The Death of Instinctual Morality: Why Speciesism Is Unethical & Non-Sentient Life Should Not Be Valued

Human beings are complex creatures. We have created vast empires, built amazing structures, invented sophisticated technologies, and contributed to countless advancements in both knowledge and human well-being. And yet, when it comes to morality, we seem to be stuck in the embryonic stage of development.

We still fight wars (though not as many), still use, abuse, buy, and sell our fellow-creatures, and are still drawn to the excesses of money, power, and pleasure. When isolated from meaningful human contact, I suspect that most of us would be selfish rather than self-less, greedy rather than giving, callous rather than caring.

Thankfully, all of history suggests our morality is evolving in the right direction. In the words of Martin Luther King Junior, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” With the constant influx of new knowledge since the advent of human consciousness, we have been better able to make sense of our world and of how to treat our fellow-beings within it.

Since the dawn of history, we have therefore sewn and reaped the benefits of other great beings – and not some so great beings – that have lived and died in the pursuit of a better world – for themselves or for others. To quote the 12th century French philosopher, Bernard of Chartres, “We are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter.”

Given our particular place on the historical timeline, we would be wise to look to the past, not only for the moral wisdom it provides, but for the moral wisdom it lacks. If we hope to prosper from the hard-fought achievements of others without succumbing to and repeating the same historical mistakes, it behooves us to not only see things as they have been or as they currently are, but to make connections between the two in order to imagine and decide what the future will be.

Although the moral challenges of our time are varied and differ in degree of importance, we have to be willing to seriously and critically examine them if we hope to produce a better future, even if that examination challenges our core beliefs or makes us uncomfortable. Change, whether it comes from within or without, is not something that gradually occurs without considerable pain, effort, or struggle. In the words of Dr. King, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” The more we ignore an injustice, however small, the more we take part in the faceless ranks of those who have held humanity back from moral progress.

The single moral problem I’d like to address in a sea of others is also one which many of us do not want to face. In fact, at first glance it doesn’t seem to be a problem at all because of how entrenched it is within human cultures and societies. But this is the nature of all injustice, as history can attest. It is an appearance that masks itself with the trappings of a firm, unchanging, and unquestionable reality. It is a kind of magic trick which allows us to falsely suppose that the darkness of Plato’s cave is all there ever is, was, or will be. Just as the realities of racism, sexism, and homophobia were able to silently permeate past societies for so long without question, analysis, or identification, I argue that we human beings face an equal if not more difficult problem called speciesism.

Speciesism is loosely defined as a bias in favor of one’s own species, and more rigidly defined as the superiority of one species over another. Again, one might ask, “But shouldn’t human beings prefer their own kind? Aren’t we, after all, cognitively and emotionally superior to non-human animals?” Before we answer these questions, we need to address the idea of bias. Generally speaking, having a bias isn’t inherently bad. After all, we all have biases in favor of certain sports teams, political parties, and types of music. What makes this kind of bias harmful, however, is when it is used as the sole justification for making moral choices.

Of course, one could object here and say that morality itself is predicated on such biases. After all, most human beings prefer to be happy, alive, and not feel pain, and so we are all biased in favor of these things. However, it is important to note that these biases can be explained rationally while the others cannot. While all biases are predicated on feelings, the particular feelings of wanting to live, be happy, and avoid pain form the necessary foundation for social interaction and collective cooperation within societies. In short, they are the reason that human beings and other species have successfully flourished rather than dying out. On the other hand, one’s preference for a certain brand of ice-cream and the desire for the Falcons to win the Super Bowl have no such basis. They are arbitrary.

When we think about making moral judgments and carrying out moral decisions, it’s important that we separate our irrational biases from rational ones. This provides us with the clarity to make the right choice, even if’s not choice that “feels” right at first. For example, a racist might “feel” like black people are inferior even though it isn’t true, and will make the decision to treat black people poorly based solely on this feeling. With regard to speciesism, I argue that we are just as guilty as the racist who “feels” black people are inferior when we make ethical decisions in the favor of our own species simply because we “feel” it to be morally right or permissible without question.

To answer the first question regarding the preference of one’s own species, it isn’t wrong that human beings prefer other human beings to non-human animals just as it wouldn’t be wrong for someone to prefer dogs over cats or prefer a certain ethnicity when choosing a sexual partner. It only becomes wrong when we use this inherent bias as a determining factor when making ethical decisions involving relations between humans and non-human animals.

To answer the second question regarding the superiority of humans over non-human animals, it’s helpful to look to history; more specifically, to the history of Western imperialism where we are forced to encounter the fact that many native populations were conquered, enslaved, dehumanized, and killed because Europeans either didn’t understand, failed to recognize, or didn’t care about the well-being of native peoples. In the same way that we don’t accept the European claim of technological superiority, religion, and military strength as acceptable moral grounds for enslaving and killing native peoples, we can’t possibly use lesser degrees of cognitive or emotional intelligence as a moral basis for making decisions that directly impact the well-being of sentient animals.

Again, just as with bias, there is nothing inherently wrong with pointing out the fact that human beings (at least as far as we know) are more cognitively and emotionally complex than sentient non-human animals, nor is it wrong to point out that the Europeans were technologically and militarily superior to the people they conquered. It only becomes wrong when these differences are used as the sole basis for making moral choices.

So, what am I saying here? Am I saying that a fully functioning human being and a fully functioning dog are equivalent in terms of moral consideration? No. What I am saying is that a fully functioning dog deserves more moral consideration than a human in a permanent vegetative state, and that a fully functioning human deserves more moral consideration than a dog in a permanent vegetative state. The reason for valuing the life of the the fully functioning human or dog is not because we should automatically value human life or canine life, but because the beings in question are sentient and can therefore have thoughts, emotions, desires, and can experience both pleasure and pain.

By transcending the selfish, instinctual reaction to preserve human life just because it happens to be human, we can make the clear moral choice, and thus act upon the moral imperative to reduce pain and maximize pleasure for all conscious creatures. If we are truly being honest with ourselves, we can come to realize that the choice to preserve human life over the lives of other conscious creatures simply because it is human is just as morally vacuous as the racist’s choice to treat black people poorly or the imperialist’s choice to slaughter natives with abandon. They are all decisions which “feel” right to the people carrying them out, but we all know that isn’t a good enough reason to justify them.

To clarify my position, I fully concede that there is an obvious and important evolutionary basis for valuing human life and protecting it. After all, evolution is why we have morality in the first place. It wouldn’t make much evolutionary sense if women terminated their pregnancies as casually and nonchalantly as we brush our teeth or tie our shoes. However, in recognizing that this feeling to protect life irrespective of sentience is stems from emotion and instinct rather than emotion tempered by reason, we can transcend it and escape its influence over our moral choices in the same way our need to build houses transcends our love for trees.

Although it’s clear that human beings are cognitively and emotionally superior to non-human animals, and that we have an instinctual preference for our own species, morality isn’t about instinct; it is about sentience, pain, pleasure, and the interplay of intentions and consequences relating to all three. To those who would argue that instinct should be the foundation for making moral choices, one simply has to consider the implications of this to realize that it doesn’t make sense. If instinct had any bearing on ethics, we could just as well justify our instinctual desire to have sex with every beautiful man or women that crosses our path, or our desire to kill the people that make us angry.

While I won’t deny the usefulness of instinct in making split-second moral choices like saving a dog from getting hit by a car or stopping a stranger from falling off of a cliff, these are special cases in which we lack the necessary time for reflection and reason. In these cases, our instinctual urges to save the lives of conscious creatures are warranted, but they do not, in and of themselves, provide a moral basis for our actions. To show why this is true, suppose you see someone about to fall off of a cliff and immediately rush to their rescue, only to learn that the person you saved was dying of a terminal illness and made the conscious decision to end their life in order to relieve their own pain as well as the emotional and psychological suffering of their loved ones – people who also consented to the dying person’s wishes.

In reacting to the situation in the moment, you initially believed that you had done this person a service by saving their life. However, if you are being honest with yourself after the fact, it becomes abundantly clear that you’ve actually done them a disservice by saving them. Only after you were able to get past this instinctual drive to prevent death and process the situation rationally could you have taken into account things like intentions, consequences, pain, and pleasure. Your instincts might have told you that you were right, but they betrayed you by leading you to make the wrong moral choice.

Furthermore, suppose that you agree with my argument about speciesism, but still insist that life itself has inherent value. This assertion, like the baseless justifications for speciesism, is also rendered incoherent upon greater reflection. All it amounts to saying is that we should value life because we should value it. It has no explanatory power, nor does it reflect the reality of the way in which human beings live. While it’s true that life is a necessary precondition for morality, morality itself springs not from life, but from the relations between conscious beings that experience the phenomenon of being alive.

After all, we have no moral obligation to grass, sea sponges, or rocks because they are not sentient, cannot feel pain, and cannot interact with other conscious beings in any meaningful way. The claim that one should keep a brain-dead patient or a brain-dead dog on life support indefinitely simply because you prefer that things live rather than die is a nonsensical and needless, if not selfish, act. If one looks at the situation objectively, one can see how the decision to keep the human or dog alive is just as absurd as the decision to avoid mowing your lawn because you feel morally obligated to the grass.

Of course, breaking away from our speciesism and resisting instinctual morality is always a challenge, but so was the slaveholder’s choice to abandon the practice of slavery and the struggle of whites to see blacks as equal. The sooner we stop seeing instinct and physical or cognitive superiority as acceptable foundations for making moral choices, the sooner we can stop needlessly torturing and killing other conscious creatures. Additionally, the sooner we rid ourselves of the outdated notion that non-sentient life has some kind of inherent value regardless of situation or context, the more we can attend to the needs and desires of sentient beings who are actually deserving of moral consideration – human and non-human alike.

While it’s true that “black lives matter,” and it’s also true that “all (human) lives matter,” if we want to avoid moral hypocrisy and injustice, we must break with history and tradition in order to boldly assert that sentient non-human animal lives matter too. Whenever we fail our fellow-beings in this regard, we leave the vehicle of human progress to idly sit while we pretend to roll along on the imaginary wheels of inevitability.

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