Atlanta Falcons football star Michael Vick pleaded guilty to participating in a dog fighting /gambling ring, almost certainly ending his NFL career. Vick’s indictment was the scandal of the summer – and for good reason: 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 allegedly 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, 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 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 possess the power to understand right from wrong, and hence, only we can be held morally accountable for our actions. Indeed, our uniqueness as a species and resulting special moral worth – sometimes called “human exceptionalism” – is the prime philosophical foundation for establishing and enforcing universal rights premised simply upon being human.

Some claim that human exceptionalism is hubristic. Not so. Being the exceptional species does far more than support human rights. Our capacity to appreciate the grandeur and intrinsic worth of animals – and to recognize their capacity to suffer and feel pain – imposes the solemn duty upon us to treat animals humanely and never cause them gratuitous pain. Indeed, unlike the orca that tosses a hapless seal through the air without a moment’s consideration of the agony her prey is experiencing, only humans wince in revulsion when we see our fellow creatures suffer. This supremely human capacity to empathize with and appreciate “the other” is one of the best things about us.

And that is precisely where Vick and his co-conspirators went so badly wrong. Their acts have been made crimes precisely because society recognizes that such blatant cruelty should be beyond the pale of human endeavor. By training dogs to rend each other mercilessly, by brutally killing the animals whose natures were insufficiently vicious to win fights, and moreover, doing so merely to satisfy a barbaric blood lust in their customers or to provide them with a gambling adrenalin rush, they deserve to be punished by the law and shunned socially as pariahs. For by treating helpless animals as if their pain did not matter, they not only inflicted pointless suffering and terror upon helpless, sentient beings, but even worse, they besmirched the higher nature and noble calling of the human race.