Moral Heuristic

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In the last decade, the study of moral heuristics has gained in importance. I argue that we can consider speciesism as a moral heuristic: an intuitive rule of thumb that substitutes a target attribute (that is difficult to detect, e.g. “having rationality”) for a heuristic attribute (that is easier to detect, e.g. “looking like a human being”). This speciesism heuristic misfires when applied to some atypical humans such as the mentally disabled, giving them rights although they lack rationality. But I argue that it is not necessarily irrational or inconsistent to hold on to this heuristic rule, because we have to take time and knowledge constraints, uncertainty aversion and emotional costs into account. However, this “heuristic defense” of speciesism uses a target attribute (rationality) that has implications of disrespect towards some atypical humans. Therefore, based on notions of impartiality and compassion, I argue for a morally better target attribute: sentience (“having a sense of well-being”). “Being a vertebrate” is suitable as a corresponding heuristic attribute because it is easy to detect and has a strong correlation with the target attribute of sentience.

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  1. For some recent discussions in the literature, see Bernstein (2004), Chappell (2011), Grau (2010), Horta (2010), Kaufman (1998), Lee and George (2008), Liao (2010), McMahan (2005), Nobis (2004) and Tanner (2009).

  2. Although one can argue that virtues like honesty and fair-mindedness indirectly refer to a notion of rationality. However, the virtue of compassion directly and strongly refers to suffering and sentience.

  3. The coupling between rights and species is really far-fetched, because we cannot see a connection between rights and genes or between rights and the ability to beget fertile offspring.

  4. In common morality, the attitudes towards different non-rational beings are not consistent. Consistency can be improved by uplifting the moral status of non-human vertebrate animals, due to their sentience.


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I would like to thank Dianne Scetrine, Tim de Smet and anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and proofreading.

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Correspondence to Stijn Bruers.

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Bruers, S. Speciesism as a Moral Heuristic. Philosophia 41, 489–501 (2013).

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