In discussions of animals exploited for food or other human benefit, we often hear the following statements: “I’ll always put a human before an animal” and “Humans are more important than animals.” But even if we believe or could prove to be superior to other animals, in however we arbitrarily define our superiority, the fact that one feels superior to others does not justify exploiting, enslaving, killing, and eating them. A leading brain surgeon is not justified in violating someone with lower cognitive abilities or less education than himself, such as a patient who suffers from dementia.
Even in cases where we may subjectively feel superior over someone else in competitions, there are strict rules to the game, and harming our competitors solely on the basis of feeling superior to them would be considered “playing dirty” and disqualify us. That’s because we do not base morality on how well someone scores on an IQ test or how great an artist they are. The only morally relevant criteria for how we treat someone is whether they can suffer. All nonhuman animals qualify, since they visibly demonstrate fundamental interests in staying alive and avoiding pain, suffering, and death — not to mention a whole set of other complex interests that would be otherwise denied them.
But there is a deeper issue to explore in the all-too-human obsession with feeling superior over other animals. Although we control the fate of the other animals on this planet, we still find it necessary to continually exert 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 and conscious animals we don’t fully even understand — is so inadequate that clamoring over our superiority is akin to the tantrums of a spoiled child?
Whatever the answers, we don’t just believe in our supremacy; we act on it at every opportunity. In other words, we set up a predetermined and premeditated game in which we win and other animals lose. And then we spread the false tale that the competition is not rigged, that other animals have an equal chance of winning, that an eye-for-eye struggle to the end between humans and other species is inevitable. This imaginary conflict of interest looks particularly absurd when weighed against our practice of artificially breeding 60 billion land animals only to kill them at weeks or months old every year, along with another trillion or so aquatic animals — not for any valid reason of health or survival, but just for profit and palate pleasure.
Pitted against this desire to land on top is our belief in harm reduction, especially since we wield such power and demonstrate such a willingness to abuse that power. The real conflict is an internal one. On the one hand, we see ourselves as “good people” who believe in human rights, other species rights and protection of the planet. On the other hand, if we are going to continue to support the staggeringly cruel and unnecessary suffering-for-profit industries, we must also continue to cling to that ancient belief in superiority and the violence necessary to protect it.
Superiority in Popular Culture
We don’t have to look far for examples of how superiority is reinforced in popular culture. Let’s consider the 2015 Nissan Rogue Running with the Bulls TV commercial which features a handsome and stylish young couple zipping through a labyrinth of winding streets in a historic European city center where they are surrounded by bulls, some running beside their car and others confronting them head on around turns. Eventually, they open into a piazza where they park in front of the Toro Steakhouse. The young man gets out of the car and sees a bull in front of him and gives him the look of victory. The bull snorts and backs off. And the couple enters the steakhouse. The message is that consumption is the ultimate act of conquest over other animals. The commercial closes with the “Choose Nissan” logo searing into the white background with a hot metal branding iron.
But this kind of fantasy used to successfully sell us cars and other consumer products looks increasingly ridiculous against the backdrop of a growing animal rights and environmental consciousness. In this context, the only thing that is superior is our pretentious attitude, but perhaps even our attitude would suggest that what we really suffer from is a sense of inferiority or inadequacy and/or fear of what we don’t know about others. 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 desperately defend the dominant culture’s destruction of both animals and the earth when this destruction is so obviously against our own interest in survival?