“Two legs good, four legs bad” : Exposing speciesism and hypocrisy in the theoretical and practical conception of human rights

26 August 2021
By Charlotte Flores

We value our rights to autonomy, life, and wellbeing; we protect these rights because we believe all humans deserve them, but whether we exclusively deserve rights is questionable. Human rights are conceptually universal and regulated through governmental bodies and social leverage; they were created with the goal of promoting equality and protecting human interests.

Unfortunately, by preserving our implementation of human rights, we may inadvertently make “a powerful statement about human capabilities and potential”[1]. In enacting and maintaining these privileges, we continuously fail to combat, address, or adequately mitigate the charge of ‘speciesism.’

I will argue that the current theoretical and practical parameters of human rights are speciesist and consequently pose considerable problems for the moral foundations of the concept: the protection of wellbeing and human interests. I will first provide context on animal rights and speciesism, to set the theoretical foundation. To support the argument I will first address counterarguments, then highlight the hypocritcal discrepancies and differences in how the government and society views and responds to human rights interventions vs. how they respond to animal rights interventions. These differences will objectively exhibit speciesism within the conceptual foundations of the field of human rights.

Richard Ryder, who coined the term ‘speciesism’ defines it as the “widespread discrimination practiced by man against other species[2].” The core belief sustaining speciesism is that humans possess something special that all other non-human animals lack, which makes us deserving of rights in a way they are not. Moral personhood, intelligence, language, emotion, and responsibilities of care are all used to defend this hierarchy. However, dissecting these claims of ‘uniquely human abilities’ leads to roadblocks as recent scientific discoveries have highlighted some impressive qualities of non-human animals which undermine these distinctions.

Many animals exhibit intelligent cognitive-emotional behaviours similar to (and sometimes surpassing) humans,[3] and when considering the physical makeup, we find that many of our medications work on the brains of animals due to our similar brain structures.[4] We now know that pigs outsmart human children in cognition tests,[5] dolphins use sound to communicate complex ideas and address one another by ‘name,’[6] and many animals connect emotionally with their peers.[7]

Above all, it’s been proven that nearly all animals are sentient beings who can feel and emotionally process pain.[8] Despite these impressive cognitive abilities and physiological similarities, there is still negligible protection in place for animals’ interests and we continue to drown, starve, burn, and maim these animals, killing ~ 200 million for food every day[9] (this figure excludes animals killed by hunters, the fur industry, and abuse). None of these animal victims have legal rights, but an authoritative and logically sound reason why has yet to be substantiated.

Another argument commonly used by speciesism deniers to defend the hierarchical position of humans as exclusive ‘right bearers’, is that “human beings can be expected to reciprocate in a way non-human animals cannot.”[10] This argument considers the responsibility of care[11] (the idea that the acquisition of rights necessitates individual effort to protect the rights of others) as a necessary factor in determining who deserves rights. Unfortunately, while this logic may successfully exclude many animals from right acquisition, it also excludes some humans. While we claim that all men are created equal, it is apparent that human beings are “manifestly not equal, differing greatly in intelligence, virtue, and capacities”[12].

We do not rely solely on responsibilities of care or mental capabilities when considering the equality and protection of human interests. For example, it is illegal to deny a newborn baby the right not to be tortured or killed simply because they are not actively protecting the rights of others.[13] Furthermore, many of us do not/cannot bear care responsibilities due to severe cognitive or physical disabilities.

Despite these differences however, we grant every human legal rights because of their human status. If there are no significant differences in the responsibilities of care of some humans compared with some animals, then we are ascribing rights to humans and denying animals rights based solely on species membership, which is problematically anthropomorphic and hypocritical.

If we want to deny the charge of speciesism while protecting the rights of humans who do not bare responsibilities of care, we must be able to identify a distinguishing factor which sufficiently explains “why humans with mental lives less sophisticated than animals’ mental lives have rights [and animals do not],”[14] which has yet to be done.

Perhaps we should reconsider what matters when ascribing rights. While advocating for civil rights, Wasserstrom and Williams claimed that rights should extend to all those with the capacity to be impacted by violations of the protected right.[15] This theory suggests that right-allocation may vary depending on the right, something I think would be very helpful in mitigating speciesism.

To fully understand the principle suggested by Wasserstrom and Williams, Consider the right to freedom from torture. It seems illogical to use ‘responsibility of care’ rather than the capacity to suffer as a baseline for its protection. Why? Because we care about having this right because we have an interest in not suffering. The typical dictionary definition of torture is to “inflict severe pain or suffering on.”[16] Suffering and the ability to feel pain are both necessary and sufficient conditions to being tortured. Therefore, if one sentient person is protected from torture, then striving for equality and wellbeing, it should follow that everyone who can suffer should be protected because this right was created to protect ‘persons’ from unnecessary suffering.

The prevalence of hypocritical speciesism within the field of human rights is indisputable when we consider the governmental and social responses to ‘humanitarian intervention’ vs. ‘animal rights intervention.’ To illustrate this, let us examine these two real-life rights interventions which had incongruent repercussions:

In both situations, the rights to autonomy, safety, and freedom from torture were infringed upon. Without rescue, the lab animals would have endured torturous experiments, yet legal liberation was only served in the human rights case.

Human rights interventions are legal and justified in the eyes of international law (even in cases of violent raid rescues). Animal rights rescuers, however, despite engaging in very few illegal actions,[20] are labelled terrorists and charged as criminals in many non-violent cases of intervention. This charge of terrorism is quite grave, considering that nearly all legal definitions of terrorism involve the “murder [or harm] of innocent victims,”[21] and that one of the ALF’s fundamental principles is that “no harm should be done to animals, including humans.”[22]

Despite the lack of direct violence or terrorism (in its traditional definition) from animal rights activists, governmental responses reflect that a global war on ‘ecoterrorism’ is underway. John Lewis of the FBI’s counterterrorism division once claimed that “the no.1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism animal rights movement”[23], the UK government organised the NETCU “specifically to spy on animal activists,” and Canadian MP Gerry Byrne called on the federal government to investigate PETA for terrorism after an animal rights activist “pushed a tofu-cream pie into the fisheries minister’s face.”[24] Animal activists and humanitarians share the common goal of protecting the interests of sentient beings, but the public responses to intervention differ, indicating a dangerous double standard.

It is evident that many animals have similar or equal cognitive processes, emotions, bonds, and rights responsibilities as some humans. Therefore, we must consider whether the seemingly noble cause of human rights is necessarily built on valuing one species at the expense of others. If human rights are speciesist, rather than preparing for the vengeance of our new animal overlords, it may be beneficial to contemplate which rights our clawed, gilled, scaled, and four-legged friends deserve. If we strive for morality and equality, human rights may need to expand to ‘person’ rights, and we must release the idea that “some animals are more equal than others”[25].

[1] Goodhart, Michael E., ed. Human rights: politics and practice. Page 3. Oxford university press, 2016.

[2] Ryder, Richard D. “Speciesism again: The original leaflet.” Critical Society 2, no. 1 (2010): 2.

[3] Rasmussen, Bryan. “Inside the minds of animals”. TED-Ed. Video format. Accessed on Youtube.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Smart Pigs Vs. Kids” BBC Earth. Video Format. Accessed on Youtube.

[6] “Rethinking Thinking: How Intelligent are Other Animals?” World Science Festival. Video Format.Accessed on Youtube.

[7] Bekoff, Marc. The emotional lives of animals: A leading scientist explores animal joy, sorrow, and empathy-and why they matter. New World Library, 2008.

[8] Rutherford, Kenny MD. “Assessing pain in animals.” Animal Welfare 11, no. 1 (2002): 31-53.

[9] Figure from https://animalclock.org/

[10] Steinbock, Bonnie. “Speciesism and the Idea of Equality.” Philosophy 53, no. 204 (1978): pg. 252.

[11] The duty to protect the rights of others.

[12] Ibid 11.

[13] All UNCRC articles also apply to babies and respect their inalienable human rights.

[14] Nobis, Nathan. “Carl Cohen’s ‘kind’arguments for animal rights and against human rights.” In Animal Rights, pg. 43. Routledge, 2017.

[15] Wasserstrom, Richard. “Rights, Human Rights, and Racial Discrimination” Journal of Philosophy 61 No. 20 (1964). Pp. 96-110.


[17] Pullins, Andrew J. “Rescuing Victims of Human Trafficking: Strategies and Solutions.” (2016). pp. 10-11.

[18] Short for “Animal Liberation Front”. An group with the goal of rescuing and liberating animals from abusive, violating situations.

[19] Red, Black, Green, “Flashback: 17 March 1990 –ALF liberates more than 100 animals from laboratory animal breeder Interfauna” March 17th, 2018. Online article.

[20] Sorenson, John. “The Myth of “Animal Rights Terrorism”.” The Brock Review 12, no. 1 (2011): 69-99.

[21] Ibid 20.

[22] Ibid pg. 72.

[23] Ibid. pg. 82.

[24] Ibid. pg. 82

[25] Quote from George Orwell’s “1984”.