to be a part of the moral community is to have one’s welfare
interests matter categorically. Members of the moral community
are superior in a way that is different in kind from those outside
of the moral community.
most controversial premise of the argument I have offered will
likely be, which asserts that animals lack moral status. I now
turn to a defense of this particular premise.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT MORAL STATUS
exactly is moral status? At its most general level, to have
status, standing, or to be a subject is to have membership within
a community. Consider the concepts of educational status and
religious status. One’s status in each of these areas
is dependent upon the nature of the relevant institution. Given
the nature of educational institutions, someone who is enrolled
in a school may be said to have standing as a student, while
someone who is not enrolled may lack standing altogether or
possess a different kind of standing. Similarly, an atheist,
under certain conceptions of what it means to be religious,
will not have standing in religious bodies because he does not
share a belief in the divine. Those within a community will
often be subject to and enjoy certain rights, rules and regulations
that are relevant to the goals of that community. For instance,
students in a school have the right to learn in a safe and distraction-free
environment. At the same time, they are subject to rules regarding
dress code, attendance, and homework. Depending on the community,
not all members of the community may share the same amount of
standing (teachers and religious figureheads, for example, will
have higher standing than students and laypersons). Hence, status
within a community may come in degrees of significance.
what is the moral community? Communities are groups of individuals
(or smaller subgroups) ordered around a common factor or objective
shared by each member. The conditions for membership within
a certain community are determined by that community’s
nature or purpose. Educational status in a university, for example,
depends on meeting certain minimum admissions criteria pertinent
to the goal(s) of the university. The concept of membership,
like the concept of status, makes sense only when understood
in relation to a group organized around a common factor. These
common factors can either be a natural property (such as in
biological kinds) or stipulations made by an organizing authority
(such as in a club). We cannot know what it means to have standing
in a certain community without first knowing the common factor
around which that community is structured. So too with the moral
community. The defining feature of the moral community is related
to the nature of morality itself. Hence, to know what the moral
community is, we first must have some idea of what morality
is and what it is about.
should also distinguish the concept of moral status from the
grounds of moral status. In order to draw distinctions between
what is and what isn’t relevant to moral standing, one
needs to begin with an understanding of what moral status is.
However, theories of the grounds of moral status are very often
put forth with little to no theoretical elaboration tying the
purported morally relevant property or properties to membership
in the moral community. Many times the only reason in favour
of adopting a specific conception of the grounds of moral status
is just an assertion that its moral relevance is intuitively
obvious. But this will not do, especially given that many theories
that claim intuitive support are mutually exclusive. What we
want from a theory of moral status is a robust conceptual framework
for understanding moral status, not just a list of properties
that are justified by a mere appeal to intuition. There will
need to be theoretical elaboration on why a supposed property
or list of properties is relevant to membership in the moral
community. Appeals to intuition, though helpful, do not go far
in satisfying this requirement. It may be intuitively obvious
that some property is in some way relevant to moral status,
but this in itself does not tell us how it is relevant (which
may reveal crucial points that cannot be uncovered by mere reflection
on one’s intuitions).
defender of the basic vegetarian argument is committed to the
claim that sentience is sufficient for conferring moral status.
However it is not clear what the connection is supposed to be.
To see this, consider the distinction between moral and non-moral
goodness. This distinction holds simply that things can be good
in ways other than their being morally good, and that moral
goodness is a subset of goodness considered generally. Good
is a term that is used to assess the worthiness of a particular
thing in relation to some end, kind, or purpose. That is to
say, something is good in that it is good for some x. If I say
that a toaster is good, I mean that it is particularly adept
at doing the sort of thing that toasters are supposed to do,
which is toasting bread. But being good in one respect is conceptually
distinct from being good in other respects. Hence, although
a toaster might be good for the end of toasting bread, it is
not good for the end of telling time. A good toaster, good watch,
good firefighter, and good person are all good in different
ways. In each case, the content of the good depends on the thing
of which it is attributed. Goodness can be spoken of in many
different ways, with moral goodness being just one way in which
something can be said to be good. Thus, that something is good
in some sense does not in itself entail its being morally good
as well, for not all goods are moral goods.
why should we think that sentience is sufficient for moral status?
An obvious answer is that causing pain harms the being that
suffers. Since we ought not harm others without a morally good
reason, it follows that it is morally wrong to cause unjustified
pain. But this will not do. Each living being possesses a set
of welfare conditions according to which its life can be evaluated
as well or ill. Humans need oxygen or else they will suffocate,
cows need grass or else they still starve, and plants need water
or else they will wither. Some non-living things also possess
welfare conditions. A car that is improperly maintained or a
computer infected with a malicious program is not functioning
as it should. A harm is just a setback to one or more of a being’s
welfare conditions, with the harm of pain consisting in the
impairment of a subject’s physical and mental well-being.
question we should ask, then, is this: What is it about pain
that makes its harm a distinctively moral harm? Stated differently,
what does pain add that makes it different from the violation
of just any other welfare condition? It will not do merely to
appeal to intuition, for although we do have a strong intuition
that pain is linked with moral badness, this intuition does
not tell us whether the moral badness of pain derives from the
very nature of pain itself or from some further fact that makes
pain experiences morally significant. If the latter turns out
to be the case, then our intuitions about pain contain a masking
effect that affects our ability to discriminate accurately between
relevant and irrelevant forms of pain experiences. That is,
our intuitions may cause us to focus too much on irrelevant
features that present themselves strongly to us, with the result
that we miss other subtle but relevant ones.
the moral relevance of sentience consists in the fact that pain
experiences imply the existence of a subject who is consciously
aware of his or her experience of pain. Kuhse and Singer acknowledge
that a variety of living and non-living things can have welfare
conditions, but maintain that only those welfare conditions
that bear on consciousness have moral import. Thwarting a desire
counts as an instance of mental harm in the same way that thwarting
growth counts as an instance of physical harm. In neither case
can we infer that they are intrinsically moral harms. Thus,
although the presence of conscious states or mental properties
certainly makes a being’s welfare more complex, they do
not seem to add anything beyond a new set of welfare conditions.
Even though it does intuitively seem as if consciousness of
a certain kind is relevant to moral status, consciousness as
such is not what confers moral status. There needs to be a further
fact that conceptually links the two together.
ANIMALS LACK MORAL STATUS
it was said that communities are organized around common factors.
The moral community is likewise organized around something shared
in common by all of its members. This common factor is none
other than the capacity for rational agency. Moral philosophy
studies topics such as the good, obligatory and forbidden actions,
responsibility, virtue, habits, attitudes, emotions and practical
reasoning. All of these have to do in some way with the pursuit
of the good life. Virtue, for instance, is typically understood
as being a disposition towards a certain kind of action. The
terms action and pursuit refer to more than just a mere tending
towards an end, such as digestion or the heart’s pumping
blood. Moral action is free action, which requires (among other
things) that an agent have the ability to know his reasons for
action. Oderberg notes that “knowledge and action are
the two essential objects of ethics, what the person who wants
to ‘be moral’ or ‘act morally’ has to
aim at.” Morality itself, then, is concerned with delineating
standards for the purpose of guiding behaviour. Gert defines
morality as “an informal public system applying to all
rational persons, governing behaviour that affects others, and
has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.” The purpose
of morality is to provide a code of conduct that those in the
moral community can use to guide their behavior with the final
aim of flourishing or living the good. The moral community is
thus a community of rational and free beings. It is this common
factor that defines the moral community as moral.
subjects must therefore be capable of knowing, understanding,
deliberating, choosing, and acting for the sake of the good.
Furthermore, since morality is about the pursuit of the good,
and because the good is species-specific, a moral subject must
also have the further ability to know his own good and the good
of others in the moral community. This in turn requires that
a moral subject have the ability to have at least partial knowledge
of his nature and the nature of others like him, which requires
that he possess an intellect capable of grasping the essential
nature of things and abstracting it as something held in common
is unlikely that animals have any of these cognitive powers.
We come to know what something is through observing its actions.
That is, we know what kind of being/entity something is by seeing
how its powers, capacities, and dispositions are manifested.
I know what a plant is by observing its physical structure and
growth patterns. I know what a dog is by observing its behavior.
If some animals really are capable of rational agency, then
we should expect them to manifest some of the characteristics
indicative of it. But any evidence of this sort is completely
absent in animals. This can be seen simply by noting the huge
gaps in achievements between humans and animals. If animals
possessed the same sort of intelligence, then we would expect
to see similar achievements in the animal world. We would expect
their intellectual, moral, social, and cultural development
to parallel our own. Yet this is obviously not the case.
that devours a zebra does not act immorally, since neither the
lion nor the zebra is capable of having duties of any sort.
If I am mauled by a grizzly bear, the grizzly bear is not morally
blameworthy for mauling me because it has no duty to respect
my rights. Should we put carnivorous predators on trial, punish
them, and create provisions to protect them from harming each
other? Most of us would rightly balk at such suggestions. Whatever
intelligence animals do possess, our reluctance to attribute
duties to them on the basis of such intelligence is evidence
that it is not the kind of intelligence relevant to moral standing.
of the complaint that any moral theory that denies moral status
to animals is unable to account adequately for the wrongness
of cruelty? Here it is not clear why someone who denies that
animals have moral status cannot be committed to the thesis
that animal cruelty is wrong in part because of what it does
to the animal. Animals, along with all living things, possess
welfare conditions, and so acts of cruelty harm them in a real
sense. Even though it is persons (either oneself or others)
who are morally harmed, it is not incorrect to say that that
animal cruelty is wrong in part because it harms animals, since
it is through harming animals that persons are morally harmed.
In other words, the harm dealt to animals is a necessary --
but not sufficient -- feature of what grounds the wrongness
of animal cruelty.
perhaps an advocate of moral vegetarianism might have a way
out. “Whether a particular treatment is cruel, very much
lies in the eyes of the beholder. As a consequence, people might
have different views about what harms the moral status of humans.
As such, the moral status of animals becomes irrelevant for
determining whether eating meat is immoral. It all depends on
how much harm a particular object inflicts upon the moral status
is true that what constitutes cruelty will, to some extent,
be person-relative. Nevertheless, this is not enough to support
a general argument for vegetarianism. Cruelty, whatever else
it may be, consists of practices that inflict needless or excessive
suffering (i.e. suffering beyond what is required) or suffering
for its own sake. In other words, one way that cruelty may be
perpetrated is if someone inflicts more harm that is required
to accomplish some end, even if that end is morally legitimate.
Implicit in this analysis is that practices that are proportionate
to some morally legitimate end do not count as cruel. By legitimate
end I mean any practice that contributes to our flourishing.
Since animals lack moral status and can be used for the purpose
of satisfying a legitimate welfare interest (i.e. nutrition),
then their use for this end is morally permissible in principle.
Acts of harming animals that are disproportionate to the end
of nutrition, would, under this analysis, rightly be immoral.
Perhaps this requires drastic changes to current practices,
perhaps it doesn’t. My goal here is not to defend current
practices involving the use of animals for food, but to critique
the more general idea that we ought to be vegetarians because
nourishment is not a morally good reason to cause pain to animals
or to support practices that cause pain to animals.