Animal rights, social justice and the “five faces of oppression”: Part 1

Key points

  • Many social justice advocates reject human oppression but exclude other animals from their anti-oppression stances.
  • This position is rooted in ‘speciesism’, an ideology which uses the morally arbitrary characteristic of species to justify oppression.
  • All other social justice movements are based on the belief that all humans are equal. This is extended to all humans because humans are sentient.
  • The principle of equality leads to the ‘principle of equal consideration of interests’ (Singer, 2015). To apply this principle consistently all sentient beings, including other animals, must be included.
  • Regan (1983) argues that other animals have capacities beyond sentience that make them ‘subjects-of-a-life’ who possess moral rights. These rights include that they be treated with respect and not as resources for others.
  • Francione (1996) also takes a rights-based approach but argues that sentience is the only characteristic needed for a being to have moral value. He argues the one right that must be given to any right-holder is the right not to be considered property.


A Facebook friend recently posted an excellent article entitled: “If we can’t defend animal rights, we don’t deserve to call ourselves progressives”. Soon after, someone commented:

there are a lot more pressing issues than the slaughter of cows and chickens….animal rights activist saying someone isn’t a progressive unless they spend time fighting for farm animals instead of human beings is just self-righteous and silly.

Several vegans responded that they had no problem working on both issues and that being vegan takes nothing away from fighting human oppression. The commenter came back with a series of elaborate reasons why the suffering of other animals is less important than that of humans.

The original comment perfectly encapsulates the views of so many social justice activists and self-identified progressives who are not vegan. Those who reject human oppression in its myriad disguises but can’t or won’t see that their anti-oppression stances fall short when they exclude other animals.

These views show how conditioned we are by the speciesist and anthropocentric ideologies that have shaped our society. These ideologies conceptualise human existence as something superior and opposed to animals and ‘animality’ (a quality or nature associated with other animals). They create an illusory human-animal hierarchy (Weitzenfeld and Joy, 2014) and normalise and justify our oppression of other animals. The myth of human supremacy stops us from seeing that other animals matter morally, value their lives and have the right to live them free from harm, just as we do. It stops us from seeing ourselves as their oppressors. These views also reveal a lack of understanding of the connections between the oppression of humans and other animals (Nibert, 2002). Understanding these connections is crucial for the overall struggle for justice and total liberation.

It is possible that some of those who do not view animal rights as a social justice issue may not have seriously considered the moral value of other animals before. After all, it was many months after I went vegan that I even came across the word speciesism. It took me even longer to start learning about animal rights. It is only recently that I have become aware of the systemic nature of human and nonhuman oppression.

I thought it might be useful to put together an overview of some of the key arguments for viewing other animals as legitimate subjects of social justice. Part 1 looks at the ideology of speciesism, the moral value of other animals and the case for animal rights. Part 2 explores Iris Young’s framework for social justice – the ‘five faces of oppression’ (Young, 1990). This framework helps us understand the systemic and structural nature of our oppression of other animals and why this oppression is a social justice issue.

I hope this will provide some (plant-based) food for thought for those who haven’t yet made the connection between animal rights and social justice.  At the very least I hope it will show that those of us who care as deeply about the oppression of other animals as we do about the oppression of humans are not “self-righteous and silly”. We are simply attempting to apply our anti-oppression principles as consistently as possible.

The ideology of speciesism

Our exploitation of other animals is rooted in and justified by speciesism. Speciesism is generally defined as a form of prejudice or discrimination that privileges human needs and desires over those of other species. The term was first coined in 1970 by psychologist Richard D. Ryder. He wrote:

Speciesism and racism are both forms of prejudice that are based on appearances – if the other individual looks different he is rated as being beyond the moral pale…Speciesism and racism (and indeed sexism) overlook or underestimate the similarities between discriminator and those discriminated against and both forms of prejudice show a selfish disregard for the interests of others, and for their sufferings. (Ryder, 1983)

Speciesism focuses on the morally arbitrary characteristic of species to justify oppression. We think racism, sexism and other ‘-isms’ are wrong because they use morally arbitrary criteria (race, sex, etc.) to justify oppressing others. Speciesism is thus also wrong. Once we see this, our justifications for privileging humans over other animals break down.

Like Ryder, both Peter Singer in ‘Animal Liberation’ (Singer, 2015) and Tom Regan in ‘The Case for Animal Rights’ (Regan, 1983) define speciesism as a prejudice. Nibert (2002) reconsiders this view from a sociological perspective. He argues that speciesism is not a prejudice (which he defines as ‘an individual predisposition to devalue groups of others’). Rather speciesism is an ideology (which he defines as ‘a set of socially shared beliefs that legitimates an existing or desired social order’). While this distinction between prejudice and ideology may seem unnecessary, it is important if we want to understand the root causes of oppression.

Traditionally racism, sexism and other ‘-isms’ were seen as individual prejudices rather than institutionally based, structural oppressions. In the 1960s sociologists started to see prejudice, e.g. racial prejudice, differently. Rather than causing racism, they started to see racial prejudice as emerging to support and sustain racial exploitation and oppression. Nibert extends this understanding to speciesism. He shows that historically, our exploitation of other animals was driven by the material interests of a small but powerful economic elite, not by innate prejudice. This exploitation led to the development of economic, political and ideological systems designed to protect the privileges of this elite.

Speciesism then is actually the result of our oppression of other animals and not the cause. More broadly, individual prejudice and discrimination are the result of ideologies that are created to protect, increase and legitimise the interests and privileges of dominant groups.

The moral value of other animals

If we can see that species is an arbitrary criterion to exclude others from the moral community, what criteria should we use to establish moral value?

 The one belief that all other social justice movements are based on is that all humans are equal. This belief is referred to by Singer as the ‘basic principle of equality’ (Singer, 2015). While humans are not equal in many ways e.g. intelligence, physical strength etc., this principle of equality “is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings” (ibid.). According to Singer, the reason we extend this principle of equality to all humans is because humans are sentient. We are able to perceive and feel things. We have the capacity to experience pleasure and pain. Our experiences matter to us and we have morally relevant interests e.g. in our well-being.


As those of us who have spent any time around other animals know, humans are not the only sentient beings. Other animals are also sentient. They are subjectively aware, experience pleasure and pain and have interests in not experiencing pain or suffering. Sentience requires consciousness and the terms animal sentience and animal consciousness are often used synonymously. The 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Animal Consciousness shows that many scientists accept that other animals are conscious. There is also increasing amounts of scientific evidence to suggest that other animals are sentient, have rich inner lives and have abilities and emotions that were once thought to be uniquely human. As science writer Brandon Keim says: “What once was considered anthropomorphic thinking is now mainstream science.” Unfortunately however, our behaviour towards others animals is yet to catch up to the science.

The ‘principle of equal consideration of interests’

Singer’s ‘basic principle of equality’ leads to the ‘principle of equal consideration of interests’. This requires ‘that we give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions’ (Singer, 2015). Singer argues that to apply this principle consistently, all sentient beings should be included. ‘Equal consideration of interests’ does not mean equal treatment though:

The extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way, or grant exactly the same rights to both groups. Whether we should do so will depend on the nature of the members of the two groups. The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights. (Singer, 2015)

Animal welfare theory and utilitarianism

Singer’s views build on those of Jeremy Bentham, a lawyer and philosopher who argued over 200 years ago: ” The question is not Can they reason? or Can they talk? but Can they suffer?” (Bentham, 1907). Bentham helped to shift the paradigm from viewing other animals as things to viewing them as having moral value. He helped lay the foundations for animal welfare theory. However he argued that, unlike humans, other animals were not forward looking and did not have an interest in continuing to live. In Bentham’s view this meant it was morally acceptable to use and kill other animals as long as we treated them well. This is what most of us have been conditioned to believe, as shown by the popularity of the humane myth. Singer builds on Bentham’s position and claims that “the absence of some form of mental continuity makes it difficult to understand why killing an animal is not made good by the creation of a new animal who will lead an equally pleasant life” (Singer, 2015).

The idea that other animals are not forward looking and do not have an interest in continuing to live seems highly unlikely. Even if it were the case, to argue that killing other animals is not a problem as they live in ‘an eternal present’ is speciesist. It arbitrarily puts more value on the self-awareness of humans than that of other animals. In addition, as Charlton and Francione (2017) argue:

Sentience is a means to the end of continued existence. Sentient beings, by virtue of their being sentient, have an interest in remaining alive… say that a sentient being is not harmed by death denies that the being has the very interest that sentience serves to perpetuate.

Like Bentham, Singer takes a utilitarian position which seeks to maximise aggregate welfare and minimise aggregate suffering of all sentient beings. This means Singer’s position still allows for individual interests to be overruled and for other animals to be used by humans if it resulted in an increase in aggregate welfare. An example of the utilitarian approach applied to our use of other animals is the Reducetarian movement. A detailed discussion of the animal welfare position, Bentham, Singer and utilitarianism can be found here.

It is not an act of kindness_Tom Regan_Photo

The case for animal rights 

In ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, Regan rejects utilitarian arguments for animal liberation. He argues that other animals are conscious, have complex mental lives and that most mammals (human and nonhuman) possess physiological, emotional, psychological and cognitive capacities beyond sentience that make them experiencing ‘subjects-of-a-life’. That is, beings who have a sense of psychological identity and the capacity to be the subject of experiences that matter to themselves.

Regan argues that like us, other animals have inherent value independent of how humans value them. All who have inherent value have it equally regardless of sex, race, species, intelligence, personality, wealth etc. We have a moral obligation not to harm beings with inherent value. Those who are ‘subjects-of-a-life’ possess moral rights, the most basic of which is their equal right to be treated with respect. This includes the right not to be treated as things, means to an end or resources for others.

Francione (1996) also takes a rights-based approach but unlike Regan, argues that sentience is the only characteristic needed for a being to have moral value. He argues that linking the moral status of other animals with cognitive characteristics beyond sentience is speciesist. He maintains that there is one right that must be given to any right-holder: the right not to be considered property. As long as a being is regarded as property, their interests will never be seen as more important than those of a right-holder seeking to assert their ‘property right’ over them.

Unlike Singer, both Regan and Francione condemn all use of other animals, even if it would improve aggregate welfare. They call for the total abolition of all animal use which they argue can only be achieved through a rights-based approach.

Part 2 will look at the concept of social justice and the ‘five faces of oppression’ framework by Young (1990). Young views injustice as systemic domination and oppression. Unlike mainstream theories of justice which focus on the fair distribution of (economic) resources in society, Young’s framework can be extended to include both humans and other animals as legitimate subjects of social justice.


Bentham, J., 1907. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Available here.

Charlton, A. and Francione, G., 2017. A ‘humanely’ killed animal is still killed – and that’s wrong. Available here.

Francione, G. L., 1996. Rain without thunder: The ideology of the animal rights movement. Temple University Press.

Nibert, D., 2002. Animal rights/human rights: Entanglements of oppression and liberation. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Regan, T., 1983. The case for animal rights. University of California Press.

Ryder, R.D., 1983. Victims of science: The use of animals in research. National Anti-Vivisection Society Limited, UK.

Singer, P., 2015. Animal Liberation. Bodley Head.

Weitzenfeld A. and Joy, M., 2014. An overview of anthropocentrism, humanism, and speciesism in critical animal theory. In: Nocella AJ, Sorenson J, Socha K, Matsuka A (eds.) Defining Critical Animal Studies: An Intersectional Social Justice Approach for Liberation. Peter Lang. pp.3-27.

Young, I., 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press.





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