On Morality: Are Human Animals Superior To Nonhuman Animals?


The most fundamental problem in AR debates right now is the fact that we are not continuously addressing the myth that humans are morally superior to nonhumans. This idea needs to be eradicated before any truly revolutionary thinking about Animal Rights can begin on the part of morally confused and inconsistent humans. This idea is so ingrained in our societal mindset that it’s completely invisible to almost everyone, and it’s the underlying structure for all irrational, harmful moral double-standards regarding human-nonhuman interaction. There is no speciesism without Human Supremacy.

The single most foundational -and at the same time the most overlooked- error in logic whenever anyone tries to justify human animals exploiting nonhuman animals is the irrational idea that human animals, in general, are morally superior to nonhuman animals. This idea can be easily disproved, and yet most people do not even question it. It is assumed to be indisputable when it isn’t even based on objective fact (contrary to what some would have us believe).

Unless we can explain how human animals are morally superior to nonhuman animals, whenever we try to justify humans exploiting nonhumans in the ways that we do, we can’t rule out arguments that would otherwise justify humans exploiting other humans in the exact same ways and for the exact same reasons (our mere pleasure or convenience).

All other forms of moral supremacy -from ethnic, to religious, to gender-based, etc.- stem from this one basic idea: that it’s acceptable to refuse the same moral consideration to another being that we accord ourselves, merely because of morally irrelevant criteria like the color of their skin, which genitalia they have, or their species membership.

The belief that humans are morally superior to nonhumans is not based on instinct. If it was, then why would anyone even question it, and therefore, why would you even be reading this? And yet, it’s the reason why we believe it’s just fine to torture a nonhuman -who is fully capable of desiring to not suffer or die as much as a human- in ways that we wouldn’t torture the worst human criminals.

The myth of human moral supremacy is almost never even examined. But when it is, it’s obvious: just like the arguments we use to try to justify racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, or any other irrational form of oppression, it’s based on nothing more than arbitrary personal opinion (and biased, self-serving opinion at that).

The idea that humans are superior to nonhumans is based on the misconception that all humans have some characteristic or set of characteristics that all nonhumans lack. These criteria are commonly believed to include: “intelligence;” “mind;” “consciousness;” abstract thought; the capability of understanding and following moral codes; creativity; the ability to invent tools, technology, or art; some sort of physical ability or physical adaptation; proliferation; a “soul” or some other form of divine endowment; the capability of surviving in conditions or environments that others can’t; or some other unspecified faculty.

All of these criteria are obviously as arbitrary and as subject to bias as gender, ethnic membership, or religious belief when it comes to moral superiority since we can prove neither that they are possessed by all humans, nor that they are lacked by all nonhumans. Not only that, but whichever faculty is being proclaimed as superior is always one which is possessed by the person arguing on behalf of Human Supremacy.

When most humans talk about how much moral value that they think a nonhuman animal has relative to a human animal, what they talk about is essentially how much value the nonhuman animal has to the human who is making the claim. In other words, Johnny talks about how much moral value Bessie the cow has only due to Bessie’s utility to Johnny. But if we went by that valuation, then any human could claim the same about other humans as well, which would justify every harmful action from human slavery to rape to murder. Every being who can feel pain has moral value not because of their utility value to someone else, but because their life and freedom from suffering has value to the being whose life it is.

Johnny’s life and freedom from suffering has value to Johnny, but Bessie’s life and freedom from suffering have a value -to Bessie- that is not less of a value to Bessie than Johnny’s is to Johnny, which means that the value of Johnny’s life is not higher than the value of Bessie’s. That is the only way to calculate moral value that doesn’t allow for excuses for massive human rights violations and suffering as well as the same for nonhumans. Seen from that perspective, all arguments that try to claim that one sentient being’s life and freedoms have a higher moral value than any other sentient being’s life and freedoms based on species-membership are obviously self-serving, weak and irrational.

Although human animals created a human concept of morality, many humans commonly break the moral codes imposed by our society. This is why we have human slavery, sexual violation, torture, murder, and all the other atrocities that ethical humans abhor. Nonhuman animals, who cannot be proven to understand the concept of human moral codes, almost always follow our moral codes better than we do. They do not enslave us, create concentration camps, weapons of mass destruction, torture chambers, or pollute or otherwise destroy our habitats. Nor do they wage war on humans, or any of the other atrocities that humans are guilty of. They merely wish to be left alone to live and die on their own terms. To claim that they should have to follow our moral codes to benefit from them would be like claiming that we should punish a severely intellectually underdeveloped human for failing to pass the S.A.T.s.

Human animals created individual moral codes for ourselves because most of us believe that enslaving, sexually violating, torturing and unnecessarily killing other humans is wrong. Most adult human animals are moral agents, while nonhuman animals, infant humans, and severely intellectually underdeveloped humans (among others) are moral patients.

In order to be a moral agent, one must be capable of abstract thought in order to have a specific minimum understanding of the meaning of morality. That is to say, moral agents can understand the concept of morality and can, therefore, make moral decisions; meaning that they can make decisions that affect the interests of both moral agents and moral patients. Furthermore, moral agents have moral responsibilities to both other moral agents and moral patients. This means that they are capable of being assigned blame if they intentionally make a moral choice that they know will cause a being who is capable of feeling pain and other sensations to suffer unnecessarily.

A moral agent must be capable of giving informed consent, which means that an explicit meeting of the minds takes place -via spoken or written human language, and no less- where both parties are capable of abstract thought, understand what the nature of the social contract is, and what the general future ramifications of the agreement are.

Moral patients, on the other hand, cannot understand the human concept of morality and are thus incapable of giving informed consent. Moral patients cannot make moral decisions that affect either moral agents nor moral patients. They do not have moral responsibilities; however, in order for there to be moral consistency, moral patients must benefit from our individual moral codes without being able to have moral responsibilities themselves. Moral patients, therefore, cannot be morally blamed for their actions.

This is why, for instance, it’s morally wrong for an adult human to murder a severely intellectually underdeveloped human, and also why it’s wrong for an adult human to have sex with a human child. Because those entities, being moral patients, cannot give consent to being killed nor to sexual activity. This is also why morally conscious people believe that human animals having sex with nonhuman animals -who also cannot give consent to be used for sexual activity- is also wrong. We don’t hold nonhuman animals morally culpable to this code simply because we understand that -like severely intellectually underdeveloped humans and human children- nonhumans are incapable of understanding and abiding by human moral codes (or at least, any truly rational human understands that they are not capable of this) plus the fact that -regarding their interactions with us- they almost always, by default, follow our moral codes better than we do regarding our interactions with other humans (and even more so regarding our interactions with nonhumans).

On the other side of the coin, humans enslave, sexually violate, torture or unnecessarily slaughter nonhumans by the hundreds of billions each year, merely because we enjoy the taste of their dead bodies and secretions and the conveniences that it affords us. And we also are intentionally destroying every wild habitat that we can. We regularly treat nonhumans worse than we would treat the worst human criminals. So who is morally superior to whom again?

The idea that we should be able to do these things because say, a lion eats a zebra is ridiculous in the extreme. A male lion often will kill a rival male and their offspring before copulating -in public no less- with the mother. If a mother lioness gives birth to a severely ill or deformed baby, she will usually cannibalize them. When applied to human contexts, do we think these are morally justifiable ways to behave?

This is where the Human Supremacist says “Either we are morally superior to animals, in which case exploiting them is fine, or we aren’t morally superior to them, in which case we can kill them merely because we want to consume them, just like any other animal does.”

However, this completely fails to recognize that claiming one is “morally superior” means that one adheres to a code of fairness and justice more than the other does, not that one can merely understand human concepts of morality. If a human can understand the concept of the injustice of slavery, sexual violation, torture or unnecessary killing of others -but does not refuse to engage in such behaviors- where is the moral superiority in that?

As I mentioned, we very rarely hold completely to our optimal code of conduct. We claim as a society to believe in The Golden Rule, but we routinely inflict massive unnecessary suffering and death on innocent beings merely for our pleasure, amusement, or convenience. We enslave, sexually violate, torture and unnecessarily slaughter upwards of 1,000,000,000,000 nonhuman animals each year merely so we can unnecessarily consume their flesh and secretions and use their body parts for clothing (among other things), which not only causes massive suffering for them, but massive amounts of chronic disease for us and massive ecological devastation as well.

We should realize that if we don’t follow a 100% egalitarian system of justice regarding every innocent animal, human or nonhuman, then the same arguments we use to attempt to justify inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on them: “that animal isn’t as smart as I am;” “they don’t have souls;” “it’s how I make a living;” “meat/fish/dairy/eggs/honey tastes good” etc., can also be used by other humans to justify inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on us: “that person isn’t as smart as I am;” “I’m one of the chosen people and that person isn’t;” “I wanted their property;” “rape feels good” etc.

There is no way to morally justify the intentional, unnecessary exploitation of nonhumans by humans without also morally justifying the intentional, unnecessary exploitation of humans by other humans. This means that if we are personally in favor of violating nonhumans’ right to be completely safe from being forced into existence against their will, enslaved, slaughtered -or in any way used merely as replaceable resources for unnecessary human interests- then we have no rationally consistent claim that we ourselves should be safe from having those same things done to us by other humans. Any argument we try to use to justify harming nonhumans can also be used successfully by other humans to justify harming us in those same ways. This also means that until we as a species evolve past our irrational belief that intentionally exploiting nonhumans merely for our trivial interests is morally justifiable, we will continue to endure racism, sexism, cissexism, homophobia, ableism, tyranny, mass murder, and all the other human systemic rights atrocities we commonly abhor.

Furthermore, claiming that because we can’t be perfect -and not cause harm to any living being whatsoever- is a valid reason to intentionally cause easily avoidable harms to the nonhumans we exploit for our pleasure or convenience is like saying that just because we know that some humans will die in traffic accidents it justifies us murdering them by intentionally running them over with our cars. The fact that we can’t prevent all homicides does not justify us intentionally committing mass-murder, just as the fact that we can’t survive without unintentionally killing a lesser number of animals or plants does not justify intentionally breeding nonhuman animals and feeding them a much larger number of plants, merely to slaughter and consume them or their secretions, when we can thrive perfectly well on a plants-only diet. Nor does it justify exploiting nonhumans for clothing, research, or entertainment. The only reasonable, morally justifiable thing would be to work to decrease the number of all living beings we harm in all cases, not to try to justify intentionally harming them in some cases while claiming to decrease harm in others.

If you’re not already Vegan, and you think animals matter morally, then please go Vegan. It’s easy and great for you, incredible for the animals, and wonderful for the planet. If you’re already Vegan, please educate non-Vegans about why they should go Vegan. Please rescue, volunteer, adopt, foster, spay, and neuter the nonhuman refugees of domestication whenever you can. Please feed your nonhuman family Vegan where you can. These things are the most important, morally responsible things to do and are desperately needed by everyone.

To learn more about Abolitionist Veganism and the issues I’ve outlined in this post, check out The Master List Of Vegan Info:

Disclaimer: My only goal with this list is to produce as comprehensive a resource for Vegan information as possible. I am 100% Abolitionist Vegan and 100% against exploitation of nonhuman or human animals, any type of violence against human or nonhuman persons or property, welfare regulation, any form of speciesism, ethnic bigotry, genderism, ableism, heterosexism, etc., any of the large governmental or non-governmental nonhuman animal organizations, “happy meat,” vegetarianism, veg*nism, Meat-Free Mondays, or other forms of reductionism and anything else that makes it seem like any form of violence or exploitation of animals is ok. If any of those positions are endorsed on any site in this list, or any language is used to imply that, it’s not that I included that link because I agree, but simply because I don’t control every bit of information on all of these sites.

73 thoughts on “On Morality: Are Human Animals Superior To Nonhuman Animals?

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  2. The logic here makes a lot of sense, but the statement that nonhumans are merely moral patients is not entirely true. There’s social animals that have been found to have empathy, and have even been found to have social norms and culture in some cases. Would these animals not be moral agents to some degree? Rats have empathy for other rats and will do altruistic behaviors like freeing a trapped rat. Bonobos have empathy for other bonobos and for humans, and are very rarely violent. A group of macaques was found to become kinder and less violent than other groups of macaques, it was a long term study finding they somewhat had their own “culture” of a more peaceful group of macaques. These are just a few examples of course. Whether or not a nonhuman is a moral agent, they have moral status to be free from harm, but it’s not quite accurate to make a blanket statement of nonhumans not being moral agents.

    • It’s true that nonhumans, or some species at least, probably have simple or complex moral codes. But the point of the essay is that in relation to whether we can hold others to a standard of morality that we ourselves subscribe to, it makes no sense to say that we should hold nonhumans to our human codes. The only really fair choice would be to hold ourselves to our codes and recognize that nonhumans must benefit from not being held to our codes by default. It’s also not our place to decide what their moral codes are and then praise or punish them according to that. Or even worse, what actually happens through speciesism, which is that humans hold nonhumans to our code and then punish them accordingly. We see such things for instance when a wild nonhuman (or a captive nonhuman in a zoo) harms a human and then they are ruthlessly hunted down and killed (and sometimes numbers of completely unrelated nonhumans as well).

      In this way we can see that nonhumans can be described as moral patients in relation to our morality, even though they may be moral agents according to their own.

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