On Human Supremacy

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Why human supremacy is not a license to exploit

“To argue that we humans are capable of complex multifarious thought and feeling, whereas the sheep’s perception is probably limited by lowly sheepish perceptions, is no more to the point than if I were to slaughter and eat you on the grounds that I am a sophisticated personality able to enjoy Mozart, formal logic and cannibalism, whereas your imaginative world seems confined to True Romances and tinned spaghetti.” ~ Brigid Brophy, English novelist, Essayist

Some years ago, a teacher I worked with in an institution for children and adults with emotional or psychological problems, commented that the decisions she made were far more complex than those that any animal makes, and on this basis she denied the necessity to give nonhuman animals moral consideration.

In human society we allow those we regard as having diminished capacity greater leeway when considering their accountability for their actions; so people who have mental problems or have reduced cognitive capacity we regard as less culpable for the same actions than those who have normal abilities. We make adjustments for them. In addition, we modify our own behaviour in relation to them; they are not potential victims, but we make special allowances in the manner in which we treat them. We even create charities and fundraising initiatives to assist them and develop research and special technologies to help them cope and to reduce the effects of their malady.

Yet when it comes to nonhuman animals, we suddenly reverse this entire moral heuristic.

We now use their apparent diminished cognitive capacity as an argument for our exploitation of them, as if their inferiority justifies it. It’s hopelessly inconsistent to apply one rule in one case of diminished capacity and a different rule because the diminished capacity is expressed in another species. It means the discrimination is not actually based on an ethical principle; it’s based on the fact of their being a different species. We call this discrimination speciesism because if we’re honest, we change all the rules when it comes to crossing the species divide. It’s as if ethics suddenly became irrelevant.

We have seen the supremacy argument before – it was used to justify slavery, colonialism, apartheid and the holocaust. It’s not like it has a glowing pedigree.

There are some additional problems with this attitude, however. We assume our ‘superiority’ by virtue of our dominion over nonhuman animals, although dominion expressed by violent domination is hardly virtuous. We’re equating dominion with superiority. Using that logic, men are superior to women, large nations are superior to small ones, and people with money are superior to those without. Our superiority is selective. There are many ways in which nonhuman animals have superior abilities to humans; indeed, they have capabilities that enable them to sense certain signals from the environment that we know nothing of without special instruments. Some we are only now beginning to understand, like the fact that about 50 species navigate using magnetic fields. The more we understand nonhuman animal ethology, the more we understand that they can do things we’ve had to devise technology to emulate. Their inferiority is only apparent, and based on convenient selective criteria in order to justify exploitation of the animal kingdom.

There is also the matter of the supposed chasm between nonhuman animal mental functioning and our own.

“There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties… The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention and curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.” – Charles Darwin, English scientist

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, signed by prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists, makes it clear that Darwin’s intuition was not misguided:
“The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviours in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behaviour and feeling states in both humans and nonhuman animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviours in nonhuman animals, many of the ensuing behaviours are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states.

Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and nonhuman animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioural or electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus). The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that nonhuman animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

To deny ‘consciousness’ in nonhuman animals is to deny it in ourselves. With regard to the capacity for pain and suffering, they are our equals.

There is also a malevolent aspect to our supremacy. When one understands that nonhuman intelligence is ‘different’ not ‘inferior’ then exploitation and its justification is based on little more than ‘might is right’. We are nothing more than bullies. It also means the notion of moral supremacy must be discarded, since what kind of morality justifies violence against those who are perceived as inferior? When humans adopt this attitude with regard to other humans, we call them ‘psychopaths’. Indeed, were I to victimise other humans on the basis that I consider myself cognitively superior, I would be censured, even ostracised, by other humans; after all, we frown on bullies. Except when we’re doing it to other species. It’s the worst kind of selective morality because we do so because we can, because no force acts against us. We are Dictators, and there is nothing benign about our dictatorship.

We pride ourselves on our cognitive ability. We say it separates us from the animals, and yet we avoid consideration of ethical principles with regard to nonhuman animals because doing so in this case conveniently enables us to satisfy irrational demands that are less about practical needs and more about self-indulgence based on historical and cultural preconceptions. In doing so, we are motivated by visceral triggers, not cognitive consideration; in short, we behave ‘like animals’. There is nothing ‘superior’ about this knee-jerk.

Perhaps a little more introspection, something most humans are not particularly adept at, would be appropriate, given the socio-economic and environmental effects of meat production and of course the significant neglect and cruelty of factory farmed animals as well as the meat industry’s effect on diversity loss in the wild.

Human hegemony is nothing to be proud of. It is most certainly a moral dilemma that requires consideration. To deny this is to abdicate our much-vaunted intelligence. To not engage with the dilemma is moral cowardice.

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