On Morality: Are Human Animals Superior To Nonhuman Animals?

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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 overlooked, and at the same time most foundational 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’s not based on, as some would have us believe, objective fact.

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 humans exploiting other humans in the exact same ways and for the exact same reasons (our mere pleasure, amusement 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 that, 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 as gender, ethnic membership, or religious belief when it comes to moral superiority, since we can’t prove that either 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.

Although human animals created a concept of morality, many humans commonly break the moral codes imposed by society. This is why we have human slavery, rape, torture, murder, and all the other atrocities that ethical humans abhor. Nonhuman animals, who cannot be proven to understand the concept of a human moral code, 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 mentally handicapped 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, raping, torturing and murdering other humans is wrong. “Normal” adult human animals are moral agents, while nonhuman animals, infant humans, and severely mentally disabled 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 make a moral choice that causes 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.

This is why, for instance, it’s morally wrong for an adult human to murder a severely mentally disabled human, and also why it’s wrong for an adult human to have sex with a human child. This is also why ethical people believe that humans having sex with nonhuman animals is also wrong. We don’t hold nonhuman animals morally culpable to this code simply because we understand that, like severely mentally disabled adult humans and human babies, 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 moreso, with nonhumans).

On the other side of the coin, humans enslave, rape, torture or murder 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, rape, torture or murder, 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, rape, torture and murder upwards of a trillion nonhuman animals each year merely so we can unnecessarily eat 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 stuff,” “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, genderism, 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 is like saying that just because we know that some people will die in traffic accidents its a good reason never to post any warning signs. 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 eat 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 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. Its 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:
https://legacyofpythagoras.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/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.

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

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  9. We have a hard time managing moral issues within our OWN species! Like you, I believe that extending the circle of compassion to include other sentient species affects the way a person thinks in many other ways. If you’ve not read (Title and author censored due to philosophical differences), I recommend it. Many of our entrenched beliefs stems from our religious upbringing, something few are hard-pressed to reconsider or, better, to interpret differently.

    As for me, any religion that breaks from the weekly sermon to “fellowship” and dine on animal flesh or excretions is one lax in moral values. Needless to say, Nature is my current church. Thanks for writing is thoughtful piece, but don’t be surprised if it falls on deaf ears.

    • “We have a hard time managing moral issues within our OWN species!”

      That is mainly due to the Human Supremacy Myth. Once we eliminate that, the problems we have with other humans are also eliminated.

      “Like you, I believe that extending the circle of compassion to include other sentient species affects the way a person thinks in many other ways.”

      It’s not about compassion though. It’s about justice, which is created through empathy and reason. You can be compassionate and still hurt animals, but you cannot be just and still hurt animals.

      “If you’ve not read (Title and author censored due to philosophical differences), I recommend it.”

      I’ll see if I can find it. I can’t pay for books right now, but if I can take it out of the library, I will. Thanks for the heads-up :^)

      “Many of our entrenched beliefs stems from our religious upbringing, something few are hard-pressed to reconsider or, better, to interpret differently.”

      Truth. I often find it easier to convert someone to atheism than to get them to think logically about their religion and non-Veganism. Which is to say, not at all.

      “As for me, any religion that breaks from the weekly sermon to “fellowship” and dine on animal flesh or excretions is one lax in moral values.”

      Truth.

      “Needless to say, Nature is my current church.”

      Reason is mine. And reason tends to favor The Golden Rule.

      “Thanks for writing is thoughtful piece, but don’t be surprised if it falls on deaf ears.”

      It’s meant to challenge only those who are open to being challenged. In that, it cannot fail.

    • I found (Title and author censored due to philosophical differences) right here at my local lib. I will read it this month and let you know my thoughts via email if you reply that way. It’s the only way it won’t escape my mind.

      • Yes. I enjoy the conversation. I also got your email and will reply to it this week. Cheers! Glad to see the libraries are carrying some of these books. I had to buy mine…

    • After reading the first couple of chapters of that book, I realized that he basically parrots a form of “God says to be kind” argument that feeds directly into Welfarism. I censored the title and author in our comments because I don’t promote Welfarism (and I don’t argue that a religious ideology trumps rationality), but I can also give a lengthier rebuttal to his arguments here if you like.

      • Wow! It’s the first time I’ve ever been censored three years on WP. I feel so special, like I’m in a different league now. 😀

        Just so you know, I do not have a philosophy degree. I just want to free animals from our stomachs (among other things). Sometimes it helps to know things I don’t necessarily agree with.

        I don’t espouse a religious ideology; in fact, it feels that religion IS the problem when it comes to freeing animals from human domination. But I’m no theologian either…

    • “Wow! It’s the first time I’ve ever been censored three years on WP. I feel so special, like I’m in a different league now. :D”

      Lol. Yes, you are very special now 😛

      “Just so you know, I do not have a philosophy degree. I just want to free animals from our stomachs (among other things). Sometimes it helps to know things I don’t necessarily agree with.”

      There is a difference between “knowing” those things and advocating them though. And that is the only reason I replaced the title and author in our posts.

      “I don’t espouse a religious ideology; in fact, it feels that religion IS the problem when it comes to freeing animals from human domination. But I’m no theologian either…”

      I agree that religion, when people use it as an excuse to justify their irrational actions, is a huge part of the problem.

      And the fact that the author is religious is in no way the main problem. It was that he uses the same arguments to reject animal use that most non-Vegans use to justify their own uses of animals.

      He starts out the book by saying (basically) that we have a right to do whatever we want to nonhumans, but that if we want to feel good about ourselves, that we should be nice to them. All counter to what I’ve been trying to explain with this blog. It’s actually the opposite; We have no right to use them at all, and any argument to the contrary isn’t “another valid moral argument” as most non-Vegans claim, but merely an irrational justification of our lapse in morality.

      In his book he uses *some* rational arguments and makes *some* valid points, but ultimately, he uses a flawed model to base his lines of reasoning on and comes to an inconsistent conclusion.

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  26. I really enjoyed reading this. I’ve read this article when you copypasted in the comment section of another blog.

    While I’m already a vegan, this article helped me approach my principles in another way of thinking (namely the “moral agents” and “moral patients” way of thinking). My central principles revolve around minimizing suffering (and for moral consistency, but I’m not quite comfortable enough to base arguments on that), but this helps me understand my more deeper, more invisible convictions.

    Since you have a deeper perspective in the ethics of veganism than me (which is why I felt compelled to ask you to consider this upcoming request), I was hoping that you could address an issue that I cannot find an adequate answer to which has been bugging me. Based on my ethics, I cannot find any justifications to abstain from sessile bivalves, honey, and shellac. I’ve been building a list of the strongest arguments I’ve found in favour of abstaining from sessile bivalves (I presume that most of the anti-oyster arguments extends to honey and shellac to some extent), but so far none of them has persuaded me (though I do really like one of them—but “liking” something isn’t enough to turn it into a conviction). Right now just blindly abstaining from sessile bivalves, honey, and shellac feels like I’m following dogma rather than ethics.

    So I suppose that my question is: Exactly what is wrong with consuming sessile bivalves, honey, and shellac?

    I won’t post my justifications because I’m assuming that you already are familiar with the strongest arguments. (If you’d rather to just counter my arguments than guessing at what I consider to be the “strongest arguments”, then by all means ask me to supply them. I’m just hoping that you’ve already went through a struggle on this issue and found a solution to it.)

    Of course, my request would only work if you happened to have been against the consumption of those things. So the other question is, are you even against the consumption of sessile bivalves, honey, and shellac?

    If you’d rather me wait while you type a blog post addressing these issues, that’s fine with me. You might even address them separately if the nuances differ enough. On the other hand, I can see why you would want to avoid these topics as they are fringe issues that are indeed debated between vegans.

  27. Wow! First, let me say thanks for the astute and considered comments. Always a rare and pleasant circumstance to reply to such as this.

    Regarding the issue of sentience: Scientists have concluded that due to at least the presence of nerve ganglia and/or the ability to move away from threats that all insects and almost all aquatic animals are most likely sentient, which means that they have interests in not being harmed. When it comes to animals such as sponges or certain bivalves, where there is no actual evidence that they can feel pain, such as the presence of ganglia or motility, our best tool to use is called The Precautionary Principle. This principle posits the idea that “it’s better to be safe than sorry.” There must be a line we draw as Vegans, and the line makes the most sense at the animal/plant boundary, for this reason as well as another: If someday we find out that whomever animal is insentient, since we lived Vegan, then no harm done. If we someday find out they are sentient, then also, since we lived Vegan, no harm done.

    The other reason is that, as Vegans we should be advocating for the most consistent notion of morality we can. If we start making exceptions for animals that some scientists believe have been proven insentient (which is doubtful in the first place), then non-Vegans will start claiming that we should make exceptions for whichever animals they think are insentient who are clearly not (such as bees or beetles). It makes much more sense to draw the line at plants. You might wonder, what if we someday find out that plants are sentient? That is a great argument for decreasing the number of plants we kill, not for increasing the number of sponges or bivalves.

    Ideally, we will progress to a point where humans all live in our contained cities with flourishing parks, formed on a resource-based economy, farming as few plants as we can with Veganic Permaculture and eating as close to a 100% raw fruitarian diet as possible. Please understand, I’m not saying that I think we’ll ever discover that plants are sentient, but that if we did, then hopefully we’ll have been living this way all along. If I had any say over my living situation right now, I’d probably found or live in a Veganic farming community already.

    In a case where there is a gray area, such as the idea that, prior to eliminating domestication completely, we could feed the small number of domesticated cats who can’t thrive as Vegans on bivalves instead of the much more harmful factory farm byproducts that are currently put into commercial cat food, then I can understand why we would choose to advocate the use of bivalves over plants. But for humans, no.

    If you want to discuss this further I’d love to, including if you want me to give you links to or better descriptions of any ideas or concepts I touched on, but could you please repost your comment here so we can move the discussion there?:

    https://legacyofpythagoras.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/a-short-note-on-ostroveganism

    Thanks!

    • Thanks! I have copypasted my comment. I’ll wait for you to also copypaste your comment before I reply.

      (By the way, I have previously tried to find a blog post like that through the search engine. I had tried “bivalve”, “oyster”, “mussel”, “bivalvegan”, and “bivalve-vegan”. Surprisingly, during my research, I’ve never encountered the term “ostrovegan”. You may want to consider at least adding “bivalve” somewhere in the tags.)

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  40. Issue here:

    “The belief that humans are morally superior to nonhumans is not based on instinct. If it was, then we would not be questioning it, and therefore you would not even be reading this.”

    Dictionary:
    An inborn pattern of behavior that is characteristic of a species and is often a response to specific environmental stimuli:

    A powerful motivation or impulse.

    An innate capability or aptitude

    a natural or inherent impulse or behaviour

    An intuitive reaction not based on rational conscious thought.

    Me:
    Non-reflective, basic automated response to stimulus.
    Reflective conscious awareness of what we do, of our instincts, habits, is a good thing, and is not impossible, as you suggest. But otherwise another great post. Peace.

  41. The point was more that anti-Vegans have this belief that we’re animals, but that we’re “exceptional” animals, so their claim is that our “instinct” to inflict unnecessary harm on other species is a valid argument as to why we should not even be questioning this belief in the first place. That’s *their* claim. That line is meant to dismiss this blatant contradiction before it’s even raised.

    Thanks for the criticism though, it’s appreciated 🙂 I’ll change the line to reflect the point you made.

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