George Yancy: You have popularized the concept of speciesism, which, I believe was first used by the animal activist Richard Ryder. Briefly, define that term and how do you see it as similar to or different from racism?

Peter Singer: Speciesism is an attitude of bias against a being because of the species to which it belongs. Typically, humans show speciesism when they give less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than they give to the similar interests of human beings. Note the requirement that the interests in question be “similar.” It’s not speciesism to say that normal humans have an interest in continuing to live that is different from the interests that nonhuman animals have. One might, for instance, argue that a being with the ability to think of itself as existing over time, and therefore to plan its life, and to work for future achievements, has a greater interest in continuing to live than a being who lacks such capacities.

On that basis, one might argue that to kill a normal human being who wants to go on living is more seriously wrong than killing a nonhuman animal. Whether this claim is or is not sound, it is not speciesist. But given that some human beings – most obviously, those with profound intellectual impairment – lack this capacity, or have it to a lower degree than some nonhuman animals, it would be speciesist to claim that it is always more seriously wrong to kill a member of the species Homo sapiens than it is to kill a nonhuman animal.

G.Y.: While I think that it is ethically important to discuss the issue of failing to extend to other (nonhuman) animals the principle of equality, we continue to fail miserably in the ways in which we extend that principle to black people, the disabled, women and others, here in the United States and around the world. What is it that motivates the failure or the refusal to extend this principle to other human beings in ethically robust ways? I’m especially thinking here in terms of the reality of racism.

P.S.: Although it is true, of course, that we have not overcome racism, sexism or discrimination against people with disabilities, there is at least widespread acceptance that such discrimination is wrong, and there are laws that seek to prevent it. With speciesism, we are very far from reaching that point. If we were to compare attitudes about speciesism today with past racist attitudes, we would have to say that we are back in the days in which the slave trade was still legal, although under challenge by some enlightened voices.

Why do racism, sexism and discrimination against people with disabilities still exist, despite the widespread acceptance that they are wrong? There are several reasons, but surely one is that many people act unthinkingly on the basis of their emotional impulses, without reflecting on the ethics of what they are doing. That, of course, invites us to discuss why some people have these negative emotional impulses toward people of other races, and that in turn leads to the old debate whether such prejudices are innate or are learned from one’s culture and environment. There is evidence that even babies are attracted to faces that look more like those of the people they see around them all the time, so there could be an evolved innate element, but culture certainly plays a very significant role.

G.Y.: Having referenced the slave trade, I think that it is important to keep in mind that it was partly constituted by a white racist ideology that held that Africans were sub-persons. There was also the European notion that nonwhites were incapable of planning their own lives and had to be paternalistically ruled over. As a white Australian, are there parallels in terms of how the indigenous people of Australia have been treated, especially in terms of sub-personhood, and paternalism?

P.S.: Yes, unfortunately there are parallels. The early European settlers regarded the indigenous people as an inferior race, living a miserable existence. Because the indigenous people were nomadic, they were regarded as having no ownership of their land, which in British colonial law therefore belonged to nobody – the legal term was terra nullius – and so, very conveniently, could be occupied by Europeans. In some cases, when indigenous people killed cattle that were grazing on their traditional lands, Europeans went out in “shooting parties,” killing them indiscriminately, as they would animals. Some of the Europeans justified this on the grounds that the indigenous people, like animals, had no souls. Although such killings were never permitted in law, enforcement was another matter.

When the Commonwealth of Australia was formed from the separate colonies in 1901, indigenous people were not able to vote, nor were they included in the census. Voting rights were achieved in stages over the next 60 years. The terra nullius doctrine was only overturned by the High Court of Australia in 1992 and indigenous communities then became able to claim rights over traditional land still in the possession of the government.

Australian government policy toward indigenous people became more benevolent, but it remained paternalistic until well into the 20th century, and some argue, to the present day. Restrictions on the sale of alcohol in Australia’s Northern Territory, where many indigenous people live, can be seen as evidence that paternalism still prevails, even though the restrictions do not, on their face, take into account the race of the person purchasing alcohol. Against that, it has to be said, many self-governing indigenous communities, acutely aware of the devastation that alcohol has caused to their people, restrict its use in the areas under their control. Indeed, some indigenous leaders have themselves promoted a swing back to more paternalistic policies.

G.Y.: Yet, it seems to me that the issue of alcohol abuse would perhaps not exist had indigenous people in Australia not been subjected to forms of oppression and marginalization in the first place. This is not to deny choice, but to acknowledge that structural forms of oppression, poverty and marginalization should be taken into account. Native Americans and First Nations people in Alaska also have huge problems with alcoholism. Some indigenous people in Australia are even sniffing petrol, which has it own specific devastating consequences. In what ways do you think that the alcoholism and the substance abuse described above are linked to these larger structural issues that disproportionately impact indigenous people?

P.S.: You are correct that the situation of Australia’s indigenous people is in some respects similar to that of Native Americans and First Nations in Alaska, or for that matter in Canada too. The destruction of indigenous culture, and of the way of life that for thousands of years gave meaning and a social structure to the lives of indigenous people obviously play a role in leading some of them to drink or try to get high on petrol fumes. Indigenous Australians receive housing, health care and sufficient income to meet their needs, but what has been taken away can never be restored. The problem goes so deep – and is now often compounded, as we have been saying, with alcohol and petrol abuse, which in turn lead to domestic violence and serious health damage – that it is hard to know how the situation can be turned around.

G.Y.: Above, you mentioned “emotional impulses,” but don’t you think that white racism is also based upon institutional structures? Racist practices are expressed systemically through banks, education, the prison industrial complex, health care, etc that just need to keep functioning to continue privileging and empowering some (white people) and oppressing and degrading others (black people). Historically, the concept of institutional racism was systematically deployed during the Black Power Movement in the 1960s and was popularized by Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Touré) and Charles V. Hamilton.

P.S.: What you are here referring to as “the institutional system” includes distinct sectors of society, and each of these sectors has its own divisions and subdivisions. The extent to which they are racist will vary, and it would take detailed evidence and analysis to demonstrate that each of these sectors, and each of its divisions and subdivisions, involves or expresses racist practices. So all I can say, without getting into all the detailed evidence that would be needed to consider each sector and then build back to an overall picture, is that where there is institutional racism, it can take the place of racist emotional impulses. Often, however, there will be racist emotional attitudes as well, and they will then support the institutional structures, making them more difficult to change.

G.Y.: And, in turn, can we say that institutional structures can instill and support certain racist emotional impulses?

P.S.: Yes. Where racist institutional structures continue to exist, they will provide a specific channel for racist feelings and attitudes, and in some situations, will serve to legitimate and reinforce them. But we cannot say how important this is without first determining which institutional structures are still racist, and to what extent and in what ways they are racist.

G.Y.: There is, however, data that shows that black people suffer disproportionately with respect to bank lending practices, quality of education, quality of health care, arrest rates for nonviolent drug offenses. However, returning to what you said earlier, do you think that racism is innate or cultural? Even if there appears to be a proclivity toward a kind of xenophobic tribalism expressed within the human species, racism seems to be of a different order, yes?

P.S.: Racism is certainly different from xenophobia, or tribalism. Racism develops its own ideology and, as you pointed out, institutional structures. But if by “a different order” you mean that racism and xenophobic tribalism have distinct origins, I am not sure about that. It’s possible that xenophobia is the underlying impulse that, in different cultures, expresses itself in varying forms, and racism is one of those forms.

G.Y.: Yes. I think that racism may very well have its roots in a kind of xenophobic tribalism, but white racism expresses itself in all sorts of perverse ways and is perhaps motivated from psychic needs/places that transcend xenophobic tribalism.

Maybe. We have strong hierarchical tendencies. We like to think that there is always someone below us, and for many people, having power over others seems, regrettably, to reaffirm their sense of self-importance and thus to make them feel good. That may be a psychic need that finds an outlet in racism. For some people, it also finds an outlet in the abuse of animals. In particular, jobs in factory farms and poultry processing plants are poorly paid, high pressure and low status. That may be why, year after year, undercover investigators in factory farms and slaughterhouses continue to find evidence of the most atrocious abuse, like workers bashing pigs with steel pipes, or using live chickens as footballs.

G.Y.: To what extent do you think that biases against nonhuman animals are grounded within a certain unethical stewardship toward nature itself? Do you think that this is a specifically Western approach to nature where nature is conceived as an “object” over which we ought to have absolute control? Certainly, Francis Bacon seems to have had this idea. Of course, then there was René Descartes, who argued that nonhuman animals are mere machines.

P.S.: It is true that Western thinking emphasizes the gulf between humans and nature, and also between humans and animals, to a far greater extent than Eastern thinking, or the thinking that is characteristic of indigenous peoples. Yet it is also true that the treatment of both animals and nature is, today, generally worse in the East than in the West. Every visitor to Beijing has breathed in evidence of what China has allowed its industries to do to the air. Laws protecting the welfare of animals in Europe are far in advance of those in Eastern countries, including those with strong Buddhist traditions like Japan and Thailand. China still doesn’t even have a national animal welfare law. So if the domination of nature and of animals was originally a Western idea, the sad fact is that it is being taken up avidly in the East, precisely at the time when it is being vigorously challenged in the West.

G.Y.: Today black people are still fighting to be recognized as fully human, to assert that our lives matter. Historically, we have often been compared to nonhuman animals. On various occasions, President Obama has been depicted as a monkey. Obviously, this image is meant to degrade, and can only be understood against the backdrop of black people in the United State fighting against a reduction of our humanity. How can black people, on the one hand, reject the reduction of, say, Obama to a monkey, and yet be against speciesism?

P.S.: I don’t see any problem in opposing both racism and speciesism, indeed, to me the greater intellectual difficulty lies in trying to reject one form of prejudice and oppression while accepting and even practicing the other. And here we should again mention another of these deeply rooted, widespread forms of prejudice and oppression, sexism. If we think that simply being a member of the species Homo sapiens justifies us in giving more weight to the interests of members of our own species than we give to members of other species, what are we to say to the racists or sexists who make the same claim on behalf of their race or sex?

The more perceptive social critics recognize that these are all aspects of the same phenomenon. The African-American comedian Dick Gregory, who worked with Martin Luther King as a civil rights activist, has written that when he looks at circus animals, he thinks of slavery: “Animals in circuses represent the domination and oppression we have fought against for so long. They wear the same chains and shackles.” (Alice Walker, the African-American author of “The Color Purple,” also has a memorable quote: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women were created for men.”

G.Y.: Given that we have not even figured out how to treat those of our own species with dignity and respect, as someone who continues to fight against speciesism, do you have thoughts on how we might effectively dismantle racism?

With all of these “isms” – racism, sexism and speciesism – I’m an optimist about making progress, but a pessimist about achieving complete success any time soon. I’m encouraged by the facts compiled by Steven Pinker in “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Pinker draws on and completes the argument of my own work, “The Expanding Circle.”

I do believe that we are slowly expanding the circle of our moral concern. Pinker provides evidence for the claim that, notwithstanding the media headlines, we are living in less violent and more enlightened times than any previous century. This will surely help marginalized, disempowered and oppressed groups. We can hope to isolate and reduce the impact of racism and sexism, but eliminating them altogether is going to be a long struggle. With speciesism, unfortunately, we still have much further to go, because it remains the mainstream view.

 This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series (with Linda Martin Alcoff, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Charles Mills, Falguni A. Sheth and others) can be found here.

George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Duquesne University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and on Twitter, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

This interview was originally published at the NY Times blog