Jeremy Bentham on Animal Rights

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 15, 2010 in Ethics,Quotes

From his Introduction to the Principles of Moral and Legislation (1789):

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been [withheld] from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the [pelvic bone] are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. [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?’

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

cl December 15, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Luke,

Have you become a vegetarian or vegan?

Is there an “official” desirist stance on the role animals “ought” to play in “moral” evaluations?

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Luke Muehlhauser December 15, 2010 at 3:20 pm

cl,

(1) Not yet.

(2) Dunno.

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Kip December 15, 2010 at 3:28 pm

The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’

I think the question is: do we have reason to promote in others the aversion to causing suffering in non–human animals? I think we do. What about: do we have reason to promote in others the aversion to killing non–human animals in a way that does not cause them to suffer in order to eat them? I’m not as sure about that. Why? Because the desire to cause suffering in a non–human animal seems to be a desire that can easily lead to causing humans to suffer, but a desire to kill non–human animals without causing them to suffer in order to eat them does not seem to lead to the desire to kill humans without causing them to suffer in order to eat them.

So, non–human animals have reasons to promote in us an aversion to eating them, but I’m not sure that we have a reason to help them promote that aversion. And, as Alonzo has said, they are in a predicament where they don’t have the social tools to shape our desires, so if we don’t already have desires that are fulfilled by having theirs fulfilled, then there is no “goal–directed reason for intentional action” for us to promote the desires that tend to fulfill their desires.

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Tony Hoffman December 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm

CL, do you think animals can suffer? If so, do you think we have any moral responsibilities to any animals?

Is there an official Christian stance on the role animals “ought” to play in “moral” evaluations?

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cl December 15, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Luke,

Hey! This isn’t fun anymore! You’re actually answering my questions — straightforward and unequivocally at that! Can I take an order of that to go, for the conversation about morality?

Tony Hoffman,

CL, do you think animals can suffer?

Yes.

If so, do you think we have any moral responsibilities to any animals?

Smarty-pants answer: What do you mean, “moral responsibilities?” I have no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t you mean “gibberwock” responsibilities?

Real answer: I burden myself with moral responsibilities towards animals, but I cannot speak for the generic “we,” nor shall I say anything about what you “should” do. Your life is your life, mine is mine, and I’m no more qualified to pontificate on morality than you.

Is there an official Christian stance on the role animals “ought” to play in “moral” evaluations?

I don’t know. Even if there were, I wouldn’t assent to it for that fact alone, because that’s out of line with freethought. All I can say is that the Bible, in Proverbs 12:10, associates “righteousness” or “godliness” with “caring for the needs of one’s animal.”

Of course, this is where the more flippant, knee-jerk atheists will likely retort with some variant of, “But God commanded animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, how in the world can the two of those be consistent?”

I suppose we’ll cross that bridge if we get there.

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Hermes December 15, 2010 at 4:02 pm

The issue of animal rights feeds back into the issue of human rights including the issues of abortions and miscarriages. Any coherent explanation of one must address the other unless the unilateral assertion that only humans count is made, and that in itself seems problematic.

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Kaelik December 15, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Smarty-pants answer: What do you mean, “moral responsibilities?” I have no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t you mean “gibberwock” responsibilities?

Pretty sure that’s my line, not his. And it was gibberwock meaning. I actually think morality is defined, and that no one but Luke/Alonzo is hijacking connotations when using it.

Will hopefully get to say that soon, when I finish reading the post before this one.

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Why I Left the Revival Fellowship December 15, 2010 at 4:22 pm

I’d be very interested in an animal rights/vegetarian desirism post.

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Tony Hoffman December 15, 2010 at 4:24 pm

CL: I burden myself with moral responsibilities towards animals, but I cannot speak for the generic “we,” nor shall I say anything about what you “should” do. Your life is your life, mine is mine, and I’m no more qualified to pontificate on morality than you.

I don’t believe you.

Among other things, you are making a moral proscription when you declare that we should not say what one another should do. There appears to be a contradiction in your moral philosophy.

“CL: I don’t know [if there is an official Christian stance on the role animals ought to play in moral evaluations]. Even if there were, I wouldn’t assent to it for that fact alone, because that’s out of line with freethought. All I can say is that the Bible, in Proverbs 12:10, associates “righteousness” or “godliness” with “caring for the needs of one’s animal.”

Of course, this is where the more flippant, knee-jerk atheists will likely retort with some variant of, “But God commanded animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, how in the world can the two of those be consistent?”

So it appears you accept apparent inconsistency in the Bible on moral responsibility and animal suffering. To what do you refer to reconcile the apparent contradictions?

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Bebok December 15, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I second Why I Left the Revival Fellowship’s request.

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Kip December 15, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Relevant articles that Alonzo Fyfe has written in regards to animal rights / vegetarianism:

Animal Rights: The Predator Problem
The Predator Problem Revisited
Animals and Morality

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KT December 15, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Animals do not have rights because they do not have reason. They do not partake in the moral duties of a rational animal, so it is absurd to state that they possess the rights of the moral community. Nevertheless, it is in keeping with virtue that one not cause excessive suffering; a good man (or woman) would not exhibit viciousness towards any sentient being without due cause.

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Hermes December 15, 2010 at 6:18 pm

KT: “Animals do not have rights because they do not have reason.”

Do you have support for that assertion?

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Adito December 15, 2010 at 6:31 pm

KT, I’ve never really understood that line of reasoning. If anything it would imply that we have no rights from an animals POV, because they can’t apply them to us, but since we can understand these rights we can see that animals have them. The idea that only those who recognize moral duties have rights is also an odd one because children, the mentally retarded, the senile and others are all excluded.

Personally I can not see any way to separate whatever obligations we have towards humans from whatever obligations we have towards animals. In either case you’re exercising control over a living thing and so long as you think that comes with obligations for the former I’ve yet to see why the latter should be excluded. If there are differences in practice I think they should (and generally are) motivated by what we expect in return rather than moral aughts.

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KT December 15, 2010 at 6:35 pm

I can explain why I consider it far more plausible than the reverse. The very conception of rights presupposes that one has duties and obligations to others, and they have duties and obligations to you. Animals do not behave on the basis of abstract moral principles, so they do not have duties or obligations to anyone. While many animals have moral impulses, these impulses are not the product of reason (as in humans). If they have no duties or obligations, they do not have the rights granted to members of the moral community. This is why women were not allowed to participate in public affairs for centuries-women did not put their lives on the line for their countries, nor did they have the opportunity to cultivate intellectual virtue. Rights are grounded in the duties of a rational creature, and women did not have public duties, so they had none or few public rights.

Duties of rationality=basis for rights (my key claim)

The very conception of rights is coherently grounded in a Stoic ethos and metaphysical framework. An atheistic world view has no basis for talking about rights, especially for creatures who have no power to keep one accountable. Might makes right. Whatever is pleasant, that is the good (because there are no “objective” goods-only the drive for one’s own survival and the propagation of one’s genes). Rationality is not basic in an atheistic world view, but an epiphenomenon of matter in motion. Intrinsic goods make sense in a universe where rationality is basic, irreducible, and supreme.

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Tony Hoffman December 15, 2010 at 6:52 pm

KT: “If they have no duties or obligations, they do not have the rights granted to members of the moral community. This is why women were not allowed to participate in public affairs for centuries-women did not put their lives on the line for their countries, nor did they have the opportunity to cultivate intellectual virtue.

This is an odd, even twisted, interpretation of history. But it becomes even twistier:

An atheistic world view has no basis for talking about rights, especially for creatures who have no power to keep one accountable. Might makes right.

Sooo, according to your interpretation, women didn’t fight for their country, and didn’t cultivate their intellectual virtue, and this state was a result of an atheist world view that is equatable to might makes right? Um, whose might established the historical state of affairs you describe, I’m wondering?

I’m going to take a flyer here and guess that you haven’t studied much (any?) history. Because your key claim, if it is indeed valid, doesn’t seem tied into any historical understanding that I know.

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Bebok December 15, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Kip,

Thanks for the links. I’ve already read those, though. I’m hoping for something new.

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KT December 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm

I am actually a history major and an avid student of ancient Greece. If you had ever read any of the primary documents of the period, you would realize that my articulation of the reasoning behind the subordination of women is absolutely correct. I am not saying that this view is tenable, since we have since discovered that women are capable of the same virtues as men. I was simply connecting the rationale behind the subordination of women to the principle that rights are grounded in duties. (I would recommend Lefkowitz and Fant’s source book on the lives of women in ancient Greece and Rome if you are curious about how women were perceived by men during that time period.)

When I spoke about atheism, I did not mean to imply that atheism is a correct understanding of the world. I was simply pointing out that rights have no metaphysical grounding given an atheist’s presuppositions. If one reads the writings of Epicurus, for example, one will note that he completely understood this. Rights were contractual agreements and did not exist by nature. They were grounded in expediency and the mutual desire for a pleasant life. This can be contrasted to the Stoic view, which holds that rational creatures possess duties to other rational creatures due to our very natures and the nature of a cosmos as a whole. In order to enjoy eudaimonia (which is the end of man), one must be virtuous. Virtue requires that one respect those who are equals and treat other creatures with gentleness.

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Caleb O December 15, 2010 at 7:25 pm

KT how do you respond to Adito’s earlier point about young children, the senile, and mentally ill not having moral rights under your view since they are not rational? Perhaps you could say children have some sort of rights because they are potentially rational. But the senile and metally ill do not appear to be in that boat.

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KT December 15, 2010 at 7:28 pm

@Tony Hoffman I really have no idea what you are talking about. Obviously, atheism has never been the accepted view for the majority of people (and I never claimed that at all.) Atheism has absolutely NOTHING to do with the rights of women historically. You completely misinterpreted the gist of what I was saying.

Here’s what I said (and you completely missed due to my lack of clarity):

1) The principle that rights are grounded in duties can be located historically in the case of women (the rationale behind their subordination).

2) (SEPARATE ISSUE!) Given atheism, “rights” are socially constructed and based on the mutual desire for a pleasant life free from the shortness and brutishness of life in a war of all against all (to paraphrase Hobbes). (See Epicurus or Hobbes to read the thoughts of CONSISTENT atheistic ethicists.)

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Hermes December 15, 2010 at 7:29 pm

KT: “The very conception of rights presupposes that one has duties and obligations to others, and they have duties and obligations to you. Animals do not behave on the basis of abstract moral principles, so they do not have duties or obligations to anyone. While many animals have moral impulses, these impulses are not the product of reason (as in humans). ”

You keep on piling on assertions. Can you support what you’ve said without yet more assumptions, specifically;

KT: “Animals do not have rights because they do not have reason.”

Do you have support for that assertion?

Specifically, do you have evidence that must be the case or are you just asserting it based on a set of abstractions with no investigation of the available evidence?

It’s your assertion, do you stand by your own words?

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KT December 15, 2010 at 7:33 pm

@Caleb O I would deny that they possess rights. However, a person of reason would cultivate their characters and virtue in such a way that they would treat such creatures with gentleness.

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juhou December 15, 2010 at 7:39 pm

I think animals have rights what comes to being treated with dignity and respect. Animal torture is always wrong (and should be treated as such by the laws of the state, fines are not big enough punishments) but I also think that killing an animal for food is fine as long as the animal does not suffer unnecessarily in the process.

To me it’s all about the situation. If I go and shoot a random person on the streets than I’ve caused suffering unnecessarily and should be punished for it but if I
US and friends decide to invade North-Korea (would be about time) and I would be a soldier killing enemy soldiers I don’t see that as wrong. If during that war I would torture enemy soldiers by methods like the ones used in Abu Ghraib I should be punished by military courts.

I oppose all kinds of cruelty towards animals such as hunting for pure fun, fox hunting, eating meat produced in factory like conditions, bestiality and so forth. I think laws should be fixed to stop animal torture of all kinds but I do still eat meat. I just try my best to avoid buying meat produced in conditions I am against. It costs a bit more but gives a nice sense of knowing I am doing the right thing.

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KT December 15, 2010 at 7:40 pm

@Hermes Explain to me what rights are and the necessary pre-conditions for possessing them (metaphysically and on an individual basis). I sketched a coherent scheme where rights *really* exist. I challenge you to do the same. I do not care if you do not share my world view. I merely challenge you to provide any basis whatsoever for your talk of rights. I provided such an account. Do the same (if you can.) This is how philosophy is done-providing a coherent framework for your beliefs which conform with one’s reason and experience as well as possible. I apologize if you expect philosophy to be like mathematics. I do not have to “prove” that you are wrong.

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Hermes December 15, 2010 at 8:12 pm

KT, you made some very broad and sweeping claims, though I’m only interested in the one that I initially quoted. Note that I might agree with some or all of your claims if I understand the evidence you used to determine your abstractions were grounded in reality. Do you have any evidence?

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JS Allen December 15, 2010 at 8:40 pm

I’m becoming more sympathetic to the animal rights perspective, but Matt Ridley (author of popular evolutionary biology books) makes some great arguments in his newest book, “The Rational Optimist”. He compellingly argues that humanity would never be in the place to consider slavery immoral if we hadn’t engaged in slavery, that we would be in no position to talk about vegetarianism without having eaten meat for millions of years, and in no position to have truly sustainable energy without draining our fossil fuels.

In other words, what’s right today can be right only because what’s wrong today didn’t used to be wrong. I found it a very interesting set of arguments.

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KT December 15, 2010 at 8:43 pm

@Hermes I suppose this is my trouble; I do not know what you mean by evidence. Do you want to know my view on how one constructs a world view? My metaphysical positions which ground my views of ethics? My views on epistemology? I can’t claim that I could somehow “prove” my views are indubitably true (like Descartes).

My claim is fundamentally this: rights are either natural (existing independently of our conscious awareness) or they are socially constructed. If they are natural and thereby grounded in metaphysical realities, they are discovered, not created by human beings. If they are discovered, one can not arbitrarily say that rights apply to all sentient beings. Rights can only be properly applied to beings which fit certain qualifications. Rationality seems to me to be the grounding of morality. Since animals are not capable of moral reasoning (defending their behavior at the level of universal principles and adjudicating between competing possibilities on that basis), they do not seem to be properly called members of the moral community. I did not decide this, you did not decide this. It’s simply the way the world is. Animals can not reason about moral issues like rational humans can. They do not have a conscience which binds them to certain patterns of behavior, so they do not have conceptions of what is honorable and virtuous; however, humans can and do. This is a fact about the way the world is. Rights are the result of being capable of exhibiting rational agency in a mature human fashion. I have a right to freely exercise my rational agency because I am capable of respecting and recognizing your rational agency and vice versa; to impede my rational agency would be wrong because you would not wish to have your own agency impeded. It is mutually RECOGNIZED (not constructed-this is based on facts about the way the world is; I have reason, so do you). Creatures without rationality can not exercise rational agency, so their autonomy can not necessarily be respected at the same level. They could be dangerous, either to others or to themselves. They might require protection. Whatever the case, they are not rational agents to the same degree. They do not understand the rules of the game, so how can they be said to be participants in the game? Again, this is based on the way the world really is. If squirrels could reason about moral principles, and live in accordance with them, they would have rights because they would be playing the moral game.

I would like to note that possessing the level of rationality necessary to play the moral game necessitates that you play the moral game. You are already in it, by virtue of your capabilities. This is why we call grown men cowards,but we do not call 2 year old toddlers cowards.

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Adito December 15, 2010 at 9:03 pm

KT, you haven’t responded to my main claim, that the ability to recognize rights is not a necessary condition to have rights yourself. It’s interesting that you do exclude all the problem cases I mentioned though. Usually people who support views like your own try to weasel out of it somehow. Kudos for avoiding that.

Anyway, could you explain how rights exist in a moral society but cannot exist in a society made up of both moral and non-moral agents? It seems to me that a right is a sort of obligation we have towards a thing. Let’s use the right you have to not be hurt by me. It’s not clear to me why this right should appear when you become capable of entering a moral society and then vanish when you are incapable (you’d be an infant in the first case and possibly senile in the second). At any time you will be a form of life with goals of some sort with the ability to be thwarted in your pursuits and feel pain. If I take these factors to obligate my actions towards you then it’s clear my obligation does not end so long as you’re alive. I do not believe that our only obligation in these cases is to ourselves to develop further towards eudaimonia. On that note you should first understand that virtue ethics is hardly the only way to do ethics and second, that every dominant ethical theory today does not mention God including modern forms of virtue ethics. God might be necessary for a thing like rights to exist but pretty much every philosopher specializing in morality would disagree.

One other minor point. You mentioned that animals can have moral impulses but do not themselves have a sense of morality. How does that work?

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Hermes December 15, 2010 at 9:24 pm

KT, evidence. Plain and simple. How about a few examples from psychologists or other trained observers that specialize in animal behavior and the topic of reason?

You know your claims better than I do. Surely you must have some kind of evidence that isn’t entirely abstract or asserted to be true?

For reference, I’m only interested in this part right now not all the other claims you’ve made;

KT: “Animals do not have rights because they do not have reason.”

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Hermes December 15, 2010 at 9:27 pm

KT, one more question. If I were to provide you with a single counter example, actual or speculated, would you modify or discard your claim? If not, why not?

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KT December 15, 2010 at 9:46 pm

@Hermes Show me one animal who is not a Homo Sapien who has the ability to articulate sentences with sound syntactical structure as to why certain actions are right or wrong. Reason is being able to reflect upon your innate preconceptions (my definition, in accordance with my Stoic world view; straight out of Epictetus). No non-human animal can do so (unless you can show me otherwise). Again, if an animal can do so, they would have rights. There is nothing special about humans EXCEPT for the fact that they do possess this capability.

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KT December 15, 2010 at 9:57 pm

@Adito Of course, I am aware there are moral frameworks other than virtue ethics. I happen to think they are without foundation, for various reasons (which which would sidetrack the discussion entirely.)

From my (admittedly limited) reading in anthropology, various primate species exhibit behavior that looks like reciprocal altruism. Additionally, from my personal experience, dogs (for example) have traits that seem like admirable qualities-loyalty, friendliness, etc. Nevertheless, these animals are not capable of articulating why such behaviors are good. They simply do them, in conformity with their nature. They have no DUTIES. If a dog failed to exhibit loyalty, he would not be blameworthy. It’s simply the way nature made him.

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Hermes December 15, 2010 at 10:41 pm

KT, you made a claim. Are you saying you can not back it up with evidence? If you are just speculating, I’m fine with that, but I would appreciate it if you would make it clear that you are only speculating and not saying you know something based on an inspection of the best available evidence.

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Adito December 15, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Why do we have obligations towards other people but not to animals? You’ve implied that animals can only factor into our duties to ourselves (and I’m guessing to other people). I don’t understand your move from “it can reason about morality” to “I have obligations A, B and C towards it.”

From my (admittedly limited) reading in anthropology, various primate species exhibit behavior that looks like reciprocal altruism.

If an animal is capable of morally correct action then I think they deserve to be included in the sphere of a moral community. Of course I don’t think they have any such ability. If you observe an animal it will only your sentiments that tell a “good” action from a bad one. They’re no more exhibiting moral behavior then you’re doing particle physics by writing on a physicists chalkboard.

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Jaydin Nathan December 16, 2010 at 2:55 am

KT, it seems as if you are assuming that rationality or the ability to recognise and participate in rational discourse has value, and we must act only morally to creatures with this property, which is an assertion without support. Hermes has already pointed out that this would involve removing the entire senile population from moral discourse and decision making, which I myself don’t see as very moral (and I’m sure this would be echoed by others). And although you have made the case that rationality is a property of the species Homo Sapiens, it seems like drawing the line around this particular species is TO inclusive, as some Homo Sapiens obviously do NOT possess rationality, and therefore are excluded. So unless you can also offer support for drawing the ‘moral line’ at the border of this species (as opposed to those with the characteristic, which makes more sense), when not all of the species possess the characteristic of rationality, your theory of morality seems to break down.

Using Desire Utilitarianism as a framework, it seems there are a few ways to have vegetarianism/veganism as the desire a ‘good’ person would have. One would be that people generally have reason to promote the desire to live in a world in which we consider the desires of others before making decisions that would affect these creatures, no matter their gender, race, nationality, species, or other arbitrary taxonomy, merely the characteristics they possess at the time of the decision. This is the same principle that was used by those whose desires were not immediately thwarted by slavery, racism and gender inequality.

Another would be that people generally have reason to promote the desire to stand up for those who do not possess the ability to stand up for themselves (by condemning those desires which thwart their own). Just imagine a society in which the mentally capable people breed, slaughter and regularly dine on the mentally retarded subset of the population. Using the same reasoning as others who have commented, a mentally capable person comes to the defense of this regular action, saying:

I think the question is:do we have reason to promote in others the aversion to causing suffering in [mentally retarded people]?I think we do.What about:do we have reason to promote in others the aversion to killing [mentally retarded people] in a way that does not cause them to suffer in order to eat them?I’m not as sure about that.Why?Because the desire to cause suffering in a [mentally retarded person] seems to be a desire that can easily lead to causing [mentally capable people] to suffer, but a desire to kill [mentally retarded people] without causing them to suffer in order to eat them does not seem to lead to the desire to kill [mentally capable people] without causing them to suffer in order to eat them.So, [mentally retarded people] have reasons to promote in us an aversion to eating them, but I’m not sure that we have a reason to help them promote that aversion.And, as Alonzo has said, they are in a predicament where they don’t have the social tools to shape our desires, so if we don’t already have desires that are fulfilled by having theirs fulfilled, then there is no “goal–directed reason for intentional action” for us to promote the desires that tend to fulfill their desires.  

(I have quoted Kip, replacing humans and animals with mentally capable and retarded people respectively).

And lastly, for those who would like it expressed only in terms of human desires, it is possible to lead to veganism using climate change as the issue. A basic argument for the prevention of climate change would be that those having their desires thwarted by the adverse effects of climate change have very good reason to condemn actions in others that increase these effects of climate change. Considering the amount of global emissions that the livestock industry produces (e.g. http://www.emagazine.com/view/?4264), it seems people adversely affected by climate change have good reason to promote veganism, or at the very least, vegetarianism. It is also the case that those part of, or wishing to prevent starvation have reasons for action to promote veganism/vegetarianism, as there is almost a 9:1 ratio from grain to meat, an extremely inefficient food source, which is essentially a luxury.

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Joseph December 16, 2010 at 3:35 am

To me, individuals don’t define morality but communities define it, i.e. what is best suited for the wellbeing of their specific community and legislates it into law (with penalties for non-compliance) and proscribes what it considers to be harmful to the community. We are all subject to the rule of law. So basically morality are human rules for humans. I don’t see how it would apply to animals.

Sorry if I come as insensitive to animal suffering.

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Jaydin Nathan December 16, 2010 at 4:23 am

Joseph, it seems as if your argument is essentially law=morality, and since law varies from community to community, so does morality. My contention would be that those unable to voice concern or support in this legislation process are often helped by others, willing to provide aid and a voice to those with none, making this legislation process fairer to all. Examples would include the disabled, racially discriminated, children, infants and the elderly/senile. Why animals should not be included on this list seems to be unaddressed by your post, as we can deduce basic needs and wants from biology and their body language. Why they should not be considered just because they cannot voice their own concern or opposition, when the needs and wants of the disabled, racially discriminated, children, infants and elderly/senile are taken into account when they cannot voice their own concern or opposition is not clear.

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Joseph December 16, 2010 at 5:11 am

Well I did say that basically morality are human rules for humans. And so by that logic, I’m all for a better society that would include the disabled, racially discriminated, children, infants and the elderly/senile.

It’s the animal part that bothers me. We can make rules so that humans deliver healthier food on our plates, and if that means treat the animals better, I’m fine with that since the rules are on humans to behave and make other humans healthier, even though the animals would benefit indirectly. But animals are our food. Seeing them otherwise is a distortion of reality.

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Michael December 16, 2010 at 5:40 am

Of course Bentham believed that the notion of natural rights were ‘nonsense on stilts’.
So here he is not saying that animals HAVE rights, but that we should PRETEND like they do in order to maximise total utility.

He asserts that, “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’”. Yet to me this seems completely arbitrary.
You could say that the question is over reason, or communication, or creativity, or having self-consciousness, or having sentience etc, ultimately it is completely arbitrary which one of those that you choose.

The ‘proof’ of ulititarianism that Mill formulated is of course fundamentally flawed as well, but that’s another story.

I’m surprised, Luke, that you’ve inserted this quote because I think you’d agree with me that sentience as the criterion for personhood/rights is simply an arbirtrary choice.

The problem with animals rights is that there is a much closer link between rights and duties than utilitarians realise. I think if we are said to have rights, we must by definition also have duties. If a certain group has been given the right to life, they must also be held accountable for their actions, meaning that if they take someone else’s life unlawfully, then they can be tried in court.

Obviously, with animals we do not do this. We do not hold them accountable for their actions. We would ‘put it down’ instead, not as a punishment but simply because of the animal being dangerous and to prevent any further damage being done.

That said, I think we have duties towards the world that we inhabit, because it is God’s creation. God has given humans the duty to be caring, responsible stewards of this earth, and the animals that inhabit it. This means that we should be concerned when animals are becoming extinct, just as God was when he orchestrated the flood, making sure that no animal would become extinct by commanding Noah to take one of each sex onto the ark. In Genesis 2 we also see animals being talked about with a notion of a ‘duty of care’ and even companionship. There are many other references to these kind of ideas littered throughout scripture, cl has pointed out another one in proverbs.

I happen to think that humans are made in God’s image and so we all have intrinsic value, which is to say that we do possess rights and duties. As I have outlined these duties include looking after the rest of God’s creation because they are not our’s, but God’s. They do not have rights, though because they cannot be held accountable for such rights.

The ironic thing is that animals these days are stunned before being killed meaning that the process of slaughter has no suffering explicitly linked with it. Thus, since no suffering is caused when the animal is killed but I do enjoy pleasure when I eat the meat, it is a morally good thing to eat it! ;)
Of course this only affects a Benthamite conception of utilitarianism, but Mill’s conception involves even bigger problems because of the blurring of how he defines ‘suffering’.

Just some random thought, feel free to rip them apart, everyone!! :D

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Kaelik December 16, 2010 at 5:57 am

@KT

“Show me one animal who is not a Homo Sapien who has the ability to articulate sentences with sound syntactical structure as to why certain actions are right or wrong.”

So a human with their tongue cut out, or who was raised by wolves is not a moral creature, and you can kill it whenever you want for shits and giggles? Maybe you just don’t understand the syntax? The fact that you can’t understand animals doesn’t actually mean that they don’t reason. You can’t know if they reason or not.

I mean, you already have an opinion that you are committed to, and will dismiss all evidence opposed to, precisely because you have been indoctrined into the cult of human reason, and must reject any evidence that humans and animals think in the same way.

But you don’t have any evidence of that.

@Jospeh

Human rules for humans doesn’t mean anything. It can be a human rule for humans to not eat meat. No one cares. You are just arbitrarily opposed to including animals as having rights because they are different from you, and aren’t included in your monkeysphere. Which is fine. I don’t give a shit about any animal that isn’t a cat, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that it’s for any other reason than you personally not giving a shit.

@Everyone who might support universal vegetarianism.

Are you pro or anti Cow-genocide?

All those livestock animals have to go somewhere, and in most cases, the answer is “a ditch” We don’t need several thousand times the current milk production, so they can’t all get a job there, and I seriously doubt you’ll attract many people away from the “charitably feeding human beings who are starving” to the “charitably feed giant hunks of food that are starving” camp.

What about forced sterilization of cows? We don’t let that happen to humans. But it’s necessary to not be overrun with cows, or have to genocide cows all over the place.

@Jaydin Nathan:

Problem with your word substitution: Killing mentally disabled people does in fact lead to increased contempt for other humans, even mentally capable ones. (In part because the line is arbitrary. Is someone with Aspergers mentally incapable? A lot of people who value sociability over intelligence think so, other people not.) Whereas, no study has yet demonstrated that killing cows causes people to become murderers.

Especially since most cow murderers don’t actually do the murdering, they just lead to slaughter.

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Tony Hoffman December 16, 2010 at 6:11 am

Michael: “Obviously, with animals we do not do this. We do not hold them accountable for their actions.”

I’m not sure about this for two reasons; isn’t the decision to not hold something accountable arbitrary? If society declares that guys made Michael are not accountable for their actions, therefore it’s open season on Michaels, I doubt we’d then agree that Michaels do not have any moral rights.

Also, if the family dog poops in the living room, we hold the family dog accountable. So why doesn’t the family dog have any rights?

There’s a restaurant somewhere (I forget where) that ran the ad, “If God didn’t want us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?” That’s not really apropos of anything, but it is funny.

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Hermes December 16, 2010 at 6:36 am

One small note to give credit to the right person…

Jaydin Nathan: “Hermes has already pointed out that this would involve removing the entire senile population from moral discourse and decision making, which I myself don’t see as very moral (and I’m sure this would be echoed by others).”

Adito first wrote about that, though I agree with it and find it insightful.

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Hermes December 16, 2010 at 6:43 am

Thanks to everyone everyone who’s posted so far. Very good comments. Even the parts that I disagree with give me pause and encourage me to think a bit more on this before I post more myself.

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Bill Snedden December 16, 2010 at 7:36 am

@KT:

I was simply pointing out that rights have no metaphysical grounding given an atheist’s presuppositions.

I’m sorry, but this is simply false. Read Aristotle on ethics. Read Grotius on Natural Law. Read Iris Murdoch on metaphysics. Read Ayn Rand, Tibor Machan, or Tara Smith on ethical egoism. All that’s required to ground “rights” is the concept of “nature” (as in the nature of a particular existent). Even theistic natural law requires this.

OT

But with that disagreement out of the way, I’m obliged to say that I agree with KT in that non-human animals cannot be said to have rights. It is in our nature as rational moral agents that our rights are grounded. So far as we have yet been able to determine, there are no other animals that possess the level of cognitive ability required to allow them to conceive of abstractions such as “rights” or “moral agency”. Until and unless they can be shown to possess such an ability, there’s no reason to believe they possess them.

That’s not to say that humans therefore have the “right” to do with other animals as they will, or that there are no ethical considerations to make in determining how non-human animals are treated. But talk of “animal rights” serves no purpose other than to cloud that very real and pressing issue.

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Kip December 16, 2010 at 8:12 am

It is in our nature as rational moral agents that our rights are grounded.

There are three types of rights: “Natural Rights” which don’t exist (as most people mean when they use that term), “Legal Rights” which clearly do [wiki], and “Moral Rights”, which Alonzo discusses here: What’s Important about Rights.

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Bill Snedden December 16, 2010 at 11:42 am

@Kip:

There are three types of rights:“Natural Rights” which don’t exist (as most people mean when they use that term), “Legal Rights” which clearly do, and “Moral Rights”, which Alonzo discusses here: What’s Important about Rights.

Assertions devoid of any argument I find less than impressive. ;) And I would argue that although Alonzo seems to dismiss the idea of “natural rights”, his own theory is actually consonant with a naturalistic conception of “natural rights”.

I believe that “Natural Rights” do exist, as metaphysical constructs grounded in the nature of rational moral agents. I can point to an extensive literature of argument and research that supports this notion, from Aristotle & Grotius to lesser-known philosophers like Tara Smith & Larry Arnhart. I am, of course, aware that there are philosophers who disagree and who have attacked the notion, but in my opinion I’ve not yet seen any convincing or dispositive refutations.

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Hermes December 16, 2010 at 11:56 am

Bill, what do you think of KT’s comment that “the ability to articulate sentences with sound syntactical structure as to why certain actions are right or wrong” is required for reason? If you agree with KT, or partially agree, what is reason in that context?

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Bill Snedden December 16, 2010 at 12:35 pm

@Hermes
I’m not sure about that as I’m not completely sure what KT meant. If he was referring to sentential/syntactical construction as necessary to reason, I would be largely in agreement. It’s not the ability to express abstractions that’s required, but rather the ability to conceive of them and that would indeed appear to require the same cognitive machinery that underlies our linguistic abilities.

Of course, therein lies one of the greatest difficulties in pursuing the question of animal cognition: in the absence of clear verbal expression (such as we’re used to), how can we confidently assess any given creatures ability to reason? We can certainly infer much from reactions to testing, but how do we really know? That’s one of the reasons why I say that the question of whether or not non-humans animals possess rights doesn’t, in and of itself, really help us answer the question as to how they should be treated.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 16, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Kip,

Yup, good link.

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Jaydin Nathan December 16, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Joseph, Kaelik is correct in pointing out you are arbitrarily excluding humans, and the same things could be said for “Morality is rules made by white people, for white people” or “Morality is rules made by men, for men.”

Kaelik, thank you for pointing that out, you are correct. Although the argument remains, my analogy was incorrect. With regards to your comments on ‘pro or anti cow genocide,’ it seems that forced sterilization at birth would lead to a world with less and weaker desires being thwarted then the current one, assuming the cow would desire living a life without kids over dying.

Sorry about the name mix up Hermes and Adito!

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Joseph December 16, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Kaelik wrote: “You are just arbitrarily opposed to including animals as having rights because they are different from you.”

I don’t think you understood my point. It’s not that the animals are different. But that they are our food. Would you give rights to vegetables? Why not?

@Jaydin Nathan

Morality rules are human rules. Do you know of any other morality?

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Kaelik December 16, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Kaelik wrote: “You are just arbitrarily opposed to including animals as having rights because they are different from you.”I don’t think you understood my point. It’s not that the animals are different. But that they are our food. Would you give rights to vegetables? Why not?

I would not give rights to anything or anyone, because the term right carries too much baggage outside of specific legislation to be a useful descriptor of a relationship.

I understood perfectly what you are saying. You are just being silly. There is nothing wrong with a human rule for humans stated:

“You shall not eat pigs because they are unclean.”

Or:

“You shall not eat dogs or cats, because they are useful and/or cute.”

These rules exist either formally or informally in many cultures. Human rules for humans can give any animals any rights we want. Human rules for humans give corporations rights. Human rules for humans give animals and even property rights.

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Joseph December 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm

@Kip:

There are three types of rights:“Natural Rights” which don’t exist (as most people mean when they use that term), “Legal Rights” which clearly do, and “Moral Rights”, which Alonzo discusses here: What’s Important about Rights.

I don’t agree with Alonzo. Human rights are no more real than the letters of the alphabet are real, or the rules of baseball are real. IOW, if all humans would disappear, morality along with the alphabet and the rules of baseball would all disappear. These are human constructs.

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Hermes December 16, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Bill, thank you. It is a joy to read your comments.

It’s not the ability to express abstractions that’s required, but rather the ability to conceive of them and that would indeed appear to require the same cognitive machinery that underlies our linguistic abilities.

I want to make sure I understand exactly what your point of view is.

* Q1: Would the ability to conceive abstractions be a necessary precondition to being able to express them?

I realize that many abstractions aren’t expressed at all.

* Q2: What form of abstractions would be non-rational, and what ones would be rational?

To address the last question myself, I will assert that if a human gave directions to another human on how to get to a flower shop that would require some reasoning ability through language and abstract symbols as well as learned socialization, yet a bee dancing in a hive to give directions to other bees is not using reason at all.

I would not question or debate someone who says that the bees aren’t using reason, but the two people exchanging directions are. While I could be mistaken, I have no problem taking it as a given that is the case or asserting it is the case in casual conversation.

What I’m not clear on, though, is what is the critical difference between the two as you see it; why is it that one uses some level of reason and the other does not use any (if you agree with the comparison).

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Joseph December 16, 2010 at 2:31 pm

@Kaelik

Thanks for the clarification. I thought your objection was based on the notion that animals have rights in the sense that they are intrinsic, which I don’t believe in.

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KT December 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

@Bill Snedden
With respect to the atheist comment, I was being sloppy, but most atheists tend to believe that final causes do not exist. I am actually a naturalist, but I hold that there are teleological forces at work in the universe (like Aristotle or the Stoics). Given there is a such thing as objective purpose which we discover (and not arbitrarily create), natural law makes sense. You are definitely correct that theism is not necessary for natural law.

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Kip December 16, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Human rights are no more real than the letters of the alphabet are real, or the rules of baseball are real. IOW, if all humans would disappear, morality along with the alphabet and the rules of baseball would all disappear.

Yes, and if all humans would disappear, humans would all disappear. So does that mean that humans are not real?

Using your definition of “real”, I think most of the things people care about in this world are not “real” — things like “friendship”, “love”, “happiness”, etc. I think your concept of “real”, although meaningful in a sense, is not what most people mean by the term. Most people include things that are ontologically subjective in the category of things that are “real”.

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Joseph December 17, 2010 at 3:35 am

@ Kip

Thanks for the clarification. I meant real in the sense of objective. Human rights and human morality are subjective not objective.

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Bill Snedden December 17, 2010 at 10:59 am

@Hermes:

* Q1: Would the ability to conceive abstractions be a necessary precondition to being able to express them?

Well, in a very simple sense, yes. In order to be expressed (verbally or by other means), a concept must first exist. But there may be some concepts that are so complex that the cognitive machinery required for expression may be necessary for their mere conception.

I believe that our ability to conceive abstractions and the cognitive ability to think in a sentential/syntactical manner may well have co-evolved. Certainly it seems to me that there are certain “high-level” abstractions (say, “perfection”, or “morality”; what we might call “meta-abstractions” or “abstractions ABOUT abstractions”) that are difficult to think about or even conceive of thinking about without some sort of sentential/syntactic cognition. However, there is also research demonstrating that several non-human animals that appear to lack such abilities do seem to have a limited ability to think abstractly: not only mammals like chimps & dolphins, but also birds (ravens, pigeons) and even insects (bees!).

So, it’s possible that there are some abstractions that can’t be conceived without first having the type of cognitive ability that makes expressing them possible (“perfection”, “beauty”, “morality”) just as there are clearly some types of abstractions that don’t seem to require linguistic-type expression at all (like colors or numbers/quantities).

* Q2: What form of abstractions would be non-rational, and what ones would be rational?

What do you mean by “rational”? Reason, as I see it, is a process and as such it seems clear to me that many non-human animals possess and use it, albeit at nowhere near the level of complexity as humans. But in the context of this discussion, I don’t place moral value on reason alone; rather on “moral agency”, for which a higher level of cognition is required than that of which non-human animals seem to be capable.

To address the last question myself, I will assert that if a human gave directions to another human on how to get to a flower shop that would require some reasoning ability through language and abstract symbols as well as learned socialization, yet a bee dancing in a hive to give directions to other bees is not using reason at all.

Well, I wouldn’t say that either is using reason per se at the point of communication alone as that doesn’t seem to me to require reason. However, determining how to get from A to B might, whether one is a human or a bee. In a simple case such as this, a human might use reason (inference from map points or linguistic hints) whereas a bee might be utilizing mere pattern recognition (and thus not reasoning).

What I’m not clear on, though, is what is the critical difference between the two as you see it; why is it that one uses some level of reason and the other does not use any (if you agree with the comparison).

Well, as I noted above, I don’t see reason alone as sufficient to differentiate, but rather the ability of moral agency. That is, the ability to conceive of oneself as an autonomous agent with duties, responsibilities, choices, values, etc. Humans as a class possess this ability while as far as we can tell, no other animal does.

As a general “rule of thumb”, I would say that any creature capable of contemplating and understanding the difference between existence and non-existence, pleasure and pain, etc. and with the further ability to value and desire one state over the other has the right to make that choice for itself.

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Bill Snedden December 17, 2010 at 11:13 am

@KT:

With respect to the atheist comment, I was being sloppy, but most atheists tend to believe that final causes do not exist. I am actually a naturalist, but I hold that there are teleological forces at work in the universe (like Aristotle or the Stoics). Given there is a such thing as objective purpose which we discover (and not arbitrarily create), natural law makes sense. You are definitely correct that theism is not necessary for natural law.

Hmm…okay as far as teleology is concerned. I see evolution as a teleological process because it is “goal-oriented” (survival) but not in the sense of any kind of conscious working toward an end. That seems to me consonant with Aristotle and the Stoics if not what they themselves necessarily believed. I also realize that many “naturalists” dislike the idea of “teleology” as it seems to them to smack of theism or the supernatural. I do not share this opinion, so in that respect we are likely close to agreement on this.

However, “objective purpose” seems to me a contradiction in terms. “Purpose” requires values and values presuppose a “valuer”. “Purpose” seems to me therefore to be necessarily subjective. But to the extent that our values are determined by our nature (and they are), our “purpose” is still, in a sense, something that we discover rather than create. So I would say that while “purpose” isn’t objective, it is nevertheless objectively grounded.

But I would also argue that our nature as autonomous agents seems to me to lead us to the discovery that our “objectively-derived” purpose is to create our own purpose!

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Hermes December 23, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Bill, thanks for the response. I’ve had little time to provide a thoughtful reply but will do so if my life and relations allows me to spend sufficient effort on one. I do have some ideas, but do not want to give you a half-baked/reactive response.

I will say this, though, my current thoughts are not very philosophical but are based on demonstratable evidence that I hope will mesh well with your current thoughts or require at most a few reasonable tweaks from one or both of us.

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