A recent online discussion I had reminded me of how frequently I confront an attitude of human privilege, particularly when there is a conflict of interest between a human interest and an animal interest. I’ve come to identify it as “the human superiority complex,” revealed in statements like, “I’ll always put a human before an animal” or “Humans are more important than animals.”
Let’s put aside whether or not these statements are credible in themselves and, for a moment, just look at what they reveal. Such statements beg the question: given that we humans clearly have the upper hand over animals, why do we find it necessary to continually invoke our self-professed superiority?
Could it be that we are so deeply insecure about our alleged superiority — in relation to the other life forms on this planet that predate us by millions of years — that we feel compelled to continually remind ourselves how important we are? Could it be that our understanding of our own “intelligence” — in relation to that of the other thousands of intelligent life forms we don’t fully even understand — is so grossly underdeveloped that our claim of superiority is akin to the tantrums of a spoiled child?
Not only do we assert our supremacy over nonhumans, we act upon it at every opportunity. The notion that human interests “trump” animal interests when we create an imaginary conflict of interest is particularly delusional when one considers that we wantonly kill 60 billion land animals and kill another trillion or so aquatic animals every year just to suit our pleasure in eating them, not for any legitimate need to survive.
In fact, professor Gary Francione of Rutgers University continually points to the schizophrenic nature of our relationship with animals. Francione simply asks us to look at the big picture: 99% of our animal use is unnecessary and for purposes of pleasure, entertainment, curiosity and education. At the same time, we generally admit it is wrong to harm animals unnecessarily. In essence, we say we take the interests of animals seriously and then act in direct opposition to that belief by using animals to satisfy our own trivial interests.
What for us are trivial pleasures is all too often a matter of life and death for animals. And yet all we have to do is invoke the all-powerful affirmation that humans are more important than nonhumans, and this assertion of superiority justifies any and every act we perpetrate on animals, no matter how illogical, immoral, or destructive.
I’m going to argue that the only thing here that is superior is our pretentious attitude, but perhaps even our attitude would suggest that what we really suffer from is an inferiority complex. If we were secure about our position at the “top of the food chain” or “natural order” as some like to refer to it, why do we need to defend it so desperately when it is questioned? And why do we attack those who question it? Why do we vehemently defend the dominant culture’s destruction of both animals and the earth when this destruction is so obviously against our own interest in survival?
The other day I debated someone about the merits of animal testing for medical research. My mistake. I don’t condone this practice, but I should have not taken the bait. I quickly came to realize that person was pathologically intent on proving the point that experimenting on animals to defend human health and save human lives means that — in at least the medical field — placing human over animal interests is righteous and morally defensible.
In the big picture, the issue is not that we still test on animals, whose numbers constitute less than 1% of the animals who suffer at human hands. Instead, the issue we should be focusing on is that we have no moral justification for exploiting the remaining 99.5%.