This article1 details that notions of superior and inferior beings (but also that of ontological equality) made sense in Aristotle’s metaphysics, where they were linked to the notion of essence (and that of the hierarchy of beings which came from it). They have no meaning today; our vision of the world no longer integrates essences or a notion of higher and lower beings.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:9 (the Bible, New International Version)
In a televised debate2 with antispeciesist activist Tiphaine Lagarde, historian Emmanuel Todd said that “to see man as different and superior to other species is to lay the foundations of progress.” He was making an ontological claim (that was also ethical and political in nature), attributing a superior essence to “man” in an attempt to justify the eating of animals.
This type of thinking is typical of Aristotelian ethics, which creates ethical and political obligations based on an individual’s ontological status.
A mysterious metaphor
This vision has been formulated with varying degrees of clarity by a wide range of groups and individuals. It shapes most of our political ideas, and seems to be applied most often when it comes to something that would appear to be its opposite: the concept of equality (expressed in terms of ontological equality). Here, I would like to point out something about the notion of superiority that some may have forgotten: it’s a metaphor. And every metaphor has both a literal meaning and an implicit one. For example, if I said that the cat had got Mr X’s tongue, the literal meaning would be that a feline had somehow gained possession of the muscular organ that manipulates food in his mouth for mastication. That, of course, would not be what I actually meant. The expression’s implicit meaning is that Mr X was inexplicably silent. When it comes to the idea of superiority, the literal meaning is a spatial reference, as in Lake Superior, the northernmost of the Great Lakes in North America. Going back to the Latin root, the word “superior” literally means “situated above”3.
“Mr X is superior to Mr Y” is literally true when, for example, Mr X is at the top of a hill and Mr Y at the bottom. But the literal meaning of this word is rarely the implicit one. What is the implicit meaning, then? Is there a metaphor-free way to express what we mean by “Mr X is superior to Mr Y”, “humans are superior to animals” or “God is the supreme being” (which is to say, superior to everyone and everything)?
This is where we hit a wall. Everyone understands, or thinks they understand, what “superior” means – not only its literal, spatial, meaning but also the implicit meaning of the metaphor – although no one is able to express it.
The only possible answers to this question are simply rephrasings of the same metaphor: Mr X is superior because Mr Y is inferior. This is because he has lofty motivations, or received a higher education, or likes classical music, which is far superior to the pop music Mr Y listens to. Note that the claim is not that classical music yields more pleasure, but that the pleasure it yields is of a superior nature. Because they are fond of these higher pleasures, humans are at the top of creation4. They have dominion over all other animals. In the armed forces, a superior officer has a higher grade (a term referring to elevation, from the Latin gradus meaning step or stage) than a humble (from humus, the Latin for earth or ground) private, whom the officer can look down upon.
Superiority is not merely assumed; there is generally an effort to base it on facts. Classical music is superior to pop because it evokes nobler emotions. Humans are superior to animals because they are rational. Unlike animals, they have self-awareness, bury their dead, have a concept of God, realise they are mortal and have “free will” (a criterion highlighted by philosopher Luc Ferry)5. At the 1936 Olympic Games, the Nazis were very keen for Germany to win as many of the medals as possible to prove the superiority of the “Aryan race”. But ethical conclusions are also drawn from superiority.
For example, human superiority is the foundation of all progress and gives us the right to eat other animals. And because the Aryan race is superior, it has the right to enslave and/or exterminate non-Aryans.
So there are two sides to the notion of superiority. On the one hand, it is considered to be founded on facts, and on the other, it is supposed to justify an ethical status, a right to be respected, the right to enslave others, etc. We thus have the following situation:
The superiority in question here is the kind expressed in absolute terms. But when we say that an object or individual is superior to another in specific, measurable terms, the meaning is clear. One person may demonstrate superior courage compared to another, a stereo may offer superior power, sound fidelity, durability and so on. That simply means that the characteristic in question is quantitatively greater. In some cases, there may not be any value judgement at all. When it comes to wavelength, for instance, long waves are superior to short waves. We can also compare them using the notion of inferiority – long waves are inferior in terms of frequency. These cases are not problematic since the idea of superiority corresponds merely to a relationship established for all numbers. We read “3 > 2” as “three is greater than two” but the meaning of this relationship can be established mathematically without using any spatial metaphors.
This kind of factual (or specific, as I will call it) superiority is often used as justification for the notion of absolute superiority, or superiority “full stop”. The fact that the Germans won more medals at the Olympic Games was supposedly proof of their superiority as a people. It is important to distinguish between the two claims at work here. If the superiority of the German people was established by the number of medals they won (or the beauty of Wagner’s music, etc.), then things would have stopped there, with the number of medals. How can this number justify the enslaving of other peoples? Likewise, saying that “because humans bury their dead, they have the right to eat animals” is as meaningless as saying that having a pointy nose gives you the right to wear gloves.
The central factor here – absolute superiority – is therefore a prerequisite for ethical conclusions to be drawn. But if we are to claim that this “thing” – absolute superiority – on the one hand is based on facts and on the other has ethical consequences, we should at least be able to explain what it is. Since it is a metaphor, knowing its literal meaning (a higher spatial position) is not enough. We must know what its implicit meaning is. But we seem to have no idea what superiority truly is. This is therefore a situation in which the central factor – absolute superiority – is simultaneously necessary and empty:
In reality, I believe the relationship posited between specific superiority and absolute superiority is as follows:
We imagine that individuals and objects each have something that we call essence. These essences are the thing that is supposed to occupy the empty space. They each possess an attribute (which I will call “height” to continue with the theme of superiority), that determines whether the individual or object the essence belongs to is superior, equal or inferior to another.
According to this vision, we recognise the superiority of the Aryan race’s essence by the number of medals the Germans won, just as, in the Gospel, we recognise that a tree is good (attribution of an ontological quality) by its fruit: “Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” and “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”6. In other words, the alleged facts have a diagnostic value and not a constitutive one, just as a runny nose does not constitute a cold but is a symptom of it. And the notion of essence serves as an explanation of these facts.
In making an object’s supposed essence the central focus, this perspective allows us to understand the relationship posited between two things that did not originally have anything to do with each other: winning medals and having the right to exterminate others, or not bearing the right fruit on Earth and being damned in the hereafter (where the fruit in question will be irrelevant).
It also reveals the reasoning that is supposed to justify the treatment humans inflict on other animals. What relationship is there between burying one’s dead, making tools or having “free will” (to borrow the criterion Luc Ferry holds dear) and the right to kill and eat other animals? There is clearly no direct ethical cause-and-effect connection. The only way one could attempt to reach this kind of ethical conclusion is by assuming that a human essence does exist and is superior to that of other animals, and considering the abovementioned facts – burying their dead, etc. – to be signs of this superiority. In other words, speciesism is not based on any direct relationship between traits singled out as uniquely human and ethical conclusions. Rather, it is established via an intermediary – essence – and the essence’s “height”.
A fragile equality
As far as I can tell, there is nothing to stop us from believing that individuals and things have essences. But I also see no reason for believing it. The reasons that we once had seem connected mainly to the usefulness of essence as an explanation. A tree’s defective essence – its inferiority – was the explanation for the fact that it bore no fruit. And the superiority of humans was the explanation for the fact that they buried their dead and were self-aware. But today, we no longer need to postulate the existence of Zeus to understand lightning. Similarly, we realise that if a tree bears no fruit, this is due to a sequence of specific physical causes and effects rather than the tree’s overall abstract inferiority. We no longer need the idea of essence and an essence’s “height” to account for facts. And even if these things existed, we would have to deal with the problem of overdetermination, of double explanations for facts: we would have physical chain-of-event causes on the one hand, and essence-related causes on the other, to explain a single phenomenon.
Those of us who are against arbitrary discrimination – who are against racism, nationalism7, sexism, speciesism, etc. – may be tempted to base our arguments on the notion of equality. We may see equality as the negation of essentialist notions of superiority and inferiority. I think this is a mistake.
Equality necessarily describes a situation in which a specific characteristic is equal in two cases. But in what ways can two living beings truly be equal? They obviously cannot be completely identical. We could examine all the possible relationships between them, but in the end all we would find is specific characteristics that are sometimes different and sometimes equal in a certain set of individuals – animal A can run just as quickly as animal B, for example – but never would these aspects constitute total equality between the two beings. Positing this kind of equality thus necessarily implies referring, once again, to the animals’ essences, and therefore maintaining the same essentialist apparatus that we want to do away with. By placing the two beings at the same level, we assume that they have a level, which I have referred to as the “height” attributed to their essence. A claim of equality is thus necessarily an essentialist one.
This in itself is regrettable since, as I have explained, we simply no longer have any reason to see the notion of essence as valid. But also, if the real differences between living things – whether they bear fruit, run quickly or slowly, etc. – are no longer signs of the superiority or inferiority of their essences, what signs can there be of the equality of their essences? Neither the essence itself nor its “height” – equal in all the individuals being considered – can be based on anything concrete. If, as I am assuming, the main reason for arguing that an essence exists is to use it as an explanation, then refusing to account for real differences using differences of essence is, in a way, contrary to the very rationale of essence. As a result, any real difference will nevertheless tend to be interpreted as a sign of a difference in essence.
It is also worth noting that superiority is a spatial metaphor based on a measurement (height) that is likely to always be different. It is practically impossible for two objects to be exactly the same height – one of them will unavoidably be at least a tiny bit taller. It follows that the idea of two individuals having equal essences, which assumes that their essences are exactly at the same level, is highly implausible from the outset. How could it be that one of the individuals is not at least a little superior to the other? This problem, added to the constant temptation to interpret real differences as signs of a difference in the “height” of two essences, makes defending the notion of equality – equality of essence – an exercise in futility.
To my mind, the extreme fragility of this assumption of equality is what accounts for the extreme resistance in so many members of egalitarian movements – antiracist, antisexist, anti-homophobic, etc. – to any reality that could be interpreted as a sign of inequality. There is a sense of obligation to deny the existence of any biological difference, no matter how slight or statistical, even when the difference does not necessarily imply that one group has an advantage over the other – between women and men for example. This is particularly (but not exclusively) the case when it comes to mental abilities. Differences considered to be biological (as opposed to cultural differences, which are illogically considered not to be biological) are in particular perceived as the expression of a difference of essence. James Damore, an engineer at Google, not only lost his job in August 2017 but was also called a Nazi by many liberals for reporting that a difference at birth between girls and boys had been observed in terms of relative attentiveness to people and objects. This is in spite of the fact that the finding appeared to have been proven.
One person argued in a Facebook comment: “In my view, anyone who believes gender determines your personality is sexist. That’s the very definition of the term.” For the woman who wrote this comment, (potentially) finding a real difference is the same thing as negating the equality of the essences of men and women. More absurd still is the idea that those who believe it could be rational for parents to want to avoid having their child be born with a disability are insulting the disabled. When a trait seems to be an undeniable drawback – blindness, for example – some people feel obliged to point out that the trait is miraculously compensated for, in exactly the same measure, by other differences: a blind person has better hearing, a mentally disabled person is intelligent “in other ways” and so on. Basically, it is impossible to notice a specific inferior ability – a blind person seeing less well, for instance – without this being seen as a potential sign that the person has an inferior essence.
For many years, I spoke of antispeciesism as if it were practically synonymous with the notion of animal equality – the equality of all sentient beings regardless of their species. I now believe this point of view to be untenable. The idea of equality among beings or things is inescapably an essentialist concept, and we must reject essentialism.
We must reject it, first of all, because we need to pull the antiracist and antisexist movements out of their rut of denying realities. We cannot allow the justice of the antisexist movement to depend upon the ridiculous notion that a person’s sex has absolutely no influence on their personality. We can no longer continue clinging to the myth of the perfectly blank slate. The antiableist movement cannot continue pressuring people to consider the ability to use one’s legs to be irrelevant.
And when it comes to antispeciesism in particular, this line of thinking absolutely does not work. Because in this case, the real differences are enormous. It would clearly be ridiculous to say, for example, “Anyone who believes species determines personality is speciesist. Because that’s the very definition of the term.” Of course, species does not determine every single aspect of a personality, but does anyone really think there is no difference between the personalities of humans and cats, cats and rabbits or rabbits and turtles? Or that these differences are “socially constructed” (which is supposed to cancel them out as signs of superiority)?
Typically speaking, humans are not only more intellectually and technologically advanced than just about all other animals but also, for various reasons, more “ethically” advanced. It is often said that we are the only moral agents. I do not support that claim, but it is clear that in practice, humans are the only ones likely to ever willingly stop preying upon other animals in the name of these other animals’ interests.
This topic is now starting to become a common argument against antispeciesism. Refraining from eating meat, our detractors say, would amount to recognising the moral superiority of humans, and therefore acknowledging that we are superior full stop. And this would make antispeciesism fundamentally contradictory. Furthermore, according to this view, people who eat animals could consider themselves antispeciesists because they refuse to place themselves above other species in terms of their morality.
If our civilisation survives climate change and its impacts, and if the moral progress currently being made – which involves in particular questioning our indifference to other sentient beings – continues, we will not be able to avoid facing the question of our responsibility towards all other animals. This would not be limited to ceasing to hurt them but would also involve addressing the immense suffering that occurs in nature, in particular due to predation among animals. We should, I believe, take a closer look at this phenomenon. It would involve making use of two actual superiorities: the superiority of our moral judgement (over that of a lion, for example, which will always claim the bodies of others for itself) and of our technological resources. If we were to continue reasoning along these lines, the evidence for the absolute and essence-based superiority of humans would be overwhelming.
But we must stop reasoning along these lines. We must be able to accept that we are, to a large extent, more powerful than other animals and that we have, in certain decisive ways, a superior moral sense, but without being superior to them in some absolute ontological way.
As I have explained, the idea of equality among things and beings is necessarily the idea of an equality in some specific aspect, and this specific aspect can only be our essence. In this sense, equality is inescapably an essentialist concept, while the idea of essence is, in practice, incompatible with equality. In what other terms should we reason, then – we who are antispeciesists and also oppose sexism, racism and so many other unfair discriminations?
Antispeciesism as a negative claim
Various liberation movements have formed as a response to specific types of discrimination. In each case, their goal has been to get others to recognise that a certain characteristic should stop being important. At one point in history, a person’s station at birth as a commoner or nobleperson was deemed to no longer count. Skin colour and sex in turn were declared unimportant. And in each case, the movement involved a negative claim: a given characteristic no longer mattered. But these movements’ ideas tended to be formulated in terms of a positive claim: all are equal. This is a mistake, I think – one that is largely due to our habit of reasoning in terms of essentialist ideas inherited from Aristotle and Christianity.
In actual fact, there is no need to reason in terms of equality. What we should say is simply this: regardless of how we formulate our ethics, whether we base them on utilitarianism (equal consideration of interests), rights or something else, social class, skin colour, sex and species are not in themselves relevant criteria. This does not imply a positive equality. Neither does it mean that we must treat all beings in the same way, that we must give them the same rights, etc., depending on the ethics theory that we subscribe to. It simply means that if we treat them differently, or give them different rights, it should be for specific reasons other than social class, race, sex or species.
David Olivier is co-founder of the magazine Les Cahiers antispécistes, of the Veggie Pride march and of the annual meetings called Les Estivales de la Question Animale. He is a theoretician and a grassroots egalitarian activist. Co-author of the Manifesto for the Abolition of Apartheid International. Holder of a PhD in fundamental physics, he is currently working on the idea that sentience can be explained by the properties of matter, a matter yet to be proven. His personal page: http://david.olivier.name/fr/david-olivier
- Article by David Olivier, translated by Elisabeth Lyman (proofreading Holly James), from the article “Supériorité” published in Y. Bonnardel, T. Lepeltier, P. Sigler, La Révolution antispéciste, Presses universitaires de France, 2018, with the permission of the publisher.
- 10 September 2017 on the France 5 network’s programme C Politique (around the 66-minute mark). Tiphaine Lagarde is copresident of the French nonprofit 269 Life Libération Animale.
- The word is Latin in origin, from superus (placed above) and super (above).
- See John Stuart Mill: “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures… It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” [Utilitarianism. London: Parker, Son and Bourn, 1863].
- Le Nouvel Ordre écologique: l’arbre, l’animal, l’homme, Paris: Grasset, 1992, published in English (translation by Carol Volk) as The New Ecological Order, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, p. 41.
- Matthew 7:17 and 7:19 (the Bible, New International Version).
- In the sense of a human having different rights depending on their nationality. See the Manifesto for the Abolition of International Apartheid,