Thursday, June 2, 2011

Are animals members of the moral community?

To: Maureen O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Are animals members of the moral community?
Date: 25 October 11:23

Dear Maureen,

Thank you for your email of 16 October with your first essay for the Associate program, entitled, 'Are Animals Members of the Moral Community?'

This is a carefully argued examination of the question of our moral obligations with regard to non-human animals, which is well up to the standard of the Associate Diploma.

In what follows, I will concentrate on the points that I disagree with, or where the argument looks rather weak. There is much that I agree with, in particular, your careful analysis of the connection between language, consciousness, and different kinds of 'pain'. (On this topic, you might find Peter Carruthers 'The Animals Issue' illuminating.)

One point where I feel the essay does begin to get unstuck is over the question of the difference between interests and rights. This is central to the question whether animals are 'members of the moral community'. Is it in fact the case that the question whether animals are members of the moral community is equivalent to the question whether we have moral obligations with regard to animals? This is a question that you do not seem to have considered.

Let's first look at Steinbock's example of a punch. If I punch you, I infringe your rights, because I am committing an assault. You have a right not to be punched by me. But suppose someone else has punched you, and you are lying in a doorway in pain. I didn't do it. If I do decide to go to your aid, it is not because you have a right to expect my help, but because I recognize that you have interests which are worthy of my consideration. In virtue of my recognition of your plight, I am indeed morally obliged to help you.

Or consider another example. You have a bag of sweets, and I steal one while you are not looking. By stealing from you I have infringed your rights. Now suppose instead that you are lying in that same doorway, this time hungry and miserable. I have a bar of chocolate which I could give you. My moral obligation to give you the chocolate does not hold in virtue of your right to the chocolate bar. You have no right to it because it is mine, not yours. However, I ought to help you all the same, out of consideration of your interests.

Given the apparent confusion over interests and rights, it becomes difficult for the reader to follow your account of Steinbock's response to Singer. However, if Steinbock is saying that consideration of interests, as opposed to rights, depends on mere 'sentiment', then it seems a non-sequitur. It is not sentiment that motivates me to offer the chocolate bar, but rather the belief that, morally speaking, that would be the best thing to do.

Now, one very plausible way - I won't say it is the only way - to understand the notion of a moral community is as a group of individuals who 'have a responsibility to respect the rights of others within the moral community'. It is an equivalence class defined by the mutual recognition of rights. In these terms, not all human beings are members of the moral community. At some point in its development, a human child enters the moral community, namely when it becomes aware of right and wrong.

We can still have moral obligations with respect to animals even if they are not members of the moral community in this sense. To demonstrate this would require showing that part of what it is to be a moral agent, a member of a moral community, is an awareness of the interests of sentient beings who are not part of the moral community, beings towards whom we have moral obligations, but who are not themselves regarded as having moral obligations towards others, either of their own species or of other species.

What is the thing that counts when we are considering 'interests'? What is that which, as good utilitarians, we are seeking to maximize? I am confident that Singer believes that he is being a fully consistent utilitarian, and would accept the consequences that would be found horrendous to those who do not accept the validity of that doctrine. The point is that this would suffice, in Singer's view, for, as you quote, 'identifying and protesting against all major abuses of animals'.

I think the key to your puzzlement with Singer's apparently being prepared to accept the inequality of animals and humans lies in the fact that he is seeking to maximize the *satisfaction of desires* rather than, as in Bentham and Mill, minimize suffering and maximize pleasure or happiness. Famously, Bentham and Mill disagreed over how pleasures and pains should be counted. For Bentham, every pleasure is the same, whether it be the pleasure of poetry or that of playing pushpin. Whereas for Mill, some pleasures are 'higher' than others. Side-stepping this dispute, all Singer has to say is that a human has a richer and more abundant set of desires than a chimp. If we could, per impossibile, identify a single desire in the human being and the chimp and consider the desires in isolation, one against the other, the two beings who possessed them could be considered as deserving equal consideration with respect to those desires. But when we enlarge our view to take in the whole picture, there is objectively more at stake for the human suffering a given degree of pain than there is for the chimp.

This is how, I would argue, Singer is able to state that all interests *qua* interests are equal, whether they be the interests of humans or of non-human animals, but then go on to deny the 'equality' of human beings with animals.

All the best,

Geoffrey