It is often argued that in order to deserve respect from other humans, one must be a member of the human species.1 In other cases, religious or metaphysical reasons are given for why only humans should be respected and nonhuman animals disregarded. According to such views, humans have a special quality or circumstance that makes them more deserving. Examples of such claims are that humans have an intrinsic value greater than that of any other being, a superior status, or are the divinely chosen species.2
Arguments of this type that attempt to justify a lack of respect for animals take the following form:
(1) Only humans satisfy a certain condition (call it x).
(2) Only those who satisfy condition x should be respected.
(3) Only human beings should be respected.
Such arguments are based on a fallacy. In argumentation theory, this fallacy is called a circular argument or “begging the question.”3 The following section has two explanations of why these arguments beg the question. The first is simpler. The second is more detailed, more technical, and explains what moral reasoning consists of.
Let’s start with the simple explanation. Consider this: to say that humans have a greater value or status is different from saying they have, for example, a certain anatomy, certain cognitive capacities, the ability to run, or anything else. The difference is that things like structures, capacities, and abilities can be verified. There is no attribute or ability, or anything else that can be verified, that can be identified with “status” or “intrinsic worth.” Similarly, the conditions given by religious arguments for us to respect someone (as a member of a chosen species) cannot be confirmed.
There is no way of verifying that only humans have immortal souls, or that only humans have intrinsic worth. There’s no way of knowing that anyone does. In fact, there is no way of knowing if those conditions even exist in the real world. In other words, we cannot know if something like “status” or “intrinsic worth” exists or if there really are species chosen by gods. This is setting aside, of course, the question of whether a god exists or not. Of course, the existence of status or intrinsic worth cannot be proven to be untrue, either. However, it is those claiming that such a thing exists who have to prove their claims to make the argument valid, and we have seen that this cannot be done.
Since there is no evidence that conditions based on status and intrinsic worth exist, saying that only humans satisfy them cannot be considered a reasonable position. For the same reason it seems odd to assert that we should respect individuals who meet such (supposed) conditions, because it would mean discriminating against others based on something arbitrary. For a position in any kind of ethics to be valid, there must be some reason that justifies it. When reasons given in support of a position don’t provide a valid justification, they are arbitrary and are not reasons that we should take into account.
The views we have just seen are examples of begging the question. They beg the question because they are based on arguments that make an appeal to circumstances that can’t be tested and are just assumed as given; assuming or asserting that something is a given or is “obvious” is very different from proving that it is actually the case.
To put it another way: we can’t be convinced of something by an appeal to a premise we can’t accept.
We can look at this in a more detailed and technical way that shows what constitutes a moral argument. An argument is a logical sequence consisting of premises and a conclusion that follows from the premises. The premises can be statements about facts, and premises that deal with facts can be true or false. In moral arguments, premises can also be principles or prescriptions such as “promote equality,” “don’t kill anyone without good reason,” or “spread happiness and not suffering.”
An example of a moral argument is:
(1) You should not kill sentient beings for your own pleasure.
(2) Cows are sentient beings.
(3) You should not kill cows for your own pleasure.
In this argument, premises (1) and (2) lead to (3). Premise (1) is a prescription, (2) is a description of fact, and (3) is a prescription that follows from combining (1) and (2).
There are three main ways such an argument might fail. An argument fails if the conclusion can’t be derived from the premises. We could reject the conclusion of an argument if the premises on which the conclusion is based are not true. Or the conclusion may follow logically from the premises, but if we doubt the premises, this gives us cause to doubt the conclusion. For example:
(1) We should respect Italians more than Greeks.
(2) Athenians are Greeks.
(3) We should respect Italians more than Athenians.
This argument works at the logical level and therefore may be described as formally valid, but the conclusion is controversial because the first premise is unwarranted.
We can now see what happens with arguments in favor of speciesism like the ones we saw above. Here is an example:
(1) Only humans have intrinsic value. [But this condition cannot be verified in any way].
(2) Only those who have intrinsic value should be respected. [This is very controversial and lacks a clear explanation].
(3) Only human beings should be respected.
The conclusion, in (3), follows from premises (1) and (2). In other words the argument is valid, but the conclusion is trivial because it states the same thing that is stated in the premises. In argumentation theory, “triviality” means that all information contained in the premises is already included in the conclusion (in this case, premise 3). To put it another way: in trying to prove something, you are already assuming what you want to prove. Therefore, it is not proving anything. By not explaining what “intrinsic value” is but claiming that only humans have it and that it should be the basis for respect, the argument is essentially claiming that only humans should be respected because only humans have some type of “humanness.” From this we can understand why arguments that beg the question are often called circular arguments. Calling “humanness” by another name does not change the arbitrariness of the argument.
The problem with this argument, then, is not just that it is not clear that only human beings satisfy a certain condition, or that such a condition is even real. The arbitrariness of taking it as a given that only humans meet these conditions is problematic, since what you are trying to prove is that we have to respect only humans. The argument claims that we only have to respect humans because only they have some abstract, unobservable quality that requires us to respect someone. This is fallacious not only because there is no reason to believe that such a quality exists, but also because it assumes from the start that we should respect humans and no other animals.
So, in short, neither premise (1) nor (2) is acceptable. We are looking at a case of begging the question. The argument is not convincing, and therefore is not an acceptable defense for a lack of consideration for nonhuman animals.
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1 Diamond, C. (1991) “The importance of being human”, in Cockburn, D. (ed.) Human beings, Cambridge: Royal Institute of Philosophy, pp. 35-62. Gaita, R. (2003) The philosopher’s dog: Friendships with animals, London: Routledge. Posner, R. A. (2004) “Animal rights: Legal, philosophical and pragmatic perspectives”, in Sunstein, C. & Nussbaum, M. (eds.) Animal rights: Current debates and new directions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 51-77.
2 Harrison, P. (1989) “Theodicy and animal pain”, Philosophy, 64, pp. 79-92; Reichmann, J. B. (2000) Evolution, animal ‘rights’ and the environment, Washington: The Catholic University of America Press. Machan, T. (2004) Putting humans first: Why we are nature’s favorite, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.
3 For more about this fallacy, see these online resources: Coleman, R. (2006) “What is circular reasoning?”, Numeraire.com [accessed on 11 February 2013]; Logical Fallacies (2009) “Begging the question/circular reasoning”, Logical Fallacies [accessed on 11 February 2013]; The Nizkor Project (1991-2012) “Fallacy: Begging the question”, The Nizkor Project [accessed on 11 February 2013].