A Brief Introduction to Speciesism

Column by Don Stacy.

Exclusive to STR

Libertarianism, in its current state of development, does not present a definitive theory concerning the alleged rights of animals. However, the null hypothesis — the default viewpoint — is that animals do not have rights. The purpose of this essay is to briefly investigate the principal libertarian argument against animal rights, termed the speciesist argument.

Per usual, Murray Rothbard delivers the plumbline libertarian statement on a controversial issue, this time in chapter 21 of his 1982 book entitled The Ethics of Liberty, noting,

But the fundamental flaw in the theory of animal rights is more basic and far-reaching. For the assertion of human rights is not properly a simple emotive one; individuals possess rights not because we “feel” that they should, but because of a rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe. In short, man has rights because they are natural rights. They are grounded in the nature of man: the individual man’s capacity for conscious choice, the necessity for him to use his mind and energy to adopt goals and values, to find out about the world, to pursue his ends in order to survive and prosper, his capacity and need to communicate and interact with other human beings and to participate in the division of labor . . . . No other animals or beings possess this ability . . . . Thus, while natural rights, as we have been emphasizing, are absolute, there is one sense in which they are relative: they are relative to the species man.

In short, Rothbard is a speciesist, for he asserts that rights are traits of specific species, not of individual animals.

Carl Cohen, a Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, further explicates speciesism in a 1986 essay, entitled “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research,” published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Professor Cohen claims that the capacity that distinguishes humans from animals is moral judgment and summarizes, impressively, the many potential origins of this capacity, stating,

The attributes of human beings from which this moral capability arises have been described variously by philosophers, both ancient and modern: the inner consciousness of a free will (Saint Augustine); the grasp, by human reason, of the binding character of moral law (Saint Thomas); the self-conscious participation of human beings in an objective ethical order (Hegel); human membership in an organic moral community (Bradley); the development of the human self through the consciousness of other moral selves (Mead); and the underivative, intuitive cognition of the rightness of an action (Prichard). Most influential has been Immanuel Kant’s emphasis on the universal human possession of a uniquely moral will and the autonomy its use entails.

Are there problems with the speciesist position? Several flaws exist, but the most common objection, particularly raised by individualist opponents of speciesism, is that organisms should be evaluated individually rather than collectively when rights are being attributed. This point of view logically leads to the aptly-named "marginal humans" critique, which can be summarized as follows: Some humans (infants, demented adults, etc.) do not have the capacity to make/grasp/apply moral judgments, which is identical to the moral capacity of animals; therefore, “marginal humans” and animals should have the same rights status, which means that rights are not traits of species and, thus, speciesism fails. To make a literary analogy, “marginal humans” proponents claim that speciesists believe, like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that,


What is the standard response to the “marginal humans” challenge? Professor Cohen takes the lead here, stressing — in the previously mentioned article — that the "marginal-humans" argument is false because "it mistakenly treats an essential feature of humanity as though it were a screen for sorting humans," “is not a test to be administered to human beings one by one," and humans "who are unable . . . to perform the full moral functions natural to human beings are certainly not for that reason ejected from the moral community.”

In conclusion, speciesists proclaim that humans have rights but animals do not. Advocates of the “marginal humans” argument disagree. Libertarians need a comprehensive theory of human and animal rights, which I plan to provide in future articles.

Your rating: None
Don Stacy's picture
Columns on STR: 4

Don Stacy is a 41 yo American libertarian writer and physician. 


Paul's picture

Don, it is amusing that the only way out of the dilemma of "marginal humans" is to treat people as a collective, rather than treating them individually. How statist! One would expect something like that would have you questioning your premises...

In fact this is not a rare occurrence. People who use the language of rights often paint themselves into corners. No wonder there are so many arguments over it.

Your real null hypothesis is that humans have rights AND animals don't. The contrapositive is either that animals do have rights, OR that humans don't. If you ask me, the latter is the more reasonable view. Nobody has rights. Animals don't have rights not because of some deficiency, but because rights are a fantasy. They don't exist at all, other than as a very inconsistently-held meme among most people, similar to the older meme that the earth is flat.

Rothbard was wrong too (not that that happens very often). The capacity for choice, adopting goals and values, and all the rest, do not depend on the existence of rights. I don't believe in the fantasy of rights, yet I still choose and have values.


Glock27's picture

Paul: I appreciate your position here. Do I have a right to carry a firearm or do I have a value that I need/should carry a firearm? I am wondering if a rose called by any other name would smell the same? It seems to me that "Values" requires more precise consideration than what "rights" do. I shall endeavor to keep this in mind.

Paul's picture

Let me put it this way. I think the "right" to bear arms is nonsense. But just try to disarm me, see what it gets you.

You don't need rights. What you need is will.

Glock27's picture

Paul--I have to agree with you here. I guess when the Bill of Rights was being erected the framers used, maybe, the best available term at the time. I really like the value idea though. I value carrying a firearm for several reasons and the Bill of Rights is not one of the values. I value carrying a big knife as well (not a machete, or sword--too boastful). Currently where I live legislation passed to increase the blade length from 3 inches to a vague size. The size they look at is the "intent". If I carry a seven inch folding knife what is my intent? For me it is utility sake first and self-preservation next, for the state my intent could be to commit a crime; an inescapable dilemma to prove different. None of the knives I carry exceed four inches, but do not exceed four inches.
I like your precise, neat, compact reply's.

Paul's picture

"the framers used, maybe, the best available term at the time."

Yes, I believe that is so. It was not a bad concept at the time; but language evolves, and the state appropriates the words for its own use and benefit.

Jim Davies's picture

Congrats, Don, on taking on this formidable subject. I look forward to your subsequent articles.
It's striking that the argument that mankind has rights because of his moral and reasoning capacities is endorsed by such a wide range of thinkers - from Rothbard to Augustine to Hegel et al.

John deLaubenfels's picture

I wonder if these speciesists ever confronted the question as to exactly when, during the evolution of humans today from our cousins, this unique set of rights came into existence?  As the missing links are apparently long gone, the question is in some sense an academic one, but as a thought experiment I think it blows a large hole in the speciesist position.


Of course, many of them might dodge the question by saying, "What do you mean, evolution?  God created Man intact."  There's not much use in trying to engage in rational discussion with such people.


We share a huge, even overwhelming fraction of our DNA with other animals.  To assert that we have special rights because of the allegedly fantastic brain we possess doesn't impress me much.  On the other hand, I eat meat.  I'm afraid I don't have an overarching rationale for this seeming contradiction, but neither do I find the hand-waving of the "special rightists" very impressive.

Jim Davies's picture

Can't see the large hole, John. If the argument is correct that the right to life (from which all other rights to life are derived, as I suggested in Rights) derives from the human attributes of moral sense and reasoning ability, then the rights appeared at the same time as the species did.
It may help to regard human rights not as "I'm a righteous dude, therefore have the right to life" but in terms of whether or not the other guy has a right to live.
Our sense of morality says that he does. So when the Nazis moved to marginalize then exterminate Jews, they took the time to portray them as an inferior race - as rats in a sewer, in one movie. And the US Supreme Court said something to the effect that Negroes have no rights that the White Man need respect.

John deLaubenfels's picture

Can't see that you've addressed my objection.  Are you saying that, during the gradual evolution of the human species, one day someone woke up and realized all these things (moral sense and reasoning ability), and that on that day, special rights for that species came into existence?

Jim Davies's picture

No, I'm suggesting that at the end of the long and gradual process that resulted in the first human being, that first human was equipped with the right to life as well as a sense of morality and the abililty to reason. I don't know exactly when that was (about 100K years ago, I think) nor what his or her name was, but if he had the other human attributes he also had that basic right built in.
I'm also suggesting that if, arguendo, humans do not have the right to life then all manner of atrocities against us are pretty hard to oppose; might would be right, just as governments evidently believe.
What's very intriguing to me about Don's article and those with which he promised to follow it, is the extent to which animals may also have rights.

Paul's picture

John, stop asking pesky questions. Some notions just don't bear up to a lot of scrutiny.

Paul's picture

John, you have a right to eat meat, just like any animal. ;-)