Every now and then, a movie comes along that is capable of fundamentally changing the worldview of its audience. Speciesism: The Movie, a new documentary by Mark Devries, is that kind of film.
The word "speciesism," which has been popularized by Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, refers to the assumption that a vast gulf exists between the ethical value of human interests and the ethical value of the interests of other animals. At its extreme, we may see ourselves as the only species that matters morally, and view other animals as existing merely for our use: to eat, to make into clothing, to perform experiments on, to be entertained by in circuses and zoos. Like those who grew up having overt racist beliefs assimilated into their worldview, some degree of speciesism has been so well-assimilated into the worldview of most of us that it does not even appear to be worth questioning.
Of course, other animals possess the same five physiological senses that we do, as well as the capacity for a wide range of emotions. In her introduction to The Inner World of Farm Animals, Dr. Jane Goodall writes that "farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear, and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined . . . they are individuals in their own right."
And Dr. Temple Grandin, in Animals in Translation, writes that "When it comes to the basics of life . . . [other] animals feel the same way we do." She goes on to explain that both humans and other animals share both the exact same core emotions ("rage, prey chase drive, fear, and curiosity/interest/anticipation") and the same "four basic social emotions: sexual attraction and lust, separation distress, social attachment, and the happy emotions of play and roughhousing."
So, our worldview may be worth questioning.
Yet, the ramifications entailed in questioning our speciesist assumptions are tremendous: Our entire political discourse centers on how policies will affect humans. If we conclude that speciesism is not justifiable, our thinking about nearly everything in our lives will undergo a transformation.
Prominent philosophers and scientists have criticized speciesist assumptions for many years--in writing. But, as far as I know, these questions have never become the centerpiece of a film. Not only does Speciesism: The Movie ask these life-changing questions, but it does so while taking viewers on an adventure that is tremendously entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Devries goes to great lengths to put together a thoughtful and entertaining film--whether commissioning an airplane to fly over factory farms' giant "manure lagoons" with an anti-CAFO Republican from North Carolina, or (somehow) scheming his way into receiving a guided tour of a factory farm.
Along the way, he meets and questions a remarkably broad range of people, including Peter Singer (whom the New Yorker has named "one of the most influential philosophers alive"), Richard Dawkins (the most influential evolutionary biologist of the past century), and Temple Grandin (designer of the animal handling systems used by over half of the slaughterhouses in the United States).
He also speaks with anti-factory farming activists, a man who is dying next to a huge hog farm, a current member of the American Nazi Party, a disability rights activist, a vivisector, quite a few people on the street, and more--all in his quest to thoroughly consider the philosophy that says that bias on the basis of species is unjustifiable. Disclaimer: He also spoke with me.
Above all, Devries confronts some very difficult and uncomfortable questions head-on. For example: How strong are the grounds for believing that humans have special moral worth? How valid are the comparisons between our use of other animals and the slavery of other humans?
For those unfamiliar with speciesism, there may be no more enjoyable introduction to this fascinating subject than Speciesism: The Movie. For those familiar with the topic, and searching for a way to introduce friends and family to the deeper questions, this film may be the perfect solution.
For everyone, watching Devries' movie is an enjoyable and thought-provoking way to spend 90 minutes.