Why are humans more important than animals?

Zac Alstin
June 10, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

In the wake of the untimely and unwelcome death of Harambe the gorilla, there has been much speculation and concern about the broader context of animal rights, and the value of human life versus that of animals.

It seems like a good moment in time for a brief refresher.

Why are humans more important than animals?

I asked my three year old son this question and amidst the jumble of words my wife swears he said "people [indistinct] a good mind".

I also asked my parents' 15 year old beagle.

Both my son and the beagle are very cute. They're both fun to play with, and they're both liable to eat anything that falls on the floor, given half a chance.

But the differences between them are more striking than the similarities.

Lucy the beagle failed to give a satisfactory reply to my question. My son tried. He may not have understood the question, but he knew an answer was expected and he did his best to deliver.

He's a lot like his father in that respect.

And perhaps it's the likeness that makes me value him more. As narcissistic as that sounds, likeness is the basis of much of our moral intuition when it comes to valuing life - human or animal.

I value my own life. It comes naturally, I don't have to think about it or even try. It's as if I'm hard-wired to care about myself.

There are other people I care about as well. People I'm close to, family and friends.

Beyond that, I have a sense of in-principle support for other humans. But where does it come from? I don't know most of you, and yet when I see you on the street, or imagine you angrily hammering out a comment in response to one of my articles, I feel a kind of recognition or respect that isn't based on your accomplishments or my knowing anything about you other than the fact that you are (in all likelihood) human.

The moral intuition that it is wrong to kill, hurt or maim you, or unfairly down-vote your comments, comes from your likeness to me. In your likeness to me, I recognise intuitively that doing bad things to you is the same - in principle - as doing bad things to myself, or having you do bad things to me.

This intuition doesn't rule us, but it is very strong. It can be overcome or overshadowed by other interests, but in our more lucid moments it will return with the haunting dread: "What have I done?"

Some people are, by temperament and habit, less able to feel the recriminations of conscience. Others are so sensitive to it they are conscious of little else and all but apologise for taking up space or stealing oxygen from others who might want it more.

Both extremes are a little unhinged. The golden mean brings us to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or at the very least the silver version: don't do to others what you would not like done to you.

This principle of likeness in both intuition and morality extends to the animal kingdom and beyond. Animals that are more like us in appearance or behaviour seem to have greater moral worth. We cringe at the thought of eating primates, though we admit that in the most severe crises even human flesh may be ethically consumed.

We value the affection and companionship of dogs, because we see in their loyalty and responsiveness a likeness to our own mind.

Some people even keep furry lizard-like creatures as pets (cats I mean), mistaking their coldly manipulative behaviour for emotional warmth and affection despite growing evidence that feline-born brain parasites alter the behaviour of rodent and even human hosts.

The likeness between humans and primates is even greater, and public exposure to them is heavily mediated by depictions of soulful, intelligent behaviour from chimps, orang-utans and gorillas, enough to even put a positive spin on the otherwise vicious stereotype of monkeys hurling faeces at people. It turns out premeditation is a sign of higher-order intelligence!

But despite our likenesses, the outrage over the killing of Harambe the gorilla is not, I think, due to an error or a change in opinion over the moral worth of humans versus animals. Very few people would say with a straight face that we should let the gorilla kill or maim the child rather than hurt the gorilla.

Instead I think it has more in common with the example of the child who tripped and put his fist through a $2 million dollar work of art, and on a lesser scale the child who knocked over the $20,000 Lego sculpture hours after it was put on display.

That is, we recognise that something of value has been unnecessarily damaged or destroyed because insufficient care was taken to protect it in the first place.

The Harambe example is worse because the gorilla can't be rebuilt or repaired. But we have also had reinforced in us for more than two generations the importance, nobility, and intrinsic worth of the natural environment in general and the great apes in particular.

Primates are the new subject of the "noble savage" myth: pristine, principled, and pure where we humans sully and destroy everything we touch.

So consider the tragedy of this majestic creature who symbolises our own better nature, who is like us but innocent. Humans reared him in captivity, raising him in an alien environment where he does not belong. Humans kept him insecurely and inadequately confined. Human negligence allowed a young child into the enclosure. And then human prudence and fear of the consequences saw him killed.

The situation reeks of incompetence. If the animal is dangerous, keep it secure. If it isn't dangerous you don't need to kill it. When your risk-management strategy jumps straight to "shoot the critically endangered gorilla", something is horribly amiss.

A gorilla is potentially as lethal as a lion or a tiger, but we don't take chances with the big cats. Is it okay to leave a revolver lying around if you only put one or two bullets in it?

People are angry, and in their anger may seize hold of answers that feel right even if they don't stack up by light of day.

But amidst all the emotion it's still important to recognise that the value we bestow on other life forms is fundamentally a human trait. People claim it is anthropocentric to withhold "human rights" from animals, but it is equally anthropocentric to confer them.

The value comes from us, or more specifically it comes from me, and by inference I'm forced to conclude that in your subjective world the value comes from you.

No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, though we might sometimes wish that all the clods would be washed away by the sea.

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. But I'm not really involved in monkeys. Their likeness to me is only a thin resemblance. A monkey is not another me .

That doesn't mean I can't treat them with respect or value them on other grounds. But the core moral intuition that informs the value of human life simply doesn't apply.

It may be anthropocentric, but we are anthropos after all.