Imagine some aliens descend on earth looking for intelligent life; the self-dubbed homo sapiens proves disappointing in that regard, but we turn out to be tasty.

Imagine the aliens have such cognitive sophistication that they can hold thousands of simultaneous conversations at rates thousands of times faster than the fastest human speech, never losing their places. From their vantage point, all of human behavior – anything we might do or say – is predictable and boring, and yet they adore the succulence of our flesh.

We can’t converse with them, since we can’t formulate thoughts that match the complexity of even their most vacuous chit-chat, and yet they do understand our own grunts and gesticulations – in fact, they can anticipate these grunts with stunning precision. To them we are robots acting on a discernible program. We might proudly present the greatest achievements of our science, our literature, our music, and to them it all seems as insect architecture might seem to us.

These aliens notice how we pollute our habitat, how we slaughter and enslave our peers, and how we eat other animals we deem inferior and expendable. How then could we persuade the aliens that while we can be ground into delicious burgers we should rather be allowed to live, even to be recognized as members of their moral community?

If we had no hope of befriending them as equals, and if we could offer them nothing new in the domain of information, perhaps our best argument would simply be that we’re alive, that we feel pain, that in our capacity to suffer, we are like them. But that’s not a logical argument, it’s an appeal to empathy, and how could we expect these aliens to relate to creatures as primitive as we are, particularly when the aliens are hungry and the smell of our flesh on the grill makes such a persuasive case against compassion and for exploitation. How – tell me – how could a human persuade a peckish alien taxonomist not to classify all humanity as a resource to be tapped for nutrition and enjoyment?

I suppose we might still carry out the hope that empathy – as a phenomenon – can extend across species and types of mind and can be entertained even on an empty stomach.  Our treatment of other animals on earth is an opportunity to affirm or destroy that hope, no matter whether the aliens here discussed are mere figments of a thought experiment. ■

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