A popular pro-vegan argument

A popular pro-vegan argument

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.

Richard Smith
As a blossoming Yorkshire rose, I've spent the recent years of my life in the far north, middle, and south of the fair United Kingdom. The past four years I spent studying for an undergraduate and postgraduate degree mainly in philosophy but with some sociology. I spend the bulk of my time thinking about animal ethics, digging my mitts into painting, reading and trying to write, as well as putting my lips to beer with friends (not the same beer). There is more to me, but there's the outline. Having recently moved to London, I am trying to do well without getting too much Big Smoke in my eyes. I try to stay open to others' ideas so if you're up for a chat or discussion, then it'd be my pleasure.


  1. Not all questions can be answered with a singular answer. I choose to eat a plant based diet for three primary reasons- the welfare of animals, the environment, and health. While I agree 100% with the idea that we should not kill (or cause the suffering of) animals simply for our pleasure (and there really is no need to eat animals), I disagree with the premise that human life is of no more value than animal life. Let’s say for example, that a speeding car is driving down the street you live on. You look out into the street and see that your neighbor’s one year old daughter has crawled out into the street. She is directly in line with the left front tire of the speeding car. As you prepare to run out into the street to save the little girl, you notice that a slug has also “crawled” out int to the street. It is directly in front of where the right front tire of the speeding car is heading. You need to act quickly, but you only have time to save one life. Will it be the little girl or the slug? You would probably favor saving the little girl’s life over the slug’s life, and rightfully so. Why? I submit to you that human life is of more value than animal life (Uh, oh, here comes the hate mail.) because human beings are made in the image of God. If you really believe there is no valid reason to value one species over another, then why not save the slug? (And if there is no God, and therefore, no higher authority that can rightly justify anything other than an “arbitrary” valuing of a baby over a slug, then why not go ahead and save the slug?) The truth is that there is a difference between human and (as you might say, “other”) animal life, and human life is of more value, but that still in no way justifies the needless suffering and slaughter of animals.

  2. Hello, Strat. Thanks for getting in touch.

    You’re right that it is rare that any complex question or issue has a single one answer that can solve it outright. I think it’s great that you have a plant-based diet and have it for those good reasons.

    I should have made the following more clear, so I am sorry. The speciesism argument doesn’t necessarily have to mean that human life is no more valuable than animal life in every case.

    Some people use the argument simply to show that there are important moral similarities between humans and animals which demonstrate that we ought to treat animals better than we do. The speciesist argument is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the idea that human life is more valuable than animal life (see Peter Singer or Tom Regan’s books, for instant).

    Furthermore, someone might argue that the negative effects of the death of the human would be worse than the effects of the slug’s death. For example, the human in your example presumably has family whom would be harmed by their child’s death, society might be upset too if everyone started saving slugs’ lives over human ones, etc. A lot also could be said of the power of the intuitions and emotive responses we have developed through our evolution which make us more prone to empathise with human suffering over that of other animals (although these should be overridden, in some cases, I think).

    Some people, however, do use the speciesist argument to show that human and animal life is – in itself – of equal value. This is what you’re largely concerned with in your comment.

    In the case you give, most people certainly would save the human over the slug. This however doesn’t necessarily show that human life is more important than animal life, generally.

    The real crux of the argument for those who use it to show that human and animal life is of equal value is that *everything else being equal* (all other considerations apart) the life of each being is *in itself* of equal moral value. (imagine he case you give occurring in a vacuum).

    I see by your example that you are trying to make such an argument sound absurd by bringing a slug into to calculation, rather than, say, a dog, but I do not think I am being presumptive when I say that your position would not change were it a dog instead of the slug. It is a controversial question whether creatures such as slugs, ants, bees, and other ‘less physiologically complex’ creatures such as mollusks and crustaceans actually can feel pain in a way that we would call ‘morally important’ (they may not be reflexively aware that they are in pain, some say). (Although I think it’s best to give them the benefit of the doubt).

    As for humans being made in the image of God, the scala naturae, I will say the following. I absolutely appreciate your views and respect them. However ethics, at least Modern Western Ethics, is a secular pursuit. Many people who think about animal ethics are not themselves religious, and therefore some other reason or argument is needed to persuade them. And as per Singer and Regan’s views, if there is no God, it does not necessarily follow that there are no better or worse ways to act, or to value different species lives. For instance, you might think humans have a higher capacity to suffer than other animals, and therefore deserve precedence in judgments involving both. Also, you justifiably might treat your brother better than a stranger in such emergency situations as you point out, and could do so without appealing to religious arguments.

    I think overall, though, that we’re in broad agreement: there is no good reason to treat animals in harmful ways, especially when harming them can easily be avoided.

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