…but, humans are superior…
We are entitled to use animals as a resource because humans are superior to nonhuman animals
Imagine uniquely superior aliens discover our planet; Do you really want to claim that they will be morally entitled to use humans as a resource? The alternative is accepting that ‘even if it is the case we are uniquely superior, morality requires we care for those more vulnerable than ourselves; not that we treat them as a resource’.
Superiority requires drawing a line that seperates two groups and falsely identifies one group as deservedly superior to another. Yes, humans are unique and distinct from other animals in our capacity for complex problem solving. However, pick any species and you will likely find an attribute that also makes them unique and distinct. We should celebrate difference and not deny moral consideration to those who are different.
No unique set of abilities or characteristics, in itself, provides a criterion for ‘superiority’. For humans to claim that humans are superior because we have specific unique attributes is just another form of prejudice.
Detail - Analytic
Humans are different to other animals
That’s true. Humans have a capacity for complex problem solving that is not present in other animals. But why should a set of unique abilities or characteristics equate to superiority and give us the right to do what we like to those deemed inferior? Difference and uniqueness are not synonymous with superiority.
Until recently it was considered that our capacity for abstract thought made us unique. However, “there is growing literature indicating that animals are capable of causal reasoning and abstraction”
Decision-Making From the Animal Perspective: Bridging Ecology and Subjective Cognition (2019)
A further “finding suggests that fish might possess far higher cognitive powers than previously thought, [igniting] a high-stakes debate over how we assess the intelligence of animals that are so unlike ourselves.”
Fish Appear to Recognize Themselves in the Mirror (2019)
One definition of ‘Superior’ is, “of higher rank, quality, or importance” - Merriam-Webster
What most people forget (or choose to overlook) in using the term superior is that; We alone determine the ranking systems. We alone determine what denotes better quality. We alone determine what makes one thing more important than another. To presuppose that ‘we’ are superior to ‘them’ and to then choose an attribute that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ as (somehow) demonstrating superiority is a fallacy. Identifying difference never identifies superiority even when it grants power of one over another.
“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”
- Douglas Adams from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1979
The flawed reasoning of Superiority and Domination
For any X and Y, if X is superior (or morally superior) to Y, then X is morally justified in subordinating Y.
- The ‘logic premise’ from the ‘Opressive Conceptual Framework’ argument as cited by Karen J. Warren
or in plain English (and, as often used in anti-vegan rhetoric)
if humans are superior to nonhuman animals, then humans are morally justified in treating nonhuman animals as a resource.
This logic is used to claim that humans are superior to, and may dominate, nonhumans due to some difference that is elevated (by humans) in importance. However, without the “assumptions that humans are superior to (at least some) nonhumans, and that superiority justifies subordination, all one has is some difference” - Karen J. Warren from The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism in Environmental Ethics.
This creates what Warren refers to as an oppressive conceptual framework. An example is patriarchal thinking which falsely justifies the subordination of women by men based on nothing more than difference. Warren further claims that this logic of domination, and any conceptual framework which gives rise to it, “must be abolished in order to make possible a meaningful notion of difference…”
We need to move away from the oppressive conceptual framework that maintains sameness and only extends the moral community to those who are similar to us by application of some self-determined criteria. Warren refers to this as arrogant perception, resulting in a false notion of superiority which gives rise to the claim that those like us deserve moral consideration and others don’t.
An alternative loving perception “presupposes and maintains difference - a distinction between the self and other, between human and at least some nonhumans - in such a way that perception of the other as other is an expression of love for one who/which is recognised at the outset as independent, dissimilar, different.”
A loving perception requires that difference be cherished rather than used as a reason for domination. That nonhuman animals are different is a reason for celebration not a reason to treat them as a resource.
A Thought Experiment
Suppose we discover an alien species (or more likely an intelligent species discovers us). That species has all of our abilities along with a technology far in advance of our own. They far exceed our mental capacity, can see a far greater colour spectrum and can hear sounds outside our aural range. They can also communicate telepathically.
If humans are superior to animals because of our unique capacity for complex problem solving then these aliens, with all our abilities plus the unique ability of telepathy, must be superior to us.
- Does this mean the aliens are justified in harvesting the human species?
If you believe that we can use animals as we choose because we deem ourselves superior (due to unique attributes) then you must accept that the aliens would be justified in using us as they choose for the same reason.
If you believe the aliens would act wrongly in harvesting the human species then you need to reconsider your claim that human superiority gives us the right to use animals as we choose.
Superiority - so what?
…to care for and about others is what being vegan is all about.
Even assuming that humans’ unique abilities do as a matter of fact demonstrate superiority it’s unclear why or how this is relevant. One of the cornerstones of morality is that we care for those less capable (or more vulnerable) than ourselves, and caring for others is what being vegan is all about.
- Decision-Making From the Animal Perspective: Bridging Ecology and Subjective Cognition by Sergey Budaev, Christian Jørgensen, Marc Mangel, Sigrunn Eliassen and Jarl Giske in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 2019.
- The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism by Karen J. Warren in Environmental Ethics 2nd ed., 1998.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, 1995
- If a fish can pass the mark test, what are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals? by Masanori Kohda, Takashi Hotta, Tomohiro Takeyama, Satoshi Awata, Hirokazu Tanaka, Jun-ya Asai, Alex L. Jordan. in PLOS Biology, 2019