Interview of Joan Dunayer

1. Your new book is titled Speciesism. Many people haven't heard that term. How would you define it?

Speciesism is any prejudice or discrimination based on species. Psychologist Richard Ryder coined the word speciesism in 1970. Although he didn't explicitly define the term, he indicated that speciesists draw a sharp moral distinction between humans and all other animals. Similarly to Ryder, philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan define speciesism as bias against all nonhumans. That definition is too narrow. Racism isn't restricted to bias against all nonwhites; it encompasses bias against any number of races (for example, against all nonwhites except for Asians, against only blacks and native Americans, or against only Australian aborigines). Analogously, speciesism isn't limited to bias against all nonhumans; it includes bias against any number of animal species, such as all animals other than great apes, all nonmammals, or all invertebrates.

What Ryder, Singer, and Regan call 'speciesism' actually is only one type of speciesism: the oldest and most severe form, which I call 'old speciesism'. Old-speciesists don't believe that any nonhumans should receive as much moral consideration as humans or have basic legal rights, such as rights to life and liberty. Most humans are old-speciesists.

In contrast to old-speciesists, a growing number of people believe that moral and legal rights should extend beyond our species. However, most of these people are not egalitarian; they display a brand of speciesism that I term 'new speciesism'. New-speciesists favour rights for only some nonhumans, those who seem most human-like. Believing that most humans are superior to all nonhumans, new-speciesists see animalkind as a hierarchy with humans at the top. Typically they regard chimpanzees, dolphins, and other select nonhuman mammals as more important than other nonhumans. They also rank mammals above birds; birds above reptiles, amphibians, and fishes; and vertebrates above invertebrates.

Nonspeciesists advocate basic rights for all sentient beings. Also, they don't regard any animals as lesser than others.

It's speciesist to deny any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect either because they aren't human or because they aren't human-like.

2. That's really interesting. Many people won't have thought of it that way before, even if they've read other books that address speciesism, such as Singer's Animal Liberation. How would you characterize Singer's views?

Singer exemplifies new speciesism. In his view humans of at least normal intelligence have more value than any nonhumans. Moreover, he advocates a right to life and liberty only for humans, other great apes, and possibly other mammals--provided that they possess as much self-awareness as a normal human beyond earliest infancy. Why a normal human? Why not a normal octopus or crow? Singer's criterion clearly is human-centred and human-biased: speciesist. Singer deems all nonmammals 'replaceable' (his word). He isn't categorically opposed to vivisection on nonmammals. Also, he considers it morally acceptable to rear birds, fishes, and other nonmammals for slaughter if their lives are pleasant (extremely unlikely) and they're killed quickly and painlessly (also extremely unlikely). According to Singer, 'it is not speciesist' to think that the killing of several thousand humans is 'more tragic' than the killing of several million chickens. Of course it's speciesist.

3. You reject any animal hierarchy and advocate total egalitarianism. What would you say to people who see some animals, especially humans, as more intelligent than others and therefore more important?

Speciesists tend to define intelligence as the kind of intelligence typical of humans: intelligence that includes abstract reasoning, tool use, and verbal language. First, many nonhuman animals also form abstract concepts, use tools, and engage in complex communication.

Second, different animals are intelligent in different ways. Some jays bury seeds in thousands of locations to which they return months later. No human has such powerful spatial memory. Millions of times more sensitive to electrical fields than we are, some sharks can detect smaller fishes hidden in sand by sensing the electric potentials of their heartbeats. In some ways the mental world of a jay or shark is less sophisticated than ours, in some ways more sophisticated.

Third, most humans actually are quite irrational. Would rational beings riot over the outcome of a football game? Smoke, eat, and drink themselves to death? Poison the water, soil, and air on which they rely? Believe that other religions are false but theirs is true? Would they disrespect someone because of that individual's nationality, skin color, or sex?

Finally, anyone who believes that humans are more important than other animals because humans are more intelligent must also believe that humans with high IQs are more important than humans with lower IQs. No doubt, such a person believes otherwise when their own IQ is the lower one!

4. You think that sentience should be the sole requirement for basic legal rights. Why?

Sentience should suffice for basic legal rights because anyone who can experience has an interest in staying alive and faring well, and the whole point of laws is to protect interests. In the eyes of the law, the most mentally incompetent humans have interests that warrant protection. Further, their interests don't count for less than those of humans with normal or high IQs. Why shouldn't all nonhuman beings also have rights?

Consciousness of any type and degree creates a need for protection. Any sentient being loses everything when they die. Any sentient being can suffer. Freedom from deprivation and pain is as relevant to lobsters and snakes as to gorillas and humans.

In terms of their right to justice, all sentient beings are equal. They not only have a moral right to life and freedom from abuse; they have an equal right.

5. Which animals do you regard as sentient?

Except for individuals in particular pathological states, I regard all creatures with a nervous system as sentient. The scientific consensus is that all vertebrates are sentient.

Like all vertebrates, most invertebrates have a brain, a primary nerve centre in the head. Among others, these invertebrates include insects, spiders, crustaceans, molluscs, and worms. According to the evidence, all animals with a brain can suffer. In humans substance P transmits pain impulses, and natural opiates counter pain. Insects, crustaceans, and molluscs produce substance P and opiates; worms produce opiates. Morphine reduces the reaction of praying mantises to electric shock, mantis shrimps to electric shock, land snails to a hot surface, and earthworms to pressure. Fruit flies avoid odours, octopuses visual signals, sea slugs foods, and flatworms routes associated with electric shock. (My citing such laboratory evidence, to convince skeptics, doesn't imply moral approval of vivisection. I'm opposed to all vivisection on moral grounds.) Dropped into boiling water, lobsters show struggling movements, not reflex reactions. One of the world's foremost entomologists, Cambridge University professor V. B. Wigglesworth, has stated, 'I am sure that insects can feel pain.'

Radial invertebrates possess a nervous system but no brain (as traditionally defined). They include hydras, jellyfishes, sea anemones, and sea stars (formerly called starfishes). Hydras produce substance P. Hydras, jellyfishes, and sea anemones show escape behaviours, such as withdrawing from harmful chemicals. California shore anemones fold their tentacles and oral disk in response to electric shock. After bright light has been paired with shock, they react this way to the light alone, having learned to associate it with shock. Giant sea stars learn to move to a food location when a light comes on, whether or not the food already is present. Multiple studies indicate that a sea star's nerve ring acts as a control centre--that is, like a brain.

Evidence of sentience is compelling with regard to animals who have a brain and increasingly strong with regard to invertebrates who lack a brain but have a nervous system. Therefore, any creature with a nervous system should receive the benefit of the doubt and be regarded as sentient. Why would beetles, oysters, or anyone else with a nervous system not be sentient?

6. According to some anti-animal rights philosophers, nonhumans shouldn't have legal rights because they can't be held responsible for their actions. How would you respond to that?

Young children and numerous adult humans with permanent mental disabilities can't be held responsible either. They're the very humans most vulnerable to abuse and therefore most in need of legal protection. And the law does protect them. To be logically consistent, anyone who argues that nonhumans shouldn't have rights because they can't be held accountable must also argue that mentally incompetent humans shouldn't have rights.

Advocates of nonhuman rights don't seek some kind of contract between humans and nonhumans. They seek a contract among humans: a legally binding agreement that nonhumans have basic rights.

7. What legal rights do you advocate for nonhumans?

I advocate that nonhumans have full legal personhood, which would give them all relevant legal rights.

As persons, nonhumans would have a right to life. Like all other nonhuman rights, a nonhuman right to life would constrain human, not nonhuman, behaviour. Humans wouldn't interfere with predator-prey relationships among free-living nonhumans. It would be illegal for a human to intentionally kill a nonhuman except under extraordinary circumstances. If you were stranded somewhere devoid of plant food and you faced imminent starvation, you'd be entitled to kill an animal for food. If a lion were leaping at your throat, you'd be entitled to kill in self-defence. In contrast, it would be illegal to kill mice for experimental data, cattle for their flesh, fishes for sport, minks for their pelts, spiders out of aversion, or any other nonhumans for uncompelling reasons.

Personhood would give nonhumans a right to liberty: physical freedom and bodily integrity. With the temporary exception of 'domesticated' animals, and some non-'domesticated' animals captive at the time of emancipation, nonhumans would have complete liberty. Humans couldn't legally hold them captive by chaining, caging, fencing, confining to a building, or any other means. It would be illegal to torture or sexually assault a nonhuman, as well as to maim, batter, or otherwise injure a nonhuman except in someone's direct defence.

Nonspeciesist law also would give nonhumans a right to property. They would own the products of their bodies and labours. Robins would own the eggs they lay, honeybee colonies the honey they produce, and beavers the dams they build. It would be illegal for humans to take, intentionally damage, or intentionally destroy anything that nonhumans produce within their natural habitats. Further, nonhumans would own their habitats. All nonhumans living in a particular area of land or water would have a legal right to that environment, which would be their communal property. Land currently inhabited by nonhumans and humans could remain cohabited, but humans wouldn't be permitted to encroach farther into nonhuman territory (for instance, by building more houses on land occupied only by nonhumans). It would be illegal to intentionally destroy or dramatically alter any 'undeveloped' habitat.

Nonhumans need legal rights to protect them from human abuse. With rare exceptions, the law should prohibit humans from depriving nonhumans of life, liberty, or property.

8. Upon emancipation what would happen to captive nonhumans?

Personhood would emancipate captive nonhumans from servitude to humans, who couldn't legally compel nonhumans to labour, perform, compete, or provide any service. The law would prohibit human ownership of nonhumans. Humans couldn't breed, buy, or sell nonhumans for any purpose, from vivisection and food production to pet keeping and the propagation of endangered species.

By the time of emancipation, a much larger percentage of the public would support animal equality and be vegan than today, so far fewer nonhumans would be captive. Upon emancipation dogs, cats, and other 'domesticated' animals living with loving, responsible human companions would stay with those humans. Liberated from exploitation and other abuse, other 'domesticated' animals--such as chickens freed from egg factories and rats freed from vivisection labs--would receive any needed veterinary care, be euthanized if experiencing apparently incurable suffering, and otherwise be fostered at sanctuaries and private homes until adopted. Nonhumans in human care would have essentially the same legal rights as children.

Nonhuman captivity would be phased out. To the fullest possible extent, 'domesticated' animals (including dogs and cats) would be prevented from breeding--for example, through surgical 'neutering'. The number of 'domesticated' animals would rapidly decline.

Non-'domesticated' captives would be set free if, after any necessary rehabilitation, they could thrive without human assistance and if appropriate habitat existed. If not, they would be permanently cared for at sanctuaries. As much as possible these sanctuaries would provide natural, fulfilling environments. Like 'domesticated' animals, non-'domesticated' captives would be prevented from breeding. Eventually, virtually all nonhumans would be non-'domesticated' animals living, free of human interference, in natural habitats.

9. In Speciesism you argue that 'welfarism' doesn't move us closer to nonhuman emancipation. In fact, you consider 'welfarism' counterproductive. Why?

'Welfarist' campaigns foster the notion that enslaved and slaughtered animals can have well-being (welfare). Genuine welfare is incompatible with enslavement, slaughter, and other abuse, so I put quotation marks around welfare when the context is speciesist harm.

'Welfarist' campaigns are anti-rights: they advocate different ways of violating nonhumans' moral rights to life and liberty. Campaigns for less-cruel slaughter advocate a different way of murdering nonhumans. Groups such as PETA and United Poultry Concerns have been asking that slaughterhouses gas chickens to death in their transport crates rather than leave them conscious while they're shackled, electrically paralysed, and slit at the throat. Mass-murdering chickens is entirely unnecessary, inherently unjust, and invariably cruel. Urging that chickens be gassed suggests, instead, that the problem is how chickens are killed. Campaigns for less-severe confinement advocate a different way of holding nonhumans captive. PETA pressured several fast-food chains to set new requirements regarding how their egg and flesh suppliers confine nonhumans. These restaurants now have specified, among other things, that their egg suppliers must allot hens slightly more cage space. It's morally wrong to exploit a hen or any other nonhuman in any amount of space. That's the message nonhuman advocates should convey.

'Welfarists' commonly say, 'I support anything that reduces animal suffering.' Over the long term, 'welfarist' measures increase suffering because they legitimise speciesist exploitation and give the public the false impression that the victims are treated humanely. 'Welfarist' measures are largely futile because they leave animals in the hands of their oppressors. Genuine nonhuman welfare requires freedom from exploitation. Instead of calling for less-cruel slaughter or confinement, we should promote veganism.

10. As you know, Realfood are a vegan campaigning group. We run a vegan buddy scheme, hold free vegan food fairs and festivals, produce a magazine, and so on. We've noticed some vegan campaigners avoid the word vegan, which they think scares people away. But when we do our fairs and festivals, the public shows lots of interest. People want vegan buddies, recipes, etc. Do you think vegans really are marginalised, or do you think it is just media spin?

Thanks to Realfood for your much-needed work. It's important to use the word vegan. Unlike vegetarian, vegan refers to an entire lifestyle and conveys an animal rights message. Vegans don't avoid only animal-derived foods; to the fullest extent possible, they avoid all products of speciesist exploitation.

The mainstream media keep veganism marginalised by giving it little positive coverage and by massively promoting animal-derived foods. Many people who consider themselves nonhuman advocates contribute to veganism's marginalisation. 'Welfarist' food-industry campaigns imply that eating animal-derived food is unavoidable. Promoting so-called free-range eggs or flesh, applauding people who reject flesh but continue to eat eggs and cow-milk products, and encouraging part-time veganism all suggest that veganism is difficult or impossible. Veganism offers a great variety of healthful, delicious, convenient, and economical foods.

11. Your first book, Animal Equality: Language and Liberation, addresses the ways in which standard English usage perpetuates speciesism. You regard speciesist language as a serious problem, including within animal advocacy. Please give some examples of speciesist language and possible alternatives.

Just as sexist language denigrates or discounts females, speciesist language denigrates or discounts nonhumans. It legitimises their abuse.

Many people use the word animals in a way that excludes humans. That usage helps to maintain a moral divide between humans and other animals. Instead of saying 'humans and animals', we should say 'humans and nonhumans,' 'humans and other animals', or 'all animals (including humans)'.

Our pronoun use should acknowledge nonhuman consciousness and individuality. Every sentient being is a 'who' (not a 'that' or 'which'). Also, every animal is male, female, or hermaphroditic: 'he', 'she', or 'she/he'.

We shouldn't euphemise speciesist products and practices. We're sanitizing if we call flesh 'meat', cow skin 'leather', or vivisection 'biomedical research'. If healthy, homeless humans were rounded up and killed, as dogs and cats are, no one would call the killing facilities 'shelters'. A 'fur' coat actually is a pelt coat: it includes skin. And minks and foxes aren't 'farmed'; they're held captive and murdered, just as pigs, chickens, and other animals enslaved for food aren't farmed. Saying that animals are 'farmed' denies their suffering by equating them with plants.

We should avoid speciesist oxymorons. With regard to human breeding of nonhumans, there's no such thing as 'responsible breeding'. We have no moral right to genetically manipulate other beings or manufacture their existence for our purposes. Similarly, 'humane slaughter' doesn't exist: slaughtering innocents is inhumane, whatever the killing method.

Many category labels make speciesist exploitation sound natural and inevitable by characterizing particular animals as appropriate victims. For example, game animals and lab animals characterize animals as hunting targets or experimental tools. Veal calves, dairy cows, and poultry characterize animals as food sources. In reality we needn't hunt deer, vivisect rats, or eat calf flesh or cow-milk products. It's no more necessary or moral for humans to eat chickens, turkeys, ducks, or geese than it is for us to eat eagles or herons. So-called game animals are hunted animals; 'lab animals' are vivisected animals; 'veal calves' are calves reared for slaughter; 'dairy cows' are cows enslaved for their milk; and 'poultry' are birds enslaved for food.

Language that transmits speciesist attitudes impedes nonhuman emancipation. It makes no sense to call for justice in language that legitimises oppression.

12. How do we move society toward nonhuman emancipation?

We should state, over and over, that humans don't need to exploit other animals, so exploiting them is morally wrong. We should urge people not to eat any food from nonhuman animals; wear any animal-derived clothes or accessories; or buy any household, beauty, or body-care products that contain animal-derived ingredients or were tested on nonhumans. Persuading people to adopt a vegan lifestyle reduces the number of nonhumans who suffer and die. It also decreases public support for vivisection, the flesh industry, and other forms of speciesist exploitation, hastening the day when they can be banned.

While advocating total emancipation, we can accomplish partial emancipations, through abolitionist bans. All abolitionist bans protect at least some animals from some form of exploitation. They prevent animals from entering the exploitive situation and may also remove current victims from that situation. For example, a ban on elephants in 'animal acts' emancipates elephants from circuses and other performance situations. A ban on bear hunting prevents bears from being wounded or killed: prevents, rather than modifies, their abuse. Activists can work for any number of abolitionist bans, such as bans on pelt products, fatty bird-liver, and marine mammals in aquaprisons.

We also can engage in abolitionist boycotts. A 'Boycott Eggs' campaign would advance chicken emancipation. By convincing more people to stop buying eggs, it would decrease the number of suffering chickens while increasing opposition to the entire egg industry. Similarly, a boycott of body-care products that aren't cruelty-free would reduce vivisection and boost demand for cruelty-free products. In addition to boycotting particular products, activists can boycott particular speciesist institutions such as horse racing and zoos.

We should persistently espouse equality for all sentient beings. Currently nonhuman advocacy has too many specialists: people who focus exclusively on whales, dogs and cats, or birds enslaved for food. Until more groups and individuals advocate the rights of all nonhumans, the list of abuses will remain hopelessly long and new forms of abuse continually will arise. When someone becomes a supporter of nonhuman rights, they reject all forms of speciesist abuse.

Speciesism is the root cause of all the abuses that nonhuman advocates seek to end. We need to write and speak against speciesism. Once people recognize speciesism's inherent cruelty and injustice, there's no further need to argue issue by issue. Until we reduce society's speciesism, we'll keep treating the symptoms instead of curing the disease. In the end, only a substantial decrease in speciesism can emancipate nonhumans.

Joan Dunayer will be the keynote speaker at the Heart of England Vegan Festival to be held in Birmingham on June the 18th. For details, visit

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