STEINBOCK, BONNIE.   "Speciesism and the Idea of Equality."  PHILOSOPHY 53, no. 204 (April 1978).  This essay is reprinted in many anthologies in moral philosophy.

Bob Corbett
Fall 1999

Bonnie Steinbock argues that Peter Singer has made an important contribution to remind us that animals deserve very special consideration, but that he fails to make a compelling case against "speciesism."

She accepts that there is a prima facie case against harming animals.

[Note: When one speaks of a "prima facie" case in ethics this means that it is agreed that most people will see and accept this claim on the basis of widely held intuitions, and thus the claim is not in need of further argument.]

However, on her account, there are special traits that do make "human" a very special species and thus often deserving of special treatment over animals.

For example, when humans decide that animals may be harmed in the process of medical research for human benefit, such an argument has as a necessary premise that humans are more important than animals, and thus this case of harm overrides the prima facie case to not hurt them. Such an argument would be impossible were there not a special status (species) for humans that made them the preferred species.

What, then, are these special traits that give humans this status?

Steinbock lists a few not really saying if this is an exhaustive list, but one can fairly assume these are what she takes to be the key elements on which a defense of the claim rests. If humans constitute a special and morally privileged species, then it will be on the basis of these traits:

  1. They are beings who are responsible for their acts and can do other than they have done.
  2. They are capable of reciprocation and can return favors and special treatment.
  3. They are capable of altruism.
  4. They are able to be appealed to with persuasion and reason.

Corbett notes that the term "species" is a bit confusing here.

  1. All who have these traits above are human. Steinbock seems to suggest that this is obviously true. But even she isn't so sure that it is rigorously so.
  2. Clearly not ALL humans have all these capabilities (tiny children, some mentally deficient or mentally ill people are examples).
  3. It certainly does seem that these traits are either not present to most non-human animals, or at least not clearly there, and much more difficult to acquire than with most humans.

But does all of this constitute an adequate grounds for the special status we give to human?


The Steinbock essay raises the question of just how far must we go (or can we go) with reason giving in ethics.

For example she suggests we have a moral rule: Don't violate a right.

  1. What is a right and how do we know them?
  2. What are the rights which we do know?
  3. WHY not violate them?

These all seem reasonable questions. But notice that especially question C takes us to a new level of moral inquiry. How far must inquiry go?

Another moral rule that Steinbock just asserts (I guess assuming this is a prima facie principle) is: Don't hurt (anyone or thing that can feel pain) unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

  1. What is a compelling reason?
  2. WHY not hurt?

Again, especially the second question seems to take us to a new level of moral inquiry.

Steinbock claims: Don't be cruel.

  1. She defines cruel as: "Cruelty is the infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering."
  2. While this definition just seems to clarify my question above, it still leaves the obvious question: Why not be cruel?

She goes on to clarify the notion of cruelty and talks about three special cases:

  1. Harming for the pleasure of the harming. I must say, that one sort of leaves me at the end of my questioning. When I hear of harming for the pure sake of inflicting pain, then, like Steinbock, I guess questions seems at an end for me and I just have to say: YES. But must all other people? Can there be no defense of harming for the pleasure of harming?
  2. She also counts as cruelty, harming "for large profits." This really surprised me.
  3. Lastly, she counts neglect as cruelty. Again, this was all so quick for me. How do we get moral obligations such that to neglect them is wicked? For example I can see a very different situation between MY cat and feeding a stray.
I adopt and define MY cat as MINE. I take it in and in the process of time make it very dependent upon me, such that it is very likely to die if I neglect it. In this sense I can understand Steinbock's claim.
However, I often feed strays and some come back again and again. When would I get to the point of having developed a moral obligation to the stray such that to stop feeding it would be neglect?

My point here is only to call attention to how difficult and unclear moral philosophy often is. How far must we go in defending claims by reason? When do we really KNOW?


Bonnie Steinbock does not reject Peter Singer's view out of hand. Rather, I think she reveals herself as in the camp that I have called "Animal Welfare" in my introductory paper. In this essay she says: "much of our present treatment of animals [that] involves the infliction of suffering for no good reason, is not very interesting philosophically. What is philosophically interesting is whether we are justified in having different standards of necessity for human suffering and animal suffering."

Here point seems to be: Of course one cannot just harm animals for the hell of it. However, if there is a serious conflict between human good and non-human animal good, then the MERE fact of being human carries some important moral weight, quite contrary to Peter Singer's view that pain is so central we are identical in this moral variable.

This sort of defines the difference for me between animal welfare and animal rights or liberation.

In defending this view, she says that to assume this "moral equality" which Singer wants will lead us to counter-intuitive results.

Wheeew. This will need some explaining for many of you. Let me digress.

Suppose someone makes a moral claim and defends it with a powerful reasonable argument. How does one then criticize it?

ONE manner (not the only, but nonetheless one) is to show that this moral claim leads to some result in the world which we can see is just a silly or clearly undesirable state of affairs (again, that prima facie business). Thus if a moral claim leads to a ridiculous state of affairs, then the claim must be wrong.

What is this absurd conclusion that Singer's view leads to? One that she deals with is that it would follow we couldn't BE SURE that we should feed a hungry and starving child before feeding a hungry and starving cat. That we should feed the child is obvious to Steinbock, and thus Singer's view is found wanting.

However, this is tricky. We develop ways of life and they are the norm. Then someone may come along and suggest these ways of life are wrong and advocate a new mode. Often the new mode will be quite revolutionary and lead to turning life upside down. It is quite easy in such a case to point to the revolutionary change and just say: it leads to an absurd consequence.

This exactly what people said to attack giving women the vote and many other such social changes.

Steinbock comes very close to making this simple mistake when she asserts as a moral principle: "It is simply a matter of taking care of one's own, something which is usually morally permissible."

Now, I am very sympathetic to this moral principle of "taking care of one's own." However, it is very tricky. Whites often make that argument for excluding blacks. The notorious "old boys club" in business is vehemently attacked by feminists. Yet all they are doing is "taking care of one's own."

Steinbock is assuming what is at dispute. Who is ONE'S OWN? She and Singer disagree. She says humans are our own. Singer says sufferers of pain are our own. She then criticizes Singer's view by showing that on HER view it leads to an absurd consequence. On Singer's view it doesn't lead to an absurd consequence. It leads to a perfectly acceptable consequence. She's assumed what she was trying to prove. Not a fair move.

Consider Steinbock's example of the Catholic charity.

She holds that if there is a Catholic charity and there are

then equality demands all the children be served on a first come first serve basis, and that all the children precede the dogs in right to food.

Why does she think this? Take care of your own. You (human) have as your own the children. Thus we can let the dogs starve if there isn't enough food.

Well, let's use her own criteria and expand the categories. Suppose we have:

How does the principle of "take care of one's own" work here? It is very complex. In my paper on   "Well-fed Cats and Hungry Children"  I argue for feeding my cats and ignoring the unknown children. I do so on Steinbock's principle of "take care of one's own" only I don't use species as the defining characteristic of "one's own" but "circle of closeness." Why is species the defining characteristic? And why shouldn't the Catholic's "take care of their own." Why does the notion of "human child" precede the notion of "Catholic" in the notion of one's ownness?


Steinbock does seem to point in an important direction in evaluating Peter Singer's claims against speciesism. Namely, she suggests (I think she doesn't do more than this, but at least suggests) that there really are characteristics which give definition to "human" in such a way that we have special duties toward that species. However, if the argument is to be made it will have to be done with much greater attention and precision that Bonnie Steinbock provides.


I had intended to include in these comments some analysis of the most fundamental principle of moral philosophy, but I will save those comments for another time and venue.

Bob Corbett

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