14.3 Genuine Moral Consideration

Animal Welfare

As long ago as the late 18th century the British Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham claimed that animals deserve moral consideration to the extent that they can feel pain. He was in fact simply following the logic of the utilitarian view of ethics in making this claim. Recall that utilitarians measure the moral worth of an act by the amount of good it does for all affected by it. This good, in Bentham’s view, can be measured in the amount of pleasure that results for those affected. But if pleasure is the sole measure of what is good in an action, why restrict this to human pleasure? Aren’t at least certain animals also capable of feeling pleasure and pain? Shouldn’t this also be taken into account when we are figuring out the consequences of our actions? Bentham thought that there really was no good reason to think that some creatures’ pleasures and pains have moral worth and others’ do not. If it is pleasure that makes something good, how could we restrict it only to the pleasure experienced by us, why not also include the pleasure experienced by whoever or whatever is capable of feeling pleasure? So in the name of interspecies democracy Bentham suggested the revolutionary idea that animals should be considered apart from whether or not our decisions regarding them had good or bad effects on us alone. More recently Bentham’s position has been revived by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, and this view represents one wing of the contemporary animal rights movement. Singer’s argument can be summed up as follows.

Pleasure and pain are morally significant – ethical action is that which maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for all who are affected.
Some animals can experience pleasure and pain.

So, we should act in such a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for humans as well as for those animals affected by our actions.

There a couple of points worth mentioning here. First Singer is just following out the logic of utilitarianism – if your pain matters just as much as mine does this can only be because of the nature of pain itself, not the identity of the being who is experiencing pain. If animals are also capable of experiencing pain then it seems that species membership is not crucial for deciding whether you count or not, what counts is the degree to which you can experience pain and pleasure. Second, this view does not imply that humans and animals count the same. Instead it only claims that if you are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain to the same degree then you count the same. So the arguably less intense or less sophisticated sort of pleasure and suffering that birds can experience (they lack the kind of heightened psychological experiences that we humans experience) means that if we were forced to kill a chicken or of a human being we would have to kill the chicken. And finally this position, does not entail that it is simply wrong to kill animals or use them for research. Instead it simply says – since animal suffering make a moral difference we are obliged to minimize surplus suffering, suffering that is not used as a means to get greater pleasure for all creatures involved than would have been the case without that suffering.

Animal rights

Utilitarian arguments alone cannot possibly be the basis for objecting to all uses of animals by humans that are currently the norm. For as we saw when we discussed utilitarianism, one of the big problems faced by utilitarians is that they recognize no concept of rights – all they are interested in is the total payoff in happiness resulting from our actions. There are, nevertheless, advocates of the idea that animals literally should be considered as having rights.

This position was first articulated by the American philosopher Tom Regan. Dissatisfied with the unprincipled nature of utilitarian arguments (any kind of action would be acceptable to utilitarians as long as the balance of pleasure and pain were right in the end), Regan argues that animals can and should be granted more than just consideration, they should be granted rights as well.

It is our cognitive abilities that are the basis of our having rights.
Humans and animals overlap in terms of cognitive abilities.

So, either all humans and some animals should have rights, or only some humans but no animals should have them.

There are two sides to this argument. The first, negative side, suggests that there is no workable way of restricting the idea of rights to humans, without either making the criterion of application so broad that it includes some animals or so narrow that it excludes some humans. That is, if we decide that humans deserve rights because they have a sense of the significance of their own lives, they experience pleasure, pain, the feelings of success and frustration, and have the possibility of running their own lives – shouldn’t this also apply to certain animals, who arguably experience their own lives and are frustrated by not being able to do as they want? If on the other hand we set as a criterion for having rights some more narrowly defined feature of human experience, like the ability to be rational and use language to express ourselves, doesn’t this end up excluding some humans from moral consideration? Not all humans are fully rational – young children are not yet rational, and the mentally retarded never will be – but this seems no reason not to grant them at least some rights. In other words Regan points out a dilemma with the concept of rights – we can either define the criterion for granting rights broadly, in which case certain animals seem to qualify, or narrowly in which case certain human do not seem to qualify as rights bearers. Regan is clearly in favor of including animals in the sphere of those who get rights, and he points out that those who would resist this move would have to also accept that certain humans, those who through mental handicaps or just as a result of being not fully developed lack rationality, should not have rights either.

The second, positive side of Regan’s argument takes over from here – since animals share something significant with humans, the capacity to experience their own lives as truly their own, why not grant them full moral consideration? After all, if the reason humans deserve rights is because each of us has the capacity to experience the world from our own unique perspective, and that is what is valuable about each human being, isn’t it just human chauvinism to insist that no other animals have anything like this ability of ours?