the-fat-kitchen-an-allegory-1570'The Fat Kitchen: An Allegory', Pieter Aertsen

The Equality of Species and the Duty of Embracing Veganism

This essay aims to provide a philosophical justification of the moral duty that human beings have in starting a vegan diet1. Veganism is usually publicly justified by pointing out the extreme suffering and horrible existence we constrain animals to for the production of different foods2. However, I believe there are considerations attached to the concept of ‘veganism’, which make even clearer the wrong of using other species as human beings’ means. That is, this essay will show some reasons in addition to animals’ suffering for why humans ought to embrace veganism. These accounts will be rooted in the impossibility of establishing human superiority. There are two ways of demonstrating how it is impossible for us to elect our species as superior to animals:  

(1) The first is by individuating the inescapability of species-specific reason, and how each species’ reason is as rich and as complex as the reason of any other species. Thus, establishing the human species as superior because of our own ‘higher’ reason will fail to make sense.

(2) The second way will instead arise from the circular reasoning human beings employ when they consider themselves as superior to other species – and thereby claim on that basis that we have a right to own or to control an animal’s existence. In other words, this latter way will explore how most major justifications human beings may use to hold themselves superior to animals, are logically invalid. This is because, even assuming that human reason is actually superior to that of other species, a reasoning of such a kind will always lead us to beg the question, since claiming human reason’s superiority from a human point of view creates an invalid, circular argument.

These demonstrations may seem similar given the fact that they result in the same conclusion, however, their structure and meaning are different: the first demonstration can be seen as a phenomenological skepticism about our notion of reason, whereas the second is a skeptical charge against the logical form of any argument for human superiority. That is, where the first argument’s claim is just that we cannot experience what another animal’s capacity for reason is like, which means we might not appreciate how it is comparable to our own, the second argument simply highlights the formal fallacy of any reasoning for human superiority, on the basis that we will never be in a position to have that reasoning confirmed.  These two ways of demonstrating the impossibility of claiming the supremacy of our species will then be applied to three accounts that may summarise the possible rational justifications a person may have for not eating a vegan diet, so as to demonstrate how these justifications fail3. The conclusion will be that, given the impossibility of assessing animals’ existences as inferior to ours, then if it is wrong to kill innocent humans, and since humans are equal to animals, then killing animals is as deeply immoral and wrong as killing people.

Why is it impossible for human beings to claim themselves as superior to other species?

I will now present the two arguments for the impossibility of claiming human superiority. It can be fairly stated that most human beings today think themselves as superior to, let’s say, a rabbit, insofar as they believe they possess a strong and powerful capacity, namely reason, which enables them to engage in complex and abstract activities such that they overshadow any other act a rabbit may engage in. That is, human beings (some philosophers included), are deeply convinced that the ability to decide about our life, or the ability to do mathematics, or of writing a poem, are such elaborate and admirable activities that other species’ activities will never be comparable to these. Moreover, human beings typically attribute the source of their admirable cognitive activities to reason, considered of higher quality than that of other species, exactly because it enables us to engage in mentally complex exercises. Then, from this purported justification of the superiority of our reason over that of other species, some infer that we have a right to use other species to satisfy our desires. After all, the argument goes, these animals will never be intelligent enough, or they will never understand completely their loss of life and the experiences we constrain them to, so it is not so bad to enslave them in narrow, enclosed, spaces for the duration of their existence, or to rape them so as to produce milk and cheese, and so on.

However, what must be noticed is that we humans have the capacity to see, comprehend, and reason about the world only and exclusively from our human brain and from our human point of view. That is, we are able to praise and see the great capacities of our reason, only because this is the only type of reason we have ever experienced. Thus, we cannot rule out the possibility of the greatness of a rabbit’s reason because we have not been provided with the rabbit point of view and with its fundamental cognitive and physical structures, which would enable us to appreciate its reason from the rabbit’s perspective. In other words, considering our reason as superior because of the higher activities we are able to engage in, is invalid, because, since we cannot possibly see what the experience of another animal’s reason is like. Thus, we may be overlooking ‘higher’ and admirable activities produced by other kinds of reason that we cannot even conceive.

To further clarify this point, I am going to use an example in which we try to take the point of view of an animal, a cow for instance. This cow is living her life on a farm, and as such, she sees, from her type of reason, the material activities that her human owners carry out. Moreover, we can say she would probably never get to know such ‘higher’ activities as mathematics or philosophy, or the human conception of autonomy for example, for the simple reason that her species’ type of reason is fundamentally different from that of humankind. In the meantime, however, this cow will probably engage in ‘higher activities’ of a cow-type of reason, that humans will never be able to get to know or be able to conceive of, simply because our reason is of another kind than that of the cow.  Thus, after a life spent seeing humans doing largely incomprehensible activities, and after seeing how the human species has never been able to engage in the higher activities typical of her species’ capacity for reason, this cow will probably infer that human reason is definitely inferior to the typical, average–cow’s reason.

Now, we humans know that the cow would be mistaken insofar as human reason is capable of doing admirable things. Nonetheless, the cow might never believe us if we told her so (assuming she would be able to understand our utterances, of course), simply because she has a different criterion of judgement. At this point, we can see that the cow’s reasoning mirrors that of philosophers when they infer from their human point of view, that human reason and autonomy are of the highest type and value on this planet. Indeed, the philosopher R. G. Frey writes that “The absence of agency from a human life is a terrible thing […] yet, this must be the natural condition of rabbits”, thus ascribing to rabbits a lack of agency. This is mistaken, not only in using human criteria as a standard for assessing the value of different animal’s lives, but also in assuming our conception of ‘agency’ is one that all the other species share. But, as I have shown before, for all we know other species may have a ‘higher’ capacity for reason (or agency), or even just different kinds of reason which are not applicable to human standards of evaluation. So, it follows that it is wrong to state that human reason is of higher quality or capacity than that of other species, because whatever concept of superiority a person may rely upon to advance this claim, will always be applicable only to humans. This is because other species are – given the barriers to our understanding about what it is like to employ their reason – potentially different in this respect. This is the first way in which human superiority to other species can be dismissed.

'The Young Bull', Paulus Potter
‘The Young Bull’, Paulus Potter

The second and more general way in which we can see how human beings cannot elect themselves as a superior species on the planet is through the fault in the logic of claims of human superiority. This second criticism is different from the one above because it is based exclusively on the argument’s form, and not on considerations about the nature of human and animal reason (i.e. the content of the argument). That is, the reasoning below tries to justify the impossibility of human superiority exclusively through the rules of logic, and not by employing thoughts about how animals may reason, which was instead the case in the above reasoning. The argument which will be shown as invalid can be described as follows:

(1) There is a single species of animal superior to all others.

(2) Human judgement tells us that humans are superior to all other species of animal.

(3) Therefore, humans are superior to all other species of animal.

However, we can see how (3) does not follow from (1) and (2), since whether one should confer reliability to human judgement regarding superiority was exactly what was in question. This is why this argument form is found across arguments with different bases for claiming humans are superior. Since the legitimacy of human judgment is exactly the thing at stake, each and every justification human beings may present for their superiority will always beg the question because that justification will inevitably come from their still uncertified position. In other words, if we assume for the sake of the argument that we have found a convincing justification of human superiority, then this reasoning will immediately beg the question because that very strong justification will always come from our point of view, the legitimacy of which still needs to be certified by someone whose quality of judgement is not part of the question. This criticism differs from the previous criticism, because before I demonstrated the impossibility of assessing human superiority because of species-specific reason. Whereas here I have demonstrated the invalidity of conferring legitimacy to the judgement that human judgement is superior, when that legitimacy is granted from the perspective of our human judgement itself.

Therefore, the belief in human superiority that an individual might use to justify the consumption of animals and their produce can be dismissed because:

(a) Our capacity for reason is just one of the many species-specific capacities for reason on this planet, and it is impossible for us to experience another species capacity for reason; hence whatever concept of justification of our superiority cannot be applied to other kinds of reason, since comparing human and non-human animal reason would be incoherent. Furthermore;

(b) even if we assume that we could find such a strong justification for human superiority, our human judgement provides no more support for the justification than that of other species, since whatever justification we may come up with, the legitimacy of our judgement itself is in question, before the actual content of our justification can even be considered.

Only an out-of-species judgement could solve this reasoning without begging the question. Hence, not being vegan because we believe animals are not as important or respectable as human beings are, is invalid since there is no possible way to claim human superiority without committing a logical error.

Now that the impossibility of ascribing human superiority over other animals has been demonstrated, it is clear that purported justifications for the killing, lifelong slavery, torture and various sexual assaults of other species by humankind are without foundation4. For example, these acts might be attempted to be morally justified by humanity’s right to use other species. However, these rights can be justified by human superiority only, which is, as shown before, unjustifiable. Thus, if we assume human beings have to be considered as equal and not as superior to other species, then animal agriculture has to be seen as immoral. That is, given the impossibility of claiming human superiority, it follows that every species has to be treated equally by humans and that animals have the exact same amount of dignity and worthiness of respect than any human being has. Therefore, since being omnivorous implies killing, enslaving and using innocent animals, and since there is no possible way to be omnivorous without at least depriving an animal of some of its freedom, then being vegan is the only road possible for acting morally5.

I will now examine three further justifications a person may present for not being vegan, and I will explain how the account of equality of species just explained makes those justifications morally wrong.

'Butcher's Stall with the Flight of Egypt', Pieter Aertsen
‘Butcher’s Stall with the Flight of Egypt’, Pieter Aertsen

First Justification – Pleasure of Consumption

One reason why some people are reluctant about entering a vegan diet is the pleasures they get from following an omnivorous diet. However, I will now argue that pleasure cannot morally justify infringing the rights implied by animal equality with humans. In order to clarify why pleasure is not an excuse when it comes to eating animals and animals products, it has to be reminded that, animals have to be respected in the same way as we respect humans (if not more since animals’ harms to humans are strongly outnumbered by the number of harms to animals from humans), since it cannot be possibly demonstrated why our species should consider itself as having more moral worth than other species. Hence, it follows that confining, raping, using, exploiting and controlling animals are deeply immoral practices, which are certainly not justifiable with the excuse of the pleasure our species get from eating the flesh and produce of these defenceless beings. That is, human pleasure cannot justify animal suffering because the pleasures of eating an omnivorous diet cannot be satisfied without infringing animals’ rights to be treated equally, which are as important as human rights given this equality.  Indeed, pleasure cannot morally be used as a reason for the perpetration of painful and horrible activities upon animals, since we would never accept that sort of treatment in the human community as morally justifiable. Again, if one has any doubts regarding this point, it must be pointed out that practices for producing meat and animal products for consumption are profoundly invasive and painful for the animals in question6.   

Second Justification – Custom

The foregoing apply as well to discharging the idea that human beings should keep eating animals because they are accustomed to it. Given the impossibility of establishing human superiority, our human custom’s do not stand up as a justification for acts such as enslaving, killing and torturing innocent cows, rabbits, hens, pigs and so on. Moreover, where the habit’s that come with custom can be enemies to human accomplishment, their wrong consists often, primarily, in the harms they inflict to oneself. Consider the habit of smoking, or of procrastinating, or of drinking alcohol heavily, for example. The habit of inflicting harm to animals through consuming them and their produce, however, is a greater wrong since it has, always, major immoral consequences for other beings too.

Third Justification – Nutrition

A third reason a person may present to justify eating animals is the belief that human beings genuinely need to consume animals and their produce in order to be healthy and to avoid lacking certain nutrients. This concern is, however, no longer justifiable. Firstly, scientific research has strongly undermined claims supporting such fears7. Secondly, not only by starting a vegan diet will a person not lack anything, nutritionally speaking, but it has been demonstrated that by eating vegan, health conditions are heavily improved, while risks of heart and blood disease are dramatically reduced8. Indeed, many professional athletes and bodybuilders such as Timothy Shieff, Robert Cheeke and the multi-awarded marathon runner Fiona Oakes, have changed to a vegan diet, precisely because of the major improvements in their health that a plant-based diet brings9. These considerations sufficiently undermine the belief in the need for human beings to eat animals and animal products, allowing us to dismiss a further reason a person may hold for maintaining animal agriculture. For once it is known that a plant-based diet is healthier for human beings than an omnivorous diet is, then believing that we need to consume animals and animal products is unfounded.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, lacking justification for not being vegan, at the same time as not embracing the diet, should be considered a deeply immoral decision. This is because (1) animals and humans are equally worthy of respect, (2) humans do not need to be omnivorous, and (3) pleasure and custom will only violate this equality by continuing to bring about the painful consequences for animals of human’s maintaining an omnivorous diet. Thus, I believe that if one comprehends the overriding importance of the equality of species, then they will understand the duty of embracing veganism.

Arianna Bosio is a BA Philosophy student at the University of Essex. Her principal philosophical interests are phenomenology, ethics, philosophy and psychoanalysis, and political philosophy. If you are interested in the topics raised, she recommends Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation“, Tom Regan’s “The Case for Animal Rights“, Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s “The Ethics of What we Eat“, and Peter Singer’s “All Animals are Equal“.

How about you, do you think humans have a duty to embrace a vegan diet?

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