Over at the Public Discourse, the very good Loyola Marymount philosopher Chris Kaczor has responded to a review of his recent book on abortion by another well-known philosopher, Don Marquis.  While calling it “the most complete, the most penetrating and the most up-to-date set of critiques of the arguments for abortion choice presently available” and “required reading for anyone seriously considering the abortion issue”, Marquis nevertheless rejects Kaczor’s central conclusion about the inherent dignity of all human organisms. 

One reason, and it is the reason on which I shall focus  in this post, is because of Kazor’s ‘speciesism.’  Though I largely agree with much that is in the book, I also think that Marquis, invoking Singer, is right to press Kaczor on this point.  But first let us turn to Kaczor’s defense at the Public Discourse.  He begins by  attempting to define the charge:

Peter Singer defines speciesism as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” On this view, to hold that all human beings have moral status is an insidious “-ism” and so should be rejected.

This point is in need of some important clarification: for to jump from ‘arbitrarily preferring human interests in, say, not feeling pain, to similar non-human interests in not feeling pain’ to ‘holding that all human beings have moral status’ is too quick.  One may give good reasons for the latter, but, at least in my view, it is difficult to justify the former.  But let’s go back to Kaczor’s defense:

As Singer notes in Animal Liberation, everything else being equal, someone who rejects speciesism should be morally indifferent between a human and a dog who are at the same level of consciousness.” Let’s say I rush into a burning building, and I have time only to save one of two beings at the same level of consciousness. I find a one-year-old girl, Catherine, and nearby her dog, Fido, both passed out from smoke inhalation. I should just flip a coin to decide whether to save Catherine or Fido, since (on Singer’s view) her potential for rational functioning is irrelevant, and they are equally sentient. This is absurd, even if Catherine is an orphan.

I realize that his response was constrained by the limitations of a blog post, but this appeal to intuition really isn’t fair to the speciesism charge…which focuses on an arbitrary preference for the species homo sapiens, full stop.  Agreeing with Singer, I do not think it is absurd to be morally indifferent about creatures of different (biological) species with similar morally-relevant interests.  Species membership, qua species membership, is of virtually no moral value.  In this sense speciesism is akin to racism and sexism.

But species-membership can be an indicator of something that is morally valuable: like being a substance of a rational nature.  Or, as Kaczor puts it in his own book, ‘having an orientation toward freedom and reason.’   This orientation exists in all human organisms–even the most immature, the most dependent, and the most severely disabled.  In fact, we recognize the tragedy of disability precisely because of the orientation that still exists in the disabled human organism. 

But let’s recognize what has happened here: Kaczor has invoked ‘orientation toward freedom and reason’ as that which confers the moral status of a person.  But this is an orientation which could, at least in principle, apply to many beings outside the species homo sapiens.  Indeed, the Christian tradition (and explicitly in the case of Thomas Aquinas) has thought of human organisms as one of the least impressive substances of a rational nature–paling in comparison to angels, for instance.  Might some non-human animals also have an orientation toward freedom and reason?  I think there is a strong argument for answering in the affirmative, and an even stronger argument for concluding that many come so close (freedom and rationality seem to exist on a spectrum rather than being ‘all or nothing’ properties) that there is good reason to dramatically change the way we  treat very sophisticated creatures like primates, dolphins, elephants, etc.  

The above conclusion also clears the conceptual space for critiquing the radically immoral way we treat less sophisticated kinds of non-human animals in our factory farms.  Indeed, here is where Singer’s push-back against speciesism, and the claims of  the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we ‘owe non-human animals kindness’ and that we should never cause them to ‘suffer or die needlessly’  (#2416 and #2418), have important common ground.  Christians, if we reject speciesism, should refuse to participate in the sinful social structures of factory farms–which cause non-human animals to suffer and die so that those in the developed world can satisfy their desire for tasty animal flesh at the cheapest price possible (i.e. needlessly) by the tens-of-billions each year.