Many human rights proponents fear that animal rights diminishes human rights in some fashion. This might explain why most human rights proponents and organizations still either ignore animal rights, or are actively hostile towards it. In this article, I show that such a view is not only flawed, but counterproductive. Animal rights does not undermine human rights, while arguing against animal rights does undermine human rights, by upholding the logic of supremacy.
I will begin by discussing a view presented in the PragerU video, “Are Humans More Valuable Than Animals?” In this video, Dennis Prager argues that notions of animal rights leads to a lessening of value of human life, thus increasing the chance for atrocities against humans, such as the Holocaust. While Prager’s argument relies on religion, most of what I discuss will apply to secular arguments as well. We shall see that those who argue against animal rights, ironically all end up arguing for the logic of supremacy, which is the logic which underpins prejudice. By arguing against animal rights, they themselves undermine human rights and promote increased risks for human atrocities.
Prager’s Argument, and Its Flaws
In the video, “Are Humans More Valuable Than Animals?”, Dennis Prager focuses much of his attention on the following question: “If both were drowning, who would you save first, a drowning human or a drowning animal?” Prager is dismayed that many people say they would save their dog before another human in such a situation, and he takes this as an indication that secular views on humans are undermining the sanctity of human life. He believes that humans, and only humans, were created in the image of God. And he believes that humans, and only humans, have souls, and these souls make humans infinitely valuable.
Prager focuses on the extreme no-win scenario question in order to force a hierarchy. Prager wants us to conclude that a human is definitively more valuable than another animal, and the further assumed takeaway is that this hierarchy carries over into everyday life.
The fundamental error in such a focus is that the extreme no-win scenario question is completely separate from the question of how one should act in everyday life. The answer to the former question does not automatically transfer over to the latter one.
An easy way to see this is to consider no-win scenarios between humans. For example, consider a no-win scenario between an able-minded human and a significantly mentally-challenged human. Whether your answer is to flip a coin, or to save the abled human, or to save the mentally-challenged human, your answer to the regular day-to-day question of should we be prejudiced against, or exploit, or harm, or kill the differently-abled should be a very strong NO. And in the same way, however you answer the no-win scenario between a human and another animal, your answer to the regular day-to-day question of should we be prejudiced against, or exploit, or harm, or kill other animals should be a very strong NO.
Prager’s question of who is more valuable is thus irrelevant when determining how we should normally act. Even if one is “more valuable” than the other, being “more valuable” doesn’t automatically morally confer anything. So while we might argue over hierarchies of value, if we carry those hierarchies over to day-to-day life, we are being supremacists. Here’s how:
The Logic of Supremacy
Supremacism is the belief that one group is superior to others, and is entitled to dominate or subjugate others accordingly. If we look at the logic of supremacy, it goes basically like this:
1. A is superior to B
2. Those who are superior have the right to subjugate those who are inferior
3. A has the right to subjugate B
When A = white people and B = people of color, you can get everything that can come with white supremacy.
When A = men and B = women, you can get everything that comes with a patriarchy.
When A = abled and B = disabled, you can get all things ableist.
When A = heterosexual and B = homosexual, you can get all things homophobic.
When A = Aryan and B = Jew, you can get virulent anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
When A = human and B = other animals, you can get everything that can come with human supremacy, such as other animals classified as the literal property of humans.
We tend to focus on the question of superiority vs. equality, but really that’s only part of the issue. The underlying violent part of supremacy comes from thinking that being superior morally confers something to the superior party.
Prager’s Supremacy Problem
If we consider Prager’s argument, he’s not saying that the logic of supremacy is wrong. Prager leaves the logic of supremacy intact, arguing that supremacy is the correct model for how we should all think. He just thinks that A is equal to B for all humans. He believes all humans, and only humans, were given these unprovable things called souls, which he further believes are infinite in value and thus makes all humans equal. But since he leaves the logic of supremacy intact, if we find an A and B who aren’t deemed equal, such as humans and other animals, then it is presumably correct for the superior humans to subjugate the inferior other animals and treat them in all the prejudicial ways humans are currently taught.
Supremacy in Secular Human Rights
Secular human rights proponents who argue against animal rights don’t rely on the religious idea of souls, but they do in fact argue in a very similar way. First, there is generally still a focus on no-win situations to force a hierarchy between humans and other animals. And second, the focus is again only on if A = B applies or not. In this case, rather than relying on religious souls, they instead make the argument that some quality such as higher level intelligence makes A = B apply for humans, but not for other animals.
Thus, human rights proponents who ignore, dismiss, or argue against animal rights ultimately suffer the same supremacy problem as Prager. They fight for A = B to hold for all humans, but they leave the logic of supremacy completely intact.
The Likelihood of Human Atrocities
Like Prager, many human rights proponents claim that animal rights devalues humans and increases the likelihood of human atrocities. Let’s now consider this likelihood under both pro and anti animal rights views.
Under an anti animal rights view, not only are all other animals wide open for atrocities by humans, but human to human atrocities remain probable as well. The reason for this is that the anti animal rights view leaves the logic of supremacy intact. Atrocities are only held back by believing that A = B. Once any human believes that A does not equal B, they have justified any atrocity against either humans or other animals, as the logic of supremacy was left perfectly intact.
Given that the word “equal” is a somewhat nebulous concept, this likelihood is actually high. After all, we are not identical clones, so by definition we are not equal. Some of us are indeed better than others in some way, depending on what quality we hold important. There’s also a logical inconsistency if we use some criterion to say that other animals are not equal to humans, but then not use that same criterion to create hierarchies within humanity. We logically negate our own attempted call for equality.
And if we rely on religion to make equality stick for humans, then we have to believe in unprovable notions of (a particular view of) God and souls, even though fewer people believe in any organized religion whatsoever. Someone can simply disagree with religious claims and state that some or all humans don’t have souls, or some have lesser souls, to immediately justify any human atrocity.
On the other hand, in a pro animal rights view, atrocities are less likely because the logic of supremacy is finally overturned. We should promote equality, yes. But also, regardless of our no-win scenario hierarchies, we should not intentionally harm others even if we see them as below us in some way. This is logically consistent, aligned with our core values of justice and compassion, and provides a much more stable protection against any atrocities. And these are not new concepts, by the way. Everyone except psychopaths already claim to espouse them.
The animal rights view simply asks us to use logic and reason to bring our actions into alignment with our core principles. Any outdated interpretations of faith, if we wish to still have them, should be reinterpreted to a more enlightened day. Just as logic and reason, together with a basic level of empathy, must overcome outdated Biblical interpretations for human rights issues, so too must they overcome the outdated Biblical interpretations of dominion over other animals.
It is unfortunately true that most human rights proponents argue against animal rights, with some even claiming that it can lead to human atrocities such as the Holocaust. Yet, it is no coincidence in my mind that animal rights proponents are overly represented by Jews, as well as women and minorities who have traditionally felt prejudice and oppression, and are able to empathize with it better. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor myself. For me, “Never Again” is not just for Jews. It is an admonition to the entire world to learn from the past, and evolve society away from all forms of prejudice and oppression. For me, it is the complete opposite of what “Never Again” should mean to use it as a way to say that other prejudices and oppressions are not important in comparison so therefore let’s keep being prejudiced and oppressing others who we deem less important than ourselves. It seems rather repulsive and the lowest of the low to use one oppression to denigrate and perpetuate other oppressions, rather than learning from one oppression to fight all oppression.
If there’s one thing the Holocaust should teach us, it’s the evils of supremacy. Yet here we are with no shortage of human rights proponents telling us what’s wrong with the world is that we need more supremacy.
When human rights proponents and organizations argue against animal rights, they are arguing for the logic of supremacy. This undermines human rights and increases the likelihood of prejudice and atrocities against both humans and other animals alike. This is true whether the arguments come from a place of religion, or from secular humanism.
Human rights proponents and organizations currently have a serious supremacy problem. They should examine and recognize it, and start taking steps to fix it.