In Defense of Human (Homo Sapiens) Moral Superiority

Dustin Weber

Homo sapiens -- or humans -- it appears with the ever-growing accumulation of evidence are nothing more than a profoundly evolved species (this assumption will be made for the remainder of the essay as it seems to have the strongest empirical backing). Peering through a historical lens provides us with the knowledge that we, compared with a great number of other evolved species, have inhabited and dominated the planet for only a fraction of the time. As the most evolved species and only one capable of grasping the concept of morality through rational and analytical thought, it is our duty to consider what ought to be done throughout every facet of life. Precisely, it is our capabilities to engage in this level of thought that separates humans from other species. Speciesism – a term popularized and expounded by Peter Singer – “is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species” (Singer, 1990). Singer argues for according humans and nonhuman animals “equal consideration” as any form of discrimination is plainly unethical (Singer, 1990).

One of the first arguments Singer puts forth is the evident similarities speciesism has with other prior accepted forms of discrimination like racism or sexism He draws on Jeremy Bentham’s position of a being’s ability to suffer pain or feel enjoyment when determining whether that being should be afforded equal moral status. Singer then goes on to show that a stone deserves no moral consideration because it cannot suffer or feel happiness. Yet, he continues further by claiming, “pain is a state of consciousness, ‘a mental event,’ and as such can never be observed” (Singer, 1990).

Singer’s introductory arguments prove problematic. He wants to claim that through the principle of equal consideration animals should be given the same moral considerations as humans, but he mistakenly uses pain, suffering, and enjoyment as his benchmarks for those considerations. Singer admits that pain cannot be quantified, whether on an intra-species or inter-species basis. By making this statement, his example of a stone deserving no moral consideration would have to fall through the logical cracks. Since the pain of others is difficult to detect, is it not possible that a stone can feel pain? Wouldn’t it be feasible that we could do something to the stone to jeopardize its welfare like throwing it into an unnatural ecological habitat even though it exhibits no signs of having pain, pleasure, or any interests at all? Prima facie, this may appear ludicrous, but it seems at least as plausible as Singer’s example of our best friend potentially being a robot controlled by some master designer intended to exhibit human characteristics like pain and suffering (Singer, 1990).

Next, Singer equates speciesism to racism and sexism. As Cohen so eloquently says about Singer’s position, “This argument is worse than unsound; it is atrocious. It draws on an offensive moral conclusion . . . racism has no rational ground whatsoever . . . the same is true of the sexes” (Cohen, 1986). While this argument has no philosophical merit, the sentiment is understandable. While there are actual differences among the races and sexes such as phenotypes, genotypes, and reproductive systems, Cohen aptly points out, “there are no morally relevant differences” (Cohen, 1986). Women and those not of Caucasian descent are actually capable of engaging in the type of moral reasoning and rational and analytical thought that only humans possess. The mere fact that humans are considering the idea of “speciesism” as being morally ambiguous should serve as a sign of our unbelievable potential and evolutionary progress. It is currently, and likely for the foreseeable future, impossible to teach any other animal this concept alone with all of its complexities and intricacies – a very pointed and morally relevant difference between humans and other animals.

While Singer might point out that mental acuity alone cannot justify inequity in moral consideration, the claim could be made that it is justified using Singer’s own line of thought. Singer admits that gauging pain and suffering, especially among different species, is very difficult. Singer suggests that any level of precision is unnecessary in this respect and is satisfied with the strong likelihood that animals do suffer and thus deserve moral consideration (Singer, 1990).

Instead, let us admit that though pain and suffering are relevant moral factors, for the sake of argument, let us make their weight very minimal since Singer freely admits there is a great deal of difficulty empirically measuring this for any being. What is left to consider morally without pain and suffering especially for nonhuman animals? Humans are still left with the endowment of thought: creative, critical, mathematical, rational, and analytical, among others. Yet, animals now are mere beasts. They may possibly retain short-term hopes and desires, but without pain and suffering enjoyment becomes trivial and barely recognizable. Cohen’s argument that animals deserve equal moral consideration crumble because they rest on a non-quantifiable ideal that is intended to tug at another thing that separates humans from nonhuman animals: deep and profound emotions. To deconstruct the very complex question of ethics and morality as it pertains to humans and animals to the staggeringly simple and straightforward question of, “can they suffer?” debases not only the problem itself, but also the composite fabrics of the human mind aiming to solve it.

Next, Singer trots out the popular example of comparing a mentally or physically retarded person or one who has lost mental capacity to that of a developed animal with a “higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others” (Singer,1990). This example is as absurd as it is impractical. Let us assume Singer’s wife, children, or any other close family member had lost his or her mental faculties and Singer also had a highly developed ape as a pet freely roaming in his backyard. Someone with an uncontrollable bloodlust invades his home and gives him an option of saving the impaired family member or the ape he can perform sign language with. Singer, of course, will allow the ape to be executed.

Singer might counter with his “middle position” claiming that nonhuman animals simply need to be allocated moral concern and not considered so disposable (Singer, 1990). Yet, some degree of pragmatism is necessary here. According moral consideration is a corollary to inevitably being forced to make ethical choices, however hypothetical they may be. Additionally, affording equal moral consideration means giving parity in weight to the value of his family member’s life and that of his pet ape’s. Yet, it still would be implausible for even the most ardent defender of animal rights to choose the ape over the family member (or any other human). Speciesism then appears to be innate, a natural programming that is a result of evolution and the need to survive. Yet, Singer might ask the question: just because it appears innate, does that make it right? Of course not! That is another one of the reasons human must be accorded greater moral consideration than nonhuman animals. We have the inimitable ability to control our every action and physiological response through the marvel that is our highly developed and large brain. This may appear to lack credibility, but it is documented that Tibetan monks are capable of controlling every physiological component of their body through sheer mind control. By virtue of the human ability to regulate ourselves in this manner, it is only natural that humans be afforded greater moral consideration. We would, and could, never expect any other being to attain this level of thought or self-control.

Also, a mentally or physically retarded individual, especially those at young ages have been dealt the hand of genetic misfortune or mistake. What needs to be respected and valued to a higher degree than nonhuman animals is the autonomy, both the full autonomy of those surrounding that person who care for them and the autonomy that human would have normally had (Warren, 1983). Even the most highly developed chimpanzee cannot reason with the average human possessing a 95-105 Intelligence Quotient score and certainly not with the most highly developed humans.

Another thing to reconsider is that humans are emotion-centered, meaning that their ability to feel in the short-term and long-term, to vividly recall, reflect, and anticipate will always have a profound impact on their action. Even if a family member or friend is unwilling to care for the mentally deficient individual, we have, as a society, constructed social service centers where these individuals can be looked after. Animals do not demonstrate this type of nurturing and caring behavior for the mentally and physically incompetent or retarded in their societies. Darwin’s theory of the “survival of the fittest” remains true in the nonhuman animal kingdom, but not so in human communities. Thus, even the mentally retarded individual is elevated morally above even the most highly developed nonhuman animals because of the nurturing and civilized extension of the emotion-centered human.

Singer would likely counter those arguments with the same basic question he has previously procured: Why does that matter? Also, why does that elevate humans above nonhuman animals? Singer would likely claim that argument to be attempting to draw another “insuperable line,” where only pain, suffering and potential for enjoyment should be considered (Singer, 1990). Also, Singer suggests that any line we draw outside of pain is arbitrary and that any criterion is merely “following the boundary of our own species” (Singer, 1990). Yet, pain and enjoyment are the most arbitrary lines one can draw. They have no empirical relevance and are, according to Singer’s admission, not quantifiable. So, even using arbitrariness to show the lacking justification for ethical and moral disparity, Singer still fails. The complexities of human emotions and thought are measurable and have been proven to exist even if uncertainty to the degree to which one measures remains in question. Thus, accounting for all other superior human faculties emotionally, intellectually, mentally, and psychologically it seems the only plausible thing to do is elevate humans to a higher level of moral consideration, but still acknowledge the duty we have to other beings to promote their general welfare to the greatest possible extent.

Finally, one of Singer’s strongest positions – that of the need to eliminate experiments on animals, especially those of which are purely for aesthetic purposes – was not treated adequately (Singer, 1990). The need to dismantle and reconstruct Singer’s methodology has to be foremost in our minds before we can cross into the realm of practicality. Singer is correct when saying experimenters would never consider carrying out those same experiments on humans and infants as they do on animals He also seems right when he claims contemporary experiments seem to be exclusively for the sake of knowledge, lack practicality, and he remains ethically sound when discrediting the existence of a “right to pursue knowledge” (Singer, 1990). Yet, the need for a reformulation of Singer’s argument seems evident. It is far too rigid insofar as theoretically it negates any morally relevant difference between humans and nonhuman animals. It seems though, that whether we draw arbitrary inferences or rely on empirical findings, that there exist morally relevant differences and pertinent characteristics, which separate humans from nonhuman animals.

Drawing a stringent and noticeably arbitrary line while trying to show the need for parity among humans and animals is both theoretically and pragmatically impossible since it fails on its face to address any and all exigencies that arise when discussing the intricacies that underlie human thought, behavior, and action. A more modified framework must be structured because as Mary Anne Warren astutely recognizes, “those who believe animals have a right to life are forced to regard all predators as ‘merciless, wanton, and incorrigible murderers of their fellow creatures . . . ’ natural predation is essential to the stability of biological communities”

(Warren, 1983).

Works Cited

  • Cohen, Carl. “The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research” in The New England Journal of Medicine 315: 65-870, 1986.
  • Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals. New York: New York Review Books, 1990.
  • Warren, Mary Anne. “Are Values in Nature Subjective or Objective?” in Environmental Philosophy: A Collection of Readings (Elliot and Gare, eds.). New York: University of Queensland Press, 1983.