Speciesism is endemic, systemic and institutional | The Vegan Society

Speciesism is endemic, systemic and institutional

You are here

» Speciesism is endemic, systemic and institutional

Researcher Network member, Cara Langford Watts, discusses the links between racism and speciesism, highlighting the institutional and systemic forms of these two types of discrimination.

The term speciesism first appeared in the 1970s and was used to describe the exploitation of other species, challenging the prejudice that exists against individuals of other species[i]. Many parallels between racism and speciesism are offered throughout literature and research[ii]. These go as far back as the 1700s, to anti-slavery leaders such as John Wesley, Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet and John Wollman, who not only supported the abolition of slavery, but were also against the exploitation of animals[iii]. Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher, made explicit comparisons with the discrimination of black humans, believing that non-human interests should also be considered because what matters is whether they can suffer. Modern day abolitionists for the animal agricultural industry have used examples of slavery to illustrate the methods used in modern factory farms[iv]. Although highly controversial, other writers have compared the treatment and slaughter of animals to the way that Jews were treated and killed[v]. Researchers have also demonstrated that individuals who express racially based prejudice also express greater support for practices of animal exploitation, including the consumption of animals, hunting, testing and using animals for human entertainment[vi].

The concept of institutional racism was first introduced in the late 1960s by the activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton[vii]. In contrast with individual racism, which is explicit, they described racism as also surreptitiously associated with respectable societal institutions. How a person thinks, their beliefs and views about others, can depend on the life experiences they have had. We develop an unconscious bias, which means that we might have certain beliefs about others that might not be moral or reasonable.

Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the subsequent enquiry, this term was further popularised by the Macpherson Report (1999), which defined institutional racism as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, behaviour which amounts to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

(Macpherson, 1999: 28)[viii]

Although the Macpherson Report focused on the criminal justice system, institutional racism has also been found across multiple domains, including political representation, education, employment, health and business[ix]. This has led to a raft of measures across industries to combat institutional racism, including the concept of unconscious bias becoming a key part of diversity training. Training on unconscious bias is used as part of a comprehensive strategy for achieving institutional cultural change[x].

In his 2020 BAFTA award speech, Joaquin Phoenix raised the issue of systemic racism within the film industry. A week later, Joaquin went a step further in his 2020 Oscar acceptance speech, stating:

I think at times we feel, or we’re made to feel, that we champion different causes. But for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity[xi].

I, too, see a commonality. In a similar way that systemic racism assumes (white) superiority individually, ideologically and institutionally, even pervading conscious and unconscious thoughts and beliefs, so too does speciesism. As humans, we view ourselves as inherently superior and the rights of non-human animals are always placed below the rights and interests of humans. This anthropocentric point of view sees only humans as holders of moral standing and that global resources, land and interests are first and foremost to meet the needs of humans. Even environmental values that hold concern for the state of biodiversity are often held ultimately from the anthropocentric position of human survival.

Culturally and though our language, communication and discourse, animals are used metaphorically to praise or vilify, to humanise or to dehumanise other fellow humans, particularly some ethnic, racial and gender groups. Although metaphorical representations of animals can be used positively, the negative connotations far outweigh these[xii].

There is also a constructed hierarchical structure that humans place on animals and, while this can vary from culture to culture, animals are generally placed into categories of farmed, entertainment, pets, pests, helper/working and wild animals[xiii]. Dogs, for example, are companions to some cultures, whereas in others it is acceptable to eat them[xiv]. In 2013, the UK public were horrified to learn that some beef products contained horsemeat and they vehemently, morally objected to such practices[xv]. French residents, on the other hand, were already accustomed to consuming horses and, indeed, in France the scandal resulted in an increase in sales of horse meat by 15% [xvi]. Animals can be constructed as social problems – for example, pests, endangered species, invasive species and deviants that misbehave, such as dangerous dogs. Farmed animals are viewed very differently to pets and wild animals, being socially constructed as food and regarded with less moral concern[xvii].

Institutional speciesism exists within the criminal and civil legal systems. There are different laws and moral statuses that differ from one animal to another. Under EU legislation, there are over 40 animal welfare laws, 17 of which only relate to farmed animals. EU legislation stipulates minimum standards of the protection for pigs, calves, broiler chickens and laying hens kept for farming. However, dairy cows, beef cattle, ducks, turkeys and farmed fish are not afforded the same species-specific protection. Rather, their welfare is covered by the General Farm Animals Directive and the recommendations contained within the Standing Committee of the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes[xviii].

Some wild animal species are afforded greater legal rights than farmed ones, particularly if they are an endangered species. These protections and rights are covered within the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981)[xix], the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2010)[xx], Wild Mammals (Protection) Act (1996),[xxi] among others. Practices such as tail-docking and castration without anaesthetic are permitted to be undertaken on pigs and cows, but would be viewed as animal abuse of performed on dogs[xxii]. When it comes to criminal law and policing, only limited resources are given to wildlife crime, or this is sourced out to charities such as the RSPCA. I once witnessed a dog being beaten and called the police, who politely told me to call the RSPCA. No crime against humans would ever be expected to be policed or investigated by an underfunded charity.

Like that of systemic racist beliefs, the seeds of our unconscious bias are sown in early childhood. Children are taught to be kind to animals while also being conditioned that it is socially acceptable and ‘normal’ to eat some animals[xxiii]. Within children’s literature, farms are glorified as happy places where all the animals are happy, free, protected and well cared for[xxiv]. The reality, of course, is far from this. In the UK, around 85% of livestock are intensively raised on factory farms in unnatural conditions, with close to 800 industrial-scale mega farms in operation[xxv]. Globally, 90% of livestock are confined to factory farms[xxvi].

The idea that eating meat is normal is also perpetuated in children’s cartoons and TV programmes[xxvii]. For example, CBeebies Mr Tumble’s ‘Down on the Farm’ episodes, part of the ‘We’re all friends’ series, presents a similar glorified picture to that found in literature. Within the UK national curriculum, children are taught about ‘field to fork’ to help them connect food with the world around them. What are lacking within this teaching are discussions of the methods of animal slaughter and about why some animals are food and some are not. When this is attempted, widespread criticism is received from both sides of the camp as either desensitising children or traumatising them. In 2010, headteacher Andrea Charman from Lydd Primary School in Kent resigned following an outcry from parents and the wider public[xxviii]. Wanting to teach children about farming methods, Mrs Charman misguidedly thought the best way to do this was to slaughter the school’s resident lamb Marcus. This example didn’t deter Peter Harris, a vegetarian headteacher from Farsley Primary School in Leeds, who decided to send their school’s farmed pigs off to slaughter, which met with equal disdain[xxix].

To some extent, unconscious bias is explained as a consequence of evolution explained by altruistic kin selection or Hamilton’s rule[xxx]. Research shows that children and adults prefer animals that are phylogenetically similar to humans[xxxi]. However, when it comes to animals commonly used for food, phylogenetical preferences are disregarded and instead humans perform some cognitive gymnastics to justify our dominion. Similar to how racism is couched in justifications that reduce their social stigma, so too does speciesism. Parallels can also be drawn between ‘white-washing’ and, as influencer Earthling Ed describes, ‘humane-washing’.

My intention for this article is not to minimise the struggles of the Black Freedom Movement or any other rights-based movement for that matter, but to demonstrate a commonality of the fight against injustice. Speciesism can be found in all corners of society, in institutions, organisations and across industry. The institutional nature of speciesism maintains the hierarchical and misguided toxic mindset not only for the exploitation and abuse of animals, but also that of our fellow human beings. If we can reject speciesism and see that every animal has the right to be free from exploitation, we stand a better chance to act with integrity and consistency toward all living beings.


[i] Ryder R (2004) Speciesism revisited. Think 2(6), 83–92; Dhont K, Hodson G, Leite AC (2016) Common ideological roots of speciesism and generalised ethnic prejudice: the social dominance human-animal relations model (S-HARM). European Journal of Personality 30(6), 507–522, https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2069 (last accessed 5 April 2021); Horta O (2010). What is speciesism? Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23, 243–266, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-009-9205-2; https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.13775; Ryder RD (2006) Speciesism in the laboratory. In: Singer P (ed.) Defence of Animals: the Second Wave. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 87–103; Sorenson J (2016) Constructing Eco-terrorism: Capitalism Speciesism and Animal Rights. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

[ii] Plous S (ed.) (2003) Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination. New York: McGraw-Hill; Spiegal M (1988) The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York: Mirror Books.

[iv] Plous S (ed.) (2003) Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination. New York: McGraw-Hill; Spiegal M (1988) The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York: Mirror Books.

[v] Singer P (1995). Animal Liberation. London: Penguin

[vi] Dhont K, Hodson G, Costello K, MacInnis CC (2014) Social dominance orientation connects prejudicial human–human and human–animal relations. Personality and Individual Differences 61–62, 105–108, doi: 10.1016/j-pad.2013.12.020; Dhont K, Hodson G, Leite AC (2016) Common ideological roots of speciesism and generalised ethnic prejudice: the social dominance human-animal relations model (S-HARM). European Journal of Personality 30(6), 507–522, https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2069 (last accessed 5 April 2021); Caviola L, Everett JC, Faber, N (2019) The moral standing of animals: towards a psychology of speciesism. Journal of Personality of Social Psychology 116, 1011–1029, doi:10.1037/pspp0000182.

[vii] Bhavnani R, Mirza HS, Meeto V (2005) Tackling the Roots of Racism: Lessons for Success. Southampton: The Policy Press.

[viii] Macpherson W (1999) The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Sir William Macpherson. London:Home Office (last accessed 25 Sept 2021)

[ix] Arday J, Mirza HS (2018) Dismantling race in higher education: racism, whiteness and decolonising the academy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

[x] AtewologunD, Cornish T, Tresh F (2018) Unconscious Bias Training: an Assessment of the Evidence for Effectiveness. Equality and Human Rights Commission Research Report 113,  (last accessed 28 September 2021).

[xii] Haslam N, Holland E, Stratemeyer M (2020) Kittens, pigs, rats and apes: the psychology of animal metaphors. In: Dhont K, Hodson G (eds) Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy. Abingdon: Routledge.

[xiii] Herzog H (2010) Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why it’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. New York: Harper Perennial; Joy M (2011) Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: an Introduction to Carnism. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.

[xiv] Podberscek A (2009) Good to pet and eat: the keeping and consuming of dogs and cats in south Korea. Journal of Social Issues 65(3), 615–632.

[xv] Quinn B (2013) Horsemeat discovered in burgers sold by four British supermarkets. The Guardian, 16 January (last accessed 25 September 2021).

[xvi] Chrisafis A (2013) Horsemeat scandal triggers 15% rise in sales for France’s equine butchers. The Guardian, 21 February (last ccessed 25 September 2021)

[xvii] Leite AC, Dhont K, Hodson G (2019) Longitudinal effects of human supremacy beliefs and vegetarian threat or not moral exclusion (vs. inclusion) of animals. European Journal of Social Psychology 49, 79-–189 (last accessed 5 April 2021).

[xxii] British Veterinary Association (no date) Tail docking in dogs (last accessed 28 September 2021); British Veterinary Association (no date) Neutering of cats and dogs (last accessed 28 September 2021).

[xxiii] Joy M (2011) Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: an Introduction to Carnism. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.

[xxiv] Hoult-Saros S (2016) The Mythology of the Animal Farm in Children's Literature: Over the Fence. Lanham: Lexington Books.

[xxv] Compassion in World Farming (no date) UK Factory Farming Map (last accessed 12 February 2021).

[xxvi] Compassion in World Farming (no date) UK Factory Farming Map (last accessed 12 February 2021).

[xxvii] Joy M (2011) Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: an Introduction to Carnism. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.

[xxviii] Turner L (2011) Head who led lamb to the slaughter gets old job back. Independent, 23 October,  (last accessed 26 September 2021).

[xxix] Busby M (2019) Headteacher defends plan to slaughter pigs raised at school's farm. The Guardian, 29 April (last accessed: 26 September 2021).

[xxx] Bourke AFG (2014) Hamilton's rule and the causes of social evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 369 (1642), 20130362, doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0362.

[xxxi] Borgi M, Cirulli F (2015) Attitudes toward animals among kindergarten children: species preferences. Anthorzöös 28(1), 45-49, doi:10.2752/089279315X14129350721939.

Reg. Charity No: 279228 Company Reg. No: 01468880 Copyright © 1944 - 2022 The Vegan Society