Humans seem to have done a tremendous job at creating fictional situations in which we are treated as other animals or in which we can take a step back and see someone else treating others in the same regard. This has stood out in amazing detail to me since becoming vegan, in various books, animes, movies, and cartoons situations that are deemed grotesquely wrong in fiction seem to be defended by people in real life. Here we will look at 5 situations that take place in 4 different series: Star Wars The Clones Wars, Samurai Jack, Steven Universe, and Parasyte. Through fantasy and science fiction maybe we can get a better glimpse of an important question.
The Animal Question.
What are the rights of nonhuman animals? What moral considerations do they deserve? This is not a simple or one layered question. It encompasses all our views and uses of otheranimals and raises a point “Is it wrong?”. This question is closely related to other “questions” of oppressed and marginalized groups and I would like us to keep it close at hand as we delve into these fictional stories.
I would also ask that we familiarize ourselves with two terms and definitions that intimately relate to the animal question:
Speciesism: “The belief that one species is superior to another”
Dominionism: “The belief that humans are superior to all other beings. This is a particular form of speciesism”
For this piece I will be decoding fictional accounts of speciesism. I will try to avoid too much philosophical language, my main point here is have us question hard held notions of superiority. To think critically on what characteristics rights are based on and if those characteristics are just. To question the points many of us view as acceptable ways to treat other animals because of ideas and beliefs that were created long before our time. I certainly think it is time we dismantle many of these sentiments just as we have done with a plethora of other traditions of thought that have been used to justify oppression and exploitation of humans.
Note: I will sometimes be using the terms “nonhuman animals”, “other animals” and just “animals” interchangeable since all the characters involved, excluding the gems of Steven Universe are all animal species. Sometimes to make a point when quoting a character other times to question the use of the term. Make no mistake all involved are persons. Please watch the video as the accompanying piece supplements it.
Scene I: Star Wars the Clone Wars
We begin with an episode of Star Wars where the Jedi are responding to an attack on a remote Republic outpost where all the troops have been killed. The Chairman believes it to be the work of separatist but Obi-Wan disagrees. After exploring the surrounding area they come into contact with an unknown group of indigenous people, the Talz. The Talz are reminiscent of archaic humans and seem out of place in the galactic civilization. To many they may appear closer to “animals” than their alien counterparts due to their level of technology and society. We get our first glimpse of this attitude when Anakin ask Obi-wan, “how do you plan on communicating with these things”. Denoting living beings in such a way (things/it) serves no positive purpose, it renders them as objects devoid of moral consideration. It espouses an underlying disgust or even hatred, certainly a belief that the Talz are beneath them. We see Anakin’s deposition change after they are able to communicate peace relations through drawings. But we soon encounter a worse case of speciesism when the Jedi report back to the Chairman. A few key points of dialogue I left out the video are as follows:
Obi-wan: “It seems we have stumbled across an inhabited planet”.
Chairman: “Impossible…no one lives here, they’re trespassers.”
Obi-wan: “These creatures, the Tawls, aren’t advanced enough to master space travel”.
Chairman: “Whoever they are they belong to us. This whole system belongs to us.”
Senator: “If there are lifeforms here then the senate must decide jurisdiction.”
Chairman: “They are savages, look at what they’ve done, they’ve slaughtered your troops.”
Obi-wan: “They only want to be left alone…”
As you can see from the video the Chairman goes on to describe the Talz as nothing more than animals. The do not warrant respect nor rights. A key phrase he says is that they are not covered by the “convention of civilized systems”, the senators goes on to say “if the Jedi can communicate with them, their status is in doubt”. What does this mean? It infers that the rights of the Tawls are completely dependent on the ability of the foreigners to understand them. It seems that if the Talz had not managed to development of a language it would be difficult to assert them as being deserving of equal consideration.
According to the Chairman they have no rights. He flatly rejects their offer of peace as long as he respects their right to land and independence. Instead choosing to go to war, the idea of conceding to a group of people he sees as animals is unthinkable. Here we encounter an interesting issue. Most people would probably denote the Talz as having sufficient intelligence to warrant equal rights, they have a language and a society even if it is “primitive”. Is this where the line should be drawn at the animal question? To change from the status of animal to a more advanced being protected by laws? Some would disagree and we will see this in out later encounters.
But in this case the Jedi and senator do not agree with the Chairman and are given permission to broker a peace deal. As the Chairman lays dying he orders the senator to “destroy the Talz”, I don’t think this can be taken any other way than to be an order for genocide if we view the Talz as being above the classification of the animal. Thankfully he dies knowing this wish will not be fulfilled as the Talzs are declared as free and equal people by the assembly.
This episode has raised crucial concerns on the animal question. Most humans believe we are superior to other animals due to our “higher levels of intelligence”. We can talk, they cannot. We create civilizations, they do not. We have the ability to think and reason, they do not.
Scene II: Samurai Jack
For this scene we will be diving into an episode of Samurai Jack, here we find our hero almost trampled by what appears to be a large mammal. After helping to subdue the Wooly we see this may not have been one of Jack’s great moments of justice. We see him look on as the Wooly is immediately attacked with shock devices by a small technologically advanced race. By their facial expression we can tell the Woolies are quite depressed. For this scene I want to get to the crux of the issue as it is similar to the case of the Talz, what makes the treatment of the Woolies wrong?
While feeling sorry for them and attempting to question their mistreatment, Jack is ready to leave them to their fate until he learns that they can talk. This may be due to Jack understanding what the alien invader said was in fact true, humans do treat other animals exactly like they treat the Woolies. Horses, cows, elephants and countless others deal with worse abuse on a daily basis. Jack can certainly tell how the Woolies are feeling without their speaking to him, so why did it take the use of human language for their suffering to be taken with enough regard to act?
At what level of “advancement” and “intelligence” is a line drawn for when the domination of a species is morally permissible? We can plainly see their suffering and yes their enslavement before discovering their society and ability to speak. Certainly the Chritchellites saw themselves as an advanced species doing nothing any more wrong than humans in their treatment of other animals.
Scene III: Steven Universe
Now that the shoe is on the other foot we can probably see the issue a little clearer. In our above scenes we dealt with situations in which humans were on the sidelines looking on. We could choose to get involved or to leave. In Steven Universe we find ourselves in much the same situation as the Talz and Woolys. An advanced alien race views us as backwards and uncivilized, we are now looked upon as mere animals. So much so that a zoo is created for humans.
I again want to put out the question what makes this wrong? Our category as human is not a sufficient answer. We can see the Gems do not care, even after conversing with Greg, Blue Diamond sees him as an interesting animal that should be preserved in a zoo. When Steven voices fear of what has happened to his father Blue Agate finds his “barking” noises annoying and hilarious. We even see that the humans in the zoo are blissfully happy and well taken care of. They do not suffer from hunger, cold, or even sadness.
The entitlement of the Diamonds to planet earth is also an interesting point similar to that of the Chairman. Should the ownership of land be based upon common concepts of superiority? Intelligence, technology, brute strength? Do animals have a right to land?
Scene IV: Parasyte
With Parasyte we are again positioned as the victims. This anime centers around parasitic organisms that infect humans by taking over their brains. They gain full control of their host body and are able to morph into different forms to feed on their unsuspecting prey- humans.
What particularly grabbed my attention about this series was in episode 4 where the main character is questioning the villain on why she would choose to eat us when she could survive and thrive without doing so (sound familiar? Vegans ask this question to people who eat animals all the time). But at least in this scenario we find out the parasytes may actually have a good reason for killing and eating us. We are destroying the planet and countless other species along with it. Someone has to put us in check.
The opening song centers this issues:
“You guys do not notice that we are gifted just by being humans
We are absolute predators
We do not even have any enemies
Maybe there are other animals watching us
and thinking that someday “we will beat them down”
This situation is unique from all the others. Here we are presented with a species who has evolved specifically to prey on us and their “raison d’être” can be argued as a positive event. If humans are not superior to other animals or rather other persons or if superiority is based on reasoning and intelligence are the parasytes not justified in preying on humans?
Scene V: Star Wars the Clone Wars
For our final scene we jump back into Star Wars, and for the first time we deal with a species who cannot communicate with us using verbal language. We are confronted with the issues of self defense, extinction, biomedical ethics, and more.
We begin with Mace Windu coming into contact with a large and unknown species. This situation is immediately different than the former ones. This animal immediately attacks them, the size and ferocity make it difficult to sympathize, it is a beast and not a person . Even after the Talz had killed numerous Republic soldiers their likeness to advanced species made it possible to give them the benefit of the doubt. The Xillo “beast” is frightening and it is difficult to see ourselves in them. Nonetheless Windu protests the attempting killing of the Xillo. He argues “it” is a unique lifeform who is only acting in self-defense. The Dugs disagree, Windu is an outsider looking in. He does not have to live with the constant fear of death from the beast, he is able to leave at anytime while the Dugs are the ones who have to defend themselves against the creature. Does the threat of violence against their people not justify a preemptive course of action? Even with these arguments Windu continues to push for the safety of the Xillo and after learning how it could benefit them the chancellor agrees to relocate “it“. But we soon see this may have been a worse outcome.
The Chancellor and others are taking a position of utilitarianism to justify the capture and confinement of the Xillo “beast”. Experimenting on the Xyllo and killing “it” is a necessary sacrifice to save countless lives across the galaxy. How can the life of one animal be worth more than the lives or soldiers fighting for their empire? It is the ends over the means.
But not everyone agrees. After learning of the news Padme objects to situation. The Xillo “was chained up and brought here against its will, it has no voice to defend itself, we have to be that voice”.
Anakin reputes this: “you haven’t seen it in action, you have no idea what it is capable of”
But Padme counters with an important point: “it’s what we’re capable of that frightens me, a creature’s life, maybe an entire species is at stake”.
While debating what should be done the chancellor makes a point Anakin cannot disagree with: “Is it not worth the life of one savage beast to give our brave troops the advantage they need to win this war”. He denotes this as “my moral imperative to take action”. And I think it is hard for anyone to disagree with this, one life for millions, especially the life of a deadly animal. The end would certainly justify the means.
But as Padme bravely asserted, there is plenty wrong with this line of thinking. On this question we can use the words of Tom Regan and think about their moral rights.
Most would say no. That cannot be done to Mickey because of his rights to bodily integrity. But of course we are at the crux of the issue. Mickey is human, the Xillo is not. But as we are in the Star Wars Universe it goes beyond just the human and the animal. The scientist conducting the experiments in not human. So instead we shift back to some initial issues of sentience and intelligence to determine rights. The scientist initially objects to killing the Xillo as she believes it “may be intelligent” the rebuttal to this is “it is just an animal”, needless to point out everyone involved is an animal.
“If animals have rights, and if rights are the trump card in the moral game, their rights override any benefits, real or imagined, we have gained, or stand to gain, from using them in biomedical research.” -Tom Regan
Moral Consideration and Rights on the Animal Question
After viewing these situations who did you believe was in the right? Are the Talz just savage beast? Are the Diamonds morally justified in their treatment of humans? Was there anything wrong with Jack being okay with the plight of the Woolys prior to learning they could talk?
If these situations were wrong in fictional settings why are they right in reality?
But the question remains: Do animals have rights? Do animals deemed “savage” and “unintelligent” have rights? If they do, what rights would these consist of? Are the limited rights given to animals today based upon species enough? Pigs can be abused in certain ways that dogs cannot. Certain animals such as dolphins and primates are positioned as smart enough to warrant more rights. What characteristics make the allowance of rights possible? The ability to suffer as Bentham would argue? The presence of a soul as argued by many religious observers? The ability to think rationally?
Is it just an issue of intelligence? The ability to communicate? A biological imperative? Throughout history we have used these excuses to dominate and exploit others. To measure the ability of other animals (and humans) to reason, suffer, be self-aware to determine if they deserve rights and protections. The likeness or rather difference from the dominant group is used to debate these questions. Early Western thinkers such as Aristotle and Descartes believed that humans are superior to other animals and were endowed with the moral right to dominate them. The famous “Great Chain of Being” ranked species, putting humans on top and all else stratified below. Aristotle argued that nonhuman animals are only concerned with procreation and consumption, that their lives have no further meaning. Descartes famously wrote “I think therefore I am”, an astounding philosophy that was used to further exclude animals as according to him they do not possess a mind or the capacity for thought. This combined with their lack of human speech justified their inferiority. Other animals are little more than machines, they act based solely on instinct and are devoid of a soul. These beliefs are commonly held today.
These debates have to be more than intellectual musings, the live of trillions of sentient beings rest on the outcomes of what we deem right or wrong. For thousands of years humans have inflicted countless atrocities on other animals based on a belief in human superiority and we continue to do so today. If we do not shift the dominant discourse around the rights of other animals countless more will be subjected to cruel and abysmal lives. The animal question must be addressed and outdated ways of viewing other animals, other persons, must evolve. To see that they are here with us and not for us.