The foundation of the ethical arguments used to defend vivisection, the meat industry, and other forms of exploitation protested by animal rights campaigners is the belief in human supremacy. It is generally taken for granted by both sides of the issue and left unchallenged. Advocates would discover they can make a stronger case if they relied less on the three S words (suffering, sentience and speciesism), and more on common sense, clear language and a frontal assault on human pride. It shifts the energy of the debate from a defensive posture (an effort to persuade the listener to embrace compassion and/or respect for non human life forms) to one that forces the most hard line adversary into a choice—either accept nonhuman rights as a necessary condition of a fair ethical system or concede that their own belief would allow humans to discriminate against other humans in unpleasant ways.
Suffering, sentience and speciesism have problems. One may use visual testimonials of the suffering experienced by the victims of human exploitation to great effect, but the old adage that everyone would be vegetarian if slaughterhouses had glass walls ignores the human capacity to condition themselves to violence or make excuses for exploitation (a bullfight being just one example where cruelty does not lead to a widespread conversion to vegetarianism). It can also encourage the suggestion that unnecessary enslavement or killing isn’t the problem, but only how the killing is done—welfare instead of abolition, or the dismissive reply that since Nature is cruel, humans shouldn’t care if they are the same. The designation of sentience as the true criteria of moral consideration emulates the example of racial and gender equality advocacy by “moving the goal post,” highlighting an attribute possessed by both the victim of discrimination and the victimizer that is intended to bolster the value of the former in the eyes of the latter. Instead of maleness or whiteness, it was the faculty of reason and the ability to worship a deity/in place of reason or a soul, it is sentience or the capacity to suffer. But it often leads to the counter that scientific tests need to be done to be sure a species meets the qualification of sentience, or another more human-specific type of sentience is defined to muddle the issue, or the opponent claims to adhere to reciprocal moral contracts or theological arguments instead. Speciesism is widely in use as the equivalent to racism and sexism. It is generally defined as “species-centered” thinking and linked to ethnic or gender based discriminatory beliefs. But opponents of animal rights often embrace it, claiming that speciesism is natural and all species do the same. The term is an inaccurate and misleading description of the biased attitudes that dictate human ethical policy and belief towards nonhuman lifeforms. While members of any race or both genders can be racist and or sexist, only humans can be observed to be “speciesist.” Lions cannot be shown to hold to a belief that they are superior in moral value as individuals and a group to gazelles, and therefore have a right to kill gazelles but no one has a right to kill them. Humans, however, do it all too frequently in the defense of their exploitation practices. It isn’t “centeredness,” it is superiority, arrogance, pride, a belief in supremacy. Not speciesism, but supremacism.
Human supremacists will often assert they are top of the food chain, even though corpse-eating bacteria might have a different perspective. They say they are custodians of Nature, even though most of what they characterize as stewardship is actually damage control, attempting to correct mistakes, such as oil spills and extinction, caused by human action. They designate insects as low and worthless, although it is these creatures that cultivate top soil and pollinate flowers, true acts of management. Human language contains many insults derived from the distorted antagonistic understanding of the Natural world. Humane is defined as another word for compassion, and inhumane or inhuman or nonhuman, another word for wicked, and yet, when it comes to cruelty, sadism and taking pleasure from causing misery while knowing that one is causing it, humanity is the supreme role model. Cats do not build arenas in which other cats can watch mice being tortured. The same capacity for intellectual expression that allows one to compose a symphony or do mathematics can be used to design a torture device or urge a suicidal person to jump from a building, while supremacists will downplay the unique abilities of nonhuman animals to predict earthquakes, or instinctively swim.
The insane, sadistic experiments which demonstrated that a monkey or rat would refuse to harm another even if they faced electrocution or starvation as reward for their altruism may be contrasted with Milgram’s studies that showed people were willing to shock another human simply to spare themselves discomfort by displeasing an authority figure. So much for humanity’s innate species-centeredness or the lofty claims of nobility over savagery. And the supremacist retreat to ideals of romantic primitivism may also be countered with reality, as vicious cruelty is noted in pre-industrial cultures, from the various mutilation rituals in animal sacrifice around the globe to the stampeding of herds off cliffs in order to pick at the mass of dead and crippled buffalo.
Human supremacists justify their discrimination and systemic exploitation according to an assumption of absolute certainty based upon criteria of value such as a faculty of reason, a soul, divine or evolutionary favor, moral reciprocity, survival of the fittest, might makes right, individual selfishness, a bundle of characteristics or vaguely defined ones which cannot be proven to be shared by all humans or lacking in all nonhumans. i.e. some humans are more intelligent than others, some nonhumans are more rational than some humans, humans can and do willfully break laws and yet the most despised of criminals is usually given more care and respect than the most innocent of beings.
And the importance of such criteria can be doubted–shown not to be absolute objective truth, but subjective arbitrary belief conveniently determined by those who stand to benefit from the discrimination they wish to justify. Nature (and/or deities), through environmental phenomenon, like weather, earthquakes, gravity, and the actions of other human beings, cannot be shown to care or favor humans over other life forms as an absolute objective fact. The ability of a very small number of humans to compose a catchy tune or place a rubber ball in a suspended basket with a hole in it does not appear to cause a halo of specialness to descend from the sky and blanket humanity in its Divine embrace. An absolute is something beyond all doubt and question, the final answer to everything. If it can be questioned it cannot be absolute. For every why there is a because, for every because, another why. If one states that humans are superior as a group to other lifeforms according to any defined criteria, whether theistic or atheistic in origin, it can be questioned. For secular humanists it is the absolute certain truth of a supposedly mindless universe that yet can judge some as more important than others through an evolutionary version of the Great Chain of Being. For spiritual humanists it is one or more divinities that do not make their presence known to doubters in direct ways and have encouraged schisms among those that are supposedly chosen.
But the ultimate disobedience to this fantasy is the continuous predation by humans on other humans. War, famine, theft, rape, child abuse, and numerous varieties of discrimination based on race, gender, class, religious belief, appearance, language, age, height, economic status, and this despite all the laws and philosophical lectures about why humans are deserving of special treatment.
This subjectivity means that someone who may discriminate against other humans using criteria that is just as subjective (skin colour, gender, class, religion, survival of the fittest, individual selfishness, etc.) cannot be effectively condemned by a human rights advocate who denies rights to nonhumans, since both are discriminating according to subjective criteria of value they deem to be important. Pragmatic appeals to self-interest and the Golden Rule are also dubious, since a dictator or criminal may exploit and kill and never need to care about the rights of others or face prosecution, and a man living on one side of the globe does not necessarily have a practical reason to care what happens to humans in another far away country. The self-professed egoists who claim they aren’t human supremacists can prove it by conceding that child rape is permissible in their worldview as long as it doesn’t impact them.
The only way for a human supremacist to consistently argue that one ought to have universal human rights and an ethical code based upon this idea is to extend the concept of fairness and justice to nonhumans as much as possible. Because humans develop ethical codes to govern human behavior, and nonhumans do not appear to employ or require such codes in their social interactions, they benefit from the consistency requirement in human concepts of fairness and justice without needing to reciprocate. In addition to the exemptions given to children, the mentally impaired or criminals, to expect nonhumans to adhere to human ethical contracts in order to be eligible for moral regard is like expecting a blind man to be able to read and then punishing him for not doing so. It is common sense unfairness to penalize nonhumans who in many situations would avoid conflicts with humans if the latter would take responsibility for their behavior and not put themselves in situations where they know they are likely to cause problems.
That moral regard may not be possible or practical in all situations due to particular factors (such as scale or absentmindedness or the inability to be perfect), but since the same is true of inter-human relations, it does not invalidate the merits of the argument or provide a loophole for humans to justify systemic exploitation of nonhuman life forms. If one tries to argue that an inability to prevent the accidental killing of microbes justifies factory farming then concentration camps would also be permissible for the same reasons. If it is deemed easier and more convenient to draw the line at species, then drawing it at race or class or family is even easier and more convenient.
Basic morality can be likened to the sun–the words for it may differ in language, but in translation mean the same thing. The principle of showing compassion for others and a concept of justice is universal to many if not all humans living within a society. An Inuit hunter or Japanese dolphin fisherman is just as vulnerable to this charge of unfair and biased discrimination as his suburban counterpart. To suggest that some fully functional humans have the right to subsist as they did 1000 years ago and reject modern concepts of fairness and justice (while using non-traditional technology such as television, textiles and guns), is to advocate a double standard moral system. One can debate practicalities and implementation of moral beliefs, but the common sense logic of it is difficult to refute.
This subjective belief in supremacy and the consequences of human predatory behavior is applicable to any animal rights issue.
In hunting debates when one says that humans are not naturally born hunters like a tiger or wolf, the familiar reply uttered is that the human brain and its tool making ability is the equivalent of fang and claw. Human supremacists overlook that the human brain and tool making ability can also be used for horticulture and killing other humans, activities that natural-born hunters don’t engage in very often. If deer hunting is natural for humans then so is human hunting.
“If you had to choose between saving the life of a drowning man or a rat/dog/pig, which would you save?” The most practical answer is whoever you can save. If it was a choice between two humans, only a supremacist with a preference for race, gender or misc. discrimination would ask such a question. In vivisection framing: “your child v.s. a rat,” it should be no less controversial than if you had a choice between your child and a neighbor’s. If you chose your child, does it mean you want the neighbor’s child to be tortured in a lab? If you refuse to choose, does that mean you do not love your child as much as your neighbor’s?
The charge of hypocrisy leveled against those using products that may be linked to nonhuman exploitation (medicine etc), should also be true for human supremacists who benefit from Pfizer drugs that were tested in Africa or the medical legacy of human slave experimenter and AMA president J Marion Sims, or live on land that may have come through wars of aggression. Human supremacists demand that animal rights activists hold themselves to a different standard of conduct and perfection than they hold themselves, which makes them serve as a more accurate example of hypocrisy than those they accuse of the same.
And the pessimistic send off for many a discussion, “you’ll never see the end of meat eating or animal abuse,” may be returned with the similarly dire observation that as long as humans breed, child abuse and homicide are likely to continue.
People who are aware of the double standards and injustice in human interactions with the rest of the natural world often have difficulty expressing themselves without leaving some means by which an opponent can respond critically. Any argument that ends close to a stalemate is a defeat for the animal rights side since the aim is to change the status quo. To those who are motivated by a sincere and humble interest in justice and not a supremacist belief in stewardship that masquerades as a rights position, it is hoped that they study and make use of this approach, for it removes the limitations, confusion and diversions associated with suffering, sentience and speciesism. While it may not be enough to bring about the closure of slaughterhouses and laboratories, it has been known to cause immense frustration for their most ardent supporters and taint their arrogance with a much-needed dose of uncertainty.