The arrest of football great Michael Vick for allegedly participating in a dog fighting/gambling ring has shocked the country.
The charges are horrendous: In a throwback to the brutality of the Roman arena in which wild animals were forced to fight and kill each other to the frenzy of the crowd, Vick and his co-conspirators, according to authorities, bred pit bulls to tear each other apart for human enjoyment and their own profit.
Dogs that lost fights or were deemed insufficiently aggressive were slaughtered cruelly by hanging, shooting or electrocution.
People are outraged at this scandal, and rightly so.
But few are asking why, exactly, we are so upset. For example, do we contend that the dogs acted wrongly by fighting each other to the death? Of course not. Only human beings have the capacity to understand right from wrong.
The pit bulls, vicious and dangerous as they were, only behaved as they were trained.
Then are we furious because, as animal-rights activists would have it, the victimized dogs had a “right” not to be treated in such a brutal fashion? No. Animals don’t have rights. They can’t even understand the concept.
Indeed, for rights to be true rights, they must apply universally.
Yet anyone seriously asserting that a lion violated a zebra’s right to life by hunting it down would be laughed out of town.
So what was the real wrong allegedly committed here?
Simply stated, the purported crimes of Vick and his alleged co-conspirators are rightfully viewed as despicable because their brutal actions violated their (and our) humanity.
This conclusion springs from the extraordinary nature of human beings.
We are the only truly conscious and “free” species in the known universe. Only we have the true ability to choose. Indeed, our uniqueness and resulting special moral worth – sometimes referred to as human exceptionalism – is the prime philosophical foundation for establishing and enforcing universal rights premised simply upon being human.
But being the exceptional species does more than support human rights. It also imposes concomitant duties upon us.
As the only truly moral species to have ever evolved or been created – take your pick – we alone have the capacity to comprehend the grandeur and intrinsic value of animals.
After all, the elephant is incapable of looking at a cheetah or zebra with awe. Nor can the cat appreciate the beauty of the blue jay and the butterfly.
Moreover, unlike the orca that tosses a hapless seal through the air without a moment’s consideration of the agony the prey is experiencing, only humans wince in revulsion when we see our fellow creatures suffer.
Indeed, this uniquely human capacity to empathize with and appreciate “the other” is one of the best things about us.
In contrast, if Vick and his cohorts trained dogs to rend each other mercilessly and brutally killed the animals whose natures were insufficiently vicious to win fights, and, moreover, did so merely to make money by satisfying a barbaric blood lust in their customers or to provide them with a gambling adrenaline rush, they deserve to be punished to the fullest extent of the law and to be shunned socially as pariahs.
By treating helpless animals as if their pain did not matter, by engaging in such blatant cruelty, they not only inflicted inexcusable suffering and terror upon helpless, sentient beings, but, even worse, they besmirched the higher nature and noble calling of the human race.