Making a case for nonhuman rights by challenging the belief in human moral supremacy and using human rights for guidance.
While the 1688 Germantown Quaker petition against slavery was not a direct call for the abolishing of the African slave trade, it presented the argument against slavery in terms using the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The petition questioned whether it was right for Christians to own slaves, and used the Golden Rule to show that the slaves had the right to revolt—which could not only be harmful to the self-interest of the slave owner, but to efforts to expand immigration and commerce in North America. It made comparisons between slavery carried out by Christian Europeans against Africans, and the slavery practices carried out against Europeans Christians by pirates.
The simplest argument for nonhuman rights questions the belief that humans are superior in moral value and uses agreed upon standards for human rights situations to reinforce that position.
It is a Golden Rule argument for animal rights, but the potential harm to one’s self-interest by not being respectful of others does not come from the victims (as most nonhuman animals exploited are not capable of fighting back even if they had the capacity for vengeance), it comes from other humans. You are pointing out a flaw in the beliefs of a human supremacist which would allow a racial or gender or religious supremacist to justify their own discrimination using the same logic employed by those who believe one has the right to systemically exploit nonhuman animals.
The justification for the double standard treatment of nonhumans stems from the simple idea that humans as a group have superior moral worth. This is often assumed to be a fact and self-evident without a second thought. It can even appear in the views of those who are opposed to it without realizing it.
By superiority we do not mean manipulative power or flexibility in action. We emphasize “as a group” because we are not talking about individual self-preservation. Sometimes people will confuse definitions of superiority—and think we are talking about physical power over another, or personal preference for one’s survival over another. We are talking about systemic exploitation of one group for the interests of another and the moral problems when we examine it with the same standards we use in human rights considerations.
Any animal rights scenario can be “fact-checked” against human situations for fairness and consistency.
The explanation for human moral superiority rests upon a series of attributes or criteria that humans are said to possess and nonhumans lack. These attributes are assumed to be of absolute importance and value. They are defined according to secular and spiritual world views.
The most common among those of a secular persuasion is a certain kind of consciousness—called Reason or intelligence or something uniquely human. This can be further defined as the capacity to understand morality itself—the ability to comprehend moral contracts. Or it is called a bundle of unique characteristics or even faculty X. It does not matter what they are defined as, for every one of these attributes and characteristics have two problems.
Firstly it cannot be proven that all humans possess this characteristic equally or that nonhumans lack it.
Much has been written on the ways in which humans can be shown to be irrational—we could discuss the alleged rationality of an atomic bomb or pollution or spending money on warfare instead of fighting starvation, but more specifically it has been widely pointed out that there are humans—from children to the mentally impaired to criminals, shown to be lacking in these attributes and yet they are afforded moral protection. This would seem to be a lapse in upholding standards. The response is usually that they deserve consideration as exceptions to the rule either because they are part of the human community and benefit in the same way the relative of a celebrity may gain access to a VIP club or because it would be immoral to exclude them (this is literally “humans have rights because they are human because humans have rights”).
There has also been much written on the ways in which nonhumans possess qualities that humans cannot be shown to possess that show worthiness by different criteria (if the standard was set by a lion or prairie dog instead of a human). This in addition to the most common answer from animal rights proponents, that what really matters is the ability to feel pain—sentience—the true measure of determining moral regard.
Such responses may do little to overcome the value that some place in alleged human capabilities for divinely sanctioned or intellectual endeavors.
The highlighting of sentience is intended to make the observer respond that this is a logical common sense standard for determining moral worth instead of dubious claims of a soul or some uniquely human mind criteria that is murky and inconsistently defined. It seeks to emulate the way skin color and gender were seen as trivial criteria for determining moral value when compared to shared human characteristics (like Soul or Reason). But sentience/the ability to feel pain, is a common trait (like skin color), not something deemed lofty and praise-worthy. It invites being dismissed as too common and mundane while failing to explain why Soul and Reason are flawed or inferior.
Whether it is mathematics, building rockets, or composing operas, some consider these activities to be of importance and regardless of the fact that most humans do not do these things, they are included by default (and if you are a human you would be hard pressed to disagree since you benefit yourself from this arrangement).
Furthermore, sentience is not of interest to those who hold to spiritual arguments for human moral supremacy. The most common is that humans possess a soul while nonhumans do not, and that humans are the “chosen species” of a supreme creator (or more than one). As with the secular arguments, it cannot be proven that humans possess a soul and nonhumans lack one, or that humans are the chosen species of one or a thousand deities. Human behavior is the best evidence we have to the contrary—humans are constantly fighting about religious dogma and differences in opinion– to the point of violence. If humans are the chosen species why are they victims of violence? The old fashioned answer is that it is the fault of the Devil. But nonhumans are the victims of human violence—while we cannot prove the existence of devils we can prove that humans victimize nonhumans in devilish ways. Some will answer that the Bible says so, as a way of dismissing the animal rights position. The Bible does indicate that humans were originally vegetarian, but even if we overlook that fact due to contradictory passages that follow, the Bible also specifically endorses human slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. If one can contradict God’s will about one example of suffering that He has endorsed, we can certainly do the same with others, at least until He comes out of the sky to set the record straight.
Rounding out the arguments is the simple claim of might makes right or survival of the fittest. This can be alleged to have nothing to do with a belief in human moral superiority just practical harsh life and survival. Others will say it is in your best interest to respect other humans but we all know there are people–criminals to dictators– who have been able to harm others and not face consequences for it. Best interest is also a matter of opinion.
The second problem, for both secular and spiritual arguments, is that it cannot be proven that any of them are absolute objective truths—it cannot be shown that Nature or supreme invisible and mute deities have sanctioned these attributes or values humans above all else.
This we observe by the simple fact that weather and gravity and other phenomenon do not give humans preferential treatment. Wouldn’t it be logical that if humans were superior in moral worth as an absolute objective truth that it would be evident around us? The best evidence we have that humans do not have superior moral worth as an objective absolute fact is by routine human behavior. Humans have and continue to discriminate against and exploit other humans. We have codes and laws to discourage this (when we don’t have laws that sanction it) but it still happens. Anyone who claims that humans have superior moral worth do not truly believe it themselves if they lock their doors at night or support anti-tampering caps on bottles. Human moral superiority is a biased person opinion, a claim conveniently determined by those who stand to benefit from the discrimination they wish to justify. This is the same with racial or gender discrimination—skin color or gender is held up as important by the person who is discriminating, when it cannot be shown that Nature or deities care.
This connection to other forms of supremacy beliefs is the undoing of the argument against nonhuman rights. There is no way to avoid the fact that every single argument that claims humans have superior moral worth amounts to biased personal opinion just like other forms of discrimination the same people will claim is immoral. They are forced to accept nonhuman rights if for no other reason than to close this gaping hole in their moral system that would allow humans—flexible manipulative humans with power over others–to justify exploiting humans they consider inferior.
Systemic discrimination against nonhumans is a form of bigotry and the excuses for it will falter when compared to similar situations involving humans.
The best example may be the “might makes right” or “survival of the fittest” argument. If humans have the power to exploit nonhumans, humans also have the power to exploit humans. There is nothing preventing “might makes right” from applying to human situations. Indeed, we can use the daily news and find examples to prove this reality. This convenient oversight is an example where the assumption of human moral supremacy is taken as a given without examination.
Another example is the argument that nonhumans do not deserve moral regard because they cannot understand moral contracts (aka moral reciprocity/contractualism). In addition to overlooking that the ability to understand and honor moral contracts is also a biased personal opinion like all other attributes—it leaves out the consequences this would have for humans who cannot understand moral contracts—children, the mentally impaired, or criminals (who were historically targets of systemic discrimination/exploitation themselves).
To make demands of a person to perform a task which you know they are incapable of performing and punishing them for it is what we would call unjust or unfair. Compare it to a situation of a drowning swimmer—where an armless man is watching and you instruct him to grab the swimmer. He fails and the swimmer drowns—and you respond that the armless man should be punished for his heartless indifference.
This is what the Contractualism argument is saying.
Additionally, it can be argued that nonhumans honor our moral concepts and the Golden Rule by default—since they do not put humans in cages, or use them in laboratories or for recreational killing and torture. Humans are the ones not living up to the obligation set forth by their own moral codes.
Perhaps the most common objection to animal rights is to point out imperfections in honoring moral beliefs. There are many examples—such as the argument that insects, plants, or bacteria are harmed, even for procurement of a strict vegetarian diet. The gist of such an attack is to deflect criticism and put the animal rights proponent on the defensive, or to say that since we cannot be perfect in observing rights for nonhumans we should not even try.
Usually the animal rights advocate will argue that sentience cannot be shown to apply to plants and bacteria. This, in our view, is not the best course of action. It can lead to weak but distracting counter-arguments and avoids the central issue of the opponent’s beliefs that are obstructing acceptance of the animal rights message.
It is better to answer that regardless of whether they may be able to show that plants and bacteria are sentient and that we should work towards better treatment for them as well as insects—the failure to be perfect in dealing with them due to a variety of factors from absent-mindedness to scale does not negate the moral principle of vegetarianism/veganism etc anymore so than the constant reality of child abuse and homicide is not cited to forgo human rights codes and justify concentration camps or mass murder. Unlike the accidental or inadvertent harm done to an insect, a farm and laboratory takes immense direct effort to construct and maintain. It is practicality and common sense.
This answer prevents follow up, since it calls the bluff on the question poser instead of refuting it or putting oneself in the position of proving that one is morally perfect.
If we use human rights situations as a comparison, then this attack is like saying the inability to eliminate homicide and child abuse means that moral concern for humans is impractical. If one tries to say the convenience line should be drawn at humans-someone else can say it should be drawn at race, religion, gender, family, community.
Once human moral supremacy is seen as falsehood, these double standards become obvious and serve well in explaining the logic and plain sensible nature of an animal rights position.
It is the same with the argument that asks if one would choose to save the life of a human over a nonhuman in an emergency situation. Usually this type of attack is meant to force the animal advocate to admit to believing in some form of human moral supremacy—but it is really an appeal based on familiarity. All one needs to do is change the terms of the scenario to a human vs. human situation. What if the choice was between a human you know and a human you do not know, between a family member or a stranger, between one family member vs. another, or a person of your race and gender or not? If you choose the more familiar, does it mean the loser deserves to be systemically exploited in labs and farms? The same should apply for treatment of nonhumans if we are fair.
Modern animal rights advocacy uses what we may call the suffering-sentience-speciesism argument. Animals suffer needlessly, they possess the same capacity for pain (sentience) or desire for life as humans, therefore they deserve respect and compassion, and freedom from discrimination based on species aka speciesism.
This is an appeal to someone’s compassion, and while it may be enough for some, there are others who will hold to beliefs that negate the effectiveness of such entreaties. Those beliefs need to be addressed if you want to make the animal rights argument more than a plea for mercy—to make it a moral obligation, as simple to fathom and as irrefutable as the golden rule.
The history of moral change in society has generally been the effort to broaden common ideas of fairness and justice towards the vulnerable. It is a process of growing awareness, influencing enough members of society to agree to codes and laws and systemic changes.
This occurs at the same time that technology also brings about change in society.
While technology is most often viewed as a positive, the effects of technology include pollution, warfare, even substance abuse (cocaine, heroin) and it has impacted human society in negative ways. The tendency is to overlook these problems as “growing pains,” or merely hope that it will all work out for the best over time, usually with the help of new technology to combat the effects of old technology.
Technological change also increases the ability to exploit the vulnerable.
It should be no surprise that regardless of one’s view on the origin of humans, misery and flexibility in causing harm has increased with access to technology. Nonhuman animals face particular challenges due to changes in human technology that are not keeping in step with moral awareness. An elephant or orca whale living in the 15th century had fewer threats from humans than they do in the 21st century. Over time they have become more vulnerable, not less. It can be noted that the same holds true for humans—i.e. in modern warfare aerial bombardment causes far more civilian causalities than was possible in previous centuries.
Advocates for nonhumans correctly highlight changing attitudes towards the vulnerable in society to make their case. Children, women, the disabled, and even criminals have seen expanding moral regard.
Those that dismiss such comparisons due to a human moral supremacy bias may well be of the same mindset that would have laughed at inmates in an asylum or taken pleasure in a slave lynching or been in the front row at a Roman Coliseum fight between prisoners, children, the handicapped, or wild animals.
Explaining in the most persuasive way possible why such comparisons are valid and compelling people to regard the exploitation of the vulnerable as morally wrong, is a challenge we face in animal rights discussion. In order to grow awareness towards this end, one should be aware of strengths and weakness in our beliefs and how we present them to our audience and gauge their reception accurately.
1. Understand why human moral supremacy is a myth.
2. Observe the double standards when it comes to human rights situations and highlight them in your argument for nonhuman rights whenever possible.
3. Don’t get bogged down by minute details and hypothetical situations since the main goal is the elimination of systemic practices that require immense effort to construct and maintain.