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In Defense of Misanthropy

In Defense of Misanthropy:
A Philosophic Justification for Preference for Non-Human Organisms

by Michael Gurnow

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"Mankind is, and always will be, a pest."

Claus Larsen

When asked, if forced to choose been rescuing a human being or a mouse from a house fire, which would he elect to save, Australian philosopher Peter Singer responded that he would--without hesitation--retrieve the human.1 He goes on to expound upon his reply stating that the impetus for his decision is not to be found in kinship or whether or not the mouse or the human have the capacity to feel pain (for he states unequivocally that both qualify in the latter instance), but that the determining factor in his choice is the potential amount of life experience an organism possesses. As such, the human's cognitive capacity--particularly the ability to reflect upon and take from the past in order to generate a life of worth and to gauge, anticipate, and prepare a rewarding future--is the reason for his verdict.

Anyone familiar with Singer's writings and theories upon ethics, especially those focusing upon animal rights in relation to human action, will indubitably find the philosopher's sentiments suspicious at best. At minimum, one senses that Singer's response is too succinct in its political correctness considering what came before, both qualitatively and quantitatively, from the thinker's pen. Yet, conjecture upon the psychological, social, and political motives for his reply becomes moot in the wake of the earnest pursuit of objective reasoning, reasoning whose one of many purposes is to eschew contemporary influence and expectations in hopes of deriving a basis by which to determine what society is to deem right or wrong. It is with this that I cite Singer's logistics and conclusion to be erroneous.

Indeed, quality of life is worth pondering in respect to the hypothetical for many would refute the citation that existence is to be unquestionably continued regardless of the circumstances under which it subsists. Such individuals would likely concur with the grievance that once the quality of life drops below a certain, albeit subjective (a matter which lies outside the scope of this discussion) level, the option of the termination of life becomes a welcome alternative. Furthermore, Singer's declaration that because an animal cannot fathom its own mortality (implicit in his premise concerning an animal's propensity for temporal abstraction) is arbitrary, to say nothing of suspect. In short, I propose--not that Singer was responding as he knew he should--but, unabashedly, that his conclusion was incorrect and that the mouse is incontrovertibly the sound choice in respect to the proposed scenario.

Understandably, such a declaration does not initially set well with an audience due to one factor exclusively: speciesism (a term which Singer coined). To put it simply, kinship, nepotism by way of species, and the ego's desire to be vicariously important due to the immediacy of such a claim is what has hereto led humanity safely to the reconciliation with its unjustified predominance and subsequent tyranny over all other organisms. Yet, as Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein posits in his analogy that the aim of philosophy is to "sh[o]w the fly the way out of the fly-bottle,"2 we are not to become preoccupied with the popular concern for either the bottle or the fly. Consideration upon how we react to our deductions is to only follow after our subjective reasoning (which includes our biological intuition, an ability which is exclusively human) has been alleviated from our philosophizing as much as possible. If one does not care for the conclusions, it is well within a person's right to reevaluate the proposal and its analysis, but it is not within the individual's philosophic jurisdiction to make ethical declarations upon the findings based solely upon the fact that such does not result in one's favor.

It is with this that we can understand humanity's adamant diligence that our artistic visions end with some tone, insinuation, or the outright pronouncement of optimism in respect to the human race. Only after our alliances to ourselves extend outward in the form of favoritism for family, town, state, and nation, do we come to appreciate Samuel Johnson's declaration, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."3 Patriotism or, more colloquially, nationalism, is an arbitrary ideology founded upon the equally illegitimate concept of "land(s)": An imaginary line of demarcation created and sustained by people leads one to the notion that, depending upon which side of said boundary one is born, such automatically decrees that those born within the same parameters (because they share a kinship) are of greater worth by association (and the locale-specific ideas, beliefs, and value judgments that subsequently follow such division) than others born outside of said margins. Thus, hubris thereby announces that kinship within a species, to say nothing of a metaphysical existence, is of lesser importance than other, completely capricious factors, all of which have thus proven disadvantageous to our quality of life, whereas if our elected basis for judgment were founded upon more legitimate, egalitarian terms, matters stemming from family kinship, town alliance, state affiliation, and patriotic association would no longer permit such exclusionary judgment upon others, the inevitable historical consequence of such being the illogical mass termination of a species directed at and by itself in the guise of war.

It is with anthropocentrism lead by xenophobia that the demand for prevalence of the human race come before--and, if necessary, at the expense of--all other species. Recognition of such culpable ills is indeed difficult to accept. Thus, it is not surprising that our imperialism by way of species bars us from even humoring the hypothetical of the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, "If a group of beings from another planet were to land on Earth--beings who considered themselves as superior to you as you feel yourself to be to other animals--would you concede them the rights over you that you assume over other animals?"4 This is also why the conclusion of Daniel Quinn's Socratic novel, Ishmael, is surprising: By subtly implying that the term "evolutionary ladder" is semantically convenient in that its symbolic import permits its audience to stand at the helm of such, the author posits that the purpose of our species is to continue to allow other organisms to evolve (Quinn's deduction cleverly grants non-humans the opportunity for a satisfactory existence as humanity vaingloriously congratulates itself for permitting such graciousness). However, what such a possibility permits is that, while ignoring the perpetually shifting environment which demands constant change, other beings might one day supercede human precedence, an event which few are willing to consider even in the abstract. Intriguingly, sociobiologist E. O. Wilson's assessment that Darwin's (meaning the results hereto of evolution) coincidental roll of the dice was in the human race's favor is conveniently ignored in lieu of the exponential odds of such culminating in our favor when they could have very readily resulted in a subjectively less favorable aggregation of power.5 What all three thinkers intuitively accept in their proclamations is that the human race shares the common trait of existence with countless other beings whose metaphysical worth is inherently no greater or lesser than its own.

Regrettably, the few who have iconoclastically and rebelliously set forth this idea--that humanity is of equal, not greater, worth in respect to all living beings--have been subsequently shunned and applied with the socially-condemning label of "misanthrope" in lieu of our species' perpetual itinerary of greed, lust for power and control, possession (signified by money), all of which are only usurped by our ignorance goaded by our lethargy as a whole. (To cite such a reading as innately pessimistic ignores the irrefutable quantitative amount of human good evidenced throughout its history in relation to the malevolence which has been enacted at the race's hands.) Again, those who venture to offer such earnest readings are lambasted, especially if such proposals are compact and unrepentant, as exemplified by the negative reception and continued dismissal of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, a tract which refuses to ignore an entire nation's actions because, stated simply, they are less than admirable when collected and subsequently critiqued for what they are: reprehensible.

If asked, undoubtedly many would overtly declare that to live under another organism's rule would be penultimate when placed alongside the option of death (notice that the hypothetical does not indicate whether the rule is benevolent or malevolent). Yet, in lieu of such sentiments, we not only treat ourselves in manners which, if the same where enacted by others unlike us, we would prefer to no longer exist, we inflict similar treatment upon beings which do not harbor the ability to rival us on any authoritative level. This is why Shaw's observation, "When a man wants to murder a tiger he calls it sport: when the tiger wants to murder him he calls it ferocity"6 is ironic though it oughtn't be as we dismiss such nonsensical deliberations despite the fact that the tiger might well be engaging in violence due to the fact that its food supply has been eradicated or was forced to migrate due to human development. No comment will be made upon how the hypothetical would be received of tigers collectively aligning themselves to avenge the slaying of one of their own as is the habit of humans.

As pithily outlined in Andy and Larry Wachowski's 1999 film, The Matrix, "Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area." For the sake of pacing, the directors omit the ramifications that such actions have had upon non-human beings that, not only are susceptible to being the focus of such tyranny, but are at the mercy of what humans enact upon the environment which they too are dependent. The Wachowski's go on to astutely observe, "There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet."

The film's assessment of the human predicament is not revelatory for many have previously voiced such analyses over time yet the production's incorporation of the analogy first made popular by American novelist William Burroughs that humanity's actions are akin to that of the biologically anomalous virus remains shocking for most. A virus is a conundrum for it is the only organism which is dependent upon a host for survival but, due to its genetic predisposition, must parasitically prey upon its host and does so until either the virus's eradication or its host's extinction. By comparison, humanity's relationship to its environment should be symbiotic. However, due to its viral tendencies, humanity has instead created a type of autophagy in that, being dependent upon the environment while nonetheless depleting it, the human race is enacting a form of self-cannibalism.

Under such considerations, it is now feasible to objectively contemplate the idea that Singer is wrong in his decision to save a human before a mouse for the latter, in Quinnian terms, is not a "Taker."7 A rodent will voluntarily leave what it does not require, thus permitting a multitude of others, both like itself as well as other species, to utilize what remains in its stead as it continues to live in harmony with its environment, a habitat which it--alongside a multitude of other organisms--is dependent. This is in direct contrast to a human which, throughout its history, has readily exhibited a penchant and proclivity to tyrannically insist upon its own superiority. This diligence frequently manifests itself in the form of violence and over-consumption, even at the expense of its own kind as well as itself, as witnessed in the gradual diminution of the sustainability of the environment. Granted, such a declaration is absolute in that not every human exhibits a blatant disregard for other humans, non-human animals, and the environment yet, under the terms of the hypothetical, a brief survey of an individual's ethics is not permitted and thus, when placed alongside the fact that no mouse possesses the potential to enact such harm, the more ethically justifiable choice becomes clear once probability and history are taken into consideration. As such, the sentiment that a mouse cannot engage in temporal speculation becomes an arbitrary component of the argument in respect to the aforementioned facets concerning the potential quality of the rescued being's life.

Wilson conjectures that "If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago."8 In brief, the planet needs humanity no more readily than a native deer populace requires human intervention in order to sustain its continued growth for the natural wax and wane of the animal's environment, as well as the animals within it, will automatically regulate itself and its inhabitants as it has succeeded in doing by way of natural selection. Yet, perplexingly, a proposition which seriously harbors the idea that a being outside of the reader's own species (with the exception of viruses for few innately conceive of such as being exemplary in such cases) deserves equal consideration is cast as misanthropic even though the proposal of equality, not prejudice, has been offered. Such is analogous to the faulty logic involving the deduction that to be against slavery inherently implies that one is racist for it would upset the hierarchical pyramid where the ruling race is at its peak. Under such terms, only when the proposition is made that another species is to be preferred above that of Homo sapiens is such a designation to be considered legitimate despite the fact that such is a philosophic examination which nonetheless lies outside bias and party favor and might reveal itself to be logistically valid.

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[1] .

[2] Philosophical Investigations.  Part One, Section 309.

[3] James Boswell's Life of Johnson.  Entry for April 7, 1775.

[4] Attributed (but nonetheless poignant).

[5] 'Is Humanity Suicidal?'  New York Times Magazine.  May 30, 1993.

[6] 'Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion' from Man and Superman.

[7] Ishmael.  Chapter Two, Section Three.

[8] 'First Word.'  Omni Magazine.  September 1990.

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