Human is Not the Only Way Worth Being

My greatest motivation to write is that my words might affect a positive change in the world. One of the ways in which we can use our voices for good is to speak for those whose voices go unheard. Ideally, we should provide platforms from which individuals and groups can speak for themselves and receive a hearing, but what of those whose cries of anguish we choose to remain deaf to? The group whose stories of oppression fall on deaf ears more than any other group are the nonhuman animals. The very fact that the typical reaction to that is to scoff and sneer, proves how dismal their place in the world is. I shall I argue that their persecution is by far the most omnipresent and egregious in the history of the world, and that the root of it can be found in what lies behind that sneer of disdain given in response to anyone that takes animals seriously. The world knows that disdain well; from the anti-Semite in WWII Germany to the those dealing in the trade of human beings in the antebellum southern United States. Human and nonhuman alike, their plights went, or go, ignored by the world to a degree.

However, the rate of mortality seen within the nonhuman group by society’s hand dwarfs every other atrocity committed on any other group in any time. According to the international organisation Animal Equality, 56 billion are killed every year within the agricultural industry alone[1] (1,400 times the human death toll of WWII over its six year duration – an astonishing 40 million. It was a war that ended more human lives than any previous war). And that is not including the many marine animals whose deaths are measured in tonnes only; nor the wild animals not necessarily killed for food, many of whom are members of disappearing species, mostly due to habitat destruction; nor the unwanted dogs and cats killed in shelters every year; nor the victims of blood sports; nor laboratory subjects. The list goes on rather longer than that. No nonhuman has been truly granted the privilege of a right to life over even the most trivial human advantage. Dogs, cats, and horses, animals primarily associated with companionship roles, are eaten and have their body parts sold as products around the world. For all the sentimentality and romanticism that you find in the world around our relationship with the other animals, nonhumans are treated hardly better than inanimate commodities by humankind as a whole. At worst, they are considered wholly disposable, non-persons, of no inherent value of their own.

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

The sad fact is that mere numbers and facts do little to change people’s minds. If you are not already an advocate of nonhuman animals, I think I would be betting safe to say that the previous paragraph has not converted you to their cause. No. Facts and heartfelt conviction alone do not have the convincing power that one might think. The bias for our own species, and against other species, goes deep, deep, deep. Their difference goes beyond sex, or orientation, religion, or the colour of human skin. Their appearance, their apparent poverty of everything which we call upon to distinguish ourselves as the superior, their weakness, their dumbness. All of it makes it just too easy for us to disregard their individual existences and take advantage for our own gains. Because, in what era has difference not been taken as a good enough reason to depersonalise the other?

We tend to focus on differences when we think of other groups. This appears to be due to how humans evolved through social cooperation within their group and in competition with other groups [1]. But natural does not entail intelligentmoral, or even “the best option for me in the long term”. For a person of normal levels of empathy who eats meat, it does not make sense to focus on the many similarities between herself and the animal she eats, rather than the differences. When you are enjoying your favourite bacon dish, why ruin it with thoughts of the fear and agony that the individual had to experience so that you could enjoy the taste of her salted flesh? You do not even have to mull over differences. Why not simply ignore those personalising thoughts altogether and not even think of her as a she? For the sake of comparison, extrapolate this to a human-human interaction we may have in our own lives. How often do we dwell on the ways we may have affected the service person we were rude to? How much time do we spend thinking about the conditions of the modern day indentured slave who sewed together our fast fashion item? The short term gratification of our ego isn’t served by taking the time to extend our sympathies to those outside our own perceived group, whether we may be trampling on their rights or not.

But mere membership of a group does not in itself mark the members as objectively more valuable. Only for those who happen to be members of the group are they necessarily (and conveniently) more valuable than those outside the group. This is natural but dangerous thinking, and, thankfully, believing it or acting on it is optional for us humans. We can choose to rise above our base instincts. The mere fact of difference should not in itself disqualify a moral patient (an individual towards which a moral agent has a responsibility) from moral consideration. Nor should similarity in itself qualify a moral patient for moral consideration. A human embryo donated for stem cell research, though 100% human in terms of its DNA, and with a capacity for developing into a healthy, fully functioning human adult, is not generally defended as though it were the final fruition of this potential in the realm of science. Likewise can be said for a person who has suffered irreparable injury to both cerebral hemispheres, leaving him in a vegetative state from which he can never be revived, specifically because their is no longer anyone to revive. In such a body, autonomic and motor reflexes may continue to function, but there is no longer the existence of any consciousness. And are consciousness and the ability to experience pleasure or suffering not the most essential requisites for a moral patient? What can we offend when we act on others other than their consciousnesses? Once consciousness is present, regardless of the body it resides in, morality becomes relevant to the treatment of that animal. Once consciousness is removed, it is not so obvious that there is anything left to offend.

Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash

It is not that all cases of group-defining are extraneous to the question of who is morally relevant, but when we start drawing lines between those characteristics that we happen to identify with and those we do not, within a realm that encompasses other conscious beings, we inevitably run the risk of excluding large hosts of moral patients, whole species, the rest of the world. At the time of writing this, the majority view is an anthropocentric one, which I don’t expect to change entirely in the near-future, but that I do expect to change dramatically in my lifetime.

Something I hope to do with this blog is to argue that there are ways of being in the world other than being human, and that these ways are also full of value, and worthy of our moral consideration and utmost respect. What we need to look for in our fellow beings are the relevant features of what a coherent moral framework can define as moral patients. Convention and the behaviour of the majority should not be the navigational tools by which we tread our moral path in life. These heuristics have failed us so many times before in history. I will ask my readers to open their minds and hearts to the possibility that what we thought were all our moral kin are actually only a tiny percentage of a far greater universe of loving, fearing, dreaming minds who deserve a good life, whatever that may be for them, no less than those whom we now collectively and arbitrarily grant that exclusive privilege. It is very difficult to imagine having a different world view from that which we have now, but few regret an expanded worldview, and probably fewer regret an expanded moral view, so what is there to fear in delving more deeply in search of our own prejudices? If we have adopted a wrong view, we can only have corrective epiphanies by permitting ourselves education and growth. So, when I ask you to have an open mind and an open heart towards nonhumans, I am really asking you to have this dynamic, exploratory, and growth-oriented perspective. I will try to do the same, always.

Sources not linked in the article:

[1] Greene, J., 2013. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Penguin Random House.


Featured image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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