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Why An Alien Invasion Is No Argument For Animal Rights
Rhys Southan gives an unexpected response.
Advocates of ‘human exceptionalism’ say that humans are the most important animals on the planet. Their most fervent opponents, animal rights activists, think that proclaiming innate human superiority is chauvinistic and naïve, countering that there are no special qualities that humans have that all other animals lack. Both sides can, however, agree on one thing: as a whole, humankind is the most powerful animal force on the planet. When it comes to manipulating the environment and other creatures so that the world better suits our desires, no species can match us. Plants, earth, minerals and other animals are the raw materials we use to make our homes, tools, medicines, clothing and meals. Being human means inheriting power over the environment and the rest of the animal kingdom. We’re born with a silver chainsaw in our hands, clasped firmly by our opposable thumbs.
Some animal rights advocates call this ‘human privilege’, and say it’s a privilege almost all of us gratuitously abuse. Just as human rights movements organize to stop the most powerful people from oppressing the least powerful, the animal rights movement wants to stop the most powerful species from oppressing every other. The injustice they’re fighting is not human domination per se, but rather one significant aspect of it: our treatment of animals as resources.
A major challenge for the animal advocates working to spread veganism – the abolition of using animals as resources – is that most of us have a speciesist prejudice in favour of humans that makes it difficult for us to empathize with nonhumans, and thus reluctant to give up the spoils of domination for tofu, pleather and animal liberation. One effective rhetorical tactic for animal advocates, then, is to make us imagine what it’s like to be the animals we exploit. That’s the idea behind the thought experiment we’ll call ‘the alien invasion argument’, which supposes that an alien species smarter and more powerful than us lands here, sees that we’re exploiting and killing animals who are weaker and stupider than us, and then decides to follow our example by exploiting and killing the humans. Ahh, we’re not so keen on the planet’s dominant species selfishly exercising their privilege when the dominant species is no longer us, are we? But why shouldn’t aliens use their technological or cerebral edge to turn us into food, clothes, entertainment and research subjects, if we do the same thing to animals now?
This is of course a sci-fi update to the Golden Rule: ‘Do for others what you would have them do for you’. The Golden Rule is a persuasive ethical gambit in a culture shaped by Judeo-Christian values, so theistically-inclined meat eaters have their ethical work cut out for them. But the rest of us might object that there’s something misleading about the alien thought experiment: It wants to make us see things from the animals’ point of view; but it does this by putting us in the animals’ place while maintaining human cognitive abilities. There are certainly similarities between human and nonhuman experiences, especially when it comes to pain; but cows, pigs, lambs and chickens raised on farms and killed in slaughterhouses do not suffer the same horror and existential anguish as humans would in the same circumstances. This is why the alien argument is something of a cheat; and why comparing factory farms to the Holocaust and human slavery rings false too.
Nevertheless, as vegans are quick to point out, humans and other animals are the same in two key respects: we suffer and we want to live. And given that humans cause animals so much suffering and death while offering them so little in return, there’s no denying that for most other animals on this planet, we may as well be a malevolent invasion. In fact, the biggest failure of the alien allegory is that it under-appreciates just how unwelcome an invasion we are; and this is true no matter what we eat. Sure, if we weren’t the dominant animals on the planet, we’d probably prefer the new ruling species to be vegan. But if aliens with superior technology and minds were determined to treat us the way that many vegans treat animals on this planet, we’d still be in serious trouble.
Veganism asks us to stop using animals as entertainment, food, test subjects and clothing. If everybody listened, factory farming and animal testing would end – which would be excellent news for all the animals we capture or raise for these purposes. In other words, veganism would be great for domesticated animals. But veganism would do almost nothing for all the free-roaming wild animals except stop hunting – which is the least of their problems. As the International Union for Conservation of Nature says, “Analyses of the data on threats to bird, mammal and amphibian species… show that the most pervasive threat that they face is habitat destruction and degradation driven by agricultural and forestry activities” (2004 IUCN Red List). Animal husbandry is responsible for plenty of that, but is far from the only culprit. Farmers of the crops vegans eat accidentally kill insects, small mammals and other animals with farm machinery, and they intentionally kill these animals with pesticides that often go on to harm nontarget wildlife through drift and secondary poisonings. They also allow hunters onto their land to reduce the populations of deer and other ‘pest’ species that might eat their crops. Redirecting water for irrigation kills fish, as does spill-off from fertilizer and pesticides. We destroy animal habitats to build our cities, and we extract resources from areas that then become either uninhabitable or dangerous. The wild land that we do leave untouched is often fragmented into bits that don’t give animals the space they need to make homes and roam for food, and so cannot sustain them.
What Does Veganism Do?
Universal veganism wouldn’t stop the road building, logging, urban and suburban development, pollution, resource consumption and other forms of land transformation that kills animals by the billions. So what does veganism do exactly? Well, it ends the raising, capture and exploitation of animals, and it stops a kind of killing that many vegans claim is the worst and least excusable: the intentional killing of animals in order to use their bodies as material goods. But let’s return to the alien invasion to see if intent really makes that much of a difference. If aliens treated us the way that vegan humans treat Earth’s nonhuman inhabitants, would we care how intentional our sufferings and deaths were?
If we all went vegan before our interstellar betters landed here, the first thing they would do in copying our ways would be to rob our stores, homes, farms and warehouses of all our fruits, vegetables, beans, grains and convenience products. There is no limit to the amount of food vegan aliens could steal from us, because there is no vegan ceiling on foraging, just as vegan humans can take all the plant matter they want from the world, no matter how many animals starve as a consequence. Aliens could cause the worst famine humanity has ever seen, but it would be entirely compatible with their vegan ethics because they wouldn’t be killing us on purpose to eat us, but rather because they wanted our food and had the power to take it: our starvation would be a foreseen yet accidental side effect, and on that basis, ethically acceptable. We might try to fight the invaders over this mass plunder, but then the vegan aliens could kill us outright for threatening them, just as humans killing animals in self-defence is no crime in veganism.
Since veganism doesn’t stop us from wrecking animal habitats to make space for ourselves, vegan aliens could knock down all our buildings to construct new ones that better fit their plans. They could ethically evict us from our homes, businesses and organic plant farms without any compensation, and then to keep us from returning, they could set up fences, noise barriers and other deterrents. To them we would be hungry pests looking to devour their food supply, so they would even be justified in trapping or killing us with poisons if we got too close. The aliens may or may not set aside some land for humans to live on, depending on how much land was required for their cities to accommodate all their alien vegan restaurants, alien anarchist bookstores, and alien warehouse lofts. Since our habitat would be fragmented to suit aliens’ desires, it would be difficult or impossible for us to redevelop agriculture of our own, or even gather enough food to survive. Any habitat they left for us would never truly be ours anyway, because if the aliens ever wanted to increase their population or just spread out, veganism doesn’t stop them from taking more land. Humans would now largely be without food and shelter, but the vegan aliens wouldn’t need to feel guilty about it, since none of this deviates from vegan ethics.
Some vegan aliens might enjoy keeping a few human pets around. Unfortunately, they could spay and neuter us, as even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says vegans should spay and neuter their pets. Of course this would be for our own good, as we tend to overpopulate when we have charge of our own reproductive systems.
There’s also a chance that not all of the aliens would thrive on a plant-based diet. Vegan ethics allows exceptions in extreme cases, when a vegan diet just cannot work for some people. This means that some of the aliens would be allowed to eat meat for their health. So which animals would they kill for this purpose? Since the vegan aliens would claim to be anti-speciesist, it would be unjust discrimination for them to value the lives of humans over other animals, so if the aliens fancied our taste and nutritional profile – and couldn’t tolerate soy, wheat or nuts – they could still eat us.
A vegan alien invasion could all but destroy humanity while rationalising most of our suffering and death as ‘accidental’ or ‘unfortunate but necessary’, just as many vegans now rationalise the harms our plant-based civilization causes nonhuman animals.
What the alien invasion allegory ultimately shows is that humans cannot consistently apply the Golden Rule to the rest of the animal kingdom. Animal rights philosophers are highlighting a problem that may have no practical solution. Correcting the species power imbalance that vegans decry would require much more than humans giving up animal products: we would have to stop spaying and neutering animals; reverse our destruction and fragmentation of animal habitat; give up mass agriculture and civilization, and become pacifist gatherers who somehow never forage food that other animals need. Even then, other animals would have nothing to gain from our presence here. This is why some people believe that the logical conclusion of the animal rights movement is human extinction.
The conflicts between humans and other species are genetic and inevitable: our DNA and accumulated knowledge and technology currently makes us the cleverest, most powerful species on the planet. And since we cannot cooperate with wild animals for the mutual benefit of all sentient beings, we have little choice but to dominate instead.
Neutrality is impossible in a world with limited resources. Everything we take is a loss for other animals, and since we want to live (just as they do), we will never stop overlooking animals’ desires. We can give up some of the luxuries of domination for the sake of nonhumans, but any sacrifices we make this side of human extinction are token compromises. No matter what ethical philosophy we hold the day that brilliant, powerful aliens invade our planet, we better hope they don’t try to be like us.
© Rhys Southan 2015
Rhys Southan is a freelance writer and philosophy student who lives in Austin, Texas. He is also a former vegan.