The Moral Worth of Animals: Are Humans Morally Superior?

The other day I went deep sea fishing off the coast of Panama City, FL. Aside from the sea-sickness, it was a great experience. The highlight was seeing an enormous sea turtle playfully surface for air. Most species of Florida sea-turtle are endangered. Seeing one for the first time made me realize more deeply the value of preserving this animal. By the end of the trip, I had caught three Red Snapper. These weren’t majestic like the sea-turtle. Nevertheless, it seemed wrong to toss them in a bucket and let them die slowly after reeling them in. I felt a little guilty.

I don’t think my experience is uncommon since most people believe that animals can be wronged. If something can be wronged, then it has moral worth. So, it’s uncontroversial that non-human animals have moral worth. Furthermore, most think that some animals, like humans, have more moral worth than other species. I’ll call this the orthodox view. According to this view, it’s morally worse, for example, to kill a human than a mouse or a dog.

The orthodox view is so sensible that it hardly seems worth scrutinizing. I beg to differ. While commonly held, the idea that humans have more moral worth than other animals faces a significant explanatory challenge: it’s incredibly difficult to explain why humans are morally superior. On the other hand, the unorthodox view that humans and other animals have equal moral worth has troubles of its own.

Let’s start with the orthodox view. Why would humans have a higher moral status than other animals?

Immanuel Kant believed that people have moral worth in virtue of their autonomy and rationality. Aristotle held a similar view. Perhaps, then, our autonomy and capacity to reason make us have more moral worth than other animals. Unfortunately, this quickly runs into a problem.

There are many humans who aren’t autonomous or rational — infants, young children, the severely mentally disabled, the comatose. If having more moral worth requires being autonomous and rational, then these humans’ moral worthiness is on par with many non-human animals. But most believe this isn’t true. In fact, as Alasdair Norcross has pointed out, it has morally repugnant implications since it entails that the severely mentally disabled warrant the same moral regard as non-human animals with similar levels of cognitive ability. This suggests that humans aren’t morally superior in virtue of their autonomy and rationality.

The general strategy of defending the orthodox view by pointing to an empirical trait that sets humans apart is doomed to failure. As Peter Singer notes, this is because, for any trait you identify, there will be some humans that have it to more-or-less degrees. If we have moral worth in virtue of that trait, then people that possess it to a less-than-average degree are morally inferior. This is an absurd upshot and rings of social Darwinism. So the defender of the orthodox view needs a new strategy.

What else could the orthodox view defender cite to explain why humans have more moral worth than non-humans?

One answer, given by the so-called speciesist, is that humans have more moral worth simply because we belong to the species homo sapiens. This could explain the intuitive appeal of why it’s much worse to wrong an infant than a dog even though the infant has no autonomy and cannot reason.

But speciesism also runs into a problem. We can easily imagine a District 9 scenario in which intelligent extra-terrestrials land on earth. They are not human, but they are human-like in their ability to communicate, behave rationally, experience pain and emotion, and develop friendships with humans. Surely the moral worth of these beings is on par with humans (if you don’t agree, watch the film). If this is true, then speciesism is mistaken. Being a member of a species is morally arbitrary just like being a member of an ethnic group is arbitrary from the standpoint of moral worth.

Since it seems we can’t explain why humans are morally superior then perhaps we aren’t. This forces us to accept species egalitarianism, the view that all species have equal moral worth. Specifically, this means that the interests of non-human animals have equal moral weight as human interests. If this view is correct, it would have tremendous implications for how we should live. For example, it would mean that most who eat meat or hunt are morally blameworthy and deserve condemnation. It would also mean that we should incur significant economic sacrifices for the sake of protecting ecosystems.

Species egalitarianism, however, may not fare much better than the orthodox view. This is because species egalitarianism also has some troublesome implications. Remember, if this view is correct, then humans have equal moral worth as non-human animals. This can lead to some disturbing results. To illustrate, consider this case:

Mr. Whiskers

A building is burning. Zaid only has time to save either Mr. Whiskers (the cat) or Jon (the human). Jon has no friends or family. He’s not a bad guy, it’s just that nobody would miss him if he were gone. If the moral worth of Mr. Whiskers and Jon are equal, then — all other things being equal — it’s an arbitrary choice which one to save.

Zaid, as it turns out, saves Mr. Whiskers.

Now imagine watching this story on the news the next day. I’d bet a “WTF” would cross your mind. Indeed, Zaid saving the cat rather than the human seems morally reprehensible. However, if species egalitarianism is true, then he did nothing wrong since Mr. Whiskers and Jon have equal moral worth. This poses a problem for the species egalitarian who rejects that humans are morally superior to non-human animals.

The upshot is a dilemma.

On the one hand, the Mr. Whiskers case suggests that there’s something about being human that makes humans have more moral worth than other animals. On the other hand, this can’t be autonomy, rationality, or any other empirical trait due to this strategy having repugnant implications. Furthermore, the District 9 case suggests that simply being human can’t explain why humans have more moral worth since species membership is morally arbitrary.

Is there a way out of this dilemma?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter since even if humans are morally superior to other animals, this doesn’t warrant disregarding their interest in living a good life. Nevertheless, the ideal of human superiority lends itself to an anthropocentric ethos to the detriment of all species.

A philosophy professor who works in practical ethics. @ryankhubbard

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store