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Animal Rights Commentary

Thursday, February 15, 1996: Human Superiority

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to address students at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia. The occasion was a debate between me and a professor from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, Adrian Morrison. Morrison has used cats in rather grisly experiments and, over the years, he has been the object of numerous protests by animal rights advocates. I was arguing against experiments using animals; Morrison was obviously defending their use.

The debate began with a question from the moderator: can we justify the use of animals in experiments. Morrison responded that such use was surely justified in light of the benefits that animal use had produced for human health.

Now, we have to be careful about assessing the benefits of animal research. An increasing number of health care professionals have expressed considerable skepticism about the scientific validity of animal experiments. But even if we do get benefits from animal experiments, benefit alone cannot justify morally the exploitation of animals. If getting benefits from exploiting animals was alone sufficient to justify their exploitation, then why does that argument work when humans are concerned? After all, no one would dispute that we would get even greater benefits if we used unconsenting humans in experiments. So why not use unconsenting humans if there would be great benefits for all the rest of us? The answer is, of course, simple: we do not use unconsenting humans because, as a society, we believe that humans have certain interests that must be protected. Humans have certain rights. And their most fundamental right is not to be treated as property, or as means to the ends of owners. That is why almost all nations agree that slavery, or the legally-sanctioned and legally-mandated treatment of humans as things, is a true universal moral taboo to be condemned.

But can the slavery of animals be justified? We are not talking about how to resolve issues such as whether it is morally right to kill an animal who is attacking us, or whether animals have some "right to life" in the abstract. We are, instead, asking a more simple question: is there ANY moral justification for our slaughter of over 8 billion animals in this country alone every year for food? is there ANY moral justification for using over 100 million animals annually in this country alone for experiments, most of which have little direct impact on human health anyway? is there ANY moral justification for using millions of animals for entertainment, as in rodeos, circuses, zoos, and movies.

Morrison's answer: that animal exploitation can be justified by benefit for humans is illogical because it assumes the very point at issue: whether animals, like humans, have a fundamental right not to be enslaved for the benefit of their human masters.

If we are to justify this exploitation, it is necessary that we somehow distinguish animals from humans, and that is much easier said than done. After all, precisely what characteristic or "defect" is it that animals have that justifies our treatment of them as our slaves, as our things, as property that exists only for the sake of us, the human masters.

Some people say that animals are different because they cannot think. But that is simply not true. We know that mammals and birds, for example, have very complex mental faculties. And besides, there are human beings who cannot think. Some people were born without parts of their brain, and they have less cognitive functioning than a healthy rat. Some other people, such as Senator Phil Gramm, develop brain death later in life, and simply appear to be functioning. Some people say that animals are different because they cannot talk. But animals communicate in their own ways, and besides, some people are unable to talk.

The list goes on and on but the bottom line remains the same: there is no "defect" that is possessed by animals that is not possessed by some group of humans, and yet we would never think of using that group of humans in experiments, or of eating those people.

Animals, like humans, have certain interests in their own lives that transcend what their so called "sacrifice" might do for us. And it is precisely those interests that preclude us as a matter of simple morality from treating them merely as "things."

Back to the debate at the medical school: at this point, Dr. Morrison offered a criterion that he triumphantly proclaimed did separate humans from animals: humans were "superior."

Now this is a curious response for a scientist to make. After all, where in the natural world does one find "superiority." Sorry, Dr. Morrison, "superiority" of species is, like superiority of race or sex, a social construction, and not a scientific one. It is a concept that is formulated and used to sustain hierarchical power relationships. Superiority is not an argument for anything; it is a conclusion that assumes the very point it starts out to prove. It begs the question, as it were.

Morrison pointed out the dogs do not write symphonies and humans do. I replied that I had never written a symphony and, as far as I knew, neither had Morrison. Did that mean that it was ok for people to eat us, or use us in experiments?

And besides, his example proved my point: writing symphonies is only a "superior" act if you happen to be a human that values that activity. Some dogs can jump six feet in the air from a sitting position. Now that's what I call "superiority." But "superiority," like many of the buzz words of modern life, such as "merit" and "beauty" are a matter of value, not of fact.

To say that we can exploit animals because we are "superior" is nothing more than to say that we are more powerful than they. And nothing more. And, with the exception of the Republican party, most of us reject the view that might makes right. So why, do tell, is that principle so blindly embraced when it comes to our treatment of animals.

The reality is that we progressives like to think that we have eschewed all vestiges of slavery from our lives, but the reality is that we are all slave owners, the plantation is the earth, sown with the seeds of greed, and the slaves are our nonhuman sisters and brothers.

By the way, Morrison offered one other reason for human superiority. He cited the size of the human brain. But most of the audience had already accepted the view that the size of human organs really does not mean a whole lot anyway.

This is Gary Francione for Animal Rights Commentary. Rutgers University School of Law/Animal Rights Law Project

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