What is it that could make humans more morally important than animals? Within this article is a common pro-vegan argument that examines some popular suggestions and rejects them, concluding that there is no non-arbitrary standard which could morally separate all humans from all animals.
Those who disagree with veganism often believe that humans are always more morally important than animals. We have to ask ourselves: what is it about being human that could make the above claim true? Let’s take a look.
When you ask someone: what makes humans more morally important than animals? The answers they give often include: humans can talk but animals can’t; humans are rational, animals are not; humans can make agreements to not harm one another, animals cannot; etc. However as is well known there is evidence that at least some animals can communicate, exercise degrees of rationality, and engage in some form of ‘social contract’ in their communities.
It is true that on average humans can do all of these things (communicate, rationalise, engage in social contracts) at a higher level than animals can. However, none of these characteristics can be the ‘golden ticket’ that makes humans more morally important. This is because if we think that ‘human’ levels of language, rationality, social reciprocity, etc. are what give them their superior moral status then a lot of humans that we think have moral status must, by this logic, be excluded.
When we argue that any one of these ‘unique’ human characteristics is necessary and sufficient for moral standing we set the bar too high. On any such standard there will always be marginal cases, i.e. some humans who do not meet it, and some nonhuman animals who do.
There are a great number (perhaps millions) of humans who do not meet these standards: the very young, the elderly, those with brain damage, those who are incapacitated, comatose or otherwise, those who have learning disabilities, mental health issues and many more. We usually think it is wrong to deny any of these humans moral consideration. So if we don’t want to exclude such humans, what standard could we have which includes all humans and excludes all animals?
The only standard which includes all humans and excludes all animals is being a member of the species Homo sapiens. Yet there is an ugly downside to such a claim. Homo sapiens is a biological group, and this begs the question: if it is ok to discriminate on this biological basis then why can we not discriminate on the basis of other biological groupings, such as, eye colour, hair colour, skin colour, and sex? Why not discriminate on the basis of these biologically divisions? We do not because doing so would be arbitrary, based on some generalization, and therefore unfair to anyone who is excluded.
As the philosopher Geverick Matheny points out: discriminating on the basis of species is no more justifiable than racism or sexism; racists wrongfully discriminate because they give preference to the interests of their own race, the sexist does so by giving preference to their own sex. Similarly, ‘speciesists’ (those who discriminate by species) are wrong by giving greater weight to the interests of their own species.
So where do we go from here? Since ‘marginal’ humans do not possess any of the ‘unique’ human characteristics, and giving moral weight to humans because they are human is out of the picture, then it seems that we must base their moral standing upon some other condition.
The only non-arbitrary condition which ties all humans together is their capacity to suffer – but this is also a capacity which other nonhuman creatures have. To be consistent we must extend these same moral considerations to any creature who can suffer, and this includes at least 99% of the animal kingdom.
In sum, we either have to give ‘moral standing’ a very narrow criteria which would exclude many beings whom we usually think deserve moral standing, and which would leave anyone at a disadvantage when compared to any superiorly rational, reciprocal, or linguistically capable being. Or, alternatively we must choose a standard which includes all humans whom we usually think have moral standing, namely: the capacity to suffer. If we choose the latter, we must give equal moral consideration to all humans and animals alike – this means going vegan.