I don't know if I should ask this question here (or anywhere).

If it's universally accepted (it probably isn't since it seems nothing is universally agreed upon) that humans should be prioritized over other animals, why should there be veterinarians, animal help organizations, or anything or person that helps individual animals when they could be doing something else that helps humans?

I feel like I'm morally obligated to prioritize humans at least over animals. I don't see any reason to donate to the ASPCA or anything that helps animals when I could donate to help humans in need

If someone believes a human's life is more important than an animal's, then why would that person do anything to help an animal if they could've instead helped a human?

  • See e.g. The Moral Status of Animals Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 6:27
  • 1
    We also prioritize humans over cars and yet expend much effort to keep cars in good order. Even in purely egoistic ethics one occasionally ought to help others to help oneself, so in purely anthropocentric ethics non-humans are given moral consideration for the same reason. Helping a dog may help save someone's life or property one day, helping a rain forest full of animals may help save human communities that depend on it for a living, etc. Few would fault you for donating to Goodwill instead of ASPCA as long as you donate. But human priority would not justify animal abuse, for example.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 7:56
  • Why not do two things at once? Do you not feel responsibility in keeping the fauna and flora diverse, being a member of one of the more capable species in the world?
    – Emil
    Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 15:31
  • @Emil I was sort of taking opportunity cost into account, the fact that everything has a cost. When you do one thing, everything which you could’ve done instead is your opportunity cost. Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 15:33

4 Answers 4


Prioritizing confers benefits of power to another, whether it's an individual or a group as you're suggesting. Are we trying to rationalize our abusive relationship with all other forms of life, including other humans? Why not value all life forms while trying to limit our destructive forces in order to survive? Why not have an environmental contract to include all forms of life, like we have a social contract not to resort to barbarism? As David Hume pointed out over 250 years ago, our decisions are far from logical or rational. We make decisions based on our emotions and then rationalize them.


Many animals are thought to be sentient creatures in at least some degree. Sentience is the main ethical reason advanced for treating one's fellow homo sapiens with moral respect. The greater the sentience of some creature, the more moral respect it deserves.

Consequently there are laws against abusing the higher animals, such as forbidding cruelty and (increasingly) vivisection. These laws apply less to simpler creatures such as worms or insects, which are generally assumed not to be sentient.

Turning to selfish reasons, many animals provide economic wealth, personal pleasure and other benefits to us. In a wider context they are integral to the ecosystem which supports us. Looking after them makes economic, recreational and ecological sense. Getting into the habit is a great place to start, as you will be less likely to do harm by omission later on.

There are of course other more value-based reasons advanced, such as a spiritual or religious duty to care for all living things.


Increasing the survival probability is the first and most important goal. Not because it is a conscious choice, but because no other goal can be achieved without being alive. And it it is conscious, everything an individual can do, it is for survival. Our laws, religions, ethic or moral rules have the goal of regulating our social behavior in order to improve the probabilities of survival of the group (group survival is first). Maslow, Freud or Darwin's doctrines point to that. We improve as persons because that improves our probabilities of group survival (in a tiny, tiny bit, but it is an increment anyway), etc.

So, in the past, and from a short term perspective, yes, it was correct to kill any number of animals in order for a human to survive. So, you were not forced to protect the animals. You could kill hundreds of elephants just to throw their meat and keep their fangs without any consequence.

But that was the past, it is not anymore so. The systemic view of our environment has make us notice that we can't survive alone. We need the animals and all life forms to continue existing if we want to survive. We've learned that short-term views are usually bad foundations to take important decisions.

In consequence, in the long term, and if we want our children to survive, it is imperative to protect the animals. So, if you want your children not only to be happy, but to have the possibility of surviving, you should act ASAP, and do as much as possible to save animal life.

Personally, I believe that in the future, animal life will be prioritized in front of human life. That is simply because the planet is becoming overpopulated by humans, while other species are getting extinct.

  • I don’t think humans need all life forms in existence to live. We know little about our oceans and what is in them, so there’s likely species we don’t even know exist yet. How do you know that we need all life forms to exist, without knowing what all life forms are and what they do? And what is your call to action specifically? Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 5:09
  • Lovely answer! «Western pop culture has a longstanding hobby of portraying bees as evil little stinging pests» ... Above is the opening line of this article which may take one a little beyond the "Im just describing the logic behind the answer."
    – Rushi
    Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 10:11
  • @CottonHeadedNinnymuggins Im just describing the logic behind the answer. If you think your children don't need any other form of life in order to survive, kill and burn any other form of life (or promote doing it), but before make your children taste fruits, vegetables and animal products for the last time. I'm not calling for any specific action, just making calculations. If I think people will save animals is because of statistical trends, not because I want that to happen.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 6:06

There can be good reasons to prioritize working on animal welfare above working on human welfare, even if you prioritize human welfare above animal welfare on a "per individual" basis.

Due to comparative advantage, it can sometimes be sensible to work on a problem that is not the most important problem, if you are a better fit for it. For example, if you are particularly skilled at helping animals or particularly motivated to do so, you may be able to help them more than you can help humans.

Moreover, different problems intrinsically have different "yield per unit effort". For example, farm animal welfare generally is a cause that receives startlingly little attention, given the huge numbers of farmed animals in existence and often poor conditions that they live in. Here's a visualization:

a comparison of animal use vs. animal charity donations; animals used and killed are mostly on farms, but farms receive a very small fraction of money donated to animal charities relative to shelters etc.

(source: Animal Charity Evaluators)

This means that there's often very low-hanging fruit in opportunities to improve the welfare of farm animals, and that means it can be extremely low-cost to make progress, relative to how much it costs to help humans. Even if you believe one human life is worth N (> 1) animal lives, you may find that you can save more than N animals with the same money (or time or work or etc.) it would take to save one human.

All that aside though, I doubt any of this is the explicit justification most people use when choosing a career helping animals. If you're confused about why people do that, I will say two things:

  1. Most people don't make ethical priorities the primary driver of their career choices. They choose based on what they'd enjoy, what they're good at, what ensures their financial security, and so on. While ethics is often a part of why people choose the job they have, it's generally not their goal to choose the most ethical career available.
  2. Even when people do make ethics the central concern in their career choices, most people don't conduct explicit prioritization in their ethical choices – people are generally hesitant to say "this way of helping is more important than that one", or (seemingly) it doesn't even occur to them to ask the question at all. I wish I understood more about why this is, but in part I'm sure it's just that prioritization in any sphere is hard: people make bad decisions, or at least sub-optimal ones, in all parts of life, because it's difficult to really thoroughly survey all the available options, their costs and benefits, and to follow where the reasoning leads you, instead of where you instinctively desired to go.

I've taken a lot of interest in effective altruism in more recent years as a better way to answer questions like these. Note that "animals vs. humans" is, in that context, just one of many prioritization decisions you need to make: consider humans in the developed world vs. those in the developing world, humans currently alive vs. humans yet to be born, saving humans from death vs. preventing their suffering vs. improving their economic, social or political freedoms. There's a lot to take in here, a lot to consider. It's a huge challenge, as you'd expect, but certainly some progress has already been made, and there's more yet to make :)

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