Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

Response to Oscar Horta’s Paper (“What Is Speciesism?”)

Thanks again, Kate, for the link to Oscar Horta’s paper, which I am very glad to have gotten. To avoid wasting space or being too tangential, I am responding to it here, rather than as part of the David Nibert dialogue. 


Professor Horta does a good job in laying out the philosophical options, and, in fact, ratifies my own point when he writes: “The term ‘anthropocentrism’ should be clearly distinguishable from ‘speciesism.’ These two words are not synonyms.” (p. 16)


However, Horta goes on to argue that anthropocentrism is ALSO a speciesist view, because (allegedly) it contains one or more speciesist premises. 


In my definition, anthropocentrism (A) is not a moral prescription, but represents a mere point of view—that of the human agent—in the same benign sense that “felinism” may be said to represent a cat’s point of view. Insofar as a human point of view manifests in harm and oppression of another individual merely because it belongs to another species, speciesism (S) is a subset of it (such that S entails A), but is not identical to it, as illustrated in the following Venn diagram:

Horta reverses the subordination, so that anthropocentrism is a subset of speciesism (such that A entails S), as illustrated in the following Venn diagram:


Horta defines anthropocentrism as a view that contains a speciesist premise, and so begs the question whether there can be a form of anthropocentrism that is non-speciesist. 


I appreciate Horta’s careful attempt at “structural” analysis, but in his effort to be semantically precise and unambiguous, he fails to accommodate the wide spectrum of behavioral responses (from mild to moderate to radical) in defense of animals. For instance, many might be appalled at the cruelty in CAFOs, but not object to harvesting honey even though it “belongs to the bees” or using oxen or horses as “work animals.” (Incidentally, the Bible, which few blog readers know, requires that animals, like croplands, be given a “sabbath” or rest.) 


In addition, Horta fails to address the “priority problem”—that is, the necessity of favoring one individual over another when conflicts of interest arise, or so-called “lifeboat crises.” Even the most ardent AR defender will save his mother before his dog from a fire, or favor his dog over the ants or worms in his back yard. If this is “relational speciesism”, then everyone is guilty. In fact, Horta defines ‘speciesism’ so broadly that even Tom Regan’s position (though admittedly problematic) turns out to be speciesist, because Regan’s criteria favor mammals or “higher” animals. Yet, as most everyone knows, Regan has been a staunch defender of animal rights since his seminal work was published in 1983.


(Note: Regan’s deontological rights view is problematic because, according to him, intrinsic value is a “category concept” that does not come in degrees. Hence, as Mary Anne Warren points out (in Moral Status, 2000), Regan has a “line-drawing problem”: his view implies that moral considerability among different animals can non-arbitrarily be drawn somewhere. Yet our reflective moral intuitions generally lead us to believe “that ‘moral subjecthood’ is almost certainly a matter of degree”—corresponding roughly to a hierarchy of conscious self-awareness in the animal kingdom.)


“Lifeboat crises” are thought experiments that test our moral priorities, but, as Steve Sapontzis points out (1987), we formulate our commonplace ethical norms based on the rule, not the exception. So “lifeboat ethics” is of little help in determining what should be normative.


Horta claims that anthropocentrism, like speciesism, engages in “unjustified discrimination.” My brief reply is that discrimination based on harmability (not species membership) is routinely and necessarily done: e.g., we favor people and mammals over spiders and mosquitos. Discrimination is not always a pejorative term. Nobody accuses predatory animals of “speciesism” when they kill their prey; neither do we hold them morally praiseworthy or blameworthy for their actions. Humans, however, are apparently the only species that is free to be responsible for nature: paternalism and stewardship—should we choose to accept it—is our “mission.” Sadly, we’ve pretty well “blown it” since the industrial revolution began and efficiency became the primary value in Western culture. Consequently, any method of “meat production” that accelerates breeding, maximizes growth rate (hormones), reduces cage size, prevents disease (antibiotics), and speeds up slaughtering “output” were readily adopted. 


So, in sum, my definition of anthropocentrism is not a prescriptive moral theory, but merely a point of view. But the moral priorities we must set (IF conflicts of interest arise) are based NOT on species membership, but on an individual creature’s harmability—i.e., what Mark Bernstein calls a “modifiable welfare.” Bernstein calls his view of moral considerability “experientialism,” which takes into account the patient’s “internal hedonic states.” Obviously, humans are not the only animals who can be harmed.


My purpose here is not to offer a full-blown critique of Oscar Horta’s paper, which would probably bore most blog readers. Rather, I am concerned that readers might have jumped to a hasty and unwarranted inference that my defense of ‘anthropocentrism’ (as I minimally defined it) was tantamount to a defense of ‘speciesism.’ Nothing in my original comment implies a defense of ‘speciesism’, which I reserve for “clear cases of harm and oppression based on [biological] class differences that are morally irrelevant.” I agree with Horta that those who attempt to justify speciesism, or the moral exclusion of nonhuman animals, have not confronted and/or refuted the Argument from Marginal Cases (AMC), or “Argument from Species Overlap”, as Horta prefers to call it.


Some critics of religion have the mistaken idea that, since God allowed Noah to eat meat after the Flood, and since Biblical (Islamic, Hebraic, and Christian) religions condoned eating meat for the past two millennia, therefore “Western Christianity” is responsible for most animal abuse. While Christian history in practice might have gone differently, this is a gross distortion—or oversimplification—of Christianity in principle. There is ample Biblical support for a “green” and compassionate and respectful attitude toward ALL creatures—not because a proper view of nature is anthropocentric, but because nature is theocentric. In Biblical theology, ALL creation—not just humanity—is valued by God, who declared it “good.”


I readily admit that most people in the contemporary conservative church just don’t see the moral implications of their “pro-life” ethic: If they would not torture and eat their beloved puppies, whom they treat as part of their families, why would they condone paying someone else (the CAFO industry) to do the same to farm animals, who are no less sentient? They just don't get the moral disconnect—partly because the meat “production” industry has virtually guaranteed secrecy about its operations and used euphemistic terminology that de-individualizes its victims (beef, pork, etc.)—just as anti-war protestors in the 1960s attempted to de-personalize policemen by calling them “pigs” and thereby justify violence toward them.


That I personally object to speciesism should be obvious from my support of such organizations as PETA, Mercy For Animals, Farm Sanctuary, One Green Planet, Animals Asia, World Society for the Preservation of Animals (WSPA), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA), and The Fund for The Tiger. I may be an exception among orthodox Christians, but I object to the linkage of a false stereotype to Biblical faith in general. In fact, some of the most distinguished figures in the history of Christianity have been vegetarian. A partial list includes: St. James, St. Matthew, Clemens Prudentius, Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, St. Basil, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Benedict, Aegidius, Boniface, St. Richard of Wyche, St. Columba, St. Filipo Neri, John Wray, Thomas Tryon, John Wesley, Joshua Evans, William Metcalfe, General William Booth, Ellen White, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, and Reverend V.A. Holmes-Gore. And if you happened to see the movie, “Amazing Grace”, you’ll know that William Wilberforce, who was largely responsible for elimination of the British slave trade, was an outspoken opponent of animal cruelty.


So let's all join forces—secular and religious—and attend to the difficult task at hand: defending the rights of animals who are unjustly harmed by humans—animals with whom we share this planet. We ought to respect their lives and their habitats and not reduce them to material commodities, or (perhaps worse yet) kill them for “sport” as “trophies” of our victory and dominance.


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Comment by Oscar Horta on August 22, 2011 at 7:32

You're very welcome Paul, of course everyone deserves a response when that's possible (or at least anyone who writes respectfully and sensibly does!)

Thanks again.

Comment by Paul Hansen on August 20, 2011 at 6:27

Oscar, thank you for the ‘Clarifications’ on your paper. I am honored—and surprised—that you took the time to respond to my post (perhaps because you have a PhD and I have only an MA in philosophy, and because some might think that lesser scholars or aspiring philosophers don't “deserve” a response). I also appreciate the respectful tone or spirit in which you responded, which is the manner in which philosophical dialogue should be carried on. Readers should keep in mind that we are probably all “on the same page” in the sense that we all care deeply about injustices to animals (which is probably why we joined ARZ in the first place). Readers should also keep in mind that my first Post was not meant to be a thorough review or critique of your 22-page paper, but focused on a few salient points, to which, in the interest of brevity, I devoted only 2 pages. In fact, I found your paper to be very helpful. And let me repeat my earlier praise: your careful attempt at “structural” analysis and your effort to be semantically precise and unambiguous represents analytical philosophy at its best.

I have drafted a follow-up reply that attempts to clarify my own thoughts on these issues, but I want to “fine tune it” a bit more. I will post it on a separate blog and provide a downloadable PDF. Best wishes, PH

Comment by Kate✯GO VEGAN+NOBODY GETS HURT Ⓥ on August 17, 2011 at 1:34
Comment by Kate✯GO VEGAN+NOBODY GETS HURT Ⓥ on August 17, 2011 at 1:32
Comment by Oscar Horta on August 16, 2011 at 21:15

Thanks for your interesting critique, Paul, I am honored by it. And thank you too, Tim, for commenting on this!

I wrote a long response, in fact is such a long one that I can't paste it here as a comment. So I'm going to create a new blog post with it. I also uploaded it to my own blog. 

Comment by Tim Gier on August 11, 2011 at 0:17

Hi Paul, I've read the last two, and think they both have a lot to offer by way of helping us understand our troubling "relationships" with other animals. I'll add the first two to my list of book to read.



Comment by Paul Hansen on August 9, 2011 at 13:49

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the comment. As Horta himself acknowledges, a good body of serious literature has emerged on animal ethics during the past three decades—some of it very philosophical and academic, and some of it easier to read but nonetheless impactful. I probably have some thirty titles in my personal library, so I hesitate to single out just one or two as if they were “better” than the others. However, pertaining to the topics of cultural evolution (or “how we got this way”) and meat industry hazards, a few easy-to-read books are worth mentioning:

Jeremy Rifkin, BEYOND BEEF: The Rise and Fall of The Cattle Culture (Dutton/Penguin, 1992).

Gail A. Eisnitz, SLAUGHTERHOUSE: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry (Prometheus Books, 2007; 1997 by the Human Farming Association).

Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (Conari Press, 2010).

Jonathan Safran Foer, EATING ANIMALS (Little, Brown & Co., 2009).


Regards, PH

Comment by Tim Gier on August 9, 2011 at 7:26
Hi Paul,

Thank you for this. I will re-read Oscar Horta's paper with your thoughts in mind. Your explanation of anthropocentrism as a benign point of view makes sense. I'm also going to have to read what Mark Bernstein has to say about "experientialism". After I read Paola Cavalieri's book The Animal Question I began to think about life forms who have subjective experiences which they care about. It seems to me that they are the sorts of beings who can be harmed and who we should not harm.


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