Where our duties lie
(1) Which entities have moral standing?
(2) What duties do we have towards living things, and what is the basis for them?
(3) Which living things do we owe these obligations to?
(4) What is wrong with harming living things?
What we are entitled to do, in pursuit of our interests
(5) What are we, as humans, morally entitled to do?
(6) Which human practices should a minimally "self-loving" moral code sanction?
(7) Under what circumstances is harm justified?
(8) Problems in moral decision-making:
In the following discussion, I shall be outlining an ethical position which is at once humanistic (insofar as it permits human beings to engage in activities that promote their own telos, Aristotelian (in its conception of what that telos consists of), and biophilic (in that it accords inherent value to each and every living thing).
(1) Which entities have moral standing?
Varner (1998) distinguishes four ethical perspectives regarding which beings have moral standing:
anthropocentrism (the view that only human beings have moral standing or intrinsic value),
animal welfare and animal rights views (the view that all and only sentient entities have moral standing or intrinsic value),
biocentric individualism (the view that all (and only?) living organisms have moral standing or intrinsic value), and
environmental holism (the view that all ecosystems have moral standing or intrinsic value).
It should be clear from the discussion in chapter 1 that I reject the first two views, which ascribe value to living things only insofar as they serve the interests of rational human agents or sentient beings. Drawing upon the work of Gary Varner (1998), I defended the view that living things are not good only in an instrumental sense, but that they have a good of their own (or telos), and that the fulfilment of biological functions in non-sentient organisms is in their interests, irrespective of their being able to take an interest in their fulfilment.
At the end of chapter 1, I endorsed the view that an entity has moral standing if it has a "good of its own" (that does not need to be defined in terms of something else), which we can promote (by helping it)or hinder (by harming it). I argued that "doing good" is more logically construed as acting in an individual's interests, rather than satisfying an individual's desires, as the satisfaction of an individual's desires is not necessarily good per se for the individual concerned. (The same point could be made for helping rational agents realise their plans, which is how an anthropocentrist might envisage moral goodness.) On the other hand, the satisfaction of an organism's biological interests is by definition good for that organism, as it promotes the organism's health. It follows that all organisms have moral standing. Each and every living thing matters in its own right. Insofar as I espouse this view, I am a biocentric individualist.
So far, I have not addressed the question of whether ecosystems, or even the environment-as-a-whole (air, land and water, as well as the organisms that live in them), could also have moral standing. Certainly, an ecosystem is not an organism: it lacks the hierarchical organisation and nested functionality that imparts unity to a living thing. The living things whose interactions make up an ecosystem are not inherently dedicated to its continuation, as the parts of an organism are dedicated to its well-being.
Varner (1998) argues that environmental holists have failed to explain how an ecosystem can have intrinsic value or moral standing. In the first place, he argues, we cannot feel sympathy for it, as it is not a sentient individual. A community of sentient beings may also be an appropriate object of moral sentiments (e.g. patriotism), but an ecosystem is not such a community. An entity can also possess moral standing simply because it can be described as flourishing and healthy, but here the challenge is to provide a non-reductive account of the health of an ecosystem. Finally, other criteria which have been proposed for ecosystems (e.g. Leopold's famous "integrity, stability and beauty") do not constitute health as such, and are not sufficient criteria for something's having moral standing. Lots of things have beauty, integrity and stability (or a capacity for self-renewal), yet we do not regard them as morally significant on that account.
Pace Varner, I believe there is a way in which we can measure the health of an ecosystem, even though this flourishing is derivative upon that of the living organisms whose interactions constitute it. The living things (or "nodes") which are connected within an ecosystem are interdependent organisms whose ties may be strengthened or weakened. I propose that one way in which we could measure the flourishing of an ecosystem is by counting the number of "linkages" (dependent relationships) between its "nodes" (different species that exist within an ecosystem). We could say that an ecosystem thrives when the rate at which new interactions (or "linkages") are being formed is greater than or equal to the rate at which they are being destroyed.
Human beings can thus benefit or harm an ecosystem by their actions. They can also defend an ecosystem. Later, I shall discuss the question of whether human beings can ever have the right, or even the duty, to defend an ecosystem.
Varner distinguishes between two kinds of holism: pure holism, which ascribes moral value only to ecosystems and not to individuals, and pluralistic holism, which ascribes moral value to ecosystems as well as individual organisms. I have argued that the flourishing of a living thing is good in its own right, and that it can be understood as such by virtue of the dedicated functionality and hierarchical organisation of its parts. We do not need a "larger context" (such as the state of the environment in which the living thing exists) to grasp this point. I reject pure holism, because it views the flourishing of an organism as good in purely relative terms: organisms are regarded merely as cogs in the greater Wheel (or Circle) of Life, or as cells in the body of Mother Nature. Such a view is not tenable, because an organism is not "dedicated" to its ecosystem in the way cogs are related to wheels. Whereas the functionality of a cog subserves the smooth operation of the wheel in a hierarchical part-whole relationship (like that between the parts of the body and the whole), an ecosystem is simply a network of systemic relationships between living things, and hence the milieu within which they exist. Unlike the wheel, its flourishing is conceptually derivative upon, and not prior to, that of its parts. (Strictly speaking, the parts of an ecosystem are not organisms, but the linkages between them. I envisage an ecosystem as a totality of biological facts, not biological objects, in the terminology of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.)
On the other hand, although the goodness of an organism's flourishing is intrinsic, and not merely conditional on the flourishing of its ecosystem, it is also true that the flourishing of most organisms is tied to that of their ecosystem. (Human beings, who can transform their own environment, introduced pests such as the cane toad, transportable organisms such as microbes that can survive in an unfriendly environment by becoming dormant, and parasites, which survive within their hosts, are obvious exceptions to this rule.) In particular, an organism obtains many of its needs (e.g. food) from the other organisms in its ecosystem. Finally, I would argue that an organism has a long-term biological interest in leaving as many descendants as possible, which it cannot do if its flourishing jeopardises the continuation of its ecosystem. The long-term interests of individual organisms constitute a sufficient reason to protect ecosystems, without the need to ascribe special rights to ecosystems. Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth behind pure holism: the flourishing of many kinds of organisms is inseparable from that of their local environment, within which they are "embedded" (Taylor, 1999, p. 131).
As regards pluralistic holism, while we may allow that ecosystems have some kind of moral standing, insofar as they have a kind of flourishing and can benefit or be harmed, the crucial ethical question as whether this moral standing is prior to, or derivative upon, that of the individuals whose interactions constitute it. Since ecosystems lack a built-in telos, and since the network of relationships that constitutes an ecosystem presupposes the existence of living individuals that are related, the latter answer must be correct. In that case, we have to ask whether there is anything to be gained from considering the morality of an action which will impact on various organisms, in terms of the benefits and harms to the ecosystem as a whole, rather than limiting ourselves to ascertaining which individuals in the ecosystem will be helped or harmed by the action.
One gain from considering the overall environmental impact of a course of action is that it informs us whether the action is sustainable in the long run. If it is not, then the fact that it benefits a particular organism in the short run does not legitimate it. As we have seen, organisms also have long-term interests in the continuation of their own lineages, and the thriving of most organisms is tied to that of their ecosystems. Hence an adverse long-term ecological impact of a proposed human activity is against the interests of most of the organisms within that ecosystem. The long-term ecological sustainability of a course of action is a convenient way of expressing the combined interests of the organisms that inhabit that ecosystem.
Another benefit of evaluating the environmental impact of a proposed action is that we can compare it with that of another proposed action, and choose (ceteris paribus) the one that causes the least overall disruption.
It remains for me to define my ethical position vis-a-vis the distinction drawn by Naess (1989) between shallow and deep ecology. A shallow ecologist is someone whose concerns are limited to his/her fellow human beings; a deep ecologist has an attitude of "respect for nature" in its own right. By this definition, I belong in the latter camp. On the other hand, I see no reason to accept the assumption that all living things have an "equal inherent worth" (whatever those terms mean), as deep ecologists are wont to claim (see Principles of Deep Ecology). Additionally, I would argue that our perspective on nature is necessarily humanistic: we cannot help but value the flourishing and well-being of our own species above that of other organisms, although we can choose to regulate the conduct of our lives in pursuit of our telos, in a way that respects the flourishing of other living things.
(2) What duties do we have towards living things, and what is the basis for them?
(i) Duties owed to living things in general
It was argued in chapter 1 that every organism has a flourishing of its own. As Paul Taylor (1986) puts it, each is a teleological centre of life - that is, "a unified system of goal-oriented activities, the aim of which is the preservation and well-being of the organism ... whether or not the animal or plant in question is conscious" (cited in Taylor, A., 1999, p. 126). In this respect, it makes no difference whether the organism is an animal or plant: the fact that it has a flourishing of its own means that it has its own interests. All ethical argumentation has to start somewhere, and we might take the principle that the interests of each and every individual command the respect of moral agents, as a point of departure. Respect for the interests of others need not be absolute; all that is implied here is that they must at least be taken into account, in one's moral deliberations. If we accept this principle, it follows that acting against the interests of another individual is a prima facie morally wrong, and requires ethical justification. (Of course, an act which is prima facie morally wrong may well be morally justifiable; the point is that its justifiability has to be argued for.) Since all organisms have interests, it follows that it is a prima facie moral wrong to do anything detrimental to the interests of any living organism.
Often, however, the flourishing of one organism can only occur at the expense of other organisms, as living things compete for scarce resources. This implies that our duty to respect the telos of other living things is qualified, rather than absolute. If it were absolute, we would be obliged to let other things flourish to our detriment, and not interfere when they endangered our lives. It would be immoral to develop vaccines to combat viruses, or antibiotics to fight bacteria, or even to harvest crops in order to eat the produce. An unconditional obligation to respect the telos of other life-forms would be ethically suicidal. Later, I shall propose my own set of conditions under which we may harm other organisms.
(ii) Duties owed to animals with minds
So far, we have discussed only the biological interests of organisms. However, there are other kinds of interests: animals with minds may take an interest (as opposed to merely having one) in getting what they want. In chapter 2, we looked at Beisecker's (1999) argument that these animals, as holders of expectations, exhibit "a normativity, or goal-directedness, that is independent of, and occasionally might even run contrary to, their biologically determined natural purposes". Now, the satisfaction of a want, unlike a biological interest, may not be beneficial to the animal: an animal may crave drugs, for instance. However, many of the things animals want fall into certain categories of good, whose realisation contributes to the well-being of the animal, in a way that can be objectively verified. We might say that it is "proper" for the animal to pursue these ends for their own sake, although their biological usefulness may be direct or indirect. Here, it is important to remember the distinction made by animal researchers, between the reason why an end is pursued and the biological function it serves for the animal. Among these categories of goods legitimately pursued by an animal for their own sake, we might include the following:
Animals with wants therefore have a range of "psychological" ends (objects of desire) which other living creatures do not. Does this mean that our duties to animals somehow out-rank our duties to other creatures? Should animals count for more in our moral deliberations?
Varner (1998) has attempted to justify what he calls a "hierarchy of life forms: human beings are generally more important than other animals that have desires..., and these in turn are more important than organisms without desires" (1998, pp. 95-96). Varner engages in an extended justification for the second part of his claim (animals with desires are more important than organisms without desires). The nub of his case is that an animal's capacity to have desires supervenes upon the satisfaction of innumerable biological interests that it has. For instance, "I could not continue to form and satisfy desires without adequate nutrition, without my gastrointestinal tract, my heart and lungs, my limbic system, and so on all continuing to function" (1998, p. 94). From this, Varner argues that the satisfaction of a desire is more important than the satisfaction of a biological interest. To my mind, this is a complete non sequitur: "A supervenes upon B" does not imply that A is more important than B. Of course, if we proceed from the premise that B is important only insofar as it subserves A, then it follows that A is more important than B, as B is a purely instrumental good. However, it was argued in chapter 1 that biological interests (B) are important in their own right, irrespective of whether they serve to promote the capacity for desire (A) in sentient animals. Varner, as the author of what he calls a mixed "psycho-biological theory of welfare" (1998, p. 62) would himself concede this point.
Additionally, Varner argues that the life of a sentient animal requires the satisfaction of a large, "indeterminate" (1998, p. 94) number of desires over the course of its existence, in addition to the satisfaction of its "myriad" (1998, p. 94) biological interests which it shares with non-sentient creatures. From this, he derives an ethical principle:
(P1) Generally speaking, the death of an entity that has desires is a worse thing than the death of an entity that does not (1998, p. 94).
It is hard to see what argument Varner is putting forward here. He could mean that animals have interests of a kind that other creatures do not (true, but insufficient to establish P1), or that ceteris paribus, animals have (numerically) more interests than other creatures, as they have desires as well. Even if we set aside the difficulty of counting interests, as well as the objection that certain large organisms without desires are likely to have numerically more interests than some small organisms that have desires, the point remains that if one's moral status depends on how many interests one has, then the moral difference between organisms with and without desires would appear to be relatively slight, as the number of biological interests that must be satisfied for an animal to be able to formulate even a single, momentary desire is vast - orders of magnitude larger than the number of desires it might have over a lifetime.
I remain unpersuaded, then, that the satisfaction of a desire is objectively "more important" than the satifaction of a biological interest. Are there any other grounds, then, for according animals with minds a privileged moral status, above other organisms?
In chapter 2, it was argued that animals with minds are agents, who control their movements and who try to attain their ends. On the other hand, despite the rich emotional and social life (discussed in chapter 3) found in some non-human animals, we saw in chapter 4 that there are no good grounds for supposing that any non-human animals possess moral agency. They pursue the good things of life, but they do not concern themselves with the question of what a good life is. They have some control over the means they use to attain their ends, but cannot question whether their pursuit of an end is worthwhile.
Animal agency, then, has striking commonalities with human agency, but equally striking differences as well. We might use a Platonic metaphor here, and say that animals participate in agency: they are agents with a small "a" who partake of agency, but in a weaker sense than we do. Other organisms can only be metaphorically be described as agents: although they pursue their own good, as living things, they act without intent.
If we now compare the monstrously immoral act of killing a human being with the act of gratuitously killing an organism without a mind (I am assuming here that there is no justifying reason for doing so), we can detect certain similar themes - a life rudely thwarted, goals that will never be realised, interests cruelly doomed. If we now compare the murder of a human being with the killing of animal with a mind, we can observe these and other similarities: pursuits nipped in the bud, attempts that will never be made, deeds that will never be done, sights that will never be seen, pleasures that will never be experienced, memories that will never be formed - as well as certain features unique to human beings: the lifelong spiritual drama of a saga that was never allowed to unfold, a blighted struggle to create a meaningful existence for oneself, lifetime plans rudely interrupted, acts of creation that will never see the light of day, kind and loving words and deeds that will never be said or done to other human beings, a thwarted endeavour to make the world a better place, and the brutally truncated moral and spiritual development of a unique and irreplaceable person, with his or her own special appreciation of life. The point I wish to make is that despite the enormous differences between killing an animal and murder, the wrongness of killing of an animal has more in common with the wrongness of killing a human being than the wrongness of killing an organism has in common with killing a human being. This allows us to derive a modest ethical principle:
The wrongful killing of an animal with a mind is a greater moral evil than the wrongful killing of an organism without a mind.
One could also formulate a similar claim about wrongful injury.
The above principle, taken by itself, does not require us to be vegetarian. (In the real world, even a vegetarian lifestyle requires us to kill legions of pests to protect our crops.) What the principle does tell us is that the act of wantonly killing an animal is more wicked and morally disgusting than that of wantonly destroying a plant. The occurrence of agency in animals provides us with an additional ground for not taking their lives.
This principle also allows us to separate the ethical claim that the wrongful killing of an animal is worse than that of another organism, from Varner's contentious metaphysical claim that the death of an animal is worse than that of another organism.
It remains to examine one other ground that has often been suggested for treating animals differently from other organisms. Mary Midgley (1984, pp. 91 ff.) has argued that the Golden Rule (which she cites as "treat others as you would wish them to treat you") comes into play when we are dealing with animals who have wishes of their own. However, the Golden Rule can be construed in two different ways. Midgley construes it, reasonably, as an injunction to respect the wishes of others. Alternatively, one might construe it as a prohibition against harming others, where "harm" is defined as doing things to others that one would not like done to oneself. Confucius' minimalistic version of the Golden Rule - "What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do unto others" - can be construed thus. This version of the Golden Rule does not stipulate that an individual must have wishes of its own to qualify as an "other". It could apply to other living things: many bad things that are done to plants - being sawn in half, having body parts ripped off - are things that one would not like to have done to oneself. Animals are not in a special moral kingdom here.
Midgley is of a contrary view, and argues for a cutoff point which includes all and only conscious beings:
You can express it from the point of view of the creature itself, saying that "since it is conscious, injury and extinction will be bad for it". Or you can put it more abstractly, saying something like "since it is conscious, it has value; if it is injured or extinguished, the world will be the poorer" (1984, p. 93).However, the central argument of this thesis is that injury and extinction are bad for any living thing, since it has a good of its own. The value of a living thing does not depend on its being conscious, but on its being alive. Abstractly speaking, the world would be a poorer place without any organism.
So far, I have only made use of a minimalistic, Confucian construal of the Golden Rule. However, Midgley's construal of the Golden Rule as an injunction to respect the wishes of others is an equally legitimate interpretation, which entails that we are obliged to respect the wishes of animals. My point is that we actually have two kinds of duties to animals: a prima facie obligation (owed to all organisms) to refrain from harming them, as well as an obligation to respect their wishes. With regard to the latter obligation, three questions are pertinent: which wishes should we respect, how far should we respect them, and how binding is our obligation?
Obviously, the Golden Rule does not require us to advert to all kinds of wishes: one should not supply drugs to an animal that craves them. However, I suggest that the Golden Rule does require us to advert to an animal's wishes, when they fall into one of the telos-promoting categories listed above - biological ends, practical tasks, practical knowledge, friendship and play - simply because their fulfilment is unambiguously good for the animal.
By "advert", I do not mean "assist": that would impose impossibly burdensome obligations upon us. But even the most minimalistic version of the Golden Rule ("What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do unto others") imposes negative obligations upon moral agents. At the very least, we have a prima facie obligation to refrain from thwarting animals' telos-promoting desires.
It goes without saying that our obligations to respect animals' wishes cannot be unqualified: animals (e.g. mosquitoes that cause malaria) may want to do things that entail our sickness or death. I shall discuss the limits to our obligations below.
Because animals with mental states can suffer, we have an obligation not to be cruel to them. This is true, regardless of whether we envisage cruelty as the deliberate infliction of pain (a subjective phenomenon) or the deliberate frustration of animals' first-order desires (Carruthers, 1999). Human taboos against cruelty to animals are long-standing: the Noachide code of Judaism, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada (sayings of Buddha) all condemn the practice, and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church says of animals: "men (sic) owe them kindness" (para. 2416). I shall discuss below the question of whether our obligation not to treat animals cruelly is an absolute one. In the meantime, we can formulate an ethical minimum standard: the principle that the infliction of cruelty upon animals, as an end in itself, is unqualifiedly wrong. This follows from the fact that cruelty is an evil. To justify cruelty as an end-in-itself would imply the absurd consequence that one may delight in evil as such.
To sum up, we have established that there are legitimate, inter-related ethical grounds for believing that we have certain extra obligations to animals (their participation in agency, their possession of wants or wishes, and their capacity to suffer, or have their desires thwarted). These obligations entail that: (i) the prima facie wrongness of killing (or injuring) an animal is greater than that of killing (or injuring) other organisms; (ii) we have a prima facie obligation to refrain from thwarting animals' telos-promoting pursuits; and (iii) we may never inflict cruelty on animals as an end in itself.
(iii) Duties owed to companion animals
In addition to our general prima facie obligations to refrain from thwarting animals' wishes or causing them to suffer, and our absolute obligation not to be inflict cruelty for its own sake, there is an additional category of obligations that we have towards animals that we have befriended. Our bonds of friendship with companion animals (pets), impose special obligations on us, especially if we have assumed the responsibility of caring for these animals. Since we are essentially social beings who value and need our friends, we cannot harm or neglect our animal companions without destroying a vital part of ourselves. Our obligations towards companion animals are much stronger than our obligations towards other animals: since they are our friends, we are not only required to refrain from hindering them in the pursuit of their proper ends, but also to offer them positive assistance in the pursuit of their ends. Again, this obligation is not absolute: one has no obligation to promote the welfare of a companion animal when doing so imperils a local community (e.g. an ecosystem), for instance.
I would also suggest that one may not harm, injure or kill those animals whom one regards as true companions, in order to promote one's own good. Friends do not use each other like that. One might use a friend to promote one's own ends, but one may not harm a friend for one's own benefit. This has relevance for Regan's famous case (1988, pp. 285, 324-325) of the dog in the lifeboat. Since there can be bonds of genuine, reciprocal friendship between humans and dogs, my proposal would imply that if the dog is a pet, its owner may not throw it overboard, even to save his or her life, despite the fact that (unlike Regan) I consider the life of a dog (as a non-moral agent) to be much less valuable than that of a human being. (I shall explain later why I think a non-companion animal may be sacrificed in such a situation.)
(iv) Duties owed to human beings
Whether they are our friends or not, we have special obligations towards other human beings, on account of their unique telos. The flourishing of human beings is not merely biological, emotional, mental or even social, but also moral. Human beings are beings that care about the good life, and not just the good things of life. For human beings, life is not just a growing, blooming and fading, or even a sequence of deeds done or experiences enjoyed, but a drama whose unfolding and finale can be evaluated (by oneself or others) as good, bad or mediocre. In the movie "Saving Private Ryan", the main character, an old man who has returned to the beaches of Normandy decades his life was after World War II, asks his family, "Have I lived a good life?" The obligation to respect other people, as subjects of a good life, is much stronger one than our obligation to respect the lives of beings that can thrive or even act. The only generally accepted moral ground for killing a human being is the defence of innocent human life, which may be threatened by that person. It would be outside the scope of this thesis to give an account of our obligations to human beings, but one implication of my arguments below regarding the scope of our obligations is that the special obligations we owe to people are owed to any individual that pursues or is capable of pursuing a good life, and that human moral patients are in a different moral category from animals that are naturally incapable of moral behaviour. This has important implications for one argument that is commonly used in support of animal rights.
(v) Duties pertaining to greater wholes (e.g. ecosystems) and classes (e.g. species)
Finally, we have to ask whether we can have any duties towards a greater whole, such as an ecosystem, or the biosphere, or our natural environment. I would agree with Varner that our answer must be negative. The principal reason is that the flourishing of these systems is the wrong sort of flourishing to warrant the ascription of proper interests to them. We cannot speak of an ecosystem having interests unless its parts are dedicated to the well-being of the whole. But the mere fact that linkages exist between the organisms in an ecosystem does not make them dedicated to each other's (or the whole's) well-being. If ecosystems lack interests, there can be no obligations on our part towards them as such.
However, we may have obligations relating to ecosystems, even if we do not have any obligations towards them. At a minimum, one has a strong prima facie obligation not to destroy or jeopardise an ecosystem, because it contains organisms which have moral standing, on account of their telos, and many of these organisms have a long-term interest in the continuation of their ecosystem, since they cannot leave behind any descendants without it. (Of course, one would have no obligation to preserve a "toxic" local ecosystem which constituted a threat to human beings - e.g. a swamp which bred mosquitoes that transmitted malaria.) Later, I shall argue that we are entitled (though not obliged) to defend an ecosystem against the depredations of organisms that are endangering it, even if doing so entails killing organisms. For instance, one may cull animals whose over-breeding is threatening a local community.
What about classes of living things, e.g. species? Once again, it is hard to see how we could have a duty to a class as such, since, like an ecosystem, it lacks proper interests. Could we, however, have special duties that pertain to species, rather than individuals? Passmore (1980) thinks not: he sees nothing inherently good about preserving biological diversity, and nothing intrinsically wrong with destroying a species. He asks whether we would condemn St. Patrick for driving the snakes out of Ireland. "And if to drive them out of Ireland is worthy of praise, should it not be equally praiseworthy to drive them out of the world?" (1980, p. 119).
Granting that there are some species the rest of the world would be better off without (e.g. mosquitoes that carry malaria) does not mean that we do not have a strong prima facie obligation to preserve a species that is under threat from our activities. Protecting a species is good, not just because it preserves individuals, but because it preserves a whole way of being alive - a unique kind of telos. The death of a species destroys that way of life forever. While such a loss represents a (non-moral) evil, the causing of such a loss is a prima facie moral evil. The argument that species die out all the time in the natural world is misplaced; in the natural world, new species arise to take their place, but when humans kill species, this does not happen, so we leave the world a poorer place.
(3) Which living things do we owe these obligations to?
So far, we have discussed five categories of obligations: obligation towards (i) other living things; (ii) animals that have minds; (iii) companion animals; (iv) human beings; and (v) aggregates: greater wholes (e.g. ecosystems) and classes (e.g. species). We now have to define, as precisely as possible, which organisms fall within the scope of these obligations.
(i) Which living things count?
Because obligations of the first kind are grounded in something's being a "teleological centre of life" (Taylor, 1986), they are owed to anything with a telos of its own. As I have argued, this would include all living organisms but not communities of organisms (which lack a telos). Nor would it cover lineages of organisms, for the same reason. On the other hand, superorganisms would qualify, if they possessed the relevant requisite features (dedicated functionality and a nested hierarchy of organisation).
(ii) Which animals count?
Obligations of the second kind are more problematic. First, there are a variety of obligations owed to animals: (i) our prima facie obligations not to kill or injure animals, which are stronger than our comparable obligations to other organisms; (ii) our prima facie obligation to refrain from thwarting animals' telos-promoting pursuits; and (iii) our unconditional obligation never to inflict cruelty on animals as an end in itself.
Second, for each of our special obligations to animals we can ask: which animals are they owed to? In particular, are they owed to animals with mental states (I shall henceforth refer to these as sentient beings, for short) or to any animals having the same biological nature as these sentient animals (i.e. the non-sentient con-specifics of sentient beings)? Putting it another way: do sentient animals have a moral significance that their non-sentient con-specifics lack?
If we look at duties, the obligation not to inflict cruelty on animals for its own sake is the least controversial: by definition, it can only be owed to sentient animals. On the other hand, non-sentient animals can be killed or injured, and animals who are not yet sentient (e.g. animal embryos) can have their natural pursuits thwarted, if we prevent them from ever being able to engage in these pursuits (e.g. by decerebrating them). Is the killing, injury or mutilation of sentient animals, more morally reprehensible than inflicting these harms on their non-sentient counterparts? For instance, are there some injuries that we may inflict on rat embryos or decerebrated rats, that we may not inflict on sentient rats?
Traditionally, the debate over the scope of our moral obligations has been couched in terms of actual versus potential properties. The "sentientist" school of thought defines animals in terms of their current, actual properties (in particular, their mental states), while the "essentialist" or "naturalist" school takes account of their potential properties as well. I shall argue that in reality, the division between the two schools is misconceived: the real point at issue has nothing to do with potential properties, but with the metaphysical question of whether an animal (or any other organism) has a "nature".
If sentientists were consistent, they would exclude not only potentially conscious animal embryos, severely deformed animals lacking the neural wherewithal for mental states, and brain-damaged permanently comatose animals, but also animals in deep sleep or hibernation, from the domain of sentient beings. None of these creatures can be said to "mind" what happens to them, as they are currently incapable of having the mental states with which to do so. Does this mean we can treat them like other organisms such as plants? It seems counter-intuitive to say that an animal's moral status diminishes when it goes into hibernation, but sentientists cannot evade this strange conclusion without compromising their philosophical stance and/or according significance to other non-sentient animals. First, a sentientist could argue that hibernating animals matter just as much as conscious animals because of their future mental states (which they will be deprived of, if they are killed), but the same argument would also apply to animal embryos. Second, a sentientist could deem hibernating animals to be morally significant because of their past mental states, but that would also include permanently comatose animals. In any case, both options are philosophically unappealing to sentientists, because they invoke properties which are not current. Third, a sentientist could accord a privileged status to hibernating animals because they are capable of being awakened, but this would re-introduce the very "potentialistic" language that sentientists eschew. Finally, a sentientist might say that sentient beings (including hibernating animals) are morally significant because they currently possess a (minimally) functioning brain, but then she cannot explain why the possession of such a brain should be a morally relevant property, even when the brain is not currently able to have mental states, without re-introducing potential properties (e.g. "having a brain matters because a brain is capable of having thoughts").
The exclusion of non-sentient beings from our ethically privileged "inner circle" would also rule out so-called marginal human cases: embryos, patients in a permanent vegetative state, and human beings who lack mental states altogether, because of severe disabilities.
On the other hand, it seems absurd to include not only all embryos that are capable of developing into sentient animals, but also sperm cells and ova, within the ambit of our special obligations to animals, as we would have to do if we respected them on the basis of their potential properties. Even the nucleus of a body cell taken from an animal could be regarded as a potentially sentient being, as it can develop into an animal after it is transplanted into a denucleated ovum and cell division is electrically induced, as part of the cloning process.
This controversy is a long-standing one, within the ethical literature relating to animals. On the "actualist" side, utilitarians include only animals who are sentient within the scope of their ethical concerns; animal embryos, decerebrated animals and permanently comatose individuals do not count, although I have yet to find a writer willing to exclude hibernating animals as well. For instance, Rollin (1992) has proposed that we should render food animals and experimental animals decerebrate (and thus incapable of pain) through genetic engineering. Decerebrate animals, according to Rollin, cannot be said to have a welfare of their own.
Additionally, many animal liberationists employ what Dombrowski (1997) calls the argument from marginal cases to argue that there are no morally relevant differences between animals and human beings who are either very young, severely intellectually disabled or permanently comatose. Likewise, Regan (1988) defines "subjects-of-a-life" as mentally normal mammals aged one year or more.
On the other side, there is a long tradition of differentiating marginal human cases from other animals, on the basis of their future or past potential: i.e. because of what they will be (infants), could have been (people with severe mental disabilities), or once were (permanently comatose patients). It is also argued that we have ties of kinship to these human beings which justify our treating them as rights-bearers. "Actualists" counter that a potential X does not have the same rights as an actual X, and that sentimental considerations such as kinship should not over-ride moral principles.
I believe that we do both animals and so-called "marginal human cases" a disservice by assimilating the former to the latter. Instead of appreciating animals for the kind of organisms they are, we end up viewing them as second-rate people, while remaining oblivious to the genuine humanity of "marginal cases".
On the telos-based account of obligations which I am defending here, there is a vital difference between a newborn human baby and a newborn chimpanzee: the flourishing of the former, but not the latter, includes trying to lead a good life, as a moral agent. This alone justifies treating the two individuals differently. Killing the human baby would be an evil of a different order of magnitude than killing the chimpanzee. However, I readily concede that defenders of "marginal human cases" are wrong to base their case on the potential rather than the actual properties of these human beings. I propose that the moral significance of human beings, animals, and other organisms is grounded in their teleological properties, which can in turn be deduced from their (actual, not potential) informational properties. It is these latter properties that need to be explained at further length.
Recalling our up-dated definition of a formal cause in chapter 1 (an internal program which regulates the development and structure of the organism and the interactions between its parts), we can say that what makes human individuals different from other animals is the information that they have: an internal program (in their DNA) that codes for their development into rational adults who care about the good life. This program is not potential but actual: it consists of a sequence of coded instructions, contained in these individuals' DNA. Additionally, the program is not dormant but actually executing: it controls our development and supports our bodily structure and functions, during every moment of our waking or sleeping lives. This is true for so-called "marginal cases" too. Finally, even in cases where the program instructions have been corrupted by genetic copying mistakes, the actual biological function that the corrupted DNA codes for is readily discernible to scientists. We can speak of this internal program as constituting the nature of an individual.
Talk of "nature" is something of a taboo for present-day evolutionary biologists. I believe this intellectual revulsion stems from a confusion between two concepts of "nature": (i) an unchanging essence, and (ii) the internal unifying principle of an organism, which determines its structure and bodily functions. The former concept is no longer tenable: living things are continually evolving, and even during an individual's lifetime, its DNA undergoes changes. It is the latter concept of nature which I am defending here.
Despite the fact that lineages of organisms are in continual flux, we can use Darwinian thinking to straightforwardly identify the biological functions of any species of organism: look for organs or subsystems which the organism has because they can do something that confers a selective advantage on their possessors. (This is the etiological criterion which we discussed in chapter 1.) Biological functions remain fairly stable over long periods of time: eyes did not evolve overnight, but in a series of steps, over millions of years. We can, then, define an organism's nature, either in terms of its characteristic structure and functions (a layperson's descriptive definition), or in terms of its informational content (an essential definition): the DNA which encodes these functions (unless it has been damaged). In practice, evolution does not undermine naturalism, because organisms evolve over very long periods of time.
"Marginal human cases" possess a complete, actually executing copy of their internal program in every cell of their bodies. In infants, the only obstacle to its full expression is time; in intellectually disabled people, DNA damage that has corrupted a few of the program instructions; and in permanently comatose patients, bodily injury. However, even in the last two categories of cases, we can envisage without difficulty the possibility of these individuals becoming human moral agents, thanks to future medical advances allowing doctors to repair the damage to an individual's DNA, or possibly (using adult stem cells) even grow a complete brain for an individual who has nothing more than a brain stem, without altering either their physical identity as individuals or changing their nature as human beings. (The objection that an individual whose DNA was repaired would no longer be the same individual is specious: the DNA in our own cells is being continually altered by cell damage, without compromising our individual identity.) In all these cases, the uniquely human instructions that code for the possibility of rational agency are already there within the individual's body cells. I suggest that since these are what make humans special, any individual possessing them is entitled to the same respect, regardless of immaturity or impairment.
What does the foregoing argument imply for the scope of our duties to animals? It appears to entail that animal embryos, severely deformed animals lacking the neural wherewithal for mental states (e.g. decerebrated animals), and brain-damaged permanently comatose animals, possess the same moral significance as their sentient counterparts. Killing or injuring any of these non-sentient animals is no less reprehensible than doing the same to their sentient con-specifics, who possess the same nature.
On the other hand, there is no need to accord any moral significance to sperm cells or ova, or even a cell within an animal's body (which may be cloned). All of these are "potential animals" in some sense, but the information they possess is either too incomplete or inoperative for them to matter as animals do. Animal sperm and ova lack half the information that defines an organism as having the nature of an animal; animal body cells possess the relevant information for making an animal, but it has not been "switched on". Of course, once it is switched on (e.g. in cloning, when the nucleus of an animal's body cell is placed within a denucleated ovum and induced to divide by an electric shock), it acquires the moral status of an animal.
The proposal that sentient animals and their non-sentient con-specifics have a special moral standing simply because they have a certain kind of information in their DNA (the kind that codes for agency), which is currently "switched on", may seem absurd to some people. To make it seem less so, I would like to make three points in reply.
First, I am not arguing that the information contained in an animal's DNA confers moral standing on it per se, but that the range of biological and mental functions coded for in its DNA, the exercise of which comprises the animal's telos, gives the animal moral standing. The logic here is that the actual information contained in an internal program (which is currently executing) describes the animal's telos (which includes the satisfaction of some of its wants). The animal's moral standing is based on its telos.
Second, it has already been argued that other organisms have moral significance, simply because they possess a telos. Why should animals be any different?
Third, the only consistent alternative to a telos-based ethic is to base our obligations to animals on their mental states. I contend that these are too fleeting and evanescent to ground our common-sense intuition that the unjustified killing of an animal while it is asleep or hibernating is just as wrong as performing the same act of killing (without causing pain) while it is awake.
My proposal that all animals sharing the same nature are morally equivalent runs counter to the suggestion of some utilitarians, that experimenting on animal embryos is an acceptable substitute for experimenting on sentient animals. Indeed, if the experiments are fatal, the former may even be morally worse than the latter, as they rob the animals concerned of more years of life. On the other hand, if the experiments cause pain but no injury to sentient animals, then the use of animal embryos in their place is clearly acceptable.
(iii) Which animals count as companions?
Having addressed the scope of our obligations to animals, I shall now pass on to companion animals. Since the obligation here is based on friendship, the question arises whether one has similar obligations to other animals whom one could befriend, if one wished.
If we base our argument on the similarity to human friendship, then the reply must be negative. We can, and do, have special obligations to our friends (manifested in our trust in them, and loyalty and kindness to them), that we do not have towards other people.
It should be added that although we can befriend many different animals, we cannot consistently befriend all of them, simply because our interests inevitably conflict with those of other species, whom one may have to compete with or even kill for food.
(iv) Which human beings count?
The scope of our obligations to human beings can be described in the same way as the scope of our obligations to animals with minds: all of Dombrowki's (1997) marginal cases qualify as bona fide holders of human rights, as they have the same telos, whose functions are coded for in their DNA. In other words, human moral patients are just as important as moral agents. Being a possessor of human rights does not require one to be a moral agent, but merely to have the kind of nature that is realised through moral agency (among other things).
(v) Which ecosystems?
As I have argued above, we cannot have any obligations towards ecosystems as such, but we may have obligations that pertain to them. Arguably, this obligation may be stronger for richer ecosystems, whiose biodiversity is greater. I shall argue below that it may be necessary to harm living things, in order to defend an ecosystem - not because we have duties to the ecosystem as such, but because its "welfare" encapsulates that of its living inhabitants, all of whom have a long-term interest in leaving and most of whom cannot exist apart from their ecosystem. I shall propose a principle that stipulates conditions under which we may act in the justifiable defence of an ecosystem.
(4) What is wrong with harming living things?
Paul Taylor (1986) has argued that each living organism matters because it is a "teleological centre of life", i.e. a unified system of goal-oriented activities, whose aim is the preservation and well-being of that organism. This line of thinking, which I endorse, implies that the primary reason why harming a living thing is wrong is because it thwarts the realisation of its telos. At the end of chapter 1, I argued that the realisation of an organism's telos is intrinsically good; thus the thwarting of its ends must be bad for it. I also suggested that the promotion of an individual's telos was a clearcut case of moral behaviour, unlike the satisfaction of its desires, which may be harmful to the individual. This does not entail that the act of harming an organism is morally bad; a human agent who harms an organism by her actions may simultaneously benefit herself. I shall argue below that if one and the same action promotes the agent's telos while thwarting that of another individual, it may be morally justifiable.
Carruthers (1999) argues that when we harm animals, the chief wrong done is not the suffering caused but the frustration of their first-order desires. I agree with the thrust of Carruthers' criticism of the utilitarian ethic, although I would claim that harming animals (and other organisms) is wrong because it frustrates their natural ends rather than their desires per se, as some of their desires may run counter to their interests and because animals need not formulate desires for everything that is in their interests. Instead of focusing on the minimisation of suffering in animals, we should be trying to minimise interference with the exercise of their faculties, and maximise opportunities for what Masson and McCarthy (1996, p. 30) refer to as funktionslust - an animal's pleasure in doing what it does well.
Rollin (1992) has proposed that we should render food animals and experimental animals "decerebrate" (incapable of conscious experience, and hence incapable of pain), either surgically or through genetic engineering. This is an interesting ethical test case. Classical utilitarians would say that no harm is done as no suffering is caused. Masson and McCarthy might argue that decerebrate animals, while not undergoing pain, forego the funktionslust they would normally enjoy from the normal exercise of their faculties.
Rollin has a reply to this argument, however. Although he believes that every animal should have its telos respected, he argues that decerebration changes an animal's nature, instead of violating it. No funktionslust is foregone, because the animal is now a different kind of being, with a different (non-conscious) kind of functioning.
I believe that Rollin's concept of nature is misconstrued. I have argued that an animal's nature or telos is constituted by the information in its DNA that defines its development, internal structure and range of functions. Genetic engineering basically amounts to changing a few of the instructions. Now, it is one thing to change the instructions describing an organ's function, so that one kind of function they express in the animal (e.g. flying in most birds) is replaced by another (e.g. swimming in a penguin). It is another thing to simply impair one of an animal's functions, without replacing it with anything else, e.g. by genetically engineering an animal to make it incapable of learning. This is not a change of an animal's nature but a deliberate corruption of its existing nature, which stunts the animal. Such an action can hardly be described as consistent with respect for an animal's telos.
(5) What are we, as humans, morally entitled to do?
Before I outline my ethical position here, I would like to acknowledge my intellectual debt to Aristotle, whose influence on my thinking is obvious even when I criticise positions he has taken.
Historically, the notion that animals were created for the benefit of rational human beings (Aquinas) or simply exist for their benefit (Aristotle, Kant) has dominated philosophical thought. Such a thesis might be described as the Instrumentality Thesis or IT. The following statement from Aristotle's Politics serves as a good example:
...Plants exist for the sake of animals, and brute beasts for the sake of man - domestic animals for his use and food, wild ones (or at any rate most of them) for food and other accessories of life, such as clothing and various tools (Everyman's Library, p. 16).
Now, if one accepts that organisms lacking a rational nature exist solely for the sake of rational animals, it certainly follows that rational animals may make use of these organisms as they see fit, to promote their ends. The question is: are there any good arguments to support this thesis?
Religious arguments have been invoked to justify the subordination of animals and plants. I shall not discuss these here, except to observe that they potentially undermine rather than support IT. If one acknowledges a Creator, then non-rational creatures are the property of the Creator, if they are anyone's property at all. In that case, they might well exist for the sake of satisfying some wish of their Creator's, which may set limits on our freedom to use these creatures. Recognising this possibility, some (not all) religious believers attempt to circumvent the problem in an ad hoc fashion, by proposing that at some point in the past (the dawn of humanity) the Creator bestowed upon human beings total dominion over all sub-rational creatures - thereby limiting the Creator's own freedom.
A more radical and logical foundation for IT would be to simply deny that non-rational organisms have a purpose: they do not exist for the sake of anything. Since their existence has no meaning of its own, we can use them for our own meaningful ends. This line of argumentation, while superficially plausible, stems from employing two concepts too narrowly: the concept of finality (which is construed as extrinsic finality) and the concept of meaning (construed as an end aimed by an agent). Non-rational organisms do not exist "for" anything else, but they do not have to, in order to possess value: we have argued that their flourishing is intrinsically valuable. And although they do not strive to find meaning in their existence, their internal goal-directed activities certainly have a meaning: the preservation of the agent.
If we take seriously the notion that the flourishing of organisms is good in its own right, regardless of how we value them, then we can no longer view organisms as resources that exist for our ends. In that case, how can we justify making use of organisms at all, even for food and clothing?
The Telos-Promoting Principle: what are we entitled to do?
The answer is simple: we are animals too. We have a telos of our own. If we are not morally entitled to perform acts which by their nature promote our telos, then it is difficult to imagine what we are entitled to do. An extreme altruist might argue that acts which promote the well-being of other organisms are more praiseworthy, but it is difficult to see how the promotion of another's welfare can be good unless the promotion of one's own is also good.
Alternatively, an animal libertarian proponent of negative rights might argue that one's foremost obligation is to "first do no harm" to other morally significant beings, by interfering with the realisation of their telos. While Hippocrates' maxim may serve as an excellent starting point for how a doctor may ethically treat a patient, it cannot serve as a first principle for the conduct of one's own life. "Do no harm" may be a good second principle of ethics, but it cannot be a first. The notion of wrong is a logically secondary one: it assumes that the concept of "right" and its content have already been defined.
What, then, is it right for me to do? We can say that what it is right for me to do is simply what it is good for me to do, but conceptions of "good" vary. However, it may be useful if we define the concept of "good" with reference to interests. What it is good for me to do might simply be what is in my interests - or, if my interests are viewed as subordinate to those of a larger body to which I belong, the interests of some greater whole (e.g. society, or the biosphere). Interests, in turn, may be defined in subjective terms (e.g. what I want, or take an interest in doing) or objective terms (e.g. what is good for me, or what I have an interest in doing, whether I know it or not). Now, it has been argued in chapter 1 and this chapter that the interests of an organism are intrinsic, and can be defined in terms of the flourishing of the individual that has them. As such, they do not acquire their meaning with reference to the community to which the individual belongs, but are intelligible in their own right. In this regard, the relationship of an organism to its ecosystem is utterly unlike the relationship of a cell to its body: in the latter case, because of dedicated functionality and a nested hierarchy, the whole is prior to the part, but in the former case, the parts are logically prior to the whole. It was for this reason that I argued for some form of biocentric individualism above, rather than environmental holism.
In chapter 1, we examined Varner's criticisms of subjectivist theories of an individual's welfare, and before passing to a mixed psycho-biological account of welfare which was also found to have shortcomings. It was argued that if one's welfare (or what is in one's interest) is defined in terms of an objective measure (such as health), then the ethical relevance of promoting it was fairly straightforward, but that the satisfaction of an individual's subjective desires might very well be a good, bad or neutral thing.
It should be clear by now that I endorse a theory of ethics which is individualistic, objectivist and naturalistic, where the nature of a living thing is defined in terms of its telos. What is good for a living thing to do is what it has an interest in doing: realise the unique set of functions which define its flourishing, as a member of its species. These are the activities which are appropriate for it to perform. If the concept of "right" has any application, it must be here.
The foregoing considerations suggest an ethical principle, which I shall refer to as the Telos-Promoting Principle (TPP):
Activities which by their nature promote a human being's telos are "proper" in the sense that it is appropriate (i.e. good) for human beings to perform them per se, even if such actions harm other organisms.
Of course, the fact that telos-promoting acts are appropriate in themselves does not make them appropriate here and now. Nor does it automatically make them morally right. We might say that it makes them prima facie good. Other moral restrictions will be discussed below.
The TPP is ethically limiting in a way that IT is not. IT implies that we may use other life-forms for our own ends, whatever they may be; TPP implies only that we are entitled to use them in the performance of acts which (i) by their nature promote a (ii)restricted subset of our ends: namely, those that make up our "proper good" as human beings. (I shall discuss below which human ends fall under our "proper good".)
The two ethical restrictions are important. Acts which by their nature promote our telos are unambiguously good, as regards their essential "whatness". Acts which lack this essential connection with our telos are morally ambiguous; at the very least, their appropriateness need to be argued for. The reason for the restriction of our ends to those that comprise our telos is that the ends that together describe human flourishing are inherently good for us, while other ends we seek may or may not be.
How may we use living things?
The two principles (IT and TPP) give divergent answers to the question: what is a good way to make use of other living things? According to IT, the answer is simply: any way of exploiting other organisms which happens (by design or luck) to promote our ends is a good way to use them. The TPP yields a different answer: any act which makes use of other living things and which by its nature is good for us to perform (i.e. an act that essentially contributes to human flourishing) is a good way to use them. The former principle defines good usage in terms of good consequences; the latter, in terms of human wholeness.
The TPP is a self-preference principle: it implies that we may value our own well-being above that of other organisms. This is true even in our interactions with our fellow human beings: a drowning man, swimming with all his might towards a life-buoy, does not say "After you" if he sees others in the same predicament. In our interactions with other life-forms, we live by killing (Passmore, 1980). We argued above that our obligation to respect the telos of other life-forms cannot be absolute, as this would be ethically suicidal.
The TPP has significant ramifications for the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare. Francione (1996) differentiates them as follows:
Animal welfare theories all accept that animals have interests, but that these interests may be sacrificed or traded away as long as there are some expected results that are thought to justify that sacrifice... Some welfarists will ignore animal interests for the sake of human amusement and financial gain; others require more "serious" benefits...
The central and distinguishing tenet shared by rights theorists is that animals (like humans) have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away simply because good consequences will result. The rights position does not hold that rights are absolute. Indeed, rights must be limited, and they often conflict... We do not, however, allow ... rights to be abrogated simply because depriving one person ... might increase overall social welfare.
Insofar as the TPP justifies actions not in terms of their consequences but in terms of their intrinsic "whatness", it is more akin to animal rights theories, although its built-in axiom of self-preference principle enables it to justify many acts that some purists would balk at.
For my own part, however, I see no need to invoke the language of animal rights, as the language of duties seems to do the job equally well. Additionally, Cohen offers a persuasive argument that rights-talk violates everyday language when applied to animals:
A right, properly understood, is a claim, or potential claim, that one party may exercise against another. The target against whom such a claim may be registered can be a single person, a group, a community, or (perhaps) all humankind.
The differing targets, contents, and sources of rights, and their inevitable conflict, together weave a tangled web. Notwithstanding all such complications, this much is clear about rights in general: they are in every case claims, or potential claims, within a community of moral agents. Rights arise, and can be intelligibly defended, only among beings who actually do, or can, make moral claims against one another. Whatever else rights may be, therefore, they are necessarily human; their possessors are persons, human beings (1986, p. 865).
Persons who are unable, because of some disability, to perform the full moral functions natural to human beings are certainly not for that reason ejected from the moral community. The issue is one of kind ... Animals are of such a kind that it is impossible for them, in principle, ... to make a moral choice. What humans retain when disabled, animals have never had. (1986, p.866).
Cohen's argument here is that to have a right to X, you need to be the sort of being that can make a claim to X. While human moral patients may be said to have rights because they have a rational nature (which, allows lawyers to make claims on their behalf which they presumably would make, if they had the opportunity to do so), animals are naturally incapable of claim-making. It is a "game" they are naturally incapable of playing, which means we cannot play it for them either. To make a claim on behalf of a human moral patient is to do for it what it would do if it had the full use of its natural faculties. To make a claim on behalf of an animal is to do for it what it would do if it were not itself.
Cohen's comments are germane to the recent assertion by Suconik, that nonhuman animals have a right to the "property", i.e., the physical bodies, that are their own. "Everything that constitutes the cat is the cat's own property." This appears to be an illegitimate usage of the term property, because to own something, one must be capable of claiming it.
Nevertheless, I think Cohen overstates his case when he claims (1986, p. 866) that only human beings are capable of "voluntary consent": Aristotle's more measured remark that "children and animals have a share in voluntary action, but not in choice" (Ethics 3.2) implies that animals may be involuntarily subjected to cruel treatment without regard for their feelings. This is a twofold violation: a violation of their telos as living beings, and a violation of thwarted desires, as (small "a") agents.
Of course, we may speak of animals as having (positive and negative) entitlements, because they have an interest in certain goods. (Usually these entitlements will be presumptive rather than absolute.) However, the argument of this thesis is that all living things have an interest in their own proper good, to which they are entitled. This entitlement is not absolute: according to the TPP, human moral agents are also entitled to realise their telos, even at the expense of other living things. The point here is that the situation for plants parallels that for animals.
Cruelty to Animals
The TPP also has important ethical implications concerning the definition of cruelty to animals. The principle implies that the obligation not to intentionally inflict pain and suffering on animals is a qualified one. One can envisage an extreme situation - say, a fight to the death with a dangerous animal - where one possessed the means to make the animal desist and run away, but only by inflicting such pain on the animal as to make it too concerned for its own welfare to continue fighting (e.g. fighting off a shark by gouging its eyes). Here, one has to not only inflict suffering on an animal, but intend its suffering as a means to an end: its abandonment of a life-threatening course of action. What we may not do, under any circumstances, is intend an animal's suffering as an end in itself.
On the other hand, TPP cannot justify the infliction of cruelty where doing so does not promote a person's telos. To make this clear, consider the case of a sadist who delights not only in inflicting pain but in forcing his victims to violate their own moral norms, by doing things they never thought they would do. The sadist finds a human victim (who happens to be an animal lover) and an animal victim (a dog). Instead of torturing the dog himself, the sadist orders the victim to torture the dog, who has been tied up for the purpose. The sadist says that if the victim does not comply, the sadist will torture and then execute the victim's family members. Because torturing the dog cannot be described as a life-saving act per se, it cannot be justified by TPP.
Some readers may object to my suggestion that the victim should let his/her entire family be tortured to death rather than torture the dog. It may seem a terrible waste of life to let people die in place of one dog. "Isn't a person's life worth more?", they may ask.
The moral concept that is being introduced here is that of inherent value, or worth. Certainly, the life of a moral agent pursuing the good life seems to be more worthwhile, more "worth living", than the life of a being incapable of moral agency. However, talk of "more" or "less" in connection with moral worth betrays philosophical confusion, on two counts.
First, it is absurd to speak of one life as more "worth living" than another. Any life is worth living, because any life is good. What we should say is that life is worth living for a variety of reasons, and that human moral agents have more reasons to live - more "dimensions" of value, so to speak, rather than more value - than non-moral agents.
Second, the statement "A is inherently more valuable than B" simply does not imply the conclusion, "C may sacrifice B for the sake of A", which is what the sadist wants his victim to do. Additional premises are required, and need to be defended. What the statement "A is inherently more valuable than B" does imply is that it would be worse for C to kill (or torture) A (a member of the victim's family) than to do the same to B (the dog). But that does not answer the question of whether it is right to torture the dog.
Which harmful activities may we perform to promote our telos?
Having proposed a principle that defends the pursuit of inherently telos-promoting activities, the question we now have to ask is: how broadly should we construe these activities?
Some deep ecologists (e.g. Naess, 1989) appear to suggest that we are entitled to satisfy our vital needs only. The deficiency in this view is that "vital" equals "biological". However, as we have already seen, even animals have ends that are not purely biological (Beisecker, 1999). They seek practical knowledge as well as their own biological ends. We have also discussed evidence that as social beings, they may enjoy the company of other individuals of their kind, as well as engaging in play.
For human beings, there is an even broader diversity of irreducibly distinct "goods". For illustrative purposes, I propose to make use of a list proposed by Finnis, a thinker with an original interpretation of the Aristotelean tradition. Finnis (1980) proposes seven basic human "goods" - life (which includes health and procreation), knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (broadly construed) - each of which, he claims, is self-evidently good, none of which can be reduced to an aspect of the other six, and any of which can reasonably be pursued as one's life's work. (As we have seen, other animals may realise some of these goods too.)
By "self-evidently" good, Finnis means good in a way that does not depend on a person's state of mind (e.g. her wishes) for its goodness. In any case, the satisfaction of a wish may or may not be a good thing, morally speaking (see chapter 1).
Any of these categories of good is a worthy life-time pursuit: a person may reasonably choose to be a body-builder (and thereby promote the good of health), a stay-at-home parent (procreation), a sportsperson (play), an artist (aesthetic experience), a counsellor (friendship), a builder (practical reason) or a member of a spiritual community (religion). One might suggest that these goods - or some similar list - constitute the telos of a human being. In passing, I would like to comment that Finnis appears to have omitted an important basic human good: participation in public life, through community service or politics. My participation in public life is not only good for the "whole" to which I belong, but also for me as a social being.
The problem with Finnis's list is its sheer diversity: it is so large that almost any depradation of the biosphere could be construed as promoting some basic human good, and hence, "telos-promoting" - for instance, chopping down a rainforest to build the world's largest art museum (thereby promoting the good of "aesthetic experience"). Whereas Naess's restrictions are too tight, the teleological approach seem ridiculously loose. Or is it?
One suggestion I would like to make is that the list of basic human goods be expanded by including the care of living things and/or ecosystems. The rationale for the inclusion of this "good" is that it is an unqualified good: not only do living things have a proper good of their own which is promoted by our caring for them, but we also do something inherently good insofar as we promote the intrinsic well-being of living things. The care of living things is good for us too, simply because (unlike non-rational creatures) we are beings who are capable of loving them for their sheer aliveness. Additionally, this good is irreducible to the other human goods, and may reasonably be chosen as one's life work. A career as a vet, a gardener, an environmental consultant or a park ranger is surely a worthy pursuit.
The inclusion of the care of living things (or an ecosystem) as a human good is ethically desirable, because it enlarges our moral horizons and balances the other goods, which (with the exception of religion) are human-centred.
Another moral consideration is that there are many ways in which the same human good may be achieved. For instance, one may pursue the good of health (a part of the good of life) by following a vegetarian or an omnivorous diet. An appropriate question to ask when pursuing a good is: which choice will cause least harm to other living things, and leave the smallest "ecological footprint"? I shall discuss harm minimisation at further length below, in connection with my proposed Telos-Promoting Harm Principle (TPHP).
As we have seen, an important ethical limitation of the TPP is that it distinguishes between actions we perform that promote or procure a basic human good per se and those that do so only incidentally. Acts of the former kind are acts whose human performer, if asked, "What are you doing?", might reasonably reply, "I'm doing or obtaining something which is good for me (or another human being)". Actions of the latter kind are acts whose "whatness" cannot be described in this way.
Actions which promote or procure a basic human good per se could be regarded as actions which it is proper for a human being to perform, at least insofar as their good-promoting aspect is concerned. because the acts are essentially directed at a proper human good, their fundamental characterisation is a good one. Returning to our earlier example, a person operating a bulldozer to clear a rainforest to build an art museum might reply, "I'm building a work of art - an architectural masterpiece which will house the world's finest collection of paintings". Characterised in this way, the act cannot be morally criticised. However, we can argue with the bulldozer operator regarding the manner in which he is accomplishing his objective. "By all means build a museum," we may say, "but not where these rainforest trees are flourishing. Find another place, and use your environment's resources more carefully." The proper question here is: given that a human agent has chosen to promote or procure a basic (or proper) human good, what is the best way for him to do so?
On the other hand, acts that promote a human good only incidentally may be questioned in a more radical way. It is proper to ask whether such acts should be performed at all. Many animal experiments would fall into this category.
(6) Which human practices should a minimally "self-loving" moral code sanction?
The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement believes that "phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth's biosphere to return to good health". This is an extreme example of what I would call a "self-hating" environmental ethic. If our species' behaviour is damaging the biosphere in an unsustainable way, we should look for an intelligent way to modify it. But even if we believe that our activities are harming the biosphere, it is morally absurd to wish for our own non-existence as a cure for the problem. Likewise, the view that we, as a species, have somehow forfeited our right to exist by causing the extinctions of other species is incoherent, as it leaves unanswered the question: to what, or whom, are we beholden for this "right to exist"? "Mother Nature" is not a moral agent.
Following Aristotle, I believe that one cannot properly love others without a healthy love for oneself. I find it difficult to comprehend the position of someone who rejoices in the flourishing of another species while bemoaning the flourishing of his own. As a starting point for a minimally "self-loving" environmental ethic, we have to believe that any human actions that have historically enabled our own species to flourish were, broadly speaking, a good thing. One might legitimately dispute the pace or manner of implementation of these changes, but not their broad sweep. Of course, some of these changes may consist of actions that are unsustainable for the human species in the long run. (Our ancestors thrived by becoming proficient hunters and fishers as well as gatherers, but it is no longer possible for most of the planet's human inhabitants to live by hunting and fishing.) Nevertheless, if these actions have made our own existence possible, then they must be morally permissible in at least some circumstances.
Which human practices, then, are we committed to sanctioning? Roughly speaking, they would include the following:
For these human practices, the only appropriate moral question we can ask is not: "Are they permissible?" but "When are they permissible?" I propose that a good litmus test of any minimally "self-loving" environmental ethic is that it should be able to justify these practices, under at least some circumstances. In the next section, I propose a principle that allows for these practices and defines the conditions under which they are justifiable.
(7) Under what circumstances is harm justified?
Certain ethical theories justify harm done to other living things by ascribing a purely instrumental value to them. I, on the other hand, have proposed a principle of self-preference (TPP), which tells us which interests it is appropriate for a human individual to pursue, even at the expense of other organisms. However, TPP does not tell us the circumstances under which it is right to inflict harm on these organisms.
The ethical principle I am proposing here, and which I shall call the Telos-Promoting Harm Principle (TPHP), is that a human activity which inflicts harm on other living things is justifiable if:
(i) the activity itself is a proper human activity - that is, one which by its nature promotes or enables the realisation of a basic (or "proper") human good, which forms part of our telos;
(ii) the harm done by the activity either
(a) promotes or enables the promotion of a basic human good per se or
(b) does not promote a basic human good, but is merely an unwanted side-effect of the activity;
(iii) the good effect flows directly (but not necessarily immediately) from the activity performed,
(iv) the good achieved is at least as significant as the good destroyed by the harm done,
(v) the harm done is minimised, and
(vi) we have no over-riding special duties towards the living things that are affected by the action.
It should be noted that TPHP is not meant to be the sole justification of harm done to living things. The principle merely stipulates that a human activity which inflicts harm on other living things is justifiable if the above conditions are satisfied. Other activities that inflict harm may turn out to be morally permissible; if so, they require another kind of principle to morally justify them. Below, I shall propose another principle, whereby living things may be harmed for the sake of the justifiable defence of an ecosystem.
Readers will notice a resemblance between TPHP and the principle of double effect (PDE). However, there are three important differences. First, I add a disjunct to condition (ii). In the PDE, the harm done must be an unwanted side-effect. When one is dealing with other living things, this condition is too restrictive: the realisation of one organism's telos comes at the expense of those of other living things. Organisms are in a state of perpetual warfare with one another, and conflicts of interest are unavoidable. One must sometimes intend harm to some other living thing in order that one may flourish. The point of condition (ii) is that if the harm is intended, it must directly promote (or at least make possible the realisation of) some basic human good, before it can be called morally justifiable. That is, there must be an intrinsic connection between the harm done and the realisation of a basic human good.
One example would be killing plants or animals for food. Here the harm done is intended. The good realised is nutrition (an aspect of human health). In this case, the death of the organism per se does not nourish a person, but it enables someone to prepare the organism's body so that it is palatable to us (e.g. chop up the parts). Here, the harm enables the promotion of a basic human good. Thus the eating of meat satisfies the second condition of my ethical principle, though it would usually fail the fifth, as a vegetarian diet is generally less ecologically disruptive.
Contrast this situation with the use of canaries in coal mines in the nineteenth century. Here, the harm done is that the canary dies, and the good achieved is that many human lives are saved. (Singer would presumably countenance the sacrifice of the canary.) I would argue that the death of the canary, per se, does not save anyone's life. It is only the miners' interpretation of this event which saves their lives: they realise that there are dangerous fumes in the air, which killed the canary and will soon kill them if they do not get out. The use of the canary does not satisfy my second condition; neither does the exploitation of laboratory animals for testing, for similar reasons. Killing an animal for food is at least a telos-promoting action; taking a canary into a coal mine is not.
The second difference between my list of conditions and PDE is that I add a harm minimisation clause (v), similar to Regan's miniride principle. Problems arise when we try to compare the harm inflicted by alternative courses of action to different kinds of living creatures: microbes, plants, worms, pests (many of whom are insects with minds of their own), fish and other animals. For instance, Ted Kerasote (1993, discussed in Taylor, 1999, p. 87) defends his own hunting of elk for food, on the grounds that mice, rabbits, birds and other animals are routinely killed, either by farm machinery and pesticides or through habitat destruction, in order to feed what he calls "supermarket vegetarians". On the other hand, as Angus Taylor (1999, p. 87) points out, there is no way that the planet's six-billion-plus inhabitants could feed themselves by hunting, so "[o]n the large scale, then, the choice would seem to be between supermarket vegetarianism and supermarket meat-eating".
Some animal rights philosophers would propose that when evaluating alternative courses of action, we should try to kill as few sentient animals as possible. This proposal can be faulted on both practical and moral grounds. Counting sentient animals is easy if one is only considering mentally normal mammals aged one year or more (Regan, 1988), but it becomes logistically infeasible if one includes insects as animals with minds (as I do).
Additionally, the foregoing proposal simply ignores the biological interests of the other inhabitants of the biosphere: bacteria (many of which are beneficial to human beings and most of which are harmless), protoctista, plants, fungi and simple animals.
Furthermore, the proposal only handles relatively simple cases. While I would also agree that the wrongful killing of a sentient animal is worse than the wrongful killing of another organism, in real life, one seldom faces such straightforward choices. Often one has to choose between killing different populations of organisms (some sentient and some not) which may live in different habitats.
The measure I propose is that one should evaluate the harms wrought by alternative courses of action by comparing the overall ecological impacts of each alternative. There are different measures in use, such as the ecological footprint and the Sustainable Progress Index. However imperfect they may be, they can serve as a general guide to our actions.
There is a general consensus that a fish-and-meat-eating diet is ecologically more demanding than a vegetarian diet. For urban dwellers who face a choice between supermarket vegetarianism and supermarket meat-eating, my TPHP would imply that they have an obligation to switch to a vegetarian diet if they are physically capable of thriving on it. If, for physiological reasons, they cannot thrive without meat, they should consume as much as they need to thrive, but no more.
Other restrictions imposed by the harm minimisation clause will be discusssed in chapter 6.
There is a final constraint to my telos-promoting harm principle (TPHP), and this is the third difference between TPHP and PDE. Over-riding obligations may disallow us from inflicting the harm. One may kill to eat, but one may not kill one's pet, because it is a companion, and the killing of companions for food is wrong.
Alternatively, over-riding obligations may force us to choose a course of action other than the least harmful one, at the ecological level, and settle for a second-best option. Controlled burning may be a very efficient way of removing excess growth, but one will have to consider another alternative if the forest is the habitat of an endangered animal species (e.g. the koala).
It should be clear that TPHP permits (under certain circumstances) the practices discussed in the foregoing section, which enabled our flourishing as a species. I shall look only at the first three conditions here; the fifth (harm minimisation) is relevant only when alternative practices exist.
First, all of the practices described (including hunting and fishing) are telos-promoting activities that have contributed to the flourishing of human beings: they either promote human health or (in the case of industrialisation and urbanisation) human goods such as practical activity, art and science. Urban societies can produce, create and do research in ways that other societies cannot.
Second, the harm done to organisms promotes or (in the case of antibiotics, vaccines and pesticides) either promotes or at least enables the promotion of, proper human goods. Antibiotics kill bacterial infections and restore our health. Pesticides do not make us healthy per se, but they do enable us to obtain enough food to eat. Almost a third of the Asian rice harvest was eaten by insects in 1960 (Lomborg, 2001, p. 63).
Third, the activities in question directly promote or enable proper human goods. However, one of the practices (the use of vaccines) appears difficult to justify using TPHP, thereby calling into question whether TPHP alone is sufficiently "self-loving" (from a humanist perspective) to serve as an ethic for our treatment of living things.
The difficulty is that while the third condition in TPHP clearly sanctions the use of vaccines containing animal products as they ward off a threat to human life, the same cannot be said for animal experimentation, upon which vaccine development is routinely based. Pharmacologists contend that "animal studies remain a necessary part of research and testing procedures, which lead to the development of new medicines and vaccines. The reason is that alternative methods cannot simulate an entire organism, even in combination" (European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, 2002). Vaccination can be described as a health-promoting act per se, but the act of experimenting on an animal cannot be re-described in this way: of itself, it neither promotes nor enables the realisation of a human good. Morally, the case here is similar to the canary in the coal mine.
The difficulty here should not be over-stated: nearly all major breakthroughs in medicine have been initiated not by study in animal models, but by autopsy and clinical studies (Greek and Greek, 2000).
On the other hand, the connection between animal research and vaccine development is not a straightforward one, and groups of health care professionals such as The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Americans For Medical Advancement and The Medical Research Modernization Committee query the usefulness of continued animal testing:
There is one more kind of harm that has yet to be addressed: sometimes it is necessary to inflict harm on some living things, in order to save other living things. In addition to TPHP, I would like to propose an ethical principle regulating this harm: the Justifiable Defence of an Ecosystem Principle (JDEP).
A human activity which inflicts harm on other living things is justifiable if:
One implication of the foregoing proposal is that it would allow what Varner (1998) calls therapeutic hunting, to cull populations of animals in an ecosystem that are growing at an unchecked rate. Another consequence would be that we are permitted to kill introduced species if doing so will save an existing ecosystem. Additionally, we are forbidden to jeopardise ecosystems simply in order to satisfy the requirements of our pets. While TPHP allows for the possibility of destroying an ecosystem in order to promote human interests, it says nothing about the interests of companion animals.
The point of JDEP is not that we have duties to ecosystems as such, but that the sustainability of an ecosystem is a convenient short-hand way of representing the combined interests of the individual organisms living in an ecosystem. In addition to their competing short-term interests, nearly all of the organisms in an ecosystem have a long-term interest in keeping their ecosystem sustainable. If humans manage an ecosystem in accordance with JDEP, they are acting on behalf of these organisms.
(8) Problems in moral decision-making
Conflicts of interests, uncertain information and scarce resources are the norm rather than the exception in everyday decision-making, and the management of the environment is no exception. Environmental ethicists have addressed the first problem, but have so far taken little account of the second and third. In typical textbook cases, the information about the consequences of one's choices is known in advance, and the availability of resources (including money) is given only a passing consideration.
It is my belief that a robust theory of environmental ethics should be able to handle uncertainty and scarcity. Uncertainty is an important factor, as it raises the question of which environmental risks we should ignore in our decision-making, and which ones we should treat as impossible to ignore - either because they are too large or too dangerous. In chapter 6, I shall defend an approach based on mathematical expectations theory, combined with a socially stipulated threshold of risk combined with magnitude of danger, that we may use to decide which risks to act upon. I shall look at cases such as the ozone hole, global warming and asteroid impacts.
Money is also of vital importance, when we are confronting a multitude of problems. In the real world, the question we face is not: "What should I do about this environmental problem?" but "Which environmental problem should we tackle first, and how much should we spend on it, given our limited financial resources?"
I shall also address conflicts of interests at further length in chapter 6, examining conflicts that may arise between:
Here, I shall briefly consider what principles we should use for ranking the interests of organisms.
I have already rejected the view that the interests of living things are good only in an instrumental sense (as IT stipulates), insofar as they satisfy the plans of a rational agent or the desires of a sentient being.
At the other extreme, I would also reject the view (defended by Naess, 1989; Taylor, 1986) that all living things have equal inherent worth. I believe that a priori comparisons of the inherent worth of different organisms are ethically unhelpful. Before we can evaluate their worth, we have to ascertain our duties towards them, on the basis of their interests and our connections to them. In this chapter, it has been argued that we do have additional duties to animals that we do not have to plants, duties to pets that we do not have to wild animals, and duties to humans that we do not have to other animals. Killing a person is far worse than killing an animal or plant.
On the other hand, the fact that we have more duties to A than we have to B does not automatically entail that B may be sacrificed for the sake of A. One may not destroy the wildlife in an ecosystem to feed one's pet.
Varner (1998, pp. 78-79) suggests the following principles:
(P1) Generally speaking, the death of an entity that has desires is a worse thing than the death of an entity that does not.
(P2') Generally speaking, the satisfaction of ground projects is more important than the satisfaction of noncategorical desires. (Bernard Williams has defined a ground project as "a nexus of projects... which are closely related to [one's] existence and which to a significant degree give a meaning to [one's] life".)
We have already discussed the mentalistic bias in Varner's assumptions.
On the ethical account that I have defended, the only ranking of interests that can be made is between interests that promote the telos of an organism, and those that do not. The TPP, which is a principle of self-preference, allows an us to pursue our own telos-promoting interests, at the expense of other organisms, subject to the above restrictions described in TPHP.
JDEP, which I proposed above, offers us an ethically sound and realistic way to adjudicate between the competing interests of different species, while looking after ecosystems. The governing idea is not that we have duties to ecosystems as such, but that in addition to their competing short-term interests, nearly all of the organisms in an ecosystem have a long-term interest in keeping their ecosystem sustainable. If humans manage an ecosystem in accordance with JDEP, they are acting on behalf of these organisms.Back to Main Page Chapter two References Principles of Deep Ecology