Most people believe that adult humans are moral beings, capable of acting not from instinct but rather from a reasoned set of rules. These rules are generally called “ethics.” For most of history, discussion of “ethical rules” was dominated first by superstition and later by religious doctrine. Because most people weren’t able to read, they were reliant on leaders (tribal, religious, etc.) to tell them what to believe. Thus, ethics were largely devoid of serious reasoned examination. Only in the last few centuries have ethics been rigorously pursued outside of religious doctrine. In many countries today, even individuals who hold strong religious convictions are dependent upon arguments from secular ethics to resolve disagreements, and most religious doctrines now accept that their texts should be viewed critically as products, at least in part, of human cultures.
Pope John Paul II stated that religious principles must hold up to rational ethical argument if they are valid. In other words, he granted that no one should take any ethical principles “on faith.” Any student of theology knows that religious texts were clearly created by humans in a specific time and place. Whatever we take from these writings will require historical and ethical analysis, rather than an uncritical read. It’s a good thing, too, or what would we do with sections like these?
When your brother is reduced to poverty and sells himself to you, you shall not use him to work for you as a slave. . . . Such slaves as you have, male or female, shall come from the nations round about you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy the children of those who have settled and lodge with you and such of their family as are born in the land. These may become your property, and you may leave them to your sons after you; you may use them as slaves permanently (Leviticus 25: 39–46).
While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was discovered gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who caught him at it brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly. But they kept him in custody, for there was no clear decision as to what should be done with him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “This man shall be put to death; let the whole community stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community led him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD had commanded Moses (Numbers 15: 32–46).
There are many similar examples from the Bible, used for millennia to justify the Crusades, witch burnings, slavery, child abuse, denial to women of the right to vote, condemnation of homosexuals, and so on. In every case, the Bible was used to justify the wrong side of history, as admirably discussed in Ernie Bringas’s exploration of the issue, Going by the Book: Past and Present Tragedies of Biblical Authority.
If a Jew or a Christian claims their religious texts are an infallible guide to morality, they would have to say that slavery is ethically acceptable, working on the Sabbath warrants the death penalty, and so on. Alternatively, if one does not consider a literal reading of a religious text as the first, last, and only word on ethics, then one is left to find another, rational basis for ethics. To reduce the problem of interpretation and the prevalence of inherent prejudices, one might do well to seek a universal basis that can transcend the boundaries of faith and culture. Of course, seeking such a universal basis is not at odds with developed religious belief; any Creator who has given humans the ability for rational thought and logical analysis would want us to use these abilities.
Despite the capacity for rationality, human beings have several significant obstacles to overcome when discussing ethics. Foremost, we have significant evolutionary baggage that leads us to value ourselves and family first, our tribe second, and strangers third—if we value them at all (Druyan and Sagan, 1993; Wright, 1995). Some people call this hierarchical value system our “moral intuition,” or our “moral instinct”—what “feels” or “seems” right is right (i.e., ethical). Some philosophers derive ethics from our instincts and intuitions. Intuitionists may judge ethical arguments against our intuitions and modify these arguments so as to fit better with our intuitions. Still other philosophers start with their intuitions and work backwards to try to create some seemingly rational basis to justify their desired conclusions.
Not everyone has the same instincts about ethics, however, and many instincts are contradictory, and thus cannot all be valid. Indeed, we now widely condemn as unethical the instincts of those who enslaved blacks, burned witches, forced children to work in mines, and so on. We are convinced that a century from now, people will condemn our generation for instincts we may now be harboring uncritically. It is important that ethics, whenever possible, avoid deferring to potentially prejudiced instincts.
The easiest means by which to avoid our prejudices is to take as an objective a point of view when discussing ethics as we possibly can. Such a point of view is sometimes called “the point of view of the universe,” a view that allows us to empathize with all those beings affected by a decision. One of the more common methods of approximating this view is called “The Original Position.” Imagine yourself as a disembodied entity, existing outside the world. At some unknown time in the future, you will be “incarnated” on Earth, at which point you will take on the intellectual and emotional characteristics of your new body. In addition, you do not know your future IQ, your race, your nationality, your gender, or even your species. (Although most philosophers don’t include species variation in this calculation, they haven’t given a good reason for species to be excluded.)
Behind this “veil of ignorance,” (a concept created by Harvard philosopher John Rawls), you must choose what is to be held good and bad in the world in which you will be incarnated: i.e., what rules of ethics should be followed. Because you are self-interested, you want to protect whatever interests you may have in your various possible incarnations. Put another way, a universal view like that of the Original Position involves an “equal consideration of interests” of all those beings one could become.
How can one think about a situation like this? What can be said about the various beings whose lives we could possibly lead? How can we compare their diverse interests? One universal aspect is that every being said to possess “interests” seems to pursue experiences that they find desirable (pleasure) while avoiding those that are undesirable (pain)—in short, maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain are interests held by each individual with the biological capacity for having interests. Such interests appear to be fundamental to all conscious creatures, likely the result of evolutionary processes that used pleasure and pain as inducements to guide behavior and learning. If organisms (such as bacteria, plants, and most likely some simpler animals like clams and some other invertebrates) are incapable of the subjective experience of pleasure or pain, then the rules by which one interacts with them are irrelevant to them. You could be incarnated as an oak tree, but the universal system of ethics set forth would be inconsequential to you.
For sentient, conscious beings capable of subjective experiences, these interests vary as widely as the organisms do: from basic avoidance of nerve tissue damage, to the conscious, intellectual desire for “justice.” What seems likely to be universal, however, is that vertebrate animals are aware of pain and pleasure (Bateson, 1992).
Pleasure and pain thus provide a universal basis for ethics in which the interests of diverse beings can be compared. Knowing nothing more than this, one can set forth a basic ethical rule for the world into which they will be incarnated: A conscious being’s interests in a pleasurable, minimally painful life will be respected as much as the comparable interests of other beings. In short: equal consideration of interests.
Differences of Interests
Equal consideration of interests does not imply equality of treatment. Individuals have different interests and thus require different treatment to protect these interests. As Richard Ryder points out (using the language of rights), “humans suffer if denied the right to vote, so this is important for humans but it is not so for other species. Access to eucalyptus leaves is, however, important for koalas, and so the right of access to eucalyptus leaves is an important right for them.”
Furthermore, not all interests are of the same intensity. As Bernard Rollin writes: “I would not adopt as a universal principle always favoring the ‘higher’ animals for example, if the choice came down to a quick death for the higher animal versus a slow, lingering death for a lower animal, one should presumably choose the death of the higher animal. This makes us realize that we need to consider not only number of interests, but also quality and intensity of their satisfaction and frustration.”
Similarly, our interest in finding pleasure and avoiding pain may not be equal. It is possible for an individual to have a variety of pleasurable experiences, but the range of pleasures in life does not seem to match the range of pains. As Ryder writes, “At its extreme, pain is more powerful than pleasure can ever be. Pain overrules pleasure within the individual far more effectively than pleasure can dominate pain.” Some will balk at this, but think of the most pleasurable experience you’ve ever had. Most people can easily come up with a list of experiences that they wouldn’t be willing to endure in order to experience that pleasure (e.g., various forms of torture, watching a loved one die a terrible death, etc.). In other words, there are limitless unpleasant experiences that you would not suffer in order to have even the most intense possible pleasure. All this isn’t to say that pleasure doesn’t count at all, but that, in general, equal consideration of interests focuses on the reduction and elimination of suffering.
Once we’ve arrived at the view of equal consideration of interests and see that pleasure and pain form a common currency with which to compare these interests, we must ask what this means for our ethics. First, it will take us to many of the conventional ethical positions that most of us already accept: suffering is bad; hunger and disease should be alleviated; people should be given personal freedoms with which to prosper; individuals shouldn’t be discriminated against on the basis of their race, gender, nationality, sexual preference, or other group membership; laws should protect the interests of the weaker against the stronger.
However, our view of equal consideration also leads us to some conclusions that run counter to current conventional ethics, particularly with regard to non-human animals. If suffering matters, then much of our current treatment of animals is unjustifiable. For instance, we may gain some pleasure from eating a fish or chicken sandwich. However, equal consideration of interests makes us put ourselves in the place of the animal as well as in the place of the sandwich-eater. Does the pleasure of eating a fish or chicken sandwich—instead of a veggie burger or other vegetarian option—outweigh the pain we would endure to be raised and killed for that sandwich? If we were incarnated as a chicken or farmed fish, we would conclude that the interest in not being abused and slaughtered is stronger than the pleasure gained by eating a meat sandwich instead of a veggie burger.
The universality of this “equal consideration of interests” theory of ethics is straightforward. The sole logical, rational, and reasonable manner for building a truly universal ethic is by including everyone with interests, including other animals. What is important is determined only by the nature of, and consequences for, those affected by decisions. Yet instincts and prejudices are far older than formalized ethics, and run as deep as our evolution. Thus, it may be worthwhile to examine some of the objections against universalized ethics.
Excluding Animals: Moral Contracts
One objection is that the pool of possible incarnates includes those unable to act from the chosen code of ethics—such as children, the mentally handicapped, and most non-human animals. In other words, “in order to have rights, you must also have duties.” This is a basic “moral contract” theory. Some “contractualists” argue that anyone who cannot also have duties does not deserve direct moral consideration. Is this reasonable?
Given that infants, children, etc., can be affected by the decisions of moral agents, there’s no consistent reason for excluding them from the pool of possible incarnates, and thus from consideration of their interests. It would be in the interests of those in the original position to include these states within their code of ethics, since all moral agents begin life unable to participate in any moral contract (as infants and children) and can become that way (after a stroke or senility). As Rollin concludes, “In a nutshell, there is no argument showing that only moral agents can be moral recipients. On the contractualist view, it is also hard to see why animals differ in a morally relevant way from all sorts of humans who can’t rationally enter into contracts—infants, children (especially terminally ill children, who will not live long enough to actualize rationality), the retarded, the comatose, the senescent, the brain-damaged, the addicted, the compulsive, the sociopath, all of whom are also incapable of entering into or respecting contracts.”
Moreover, it’s not even clear that the distinction between moral agents and others would exclude all nonhuman animals. While a handful of adult humans may claim a monopoly on ethical theory, humans do not have a monopoly on ethical practices. As Drs. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan relate in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors:
In a laboratory setting, macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so; 87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others.
If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others, our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. But their experiments permit us to glimpse in non-humans a saintly willingness to make sacrifices in order to save others—even those who are not close kin. By conventional human standards, these macaques—who have never gone to Sunday school, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high school civics lesson—seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil. Among these macaques, at least in this case, heroism is the norm. If the circumstances were reversed, and captive humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as well? (Especially when there is an authority figure urging us to administer the electric shocks, we humans are disturbingly willing to cause pain and for a reward much more paltry than food is for a starving macaque [cf. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental Overview].) In human history there are a precious few whose memory we revere because they knowingly sacrificed themselves for others. For each of them, there are multitudes who did nothing.
Discussing the macaque monkeys who chose to starve rather than inflict pain on another, Drs. Sagan and Druyan conclude, “Might we have a more optimistic view of the human future if we were sure our ethics were up to their standards?”
Excluding Animals: Rationality
People are generally willing to include all humans (including babies, the insane, etc.) in their circle of ethics, but balk at a truly universal ethic (i.e., the inclusion of non-human animals in the pool of possible incarnates). This is because of the obvious and difficult implications, notably that one should not eat or generally cause animals to suffer. Many find the consequences of this inclusion unacceptable, and it’s to avoid these consequences that the vast majority of philosophers and ethicists have either simply ignored animals or created arguments trying to show that only humans require ethical consideration.
Is it possible to build a rational and morally relevant argument for the exclusion of animals instead of simply including everyone in the Original Position? Despite the efforts of many, it is unclear how one might do this. For instance, in his book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that only moral agents are to be included. Rawls attempts to count children among moral agents because they are potential moral agents. However, as Singer writes, this is “an ad hoc device confessedly designed to square his theory with our ordinary moral intuitions, rather than something for which independent arguments can be produced. Moreover, although Rawls admits that those with irreparable mental defects ‘may present a difficulty,’ he offers no suggestions towards the solution of this difficulty” (Practical Ethics).
What is it about being rational that makes it ethically relevant for inclusion in the set of potential incarnates? Of course, rationality is an assumption for an analysis of the Original Position, for there’d be no discussion otherwise (if irrational decisions were allowed, anything would be fair game, and there’d be no basis for a set of rules governing interactions). Yet making rationality a requirement for being a potential incarnate has no basis. If rationality were a prerequisite, many “marginal” human beings (such as the brain-damaged and senile) would be excluded from moral consideration. Although there’s nothing to indicate that, as biological beings, rationality is inherent even in theory.
Excluding Animals: Intelligence
Intelligence is often offered as the function that sets humans apart from other animals. Rollin counters this common contention:
But why does intelligence score highest? Ultimately, perhaps, because intelligence allows us to control, vanquish, dominate, and destroy all other creatures. If this is the case, it is power that puts us on top of the pyramid. But if power provides grounds for including or excluding creatures from the scope of moral concern, we have essentially accepted the legitimacy of the thesis that “might makes right” and have, in a real sense, done away with all morality altogether. If we do accept this thesis, we cannot avoid extending it to people as well, and it thus becomes perfectly moral for Nazis to exterminate the Jews, muggers to prey on old people, the majority to oppress the minority, and the government to do as it sees fit to any of us. Furthermore, as has often been pointed out, it follows from this claim that if an extraterrestrial alien civilization were intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to us, it would be perfectly justified in enslaving or eating or exterminating human beings.
Or to quote the founder of utilitarian thought, Jeremy Bentham, in discussing what it is that qualifies one to be worthy of moral concern: “Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’”
Indeed Bentham’s point is well taken, although, more and more, scientists are learning that animals are interesting individuals with rich intellectual lives. We now know that pigs function intellectually at a very high level (by some measures, beyond that of your average human three-year-old), and chickens have certain capacities beyond that of a child of one. Pigs can learn from one another, play video games, and more; chickens have the capacity for foresight, delayed gratification, and the ability to figure out the existence of an object they can’t see.
But in practice, humans don’t make ethical decisions based on a hierarchy of intelligence. For the same reason that most people bring their family dog or cat into their realm of moral concern—they understand the animal as an individual—there’s no reason to exclude other animals either. Or, as Charles Darwin put it, “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties. . . . The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness, and misery.”
Excluding Animals: Language
R. G. Frey (Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals) argues that only with language can a creature have interests: “If what is believed is that a certain declarative sentence is true, then no creature which lacks language can have beliefs; and without beliefs, a creature cannot have desires. And this is the case with animals, or so I suggest; and if I am right, not even in the sense, then, of wants or desires do animals have interests.”
Let’s assume for a moment that animals don’t have language and see if the argument would hold up to rigorous scrutiny: While quick to use this rationalization against animals, Frey ignores the implication for infants and brain damaged humans. (Furthermore, without beliefs and interests, why and how would infants acquire language?) Still others, such as Michael Leahy, will go so far as to allow for the exclusion of “marginal humans,” so as to be able to reject consideration for other animals! Indeed, given that fully matured Broca and Wernke areas of the brain are required for language, if Frey were to have a minor stroke in one of these areas, he would no longer be subject to ethical consideration, and, based on his argument, could be subsequently eaten or used for experiments, regardless of the suffering he experienced. It seems safe to say that Frey has never experienced severe pain, or else he’d know that language isn’t required to have interests, as the deepest sufferings often overwhelm the ability to think in language.
This isn’t to imply that the brain is not required to have interests. Damage to the brain can lead to the loss of interests—thus the term “brain dead.” Even relatively small damage, such as the destruction of the hypothalamus in the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, who lived for many years in a persistent vegetative state, can end one’s interests.
What does speaking represent? Does language create an entirely new (inner) world—one alien to different from those without language (infants, animals)? Did Koko, the ape who learned sign language, become a wholly new creature? At what point in learning a language does an infant have an interest in not being tortured? A bigger question is this: Before Koko learned a form of human language, did she perhaps have another form of language, one we couldn’t understand? It begs credulity to think otherwise, as we continue to learn about communication in other mammals (including rodents), in birds, and in fish. Dr. Temple Grandin, in her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, points out that science has always started from the premise that other animals can’t do certain things, and then learned that, in fact, they can. She notes that every time we assume they can’t (use tools, plan ahead, learn from one another or from humans, and so on), we discover that we were wrong. If experiments have failed to show as much, it turns out that it was the experimenters who were failing, not the animals.
Excluding Animals: Our Interests Are More Important
One might allow that many non-human animals have interests, but find no inherent implications from this admission. Indeed, few call for outright and total dismissal of animals’ concerns (e.g., advocating the repeal of current welfare and anti-cruelty laws). Rather, the current Western consensus is that humans’ interests are simply more important. But to whom are humans’ interests more important? To humans, of course. But do we really contend that our potential interest in eating a chicken nugget instead of a vegetarian option is greater than the chickens’ desire not to be drugged, cooped in their own waste, transported through all weather extremes, and cruelly slaughtered?
Defenders of animal experimentation often use emotional hypothetical choices of “more important” to defend animal exploitation. For example, concerning her daughter Claire, who has cystic fibrosis, Jane McCabe wrote in Newsweek (December 26, 1988): “If you had to choose between saving a cute dog or my equally cute, blond, brown-eyed daughter, whose life would you choose?. . . It’s not that I don’t love animals, it’s that I love Claire more.” Ignoring that a single dog experiment could never cure her child’s disease, the moral question is whether personal attachment justifies harming others. Since McCabe probably loves her daughter more than other children, would she endorse experimenting on other children to save her child? This, after all, would be a scientifically more productive research strategy than experimenting on nonhuman animals.
Prejudice Is Prejudice
Throughout history, people have set forth systems of rules and laws which excluded others: other clans, other races, other sexes, other religions, etc. To current Western observers, many of these prejudices seem as self-evidently “wrong” as the current exclusion of other species seems obviously “right.” Even if we insist on rejecting the universal requirement of ethics, given our propensity for prejudice we should be skeptical of any distinction based on membership of a group, and should seriously question any rules that just happen to benefit us.
It’s an undeniable fact that other animals are made of flesh, blood, and bone, just like human beings. They have the same five physiological senses and a range of thought and sensation that is often as developed as many humans. The only clear distinction of membership in the human species is that, with gender, race, and nationality no longer being fashionable prejudices, “human” is the most exclusive group to which most philosophers now pledge allegiance.