“Humans attempt to justify the systemic exploitation of nonhuman animals by the claim that humans are better, worth more, superior in moral value to other life forms as a group because of some attributes or slogans (intelligence, a soul, favoritism by a Divine creator or Nature, might makes right, etc.). When examined every one of these traits are subjective and biased personal opinions like a belief in the importance of skin color or gender or a particular interpretation of scripture. Nature (and/or deities) cannot be proven to care or judge as humans are just as mortal and subject to weather and physics as all other living beings. The fact that humans can and do exploit other humans and always have is the best evidence we have that human superior worth is not absolute truth but opinion. It also means that if someone wants to justify discrimination towards humans based on race or gender or religion etc they can use the same excuse (subjective and biased personal opinions) as used by those who deny nonhuman rights.
Any argument put forth to justify meat and dairy farms, vivisection labs, hunting, fishing, etc. can be countered by pointing out that human supremacy is a myth and that the only way to avoid moral double standards which would allow humans to justify exploiting other humans is to shun unfair discrimination/exploitation as much as possible. Humans create and use moral laws, nonhumans do not and deserve respect and compassion by default as it is unfair to punish them for being unable to understand human morality—it would be like demanding a blind man to read a warning sign and punishing him when he cannot. Humans who cannot follow moral laws (or even refuse to) are treated with far more respect and compassion. Nonhumans already respect our moral codes by not treating us in the ways we treat them.
The inability to be morally perfect–respecting all life at all times does not mean we draw the line at humans since that is a moral double standard based on the human supremacy myth and if you say the accidental death of insects justifies vivisection labs then the inability to stop homicide and child abuse would justify genocide and concentration camps (since human exploitation of humans is natural and chronic). It is ultimately about fairness and ethical consistency.”
The argument you just read is designed to affect the listener in a specific way—and remove the options for disagreeing and deflecting the discussion and focus to trivia, especially personal attacks on the advocate.
The first thing you should notice is we immediately assume that the resistance to an animal rights position rests on a moral claim—the belief in human superior worth. We do not try to entice the subject by speaking about compassion or the suffering of the victims—this is a given—an animal born and raised for human use, or attacked in the wilderness is being wronged. The issue of whether they suffer as much as humans is trivial and diversionary.
We use the word “systemic” to keep it focused on exploitation that occurs in an industrial and organized fashion. Farms, labs, zoos etc. This is to prevent one from diverting the discussion to “what if you were stranded on an island…” We are talking about practical reality not academic hypothetical situations.
We say “human superior worth” or “human moral superiority” because we want to be specific about the idea of believing that one is better, or worth more based upon a concept of moral value. If we just say “human superiority” or “human supremacy” it invites misinterpretation—that we are talking about physical power or forcefulness, which is another distraction and diversion. Humans with access to technology can have a lot of power, however, they also can have power over other humans. It is meaningless to the moral issues at hand.
Notice we say: “as a group,” this is to avoid an effort to argue that humans think they are superior as an individual—self-interest—which is not what we are talking about either. It is superior in value as a group—that one is part of a collective that is said to have special status and rights.
We do not waste time in discrediting the claim—and do this by using matter of fact, obvious, and easily accepted ideas about the world around us and human behavior. Human superiority is not sanctioned by Nature and/or invisible deities—gravity and weather do not give us special treatment. Not only does this discredit the concept of human superior worth but it subtly mocks it. This makes it look foolish. You can decide for yourself whether that is necessary or not—sometimes you will encounter a great deal of resistance to the idea of nonhuman rights and it comes out as arrogant behavior. Making a mockery of the idea of human arrogance can help to create an atmosphere of respect for the discussion.
Perhaps the strongest element is by pointing out the human capacity for victimizing other humans—something not even debatable—it not only provides a final nail in the coffin to the moral superiority claim, it also indicates the undesirable effects for human rights and the personal beliefs of the person if they continue to adhere to the false idea.
If you have a right to use biased and unfair ideas to justify harming others, then others have the right to use biased and unfair ideas to justify harming you. It is a Golden Rule appeal, but instead of the classic situation where the victim is the one who has the right to defend themselves, we are using the reality of human behavior to put force to the point.
The reason is two fold—nonhumans, with rare exceptions, do not have the ability to defend themselves from human abuse, so it would not be much of a threat or consequence. The second reason is that it not only serves as a personal threat, but an ideological one-since it undermines the person’s desire for morality that is consistent and fair. Although this might not work against everyone, we have found that most will cling to some kind of social responsibility morality, and will be greatly troubled when you point out that a belief in the superior moral worth of humans to other animals is logically constructed in the same way as a belief in the superior moral worth of some humans to other humans. Usually, they do not want to be associated with racists and bigots—but they are using the same belief structure.
The argument also addresses in its foundation the question of why humans must respect the rights of nonhumans if nonhumans are not obligated to respect the rights of humans. This is a murky application of the Golden Rule but with an obvious bias. Children, the mentally impaired, and criminals can be in violation of following Golden Rule morality but usually are afforded far more respect and moral value than nonhumans. Why the double standard? It amounts to the belief in human superior moral worth.
We would usually say that it is unfair to punish someone for not being able to do something that you know they cannot do. I.e. if you demanded an armless man to catch a drowning swimmer and they did not, and you accused them of being callous and mean, we would consider that unreasonable–likewise for situations with children or “mentally impaired” or criminals. Why doesn’t the same apply for nonhumans? Why are they held to a different standard of fairness?
Beyond that—nonhumans do not put us in labs, or zoos, or rodeos, or hunt us for trophies or recreation. You could say they follow the Golden Rule better than we do. Some are fond of projecting the most malign traits of humans onto nonhumans and accuse them of vengeance and blood lust and irrational behavior (humane = good, inhumane = evil) but practically speaking, most violent behavior observed among wild animal populations can be attributed to survival or breeding or territorial aims.
In this argument, we avoid saying something akin to “animals don’t know better” when it comes to their violent behavior because this can imply they do something wrong, or that humans have some superior (better) position because they have moral concepts. We think a more humble and verifiable view is that humans have morality in an effort to control their behavior which often does not involve true survival or necessity situations but choice and desire. It is humans who need to “know better,” the rest is just speculation and unnecessary for the moral argument being presented. The truest “stewardship” position is that humans need to be stewards of themselves, not Nature.
The final component in the basic argument pertains to moral perfection. It is common for opponents to the “animal rights” message to seek out imperfections to use as a personal attack on the advocate. If you get into a debate about a particular subject, i.e. the issue of plant sentience, it usually means you defending yourself rather than putting pressure on the opponent’s beliefs. But if you embrace the imperfection instead of denying it, you can use it to point out yet another double standard when it comes to human rights belief. Homicide, accidental deaths, child abuse—they all occur regularly and yet we do not use them to justify suspending moral concepts or concentration camps. Therefore, the accidental or indirect killing of insects or plants or field mice cannot be used to justify moral support for systemic meat eating or labs. Emphasis on systemic. Building and maintaining a farm or lab takes far more effort than the accidental killing of an insect. You want to keep things practical—this highlights the moral issues in a simple and effective way.
The last point on moral perfection can be refined for specific topics. I.e if debating vivisection and someone says the advocate has benefited from living in a society where vivisection has been used—then you can turn the tables and point out that human rights advocates have also benefited from experimentation done on human subjects against their will or with lethal consequences, lived on land taken through war, or benefited from slavery and human oppression.
Or it can be used for the hypothetical attack “if you had to choose between saving the life of a human or nonhuman in an emergency situation.” You can change the terms to a human vs. human predicament—what if you had to choose between the life of someone familiar and someone foreign? Family vs. stranger? Someone of your race or language and not? Does your choice mean the loser deserves to be exploited systemically in a farm or lab etc?
You keep linking the discussion back to human relations and moral situations involving humans—this discourages the hostile audience from putting you on the defensive because your answers keep reinforcing your point about the myth of human moral superiority and the consequences that its falsehood has for human rights. This is why our motto is that you cannot have human rights without nonhuman rights.
The term nonhuman is stressed instead of animal in order to avoid making a qualitative distinction between humans and animals as is often the case, and to leave the potential beneficiaries of moral value open since the argument is not using sentience or similar “cut off” criteria. Moral imperfection is assumed by the argument therefore it cannot be used to invalidate the claims for nonhuman animals regardless of what may be applicable to microorganisms, plants etc. and the practical difficulties in implementing such ethical beliefs.
The argument tries to avoid the need for fact checking or reliance on scientific arguments and studies because in our experience people will doubt anything they can doubt. Self-evident information tends to be harder to nitpick. Someone may doubt that Pfizer did experiments on African villagers in the 1990s but you can easily cite a well-trusted news source to verify such claims. With esoteric scientific information it can be less persuasive, because unless the person considers the source to be an authority and trustworthy they may still dismiss it, or as a “he said/she said” difference of opinion especially if a counter study is available. Basic moral arguments do not require that kind of verification. You use the beliefs of the person you are talking to in order to make your argument.
The basic moral argument applies to any society that can fashion moral codes that systemically discriminate using a claim of superiority of one group over others, regardless of technological usage or location or subsistence characteristics of the exploitation involved. One can argue the practicality or reasonableness of implementation of moral concepts in certain scenarios and circumstances but it does not nullify the moral theory. Earlier articles discuss this in more detail.
How one phrases the idea that humans are not superior in moral value can impact the audience reception of it. If you start off by saying “discrimination against nonhumans is the same as racism or nazi camps” you may throw up a wall that makes it harder for the person to listen to your message. On the other hand if you find after explaining the concept that the reception is hostile, making connections between different forms of historical injustice, such as slavery, can be useful to remind the listener that the attitude of bigotry based upon biased and unfair ideology is the same.
Words like respect, justice, fairness, and referring to exploitation subjects as “victims” can help foster the atmosphere that we are talking about equal consideration and rights, not merely cruelty or compassion. “Killing for an unnecessary diet” sets up the ideological framework that places the emphasis on choice and the act of killing so as to prevent it from being about how the killing is done instead of why it is done.