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5.3.08

Species Favoritism

In the comments to my previous post, Joel Monka raises a different sort of justification for speciesism. I made a pretty flip response in the comments, but I decided I ought to pull it out onto the main blog to deal with it at more length. Monka said:

What about speciesism that is not concerned with "moral" worth? I do not consider mankind to be morally superior to other species- but it is MY species, and I will favor it, just as I favor MY wife over other women, or MY family.


I'm not entirely certain what he means by describing this argument -- I'll call it the "favoritism argument" -- as not being "moral." It could be that he thinks favoritism is an irresistable instict that people will follow regardless of moral exhortations -- which I think is empirically false. It could be that he is asserting that in some cases he will simply insist on disregarding the demands of morality -- which takes us deep into "why should I be moral" territory and nihilism. Or, most interestingly from a blog-about-it perspective (and most likely) he means that it is not a moral consideration in the narrow sense by which "morality" refers specifically to universalistic, relatively context-insensitive rules, which are being balanced against particularistic claims. I would call such claims moral as well, but that's just a semantic dispute. The interesting thing here is the substance -- are there particularlistic claims that humans, by being of the same species as the actor, have that override universalistic duties to other species?

Monka provides an example in which the importance of particularistic claims seems obvious -- he will favor "MY wife" over other women. In my response, I raised an example in which I think we'd agree the particularlistic claims do not apply -- favoring people of "MY race" over people of other races. The question, then, is where "MY species" lies on the spectrum defined by those two endpoints.

An important consideration to note is the difficulty of defining which category is relevant in such invocations of favoritism. Take, for example, making a choice between a cow raised on a farm down the street here in Arizona, and a human in New York who wants to eat it. I could favor the human, who is a member of "MY species." But I could also show favoritism to residents of "MY state," regardless of species, and discount beings living far away. After all, while the New York human and I have similar DNA, the Arizonan cow and I have lives that are entangled -- through sharing a local ecosystem -- that in some ways is more similar to the type of closeness by which I would claim justification for favoring "MY wife." One reason that showing favoritism toward "MY wife" seems straightfoward is that the MY-ness of one's spouse is something that's deliberately institutionalized -- we have a whole set of practices by which we pick out a person and commit ourselves to showing favoritism toward them.

The reason that favoritism is often relevant and justified is that there are certain goods that can only be secured through allowing favoritism. Sometimes this is for pragmatic reasons -- for example, I would be justified in working to improve the civic culture of Casa Grande rather than of some other city that may objectively need the help more, because being a resident of Casa Grande gives me access to information and connections and saves on resources as compared to trying to help out another city, whose residents would on the same grounds be justified in helping out their city in preference to Casa Grande. Other times it's because showing favoritism intrinsically produces certain goods. In the spouse example, the kind of closeness and intimacy that makes marriage worthwhile can only be obtained by singling out a small number of other people (most commonly just one) to engage in favoritism with. On the other hand, the benefits produced by favoritism toward one's own race are either intrinsically illegitimate, outweighed by the disbenefits, or quite capable of being shared with all races without being diminished or undermined.

So the question then becomes, are there those sorts of favoritism-dependent goods in the case of speciesism? I don't think there are, but perhaps someone else has an argument for why it's intrinsically good to favor other beings that have a specific degree of genetic similarity.

Another consideration is that particularistic justifications are not absolute. I can favor my wife by buying her diamond earrings* while not buying earrings for any other women. I cannot, however, murder another woman and take her earrings to give to my wife. The justification for favoritism is not strong enough to override the universalistic prohibition on murder. So in the case of favoritism-based speciesism, we would need to establish not just that there is a particular good that can and should only be gained through showing species favoritism, but we would also need to assess that favoritism's strength against universalistic claims of animal rights. It may be that it's OK for humans to show favoritism to other humans if, say, you're in an overloaded lifeboat and have to throw either a human or a dog overboard, but not OK to favor humans if those humans just have a craving for a steak.

*Or I could if she a) wore jewelry often and b) had her ears pierced.

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