Proving that humans are somehow “better” than non-human animals is a priority for some, including philosophy professor Richard Polt. Writing in The New York Times, he takes umbrage at comparisons between human and non-human animals: “wherever I turn,” he writes, “the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m…a beast.” He rejects this idea: “I stubbornly continue to believe that I’m a human being — something more than other animals.” And, he implies, something better, different in kind and not just degree.
Polt shows his hand with his choice of the word “beast” to describe other animals. Synonyms include “brute, savage, ogre, [and] monster,” and the word is also used to denote the Antichrist in Revelations. There can be no doubt that he takes any comparison between himself and other animals as an insult.
For Polt, the dividing line between humans and other animals is ethics. “I have no beef with entomology or evolution,” he states, “but I refuse to admit that they teach me much about ethics.” Polt writes that evolution has endowed humans with both altruism and selfishness, but it cannot tell us which one we ought to choose in any particular situation. Therefore, he writes, “a purely evolutionary ethics makes ethical discourse meaningless.”
What Polt doesn’t explain is how that distinguishes us from other animals. We are not the only ones who have the capacity for both altruistic and selfish behavior and who must choose between them. There are countless examples of dolphins saving humans, and on at least one occasion saving whales. But we needn’t look to the most intelligent species or to those closest to us biologically for examples of altruism, or of the “ethical” choices that we “ought” to make: trans-species adoptive mothers (who not only protect but even suckle babies orphaned or rejected by their own mothers) that we know of include a tiger, sheep, monkey, gorilla, and many dogs and cats.
These animals’ choices to behave in ways that would, if displayed by humans, be considered ethical, do not move Polt. “Any understanding of human good and evil has to deal with phenomena that biology ignores or tries to explain away — such as decency, self-respect, integrity, honor, loyalty or justice. These matters are debatable and uncertain — maybe permanently so. But that’s a far cry from being meaningless.” Perhaps part of their uncertainty is their applicability to other species. What would motivate dolphins to protect humans from sharks, risking their own safety – why not decency or a sense of justice? And who could deny that dogs act out of loyalty? These animals choose between altruism and selfishness. They stand to gain nothing. Polt does not explain why their choice is less ethical than a human’s.
Identifying a significant, universal, and morally relevant distinction between human and non-human animals is the holy grail for many industries and most thinking individuals, because if there is no meaningful difference between us and other species, we have no right to exploit them, much less visit the horrors upon them that are routine in factory farming, science laboratories, and other arenas. Of course, those thinking individuals who are vegan don’t need to “refuse to admit” the facts, because we have already accepted that we have no right to use or abuse non-human animals.