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Professor Richard Ryder Interview

March 9, 2011

Professor Richard Ryder

March 9 2011

Professor Richard D. Ryder is a British psychologist and longtime advocate for nonhuman animals. He is the author of several books, including Victims of Science (1975), Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism (2000) Painism: A Modern Morality (2001), Putting Morality Back into Politics (2006) and the  forthcoming Speciesism, Painism and Happiness to be published in June 2011.

Richard Ryder coined the term speciesism in 1970 and first used it in a privately-printed leaflet published in Oxford that same year. He calls his current position on the moral status of non-human animals painism, a term he coined in 1985, arguing that all beings who feel pain deserve rights.

He has been involved in campaigns to protect whales, seals, elephants and farm animals, and to ban the use of animals in the testing of cosmetics. He has a MA in Experimental Psychology and a Ph D in Political and Social Sciences from Cambridge University. He became President of the Liberal Democrats Animal Welfare Group, twice ran for Parliament and campaigned to persuade the main British political parties to accept animal protection as a serious political issue. He also founded Eurogroup – the principal coordinating and lobbying organisation for animals in the European community.

ARZone:  When you coined the phrase “speciesism,” did you suspect in advance that the concept would be controversial? Was it received differently in different contexts, such as the media, the animal movement, and academia?


Professor Richard Ryder:  To start with there was no reaction at all, but my campaigns against otter hunting and animal experiments in the early 1970s began to generate media interest, and so whenever I was on radio or television – and it was often live in those days – I made the point of mentioning speciesism.  By the end of the decade I had plugged speciesism as an idea all over the world from Europe toAustralia toNorth America by the end of that decade!  At that time the media liked it because it was new, but academia was rather slow to react.



 In terms of your concept of painism, you note that an animal’s ability to register pain/suffering, or a negative experience, is the most important criterion for refraining from harming them. If there was a way to continue using them for food, entertainment and other forms of human gratification, without causing any pain, would you find that usage acceptable?


In theory ‘yes’.  But it would be hard to convince me that some of these usages (e.g. rearing for food) are possible at all without causing suffering.  On the other hand, some animals actually enjoy having a job.  So that sort of ‘usage’ could be a good thing.  I am often struck by how many domesticated animals appear to be terribly bored.  These are intelligent fellow creatures and they need mental stimulation.  A working sheepdog, for example, can seem to me to be very much more fulfilled than a lapdog.  Animals need to have a sense of purpose!

Hi, Richard, I hope that you are well. I have fond memories of our debate with the animal research people at the Oxford Union in the early 1990s. 

I appreciate your jacket endorsement of the book that I wrote with Robert Garner, “The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?.” In that endorsement, you state that our “positions correspond approximately with the dominant ethics underlying the American political campaigns and the British/European ones, respectively.” I read this as your saying that you regard the abolitionist position to be dominant in the U.S. and the regulationist position to dominate in the UK/Europe.

I think that the U.S. and British/European positions are similar and are both what I call new welfarist and what Robert calls regulationist. That is, they both promote welfare reform, “happy” meat/dairy, etc. as a way of reducing animal use. Neither really calls for abolition (except as part of a reduction of suffering) because the movement has, as a general matter, bought into the notion promoted by Bentham and continued by Peter Singer that animals do not care that we use them but only about how we use them. I am curious as to why you regard the American movement as more abolitionist or the British/European movement as less so.


Hullo, old friend, it’s good to hear from you!  Yes, I may have got this wrong.  At the time, from my view point, on this side of the pond, it seemed that theUS movement was more extreme in its demands.  Maybe the two positions have evened up a bit.

You may know that I persuaded the RSPCA in 1979 to set up Eurogroup for Animals as an EU lobbying body.  It has done very well and has played the leading role in most of the following EU legislative reforms (affecting all 27 member countries):

1983  Ban on imports of baby seal skins

1986  Directive on Animal Experimentation

1991  Leghold Traps prohibited in EU

1993  Revised Slaughter Directive

1993  European Centre for Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM)

1995  New Transport Rules for Farm Animals

1997  Ban on Veal crates

1998  Protection of animals in Zoos

1998  Ban on the use of Driftnets

1998  Protocol on Animal Welfare in theAmsterdamTreaty

1999  Ban on the use of Battery Cages

2001  Ban on Sow Stalls

2003  Ban on Cosmetic Testing

2003  Funding for welfare friendly farming

2006  EU action plan on animal welfare

2007  Ban on the import of wild-caught birds

2009  New Rules on Slaughter

2010  New Directive on Animal Experimentation

This impressive list reflects a gradualist approach.

Do you believe that seeking “insider” status, as Robert Garner argues, can ever get animal advocates anywhere but into negotiations that rarely, if ever, achieve reforms that are not already contemplated by industry for reasons of production efficiency, and that, in any event, rarely, if ever, adversely affect the interests of institutional exploiters?


We were lucky in Europe.  Because Eurogroup got going in 1979 we had a decade of reform before most of the commercial opposition became organised.  We also had the media and public opinion on our side.  Now we have a younger generation of farmers, experimenters and others to deal with who, for the most part, have taken a step forward in their thinking.  They accept the premise that animal welfare is a good thing and a serious issue.  Of course there remain a hard core of psychopaths and principled speciesists who keep their heads below the parapet and try to carry on being cruel.  The important thing is not to let these people take control.

Anyway, I think Robert Garner is right that insider status is essential.  But we need both insider status and ‘outsider’ status!  That is to say we need to hit our opponents really hard sometimes in terms of publicity and focusing public opinion against them.

Another thing I managed to persuade the RSPCA to do in the 1980s was to set up animal welfare science departments.  We now employ some thirty people in four departments (farm animals, research animals, wildlife and companion animals) many of whom are PhDs in their own fields.  Amazingly, these people sit on over 100 government and QUANGO committees where the detail of modern governance is debated and, often, decided.  That is a remarkable degree of insider status.

Where the RSPCA has arguably failed over recent years is in its high profile campaigning.  This is essential to maintain public interest, to focus public opinion on government and the corporate sector (nationally and internationally), to generate respect in high places, and, incidentally, to raise funds.

The ability to pack a punch as well as being an insider is, in my view, highly desirable.

In your article “All Beings that Feel Pain Deserve Human Rights” (The Guardian, August 6, 2005) you write about animal rights that “Basically, it boils down to cold logic.“  In the introduction to your book Animal Revolution, you quote the Irish historian William E.H. Lecky from more than 100 years ago: “the general tendency of nations is undoubtedly to become more gentle and humane in their actions…”  Taken together, these two things would suggest that humankind should leave off the exploitation of other animals.  Would you comment on why this hasn’t yet happened?


The easy answer is that animals are so damned useful!  There is also the lust for meat which is very strong in, say, 30% of the human population.  Such people will fight tooth and nail to protect their right to eat meat.  They get very angry and unhelpful if they are challenged.  Is such meat-lust a form of genuine addiction?  Or is it a basic carnivorous urge that is genetically imbedded in some, but not all, of us?  I genuinely don’t know if such research has been done.

We all know people who can give up meat easily and never miss it.  But there are also others, who include tough and driving politicians, who seem to need meat every bit as much as they need sex!  They crave it!  This problem requires research if animals are ever to be fully freed.

The fanatical defence of the carnivorous diet is one of the main reasons why the campaign against speciesism never quite wins.

Given that you first explored the idea of sentience, would you take the time to explain the difference between sentience and painience, and the moral implications of that difference?


Andrew Linzey and I often talked of sentience, and its moral importance, from the 1970s onwards.  But then I began to think of aliens who  might be very sentient (e.g. experiencing emotions and able consciously to perceive and think) but not able to feel pain or distress!  (Presumably they would be warned of danger by alarm buzzers and flashing red lights!)  In fact there are a few humans with this sort of condition.

So, instead of focusing on the full range of sentience we ought, morally speaking, to be focusing on that part of conscious experience that involves pain and distress.  At least in my morality – painism – pain and distress (i.e. any sort of suffering) are the central issues.

You write about how “painism” resolve problems and flaws inherent in both Utilitarian and Rights moral theories.  Would you elaborate on that, especially as it concerns competing sets of rights?


Where there are competing sets of rights, all we have to do (under the rules of painism) is to give priority to whichever set reduces or avoids the most pain, so if there is a conflict between the right to freedom of speech and the right to safety, for example, we allow the most pain-reducing right to trump the lesser.  More importantly, painism recognises the central flaw in Utilitarianism which is that the latter justifies torture or gang rape, for example, when the total benefits outweigh the pains of the victim.  I argue that totals of pains and pleasures (benefits) across individuals are not allowable.  They are meaningless.  Nobody experiences these totals.  The boundaries of experience are the boundaries of the individual.  We don’t add up the other feelings of a group of people and say that the totals of these feelings are important.  For example we don’t say that the total of John’s, Jacky’s and Jim’s feelings of surprise or love, outweigh the loves or surprises of Susan and Serena.  So why do Utilitarians total their pains and pleasures?  It’s nonsense!

So painism prohibits the totalling of pains and pleasures accross individuals while allowing the trade-off of pains and pleasures only between individuals.

I go into this in detail in my forthcoming “Speciesism, Painism and Happiness” to be published by Imprint Academic in June 2011.  Peter Singer has kindly written the Foreword.

In the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (1999) and then Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism (2000: 214) and Painism: A Modern Morality (2001) you outline your “moral rules of thumb.”  This is part (in A.R.) of your critique on utilitarianism and “extreme rights theories.”  Could you list and detail your moral rules and explain the context in which you highlight them?


 My rules of thumb are arbitrary.  I admit it!  The basic ones are:

a)  that infliction of severe pain or long lasting pain of any degree is never allowable (however great the advantage to another individual)

b)  that pains and pleasures in the present count for far more than estimated pains and pleasures in the future.  i.e. pains and pleasures that are certain outweigh pains and pleasures that are uncertain.

c)  a third rule of thumb, not mentioned in the paper you cite, is that pains and pleasures at the end of a life count for a whole lot more than pains and pleasures earlier on.  Better by far to have an unhappy childhood and die happy than the other way around!

You’ve worked on campaigns against vivisection and hunting, among other things.  Prof. Gary Francione suggests that such campaigns can be problematic in that they may reinforce speciesism by creating the impression in the public’s mind that certain forms of exploitation are more worthy of condemnation than others, and that certain species of other animals are more worth saving than others.  Would you address those concerns? 


I can just about seeGary’s point.  But in practice I don’t believe this has happened.

You describe painism as a form of rights theory (Ryder 2000: 213) and you are also very careful to explore (Ryder 2001: 21-22) the differences between moral and legal rights and “active” and “passive” rights. Since these are issues that seem to create some confusion within the animal advocacy movement, can you outline why this differentiation is important?


For me legal rights are merely rights that are enshrined formally in law.  I think the “passive” and “active” distinction is indeed confusing!

Squeamishness and machismo are two issues that have long engaged your interest. Can you please explain the importance of these concepts in your work, and say what your latest thoughts are about them?

Squeamishness – the fear, loathing or disgust experienced when injury or disease is perceived (usually in others) – is a very powerful and, I believe, unlearned behaviour.  Its survival value is, presumably, the avoidance of infection or danger.

Slaughterers, torturers, vivisectors and others overcome their natural squeamishness.  They become habituated or desensitised or “used to” their work.  Squeamishness can also be overcome by feelingws of anger, fear or sadistic lust.

Machismo (the adoption of stereotypical masculine behaviours) is less deeply embedded in our natures, although it may still be there linked to our genes and testosterone levels.  Generally speaking, however, machismo is a learned attitude and not a gut feeling.  Thousands of years ago successful human societies had to defend themselves constantly against attacks from both human enemies and wild animals.  Some humans still live in these conditions.  So boys were taught to value “manly” qualities and these were perceived to include fierceness, bravery and strength.  They still are.

One of the psychological sources of cruelty is the misplaced and rather primitive idea to be found in some young men (mostly), to the effect that it is “manly” to dominate, bully or kill animals.  Such machismo is not the only origin of cruelty but it is one of them.  It’s important to point out to such idiots that many great and manly heroes (Nelson, Churchill, Byron…) were also great respecters of animals.  So are my friends in the SAS!

Given that speciesism, the term you coined back in 1970 is very accurate to define what abolitionists oppose, what’s your opinion on attempts by other authors to impose news terms e.g. ‘carnism’ to define much less accurate aspects of speciesism?



To tell the truth I haven’t heard of “carnism”.  I already feel rather ashamed of introducing two new “isms” –speciesism (1970) and painism (1990) – and wish I wasn’t such an ismist!

I think one of the greatest moments in the history of animal advocacy happened in 1970 when you had what I imagine was a “eureka moment” when you conceived of the word speciesism. Thank you for your creation of this word. It is tremendously useful in helping ourselves and others to understand this vitally important concept.

You wrote that speciesists draw a sharp moral distinction between humans and all other animals. They fail to “extend our concern about elementary rights to non-human animals”. 

Since then, many people have been influenced by your work and built upon it. I’d like to ask what you think of the definitions given by two of them, Joan Dunayer and Oscar Horta. 

In her book Speciesism, Dunayer defines speciesism as: “a failure, in attitude or practice, to accord any nonhuman being equal consideration and respect”.
Oscar Horta defines speciesism as “the unjustified disadvantageous consideration or treatment of those who are not classified as belonging to one or more particular species.”
I would be very interested to know your opinion of these two definitions, and also how your own conception of speciesism has changed since you first coined the term?


For me the concept of speciesism is primarily a device to help us think and act differently.  Therefore I like the implied analogy with racism and sexism.  It also draws attention to the fragility of the category of species and its inadequacy as a basis for discrimination.


ARZone exists to promote rational discussion about our relations with other animals and about issues within the animal advocacy movement. Please continue the debate after a chat by starting a forum discussion or by making a point under a transcript.



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