Why I ... believe the tide is turning against speciesism

June 22, 2001

Richard Ryder Psychologist, visiting lecturer on ethical issues and trustee of the RSPCA

Speciesism is the irrational prejudice against other animals merely because they are of a different species. Just as racism and sexism are increasingly unacceptable, the tide has now started to turn against speciesism.

We naturally feel compassion for the suffering of others - and "others" is beginning spontaneously to include other species as well as the human species. There is growing acceptance that regardless of the appearance of others, if they can suffer pain and distress, one can sympathise, whatever their skin colour or gender - or whether they have furry coats and four legs.

The great prejudice in favour of the human species is beginning to look pretty irrational to more and more people who object to animals being made to suffer in factory farms, on hunting fields and in laboratories. The media tend to focus on extremists who take things into their own hands. But most people believe we should attempt to secure better conditions for animals through normal democratic and constitutional means.

There is a paradox in British attitudes. In the 1700s, other nations were appalled at our cruelty - cockfighting and baiting animals in urban streets. In the Enlightenment, intellectuals, poets and writers began speaking out against excessive cruelty and bloodlust, questioning whether animals were so very different from humans and suggesting that animals had rights, too. In 1822, ground-breaking legislation was passed to protect farm animals from wanton cruelty. Two years later, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which became a model for other countries, was set up.

In those days, fox hunting attracted roughnecks and the rabble - but, amid fears that it could be curtailed, the spin doctors of the day managed to present it as the sport of aristocrats. It was taken up by black sheep sons of titled families - who would today probably be sniffing cocaine and crashing Ferraris. Their hunting exploits were written about and glamorised in sporting papers, appealing to the newly ennobled or the nouveaux riches . By the 1870s, it was attracting those seeking social cachet.

The public is now more aghast at fox hunting than it was even 30 years ago. Child abuse and animal abuse are beginning to look much the same to many people, who think it is clearly indefensible that humans should inflict pain on animals merely for amusement. Though it may be argued that child abuse is the greater evil, it is difficult to find any rational argument why they should not be on a par. They are both wrong. Pain is equal regardless of who suffers it.

When it comes to protecting non-human animals from pain and suffering, scientific and ethical argument is on the side of the animals. As there is good scientific evidence that animals can suffer pain and distress, this greater compassion is grounded in reason, not just emotion. And scientists who stand up for animal experimentation too vociferously risk doing a disservice to science by making it appear speciesist and heartless.

Interview by Helen Hague

Richard Ryder's Painism: A Modern Morality , will be published by Centaur Press, £8.95, on June 28. Ryder has also recently contributed a chapter on painism for the Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics , published by Academic Press in California.

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