In may 2016, a five-year-old child purposefully crawled into a gorilla cage (no euphemisms here like 'enclosure;' it's clearly a cage) at the Cincinnati Zoo. The parents were apparently oblivious.[i] They were clearly failing at their responsibilities. This is beyond doubt, because others heard the child saying that he wanted to go into the cage to play in the water. This should have prompted the parents to pay special attention to the child. However, it apparently did not.
What happened after was predictable. Male gorillas are protective of young creatures, including human children. Thus, the male gorilla, Harambe, took control of the situation. The screaming people agitated the situation further. Mostly Harambe seemed to be protecting the small child. He did drag the child through the water twice, but this seemed to be to move the child away from all the screaming people. There was no aggression displayed specifically towards the child. Nevertheless, the decision was made to shoot the gorilla dead.
Was this the right decision? There are many facts that are relevant that we do not know. However, there is an important philosophical assumption underpinning the Zoo's decision which we are in a position to question. The justification for killing Harambe to protect the child is implicit in this quote from the Zoo's director, Thane Maynard: [ii]
(The officials) made a tough choice and they made the right choice because they saved that little boy's life. It could have been very bad.
Maynard is basically saying it was the right choice to kill the gorilla, because doing so saved the child's life. The implicit assumption is obvious: human children are more valuable than gorillas. Questioning this is important, because the belief that humans are more valuable than animals is the foundation of not only the killing of Harambe but also could be used, at least in principle, to justify the destruction of animal habitats, the absence of humane conditions for caged animals, and other related evils.
One might think that humans get to be more valuable than animals simply by being human. On this view, humans are intrinsically just more valuable. This, of course, is a dangerous way of thinking. We can, in theory, justify whatever we want by appealing to such intrinsic features of belonging to a certain category. For example, we could use it to justify racism against blacks by saying that whites are just intrinsically better, because they are in the category of 'the white race.' This shows that such reasoning is inherently problematic and hence must be abandoned. So, what we need is to find something further about humans that makes us more valuable.
The most obvious further thing one might cite to justify our superiority is our being the most intelligent species. Now, the child, being five-years-old, was probably not smarter than Harambe. He wasn't smart enough not to crawl into a cage with gorillas! But what if it had been an adult? Is an adult of average or above average intelligence necessarily more valuable than a gorilla? I think it's clear that the answer is 'no.' Suppose the adult was Harold Shipman, the serial killer, and the gorilla was Harambe, a relatively peaceful creature.[iii] Who is more valuable? Clearly Harambe. This shows that humans do not get to be more valuable than animals simply by being more intelligent. What we do and how we act matters.
Humans have more potential than animals, because we are smarter. So, perhaps the potential to do good provides a reason to believe that humans are more valuable. The problem with this is that humans also have the potential to do far worse things than animals. No gorilla ever nuked and killed 100s of thousands of people. No gorilla has ever systematically murdered entire ethnic groups. Humans have. So, potential alone would seem as if it cannot provide a reason to prefer humans over animals. The potential to do evil, at best, cancels out the potential to do good, and so potential alone provides no reason to prefer humans over animals.
We might instead talk of likelihood. What about the claim that humans are more likely to make good contributions to the world than animals? Is this true? I have no idea how to even begin to analyze this in detail. Humans certainly do a lot of harm to each other and the world, including to other animals. We are currently the main factor behind the sixth mass extinction of animal life.[iv] Regardless, if likelihood to do good is what's relevant, then we have to look at things on a case by case basis. Some humans may be more likely to do good than some animals, but not every human is more likely to do good than every animal. In the case of the child and Harambe, it would seem that the odds are not clearly in the child's favor. A gorilla in a Zoo, one might argue, does a great deal of good educating the public. It is true that the animal is not praiseworthy for this in its entirety, but he is praiseworthy for remaining in a mental state where he could perform this role despite living in captivity. Zoo's must take their toll on wild animals, especially relatively intelligent ones like apes who are aware of their captivity (a consequence may be that we should not have Zoo's).
In sum, what we can see is that humans do not get to be more valuable than animals simply by being human. It depends on the animal and the person. More generally, it depends on humans as a whole and how we act. Humans have great potential. We are capable of being more valuable than animals generally, but it is unclear given our track record whether we are more valuable. In fact, it is clear that many humans are less valuable than gorillas because of the harm they they do to the world and animal life and to other humans. So, despite what many of us may believe, we do not get to be more valuable just by being human. We have to earn our value.