Animal Rights vs. Human Rights – A Brief Debate – Part 2


Here is Part 2, as promised. (Part 1 here) Friend posted this a couple weeks later, and then I commented on it. Let me know if my arguments make any sense!


Let me start by assuring you that I never come to conclusions on an issue–never toe a moral line–without an almost excessive amount of deliberation, and even then, my mind is never fully made up. That is why I love discourse like this between two people who can civilly debate in the hope that both will come out better than they started.

It is for this reason that I’ve decided against my original idea of posting a contiguous essay (the first draft of which clocked in–unfinished–at over 11 pages), because I do not simply want to be seen as trying to bury the issue in words. I’d much rather argue fairly brief, focused points that I hope will garner response, which, in turn, can be responded to.

I also have to say that, though we disagree, I have incredible respect for your position. It really is nothing short of courageous to be empathetic beyond the realm of your species. I consider myself an extremely open-minded person and have always found it easy to empathize with those of other genders, races, cultures and religions, but the extra-species gap is one I haven’t bridged.

I do want to state that my perspective of our species is not grounded in any sort of us-and-them morality. I very much understand your closing point–that we as humans are animals. But at the same time, we both know that we as humans are far removed from anything else in the animal kingdom. Which is how I’d like to begin.

I. The Division

“Animals are people too!”
–PETA bumper sticker (that spins Wittgenstein in his grave)

All rational people can agree that humans are animals. But does it suffice to say that all that it is to be human is defined by that fact?

I believe we are agreed that it does not. In fact it seems that the crux of the most ambitious argument put forth by those who believe that humans and animals should be equal, actually depends on our differences.

To understand it’s implications, it is important to examine the definition of “equality” in this context, which seems to be: “humans should treat animals the way that humans treat humans, and furthermore, this is necessary because we as humans are ourselves animals,” or, “equal treatment for equal beings.”

To try to reduce this to a simple, logical statement yields something like: “because humans are animals we should treat animals as humans.”

Phrasing it this way perhaps does not make it sound less noble, but it does illustrate the main problem hidden in the simple and optimistic perspective that animals should be regarded as equal to humans: it is inherently illogical.

Now, one could argue that simply because the statement is illogical does not mean it dose not propose a good idea. Conversely, if we only concern ourselves with only making a logical statement, we could conclude: “because humans are animals we should treat humans as animals,” yet one would be hard pressed to say this is a good proposal.

Why is this?

Of course, the reason is because humans have invented a system of ethics that roughly outlines the expected way that humans should treat other humans. This is one of the innumerable assets of humans’ highly evolved cognitive abilities that sets us apart from the rest of the life on earth. To fully illustrate the degree of this separation, of course, would involve discussion of the whole of our culture, civilization, art, language, literacy, invention, and many, many other areas that fall under the far insufficient label of “reason.”

Animals do not reason, and therefore do not have a system of ethics. I do not make this obvious statement as evidence that they should not have rights, but because of the consequences: animals, ungoverned by conscience, are speciesist. Because animals are hardwired by natural design to preserve their own species, those that are carnivorous or omnivorous, in the majority of cases, do not subsist on members of their own species. They mate within their species to propagate it, and eat outside of it (we can surmise) to preserve it. Completely without a highly-cognitive ethics system, lions treat lions the way ethical humans treat humans. Lions do not, under normal circumstances, kill other lions for food, but instead go a step down in the food chain. So really, our fancy ethics are innately serve the same purpose as much simpler instincts that are exemplified all throughout nature.

To argue this simple truth, I expect, would be frustrating to a supporter of equal-rights for animals. After all, lions could not be expected to consider the ethical ramifications involved in killing similar but unrelated species for food, but it could be argued that humans can and should recognize them. To restate this in a more specific way, it could be said that because human beings are highly evolved and have developed an ethics system to preserve our own species, it is our obligation to defy our innate speciesist tendencies and extend our ethics system to include other species. Whether they should or shouldn’t will be debated later, but we’ve arrived at the point I wanted to make: the argument that animals should be treated as equals to humans depends on acknowledging the extreme extent to which this is demonstrably not the case, and is, therefore, self-defeating.

And so, I reject the idea that because humans are animals, it is necessary to treat animals as humans and instead posit: “because humans are animals, humans should treat animals the way animals treat animals: with more regard for the lives of the members of their own species than the lives of other species.”

Now, it may be counter-argued that this rationale declares “reason” to be the defining characteristic of what/whom can be considered a human being, and therefore humans who cannot reason cannot be defined as human. However that is not the case.

Because we, the other members of the species can reason, we can identify a member of our species even if that member cannot identify himself in that way.

Whether this is done empirically (that being was born of two human parents, and is therefore human) or by scientifically interpreting biological data (his DNA is consistent with the characteristics of human DNA) is irrelevant, reasonable members of the species would identify the non-reasoning member as their own.

So really, the claim that animals deserve to be respected as humans, if based on the fact that we are all animals would have to be phrased: “humans are dissimilar with all other animals, and therefore should treat other species in a dissimilar way than other animals treat other animals” (in other words, “don’t act like animals”). However, that just moves the debate to a new point, should the dissimilarity in treatment be that we treat animals like our own species, or to use them to benefit our species in a unique ways?


Well, I don’t have a very detailed counterargument, but I wanted to make sure to respond, since you have put so much thought into this.

First I would like to thank you for respecting my position, and I certainly respect yours since you have so deeply thought about this. I really appreciate that, since so many people won’t even take ten seconds out of their day to think about any issue. You really put forth an interesting argument. I sooo appreciate your use of logic into coming to your opinion instead of just basing it on some blind acceptance of religious principles or adherence to cultural norms like so many people do. Thank you for putting thought into the issue, and I hope you will continue to.

Let’s set aside the whole issue of legal animal rights for all animals everywhere.

The issue to me, moreso, is that we are routinely treating animals in horrific ways. I would like to extend your comparison of the actions of humans and animals. Taking the speciesist lion as an example again, predatory species kill animals only of other species, yes, but they instinctually do so in ways that quickly kill the animal. The way we kill our animals is actually much LESS humane than the way predatory animals do, and much worse, we imprison billions of animals for their whole lives, unlike the predator-prey relationship in the wild where the animals are free to roam for their entire lives. So in that light, humans could be considered as LESS than animal. I know that an animal is not making a moral decision about the way it kills and doesn’t imprision/torture its prey; it’s just its instinct, but I think this is still an interesting comparison.

Reason can be used for great good or great bad, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t use our ethical senses to continue to expand our compassion for any being who can feel and suffer instead of just using it to justify brutal actions. If nothing else, we should at least give protections to those animals that we have domesticated over the ages. These animals often cannot act in a speciesist way because they’ve been assimilated into the human world. We AT LEAST owe some kind of protections to them, since WE made the decision to remove any speciesist leanings these animals have, such as the tendencies to more aggressively defend themselves against us. To tie in what I stated in my other note, we have essentially created innocent, harmless beings who can feel and love just like very young human children and babies, but we give little or no legal protection to these beings. I apologize for using some subjective terms here, but I care less about the logic and more about just trying to inspire compassion in humans for animals. I feel that if reason and logic is one step above our less evolved origins than growing our compassion and following our highest conscience is the next step of evolution for the human race.

I must also point out that what you state about members of a species regarding the lives of their own as more important than those of other species cannot be a hard and fast rule. As a quick example, a family dog will fight off another dog who might be about to attack a member of its human family. In this case, the dog holds the human life higher than one of its own species.
So if this flimsy rule is one’s sole justification for the continued participation in the exploitation of animals in numerous excruciatingly painful ways, maybe it would be time to find a more solid one?

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9 Responses to “Animal Rights vs. Human Rights – A Brief Debate – Part 2”

  • Leafy Says:

    As usual, you make a lot of sense! You make excellent points, about how we are more brutal than other so-called speciesist animals, and that we do it intentionally. I loved your point about the dogs defending humans, and I imagine there are many other examples, such as when a member of one species adopts an infant from another species as one of their own. I am sure they would defend their adopted child against a member of their own species.

    I am always amazed when people don’t consider the issue of suffering relevant at all.

    lily Reply:

    There are also the examples of animals that eat other members of their own species (instead of treating their own species differently), that force sex on other members of their own species (instead of treating all members of their own species the same), etc.

    If animal rights get established via abolishing speciesism instead of via animal-welfare protections, then what about when a female elephant seal tries to go onshore to give birth but gets killed by a male elephant seal pushing her down in the water to fuck and not pulling out and letting go until after she’s dead (Paul Nicklen describes witnessing this in Polar Obsession)? In a world where “but we’re equals, if he can do it then so can I!” has a lot of weight, would the police arrest all seals who act like that the equal way they already do for human animals, or would the police leave alone all men who act like that the equal way they already do for nonhuman animals?

    Lindsey Reply:

    Animal rights is about giving animals the right to live free from human exploitation. It’s awful sometimes what goes on in the animal kingdom, and if someone was in the position to save an animal from harm from another animal, then they should do that, but just as we can’t police everything that happens between humans, we can’t do it with animals. I would guess that the elephant seal has approximately the intelligence of a human 2 year old. If a human 2 year old did something awful, would we arrest that child? No, because he or she doesn’t know any better. Same with animals. Also, granting animals the right to live free from exploitation does not imply that animals are our equals in every single way. They are not our equals in rational capacity. Since adult humans can understand and act in accordance with a moral system, and animals cannot, then it makes sense to expect humans to live up to society’s standards and to not expect animals to live up to these standards, just like we don’t expect small children to know how to act when they come into this world. It’s not about being equal on all levels but moreso recognizing that we are equals in pain and suffering and the desire to live freely from exploitation.

    lily Reply:

    “Since adult humans can understand and act in accordance with a moral system, and animals cannot, then it makes sense to expect humans to live up to society’s standards and to not expect animals to live up to these standards”

    That’s true, that’s speciesist, and that’s a perfect example of why speciesism is not always a bad thing.

  • Lindsey Says:

    Thanks, Leafy :)

    Those are some great additional examples of not all animals being speciesist.

    My friend doesn’t realize how his speciesism is blocking him from seeing that his argument is wrong. By being speciesist, he thinks all animals of one group are the same. He fails to realize that animals have distinct personalities just like humans, so not all animals will act according to one rule that he applied to them. That’s like saying that everyone in a certain race will act in a certain way.

    You’re right, this is really a sad world we live in when people don’t care that others are suffering. I just don’t understand it. Especially when some of these people who don’t care have pets whom they love very much! This particular friend had a beloved pet cat growing up. Don’t understand why he can’t extend his compassion for humans to animals. I guess maybe because one doesn’t encounter farm animals in the suburbs, and some people just can’t understand how those non-household pet animals are not machines??

  • Lola Says:

    I can’t say I really understand why torturing and killing animals is still widely accepted. Here is my logical argument.

    1. The reasonable person would accept that torturing and killing a sentient being capable of experiencing pain is morally wrong.
    2. Animals are sentient beings.
    3. Torturing and killing animals is morally wrong.

    Simple logic.

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