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A (Small) CLAIM FOR SPECIESISM
Chris Borthwick

'Speciesism', taken as a (secular) claim that there exist morally significant differences between species simply on the basis of their species membership, is frequently taken as being almost axiomatically mistaken. This may be the case: but the argument most generally used to establish the point is both profoundly flawed and ethically suspect, and other arguments need to be substituted.

Most recently, for example, Peter Singer has stated that I do not claim, of course, that all animals, human and nonhuman, have the same interests, only that those interests are not to be discounted merely on the grounds of species. The interests of beings with different mental capacities will vary, and those variations will be morally significant. If we are forced to choose between saving the life of a being who understands that he or she exists over time, has plans for the future and wants to go on living, and a being who is not capable of having desires for the future because its mental capacities do not allow it to grasp that it is a 'self', a mental entity existing over time, then it is entirely justifiable to choose in favor of the being who wants to go on living. This is a choice based on mental capacity, and not on species membership (as we can see from the fact that the former may be a chimpanzee, and the latter a human with profound brain damage) (Singer, 1997). Singer would suggest, then, that

    there is no morally significant difference between a chimpanzee (as a 'self') and a human without profound brain damage (as a 'self')

    there is a morally significant difference between a chimpanzee (as a 'self') and a human with profound brain damage (as lacking 'self')

    there is no morally significant difference between a human with profound brain damage (as lacking 'self') and (say) a sea snail (as lacking 'self')

The first proposition is taken as being supported by the logical consequences of the last two. While I agree with the first, I believe that the second and third are true only in the trivial sense that if the phrase 'a person with profound brain damage' is given a new definition that incorporates the requirement of lacking 'self' then the propositions are definitionally true.

I would argue that if the words in the proposition are given their ordinary real-world meanings then there is an important difference between an actual human with profound brain damage and an actual sea snail, and that difference has moral content. We can be sure that all sea snails are sea snails. Not only cannot we be certain that all humans with profound brain damage lack a 'self', we cannot be sure that any given human with profound brain damage lacks a 'self'.

It is certain that a considerable number of humans who have been described as having profound brain damage (in particular, people diagnosed as being in Persistent Vegetative State) have following that diagnosis demonstrated that they have selves, insofar as such a quality is capable of demonstration. The most recent study, for example, found that Of the 40 patients referred as being in the vegetative state, 17 (43%) were considered as having been misdiagnosed; seven of these had been presumed to be vegetative for longer than one year, including three for over four years .... All patients remained severely physically disabled, but nearly all were able to communicate their preference in quality of life issues - some to a high level. (Andrews et al, 1996) It should not be assumed, on the basis of the evidence, that 43% represents the theoretical maximum for the demonstration of awareness in patients with profound brain damage; for reasons I have given elsewhere (Borthwick, 1996) I do not believe it possible, even as a thought experiment, to establish beyond query that a particular person is in fact incapable of thought. I would suggest that while the arguments of ethicists can perhaps provide thought experiments, setting up hypothetical cases where [treating people with profound brain damage as 'lacking-self'] would be appropriate, these arguments are not adequate to establish the congruence of these hypothetical cases with any situation in the real world (Borthwick, 1995). If the arguments in this area were conducted on the basis that theoretical constructs such as 'humans who have profound brain damage' were simply counters in logical propositions, as one might discuss whether unicorns were mammals, then the arguments would present no moral dimension of their own. They would also, however, be pointless. The force of the argument depends on there being in the real world people who are lacking 'self'. The use of the argument therefore contains the proposition that such people exist, and therefore that any given person with profound brain damage may be one. The wide advertisement of that proposition is likely to have, and probably has had, physical consequences for actual people who have been diagnosed as having profound brain damage. These consequences can include both untreated pain - The PVS patient may 'react' to painful stimuli, but he or she does not 'feel' pain in the sense of conscious discomfort of the kind that doctors would be obliged to treat or of the type that would or should seriously disturb the family (Mitchell, Kerridge, & Lovat, 1993). and uncomfortable death - Several medical societies and interdisciplinary bodies have asserted that surrogate decision makers and patients acting through advance directives have the right to terminate all forms of life-sustaining medical treatment, including hydration and nutrition, in adult patients in a persistent vegetative state. These organizations include the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Behavioral and Biomedical Research (1983), the Hastings Center (1987), the American Academy of Neurology (1989), the American Medical Association (1990), and the United Kingdom Institute of Medical Ethics Working Party on the Ethics of Prolonging Life and Assisting Death (1991) (Multi-Society Task Force, 1994). I am not, either in theory or in practice, opposed in every case either to doctor-assisted suicide or to non-consensual euthanasia. I am aware, too, that such ethicists as Singer do not recommend passive euthanasia, such as the termination of food and water, as against active euthanasia involving no pain or discomfort. I nonetheless believe that there are moral implications in ethicists effectively authorising such terminations, as not extinguishing a self, in the knowledge that the known prejudices of others, added to that authorization, will involve starving people to death who cannot be demonstrated to be insentient. The arguments of ethicists such as Singer are in this regard either without influence, and thus useless, or influential, in which case some responsibility must surely be accepted for the consequences that flow directly from them.

Characterizations of humans as insentient tend, too, to overflow their boundaries. Singer may intend, by his use of the term 'profound brain damage', to signify (correctly diagnosed) 'persistent vegetative state'; it is not what he in fact says. Other formulations of the same argument are even looser. Take, on the one hand, a massively retarded, physically disabled human being, unable to maintain itself alone in life ... incapable of language, unable to communicate its needs and wants intelligibly. Take, on the other hand, a fully-grown ape, alert, apparently intelligent, very well able to communicate and manage its needs and wants ... Why would you use the alert, aware, communicative, responsive, ape as a subject for medical research rather than using the unalert, unaware, uncommunicative, unresponsive disabled human?" (Daws, 1982, p 30-31) This extract comes from materials prepared at Deakin University for the undergraduate course HUW209 Nature and Human Nature. It was brought to my attention by a student with cerebral palsy. who found herself characterized earlier in the same text as "A profound mental retardate. Someone so mentally retarded that they cannot walk or talk, and have to be fed like a newborn baby." (Daws, 1982, p 13). Theoretical issues of self have here been translated, as in the real world they tend to be, into concretely observable criteria such as ambulation and speech.

I accept without question that Singer, and probably Daws, believe that the moral distinctions involved are activated only in the case of that subset of retarded, physically disabled, human beings unable to maintain themselves alone in life, incapable of language, and unable to communicate their needs and wants intelligibly who are also in addition to these morally irrelevant features 'lacking self', and that these distinctions are not intended to apply to (for example) the student concerned. The content of the argument, once abstracted, points to this conclusion. It is dangerous, however, for these issues to be discussed in the abstract, as in the Singer article, because the circumstances that activate the moral equivalences argued for are then not required to be specified in any detail, and it is even more dangerous to discuss them in hypothetical cases, as in the Deakin example, where the illustrative detail that is included is intended to be morally irrelevant.

If I believed, for whatever reason, that there was a morally significant difference between people with red hair and others that justified different entitlements, I would still be liable to censure if I propagated my belief in terms that allowed people who accepted my views to provide lesser services to anyone who was not black-haired. If I believed that there was a morally significant difference between that subset of people with red hair who were lacking selves and others, I would be liable to censure if I expressed myself in terms that could be mistaken as implying that all people with red hair were lacking selves.

It might also be true that even if in the latter case I made my actual views plain beyond the possibility of misunderstanding I would be contributing to a general atmosphere of prejudice against people with red hair, and that if these people were a historically disadvantaged group holding little power, suffering severe discrimination, struggling for recognition of their rights, and already liable to be used for medical experimentation without their consent, I might consider whether another analogy was preferable.

It may be that the benefits to chimpanzees flowing from the propagation of the self/lacking-self distinction outweigh the harm flowing to people with brain damage. It may be that the argument could be saved, or at least the harm reduced, by the introduction of appropriate caveats to the comparison. I have yet to see, however, any indication from any ethicist who has used this argument that any moral implications at all are involved in its use. This disturbs me.

I accept that recognition of the rights of chimpanzees is morally right. I do not accept that doing justice to the rights of chimpanzees must necessarily involve a casual attitude to the rights of other disadvantaged groups. I do not believe that ethicists have hitherto treated this issue with the respect that is justified.


Andrews K, Murphy L, Munday R, Littlewood C, 1996, Misdiagnosis of the vegetative state: retrospective study in a rehabilitation unit, BMJ 6;313 (7048):13-16

Borthwick, C., 1995, Persistent vegetative state; a syndrome in search of a name, or a judgment in search of a syndrome? Monash Bioethics Review, 14, 2, 20-26

Borthwick, C., 1995, The proof of the vegetable; a commentary on ethical futility, Journal of Medical Ethics, 21, 4, 205-8

Borthwick, C., 1996, The permanent vegetative state; ethical crux, medical fiction? Issues in Law and Medicine, 12, 2, 167-188

Daws, G., 1982, Night of the Dolphins, Geelong, Deakin University

Mitchell, K., Kerridge, I., & Lovat, T., 1993, Medical futility, treatment withdrawal, and the persistent vegetative state, Journal of Medical Ethics, 19, 71-76

Multi-Society Task Force on PVS, Medical Aspects of the Persistent Vegetative State: Second of two parts, New England Journal of Medicine, 330, 22, 1572-1579 (1994)

Singer, P., 1997, Ethics and the limits of scientific freedom, Monash Bioethics Review, 16, 2, Ethics Committee supplement, 7

Puerto Rico- P.R. Laws Ann., tit. 33, � 4009

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