This is a fairly common objection to veganism and is argued on the basis that since humans are the dominant species of the earth, we have the right to eat other animals, just like other apex predators such as lions. For the purposes of this counter-argument I will, despite evidence to the contrary, accept the premise that humans really are apex predators, despite our lack of claws, suitable teeth or carnivorous instincts, and seek to instead disprove the conclusions often drawn from this supposed fact.
This argument stems from one of the most ancient justifications for violence in existence; the proposition that might makes right. That because we are powerful enough to kill other animals, that gives us the right to do so. The flaws in this as an ethical system, and the consequences of universally applying such a notion, should be obvious. That humans are, by our technology and our societal organisation in a position to mass produce, exploit and slaughter billions of animals for our consumption is not a good ethical reason for us to continue to do so, or any ethical reason whatsoever for that matter.
This proposition also arises from a basic misunderstand of how natural systems work. “The food chain” is simply a construct we have imposed on the natural world in an effort to understand it; we are not at the top of a chain, we are part of a complex system of mutual reliance. This argument relies on a version of hard biological determinism, that how we behave is entirely dictated by our biology, but in any other context this would not be entertained as a justification for behaviour which causes harm. Besides this, a society practising industrialised agriculture cannot reasonably count itself as being “part of the food chain;” the vast majority of humans are not contending with wildlife and giving back to the cycle when we die by being eaten by someone with sharper claws. Most of us buy our meat pre-packed from our local stores, or kill game with mechanised weaponry. Realistically, we ceased to be part of the natural give and take of nature the day we invented agriculture.
Irrespective of what the food chain is and is not, what is absolutely certain is that it is of no ethical relevance whatsoever. What those holding this argument fail to account for is the fact that humans, unlike lions and other predators, are moral agents. Lions and other similar predators are obligate carnivores and have no choice in what they eat; therefore they are not subject to the same moral standards as humans are. We however, have a choice. Since the vast majority of humans can be perfectly healthy without consuming any animal products, most of do so purely for taste, convenience, habit and tradition. This makes consuming animals a moral decision and considering the fact that animal agriculture is responsible for the deaths of billions of animals and is one of the leading causes of climate change, that moral decision is very much open to criticism. When we can choose to live in a way that minimises our harm to animals and the planet, and we choose otherwise, we cannot reasonably use our place in “the food chain” to justify that behaviour.