Anthropocentricism in “Animal lovers”

“Studies show cows have best friends, just like humans…”

The above statement was read in an article that was shared on a Facebook page that promotes veganism and the destruction of meat industries that I had been following. This type of statement is far from uncommon in writings that encourage animal rights. Scanning posts on Instagram alone from animal rights activists (ARA) frequently cite the intelligence, sentience, and compassion found in other species as reasons to allow them autonomy.

  • Animals are intelligent
  • Animals only kill because it is necessary
  • Animals show compassion
  • X is a brave animal
  • X is a majestic animal
  • X is such a beautiful animal

Generally speaking, many of these writings contain a great ignorance of ethology. In other words, the way other species’ minds function does not seem to be of great concern or interest in these posts, and it is simply assumed (sometimes based on false observation) that an animal does x for y reason, or possesses some desirable quality (e.g compassion, altruism, intelligence). Whether or not there is any scientific or factual basis for believing this is not relevant, as it is more often a matter of faith.

My question is, why do any of these things matter? When people take these things into consideration with a perhaps more scientific approach, they often agree: Grant rights to species that genuinely do show compassion/intelligence/etc, but this often leaves very few species with even remotely close to equality with humans, such as chimpanzees and dolphins. This leaves thousands of other species continually disregarded, and only furthers the phenomenon sometimes referred to as “speciesism.”

Ultimately the reason for this is that humans tend to value other species with a sort of Aristotelian “chain of being” logic. We define what are commonly human characteristics as “good,” and therefore any animal showing such human characteristics is worthy of respect. Certain characteristics are in fact more prevalent (or only present) in humans, such as intelligence. However, intelligence as we see it is often defined specifically to suit humans (and certain humans, at that) thereby making it a “human characteristic,” when in reality, species with much simpler minds than our may possess what some individuals logically consider to be a type of “intelligence.” Yet logically, intelligence is not a highly relevant factor in the success of a species, so why consider it “good” to begin with? Snails get along just fine in life, without causing any significant ecological problems, playing their role in life, and not suffering from many ailments that we do, though we are the more intelligent species.

All things considered, it is not logical to value a species based on any cluster of characteristics. Value a species for what it is, not for how much of yourself you see in it. And refrain from defining undesirable animal behaviours (e.g infanticide, incest) as “bad” in relation to nonhuman species. An organism that regularly acts outside of human social norms is not doing so because it is “bad.” Our morality and our cultures are a product of us and should only be relevant to us. Why hold other species to our societal standards? Such would be illogical.

The same “chain of being” logic responsible for furthering speciesism also leads to a sort of “kingdomism.” Animals are superior to plants, which are superior to fungi, which are superior to bacteria. This is illogical, because this thinking again relies on the valuing of certain abilities and characteristics that are, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant. All organism depend and rely on one another, therefore creating some hierarchy is redundant (and in and of itself very human-focused, as no other species have been concerned with such a ranking system because there is no natural need for it.) Humans also vary widely in that not all humans possess the ideal qualities that are often listed as to why animals should be respected (e.g those who are mentally disabled, those who are physically disabled). Not all human beings show a certain amount of intelligence, or compassion, or even perceive pain equally. Then we get into the fact that, according to common ARA logic, disabled humans are now on par with nonhuman species, which is ableism at best.

If you are to truly appreciate nonhuman life for the sake of appreciating the nonhuman, it is hypocritical to justify doing so because the nonhuman life in question is “human-like” or admirable by human standards. Much of the appreciation for nonhumans is really the enforcing of human superiority under a new label, which is quite unfortunate.