“But humans are at the top of the food chain” argument against vegetarianism

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

Almost every time there is a discussion about vegetarianism, someone comes up with an argument similar to the following:

Humans are at the top of the food chain, so we have the right to eat any animals we want.

Let’s put the question whether killing animals in order to eat them is morally wrong in any sense aside for now (this would be a long debate, and since morality is a matter of opinion, it would also be quite futile). However, there are a few logical issues with the argument that bother me and which I would like to discuss in this article.

What is wrong with the argument

  1. Even if we were at the top, the argument still wouldn’t make sense. If we “reared” a certain group of people in order to kill them and eat them, we would be, by definition, higher in the food chain than them. Following the logic of the argument, we would have the right to do so.

    Of course, this is utter nonsense. There’s no logical connection between our current position in the food chain and justifiability of eating living beings that we put at a lower level by intentionally eating them. Such reasoning is circular.

  2. We are not at the top. Biologists define the so called trophic level. It is a numerical value representing how high in the food chain an organism is. Primary producers, such a plants, are at trophic level 1, and apex predators (predators which don’t have any predators themselves) are usually at level 4 or 5. For other organisms, the number is computed using certain formulas based on the composition of their diets.

    There was a paper that estimated the trophic level of humans:

    Human trophic level (HTL) has never been defined. Here, we find a global HTL of 2.21, i.e., the trophic level of anchoveta.

    This makes sensewhen was the last time you ate a polar bear? Polar bears eat humans from time to time, though.

  3. Being higher in the food chain than other animals is not merited. A common addendum to the argument above is that “we are technologically advanced, have weapons, and can hunt or rear animals, which places us at the top”. Yes, we are, but that is also kind of a strange argument, since we have access to advanced technology only thanks to a small group of highly gifted individuals who invented all the tools we use.

    Most people have no idea how to hunt, rear animals, or make the necessary tools. Saying that such a person is “at the top of the food chain” makes about the same sense as feeding dead gazelles (or dead people, for that matter) to pigs and saying that the pigs are at the top of the food chain.

    Even if there is any logical connection between the ability of conquering animals and justifiability of eating them (which itself seems rather convoluted), this still would not be an argument why it is justifiable for most people to eat animals.

In conclusion, the argument simply doesn’t work. There may be other good arguments for or against eating meat, but this one is not one of them.

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