Do Chimpanzees, Dolphins, and Elephants Matter More?

There is a tendency amongst some animal advocates to associate nonhuman personhood with animals, such as chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants, who have more sophisticated–that is, humanlike–cognitive abilities. I would suggest that, for purposes of determining whom it is appropriate to treat as a replaceable resource, that is wholly arbitrary. Cognitive abilities may be relevant for some purposes but not for this purpose.

Consider a human example: Mary is a brilliant historian; Joe is severely mentally disabled. Is the difference in cognitive ability relevant? Yes, for the purpose of determining whom to appoint as a history professor; no for the purpose of determining whom to use as a forced organ donor or as a nonconsenting subject of a biomedical experiment. We should not use either Mary or Joe for those purposes.

What is morally relevant is sentience, or having subjective awareness. And most of the animals we routinely exploit every day–the cows, pigs, chickens, and fish–are sentient. If these animals have any moral value, we cannot justify treating them as resources, and we can never do so in the absence of compulsion or necessity. And we already recognize this on some level. For example, most of us were upset with Michael Vick’s dog fighting because we believe that it was wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals and what Michael Vick did what he did only for his pleasure and amusement. It could in no way be regarded as “necessary.”

But most of us consume animals and animal products, which involve imposing horrible suffering and violent death even under the most “humane” circumstances. What justification do we have for imposing this suffering and death? We do not need to eat animal foods to be healthy. And animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. Our best justification: palate pleasure. Nothing more. In an important sense, we are all Michael Vick.

In an essay I wrote in 2005 for The New Scientist, I argued that the idea that those animals who deserve to be considered as nonhuman persons are those “special” animals who are more “like us”–chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, etc.–is, not surprisingly, embraced by those who want to claim that only some animals, the “higher” ones, matter morally and that it’s still okay to keep eating “lower” animals. This way of thinking about animal ethics is similar to saying that people of color with lighter skin matter more than those with darker skin. They are more “like us” where “us” refers to the racist norm that being white is what’s right.

To say that the animals who matter more morally are those who are “like us” is nothing more than the reinforcement of speciesism and not a refutation of it. As far as morality is concerned, a chicken weighs as much an elephant.

It is time to rethink animal ethics in a more fundamental way.


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2013 Gary L. Francione