SUPERIORITY CLAIM THAT’S MISPLACED
The claim that humans matter more than everything else stumbles on the fact that they will not last for a month, without plant and animal life sustaining their existence
Those engaging in the debate on the issue of human rights versus animal rights, following the National Human Rights Commission's advisory, must remember a basic principle of natural justice — a party to a dispute should not be its judge. Any human institution sitting in judgement on the issue, violates this basic principle as human beings are very much a party to the dispute, which is about their rights prevailing over those of animals.
Most humans do not recognise this basic fact because they believe that animals are not a part of their universe of morality and justice and hence, are outside the scope of the principles governing it. Paul Waldau writes in The Spectre of Speciesism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals, “Mainline Christian tradition has historically asserted, as part of its basic message, not only a fundamental, radical division between human animals and all other animals but also the exclusion of all other animals' interests when they are in conflict with minor, unnecessary human interests.” It is not just the Christian tradition. Aristotle stated in Politics that nature made all animals for the sake of man and it was as permissible to enslave people who did not possess reason as it was to enslave animals.
The ground for the exclusion was that animals lacked rationality. St Augustine stated in City of God that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” did not apply to “unreasoning animals (irrationalibus animantibus) that fly, walk or crawl because they are not partners to us in the faculty of reason.” This approach continued in the West over centuries. Charles Patterson writes in Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, that Thomas Aquinas, the greatest exponent of medieval scholasticism, “….justified the killing of animals on the ground that the lives of animals were preserved ‘not for themselves but for man'”. He denied not only rationality but afterlife to animals since the latter, unlike humans, did not have reason, and only the reasoning part of the soul survived after death.
Such an approach assumes that rationality is the defining characteristic of humankind, is the most important thing in the universe and animals lack it and, finally, that humans matter over everything else. If rationality was the defining characteristic of humans, then vast numbers would not have indulged in irrational acts — often collective and frighteningly savage — throughout history. Consider what Nazis and Fascists did and what supporters of the Islamic State and Taliban are doing now. In fact, passion is as — if not more — powerful an element in the human psyche, and can overcome reason and drive masses of humans to committing unspeakable atrocities.
The importance of rationality is often exaggerated. Reasoning is a process which can yield both right and wrong conclusions, depending, among other things, on the correctness of the data available. While enabling great civilisational advances, it has also spawned the rise of doctrines leading to tyrannies and savage persecution of millions of people considered non-believers.
Animals do not have the same kind of rationality as humans. But they have strategic, tactical and survival-related intelligence and much more powerful instincts, which is as important. It is instinctive response to a situation, or consciousness about the need to act, that most often triggers a chain of reasoning. Besides, even if animals do not possess reason, they can survive in circumstances in which humans will perish within a week.
Finally, the claim that humans matter more than everything else stumbles on the fact that they would not last more than perhaps a month without the plant and animal life sustaining their existence. In fact, it has a suicidal dimension: Its corollary, the belief that humans have the right to do whatever they want with all non-human life and nature, is playing havoc with the environment, threatening their own continued existence.