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Review – Professor Bernard Rollin

“The Superior Human?” is an extraordinary undertaking by filmmaker Samuel McAnallen. In barely 75 captivating minutes, McAnallen presents a wonderful and entertaining introduction to the relatively new field of animal ethics. (With a few notable exceptions, the first books on animal ethics do not appear until the 1970s.) In the ensuing decades, the field has flourished and so captured the social imagination as to be one of the leading moments in current societal ethics, and has already led to major changes in how animals are used. As usual, however, social change benefitting animals has outpaced societal understanding of the ethical basis for such change.

McAnallen’s film shows great promise in remedying this deficiency. In true democratic fashion, he has made this film widely available at no cost on the Internet. For those unwilling to immerse themselves in philosophical treatises, and even for those willing to do so, this film provides a very provocative introduction to a major question in animal ethics, namely the question of alleged human superiority, which in turn serves as a rationale for failing to extend full moral concern to other animals. Clearly, the unquestioned, unexamined, but ubiquitous, assertion that humans are the superior life form, and thus are entitled to exploit others for their perceived benefit, represents the most formidable obstacle to expanding the circle of moral concern. Most of the world’s major religions accept this dictum uncritically as foundational. Even some religions, such as Jainism, that appear on the surface to afford equal moral concern to all beings, in fact concern themselves with animals only because they are reincarnated humans!

Combining fascinating and clever visual images with a number of (hopefully entrancing) talking heads, since I am one of them, McAnallen covers a large number of putative ways that alleged human superiority can be rationally cashed out, and refutes these claims. While philosophers may find some material to argue with, lay people will find their prejudices challenged and their minds opening in a manner very difficult to dismiss. But McAnallen is far too subtle to attempt brainwashing. Rather, the film represents an invitation to dialectical examination of cherished preconceptions in ways that are not easily dismissible. As a professor who has taught for more than 40 years, and has taught animal ethics for 35, I rarely use anything but printed material. But this film is so well done, and so provocative, that I will henceforth include it in my course requirements as a very powerful teaching tool. I can think of no quicker nor more painless way of immersing students in animal ethics.

Professor Bernard Rollin
7 April, 2012