Personhood: Speciesism

Abortion supporters like Peter Singer classify a view that places a higher value on human life as opposed to animal life as “speciesist,” because, he argues, that it unfairly discriminates against non-human persons.

He writes:

…those I would call ‘speciesists’ give greater weight to the interests of members of their own species when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of other species.


To give preference to the life of a being simply because it is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.1

Of course, the problem with racism is that it discriminates against one human compared to another based on skin colour, an arbitrary trait. But Singer’s point is that discriminating against non-humans is just as arbitrary.

Singer takes his argument further, however. He states that individuals should be valued not by their existence, but instead by their function. That is why he is willing to concede that the pre-born are biological human beings but not persons. He says,

The fetus, the grossly retarded ‘human vegetable’, even the newborn infant—all are indisputably members of the species homo sapiens, but none are self-aware, have a sense of future, or the capacity to relate to others.

Pro-lifers then, according to Singer, are speciesist because they fight for the right to life for human ‘non-persons’ but not for animals that ‘are’ persons.

But for any of Singer’s aforementioned abilities to exist, an individual must exist. For example, self-awareness doesn’t exist on its own; instead, it is a function of an individual. The individual must first exist in order for the function to exist. Depending on that individual’s age, environment, and “able-ness,” the function may not have actualized, but that doesn’t change what that individual is.

Even criteria like intelligence and awareness develop differently among different humans. Therefore, we cannot arbitrarily choose one human ability to determine our value—we must choose the objective fact of our shared nature, our humanity. Otherwise, personhood will hinge on the subjective whims of people like Singer.

What constitutes the pro-life view is the fundamental idea that abortion discriminates against one human compared to another based on age, an arbitrary trait like skin colour. And just as it is morally wrong to kill born people because of arbitrary traits, it is wrong to kill pre-born people because of arbitrary traits.

Even though the pre-born cannot build buildings and fly to space, by virtue of being human, they inherently have the abilities to function in such ways (unlike animals); they simply cannot currently act in these manners.

The same is true for humans that are not adults: they have inherent abilities that aren’t yet current abilities because of their age and development. Since humans’ current abilities differ from one to the other, humans should be valued by virtue of what is constant: their human existence, not what is changing: their current behavior. After all, if we are to believe the claim that all humans are equal, we must look to the only thing we have in common, which is our human nature.

Singer, of course, is arguing that human equality does not apply to the pre-born, or even to some newborns, because of an ability they don’t yet have. But if he is able to use such an arbitrary system, how would he respond to someone who views speciesism as being worse than racism?

In other words, what would he say to someone who valued their dogs more than people from another race? That’s what some slave owners did in the American deep south—they valued their pets better than their human peers. If anyone can choose any arbitrary trait to decide which humans have value, then how can Singer say racists are wrong?

Moreover, the pro-life view is not necessarily incompatible with a view that values animal life. By stating that we ought to protect our own species because of our common identity (homo sapiens) that doesn’t mean we don’t value other species. One can be pro-life for both human beings and animal beings.

The point simply is this: if someone is going to bring another species up to the level of humans, surely he won’t drop some of his own species down. In other words, if he is going to be inclusive of other species, why be exclusive amongst his own?

Now what of those people who are inclusive amongst their own species but not others—people who do not protect animals to the extent they protect humans? Singer portrays placing more weight on being human over another species as something negative.

Yet by our very existence as humans, we end up valuing some beings more than others. People not only eat animals, they also displace creatures of all kinds. If, for example, consciousness determined personhood, then everyone who ate beef or fish should be considered mass murderers. But even by breathing or digesting, human beings destroy countless microorganisms.

Now Singer might say that we value complex animals more than those that are not. Therefore, we should value dolphins or dogs more than worms or amoeba. But couldn’t we then say the same thing about the human species?

Couldn’t those who value human life more than animals justify their “discrimination” because humans are the most advanced and educated species with incredible functional abilities (e.g., they find cures for diseases and fly to space)? This is why such individuals would not protect animals in the same way.

And unlike Singer who uses current abilities that constantly change, even within the same individual, the “speciesist” would use the most objective trait: our common humanity. Such individuals would recognize that due to a variety of factors (such as age) a human may not currently have impressive abilities, but by virtue of being human, an individual inherently has impressive abilities. For while a dog’s ability to cure disease is not ever, a human baby’s ability to cure disease is not yet.

A distinction needs to be made somewhere, and given that the only thing that people, both black and white, old and young, people have in common is their human nature, why not start there? After all, if someone observed both a baby and a cat crawl across a busy road, what person wouldn’t grab the child first?

Back to How We Value Humans

  1. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 51, 76.