Full disclosure: I began writing this blog well over a year ago and have sat on it all this time. Why? A couple of reasons: First, it is a very sensitive and controversial issue for many, in particular for some that I love and cherish dearly, while having no desire to offend these loved one as I deeply respect their values. Secondly, my thoughts on this issue have been in such a constant state of flux and change over the past year that I wanted to have some level of cognitive consonance on the issue before I posit any opinion -even if it is only a tentative position in my evolving thought process.
I also decided that this blog post needed desperately to be divided into two separate entries as I have so many thoughts on this issue.
In summary, I have, in recent years, reopened my personal inquiry into the nature of the human-animal relationship. I was brought up with the belief that animals were, well, just lowly animals, and humans were a superior breed of species. We always had pets as I was growing up, treated them well, yet, to be sure, our dogs or cats never deserved the types of amenities reserved for humans -and I was fairly “dog”matic on these ideas (sorry).
Yet how we were brought up, while most certainly having an effect on our initial orientation towards any given matter, should have absolutely no bearing on making rational, autonomous decisions as an adult. Overcoming “the way I was raised” argument may be difficult yet certainly attainable.
Consider that many people may have been brought up terribly wrong, perhaps myself included. Blindly following customs simply because they were your customs can be “cat”astrophic (ugh, I can’t help myself). I would now like to offer my thoughts as a free thinking adult.
So allow me to first address the idea of human and animal equality; a sense of equality that a growing amount of people are starting to adopt. Of course this is not a new idea. Many years ago Leonardo Da Vinci is quoted to have said, “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.”
If that is not argument for human and animal equality I can think of no other.
To begin, please allow me to tell you what I am NOT saying: If one makes the claim that humans are in some ways superior to other species, it does NOT infer a reckless abandonment of a code of morality toward all other species. In fact, as I will argue in part II of this series, it implies an even greater sense of responsibility and benevolence towards outgroup species. I encourage you to read to the end of this blog to gain a clear sense of my position.
With this understanding, let’s begin.
Self-Preservation, The Animal Kingdom and Survival of The Fittest
At some very rudimentary level, I believe in the human as the more advanced species as evidenced by our reaching the top of the food chain. I believe in this human “superiority” for reasons to be explained in this blog: First, the instinctual act of species self-preservation; second, the realities of the animal kingdom; and, finally, the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest and our accompanying moral conscience.
First, the bottom line is if I or a loved one were starving to death, I would have no qualms about killing an animal in order to survive, as I am quite certain said animal would eat my ass if it were dying as well. I am also quite certain most of us would pull a person out of a burning building over the building rats or cockroaches. There is something intuitive about preserving one’s own species -seemingly much more pronounced in the human species- at the expense of others. This is a necessary component in the propagation of a species. If a species is naturally inclined to protect its own, this would infer inequality as each species judges it as more valuable than the others.
I am reluctant to use the word “superior” to describe the human orientation towards animals as this is far too general a term and it is not meant in the universal sense. Many animals have superior skill sets to humans –many run faster, have superior audio/visual skills, can fly all on their own, perhaps even possess far more advanced interspecies communication systems; yet, when it comes to possessing the overall skill set to sit atop the food chain and essentially control the animal kingdom, humans are clearly the unanimous winner through following this self-preservation instinct.
Second, in contemporary society, it would seem many of us have been sequestered and sheltered from the harsh realities of the animal kingdom. Death for the purpose of nourishment is as basic to the narrative of both animal/human existence as breathing –and one species eating another certainly infers a harsh lack of equality as the eaten creature is inferior to the eating creature -in terms of its survival capabilities. The animal kingdom, of which we are very much a part of, is absolutely no theater of morality when it comes to issues of killing and death. Perhaps perceptions that have contributed to the notion of equality have been greatly influenced by the Disney-induced anthropomorphic deification of animals -but I digress.
Take for example in a grassland ecosystem, a grasshopper might eat grass, a producer. The grasshopper might get eaten by a rat, which in turn is consumed by a snake. Finally, a hawk—an apex predator—swoops down and snatches up the snake. We then can either kill the hawk and eat it, or, as the lead proprietors of the animal kingdom, go to great lengths and protect it, which we failed to do for the grasshopper, rat and poor snake -thus pointing to the routinely accepted act of imposing hierarchies of importance toward certain animal species…which goes largely unnoticed and is an accepted practice for many (hence the irony of dog on your dinner plate); yet perhaps this horrid inconsistency is a different blog for a different day. I do believe it does point to a hierarchy in nature that cannot be dismissed: Nature operates most efficiently with a chain of command as the idea of equality in the animal kingdom simply does not exist.
Thirdly, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, it is still very much a dog eat dog world at its core. The animal kingdom already imposes this aforementioned hierarchy of superiority -we are simply following suit. Many animal species even eat their own young pointing to the common practice of death as nourishment in the evolutionary sweepstakes.
Now I have heard it argued that just because a species can or cannot do something, this in no way implies superiority nor gives a species the right to impose its will on another species. Then why can the rat, snake and hawk impose its will -yet the human cannot? What gives us the right to think we are above these other species and that we have to abide by an altogether different moral code? Ironically, such a position proves the moral superiority of the human being as we quite “humancentrically” project our values onto other species, assuming because they are superior values.
If we claim humans do possess a moral conscience most other species do not possess, there most certainly is no equality. If you are claiming we do not, then it is clearly natural and fine to eat other species.
I contend that in the evolutionary stakes, human beings are the clear winner and have managed to rest atop the food chain rung. In the Darwinian sense, humankind is “superior” (again, I use the term loosely) because it managed to prove being the fittest in the game of survival. I believe if any other species managed to pull this off -be it cows, gorillas, fish, whales, alligators or lions, they would have gladly assumed the top position and I might be an appetizer on some animals prepared dish. Yet, as an Irish-Hungarian, and with any luck, I might be found on some weird European protected species list.
That said, our evolution in contemporary western society has negated the need to enslave animals and use them as our only form of sustenance. One can survive and thrive on a plant-based diet in 2017. Therefore to use the argument that humankind needs to eat animals in order to survive is just not true. Might that change? Of course it could…yet, for now, it is not necessary. Yet, keep in mind the aforementioned rat, snake and hawk, like most animals, have no such conscience. Such consciousness and a distinct moral compass, which at least questions and examines ethics even if they are not universally agreed upon, are other critical factors in separating humans from other species.
Next up: My thoughts on “Speciesism,” factory farming, and my slow transition toward vegan principles.
And I hope my loved ones still love me 🙂