The Ethical Standing of Animals

by Benjamin Studebaker

Over the last couple of weeks I have found myself engaged three times in discussions about the ethical standing of the animal. In the first instance, the question was one of vegetarianism, the second was one of animal testing, and the third was of the validity of antihumanism, specifically the notion that human beings should diminish both in number and in environmental impact for the benefit of animals. It seems that the animal liberation movement grows stronger and more politically relevant, so it is time to evaluate its central proposition–that animals are non-human persons with the same ethical standing to that of human beings. To answer this question, we must investigate what precisely it means to be a person.

This is not the first time person-hood has entered into this blog–I discussed it to some degree when I went over the moral questions at the heart of the abortion debate. Some of that material, you will find, remains relevant (though of course reading that blog post is not a required prerequisite for this one–the same ground will be covered, where necessary, here). As I see it now, there are really three ways we can conceptualise person-hood such that the definition makes a ruling on the inclusivity of animals:

  1. Religious Deontology–does the entity in question have a soul?
  2. Secular Deontology–defining person-hood to be one thing or another.
  3. Intellectual and/or Psychological Capacity–to what level is the entity sophisticated?

Let us consider each in turn.

Religious Deontology:

If your morality is derived from what a god declares to be moral (presumably either through religious texts or the teachings of churches), then, assuming you subscribe to one of the popular religions, the answer is invariably (at least among the western religions with which I am most familiar) that animals are not qualified for person-hood because they do not possess a soul, as only entities with souls have person-hood. It is the same reasoning that justifies religious condemnation of abortion–if having a soul makes one a person, even the littlest, least developed human being counts. However, many of us (perhaps, to some degree, all of us) have additional or alternative sources for moral views, and consequently cannot simply take this point as given. Many of the members of the animal liberation movement certainly must have alternative sources because their view is incompatible with this one. Unless the animal liberation movement is philosophically baseless (and I deny that), its justification must lie elsewhere.

Secular Deontology:

A lot of people simply insist that animals are persons from definition by choosing to define person-hood deliberately so that it includes animals due to an attachment to animals that is emotional rather than intellectual. They might define “being alive” to indicate person-hood, or, to be less extreme, “being an animal”. This is an arbitrary move, and I would consider it circular and thereby invalid. One cannot prove that animals are people by claiming that animals are people. It should be noted however that most serious advocates of animal liberation are not basing their views on something like this. There are deeply intellectual justifications for animal liberation. So where do they come from? It must be the third category…

Intellectual and/or Psychological Capacity:

Here is where, in my view, it gets interesting. Among the earliest intellectual proponents for animal liberation was Jeremy Bentham, the British utilitarian moral philosopher who argued that all that was required for person-hood was a capacity to experience pleasure and pain. I myself see no other reasonable standard for judging person-hood besides some form of capacity argument. To arbitrarily define person-hood so that it includes animals is no more sensible than defining it such that it includes plants or bacteria. There must be a capacity standard of some kind. The question is what sort of capacity standard should be applied? Broadly speaking, there are two ways of looking at it:

  1. Sapience–capacity for complex reasoning, civilisation-building, evolution-directing, innovation, progress, and so on.
  2. Sentience–consciousness as to what is going on, the experience of pleasure and pain, communication, and so on.

The sapience standard for person-hood is much more difficult to meet than the sentience standard. Animal liberation activists would have us accept the sentience standard on the grounds that being sentient makes an entity, in all the important ways, morally equivalent to being human. There was a time in which it was denied that animals possessed sentience, but recent scientific evidence suggests that animals can indeed communicate, use basic tools, display self-awareness, and so on. On the back of this research, animal liberation activists claim that human beings are not particularly special and consequently do not have any special moral privileges over other animals.

However, I would challenge the sentience standard. My trouble with it is that it amounts to the soft bigotry of low expectations. If we compare animals as they were conceived of in past centuries to animals as we presently conceive them, then yes, animals are much more sophisticated than we thought they were. However, complexity does not operate on a dichotomous level. It is not a question of either being complex or not complex, it is a question of the degree of complexity. Animals can do a variety of things that we did not think they could do, but there are many ways in which their capacity still lags behind. Among other things, animals cannot do the following:

  • Build cities
  • Make technological progress
  • Produce economic output
  • Conduct philosophy

Animals have no civilisation, in other words. We cannot so much as trade with beavers, let alone sign a treaty with them to achieve jointly with mutual understanding a shared end. There are no elephant scholars. There are no dog dissertations. There is no Catropolis. Animals have very limited ethics–they operate under the Darwinian sensibility of kill or be killed. If we stop comparing animals to what we thought animals were and start comparing them directly with humans, there is a significant capacity gap. That capacity gap is the difference between sapience and sentience; it is the difference between intelligent life and conscious life.

I hold that this difference matters, and that it gives us a reason to embrace the stricter sapience standard. If we were to meet intelligent aliens, we could, theoretically, trade with them, negotiate with them, cooperate with them, go to war with them, do any number of things. If however we were to meet space beavers, there are no available consensual interactions available, because beavers are not sufficiently intelligent to understand us, negotiate with us, or to give consent to our plans involving them.

When animal liberation activists say that we have no right to benefit at the expense of animals, they not only ask us to violate our Darwinian mandate (being smarter makes humans better at competing with animals for resources; animals that cannot adapt to humans consequently go extinct in favour of more adaptable species), they ask us to put aside our goals and aspirations for a group of entities that will not thank us for doing so, has no intention of living cooperatively with us, and, if given the biological advantage, would reserve no quarter for us. They are not on our level.

Now, this is not to say that they are not on any level. Capacity is not dichotomous, it is a continuum, or, at minimum, a gradient. The needs of sapient life outweigh the needs of merely sentient life, but the needs of sentient life do not count for nothing. To show cruelty to animals without purpose, to needlessly and for no reason torture animals, is morally abominable. But surely we can accept that without having to simultaneously claim that it is similarly wrong to use animals for labour, to eat them, to conduct experiments upon them for the benefit of human medical research. It is also not to justify environmental degradation or climate change–destroying the environment is sufficiently wrong that something ought to be done to prevent it merely on the grounds that a destroyed environment is bad for sapient life, for human beings. If we fill the air with noxious fumes, poison the water, destroy great flora and fauna that people enjoy, and melt the icecaps until all of our coastal cities are permanently flooded, we will suffer terribly whether or not we also take on board the same moral concern for the animals who are killed in the process. It is enough to acknowledge some moral concern for animals, inferior to that held for human beings, and to protect the environment in the name of the human interest.