Chapter 5 - What are our duties towards other organisms?

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Where our duties lie

The issue I shall address in this chapter is what kinds of duties we have towards living organisms, animals (including pets) and human beings. I shall defend the view that all (and only organisms) have moral standing, because of their intrinsic value - a view known as biocentric individualism - but that we can also have duties that refer to ecosystems, as well as species. While I reject the view that the intrinsic value of different individuals or different kinds of entities can be quantified and compared on a single scale, I suggest that there are a varying number of "dimensions of value" possessed by different kinds of organisms. I apply the notion of "basic goods" (popular in natural law theories of ethics) in my discussion of different kinds of organisms, to derive a rough list of basic goods for organisms without minds, sentient animals and human beings. I then identify these basic goods with the dimensions of intrinsic value, and attempt to distinguish the kinds of duties we have to different categories of organisms. Lastly, I attempt to delineate as precisely as possible which duties we owe to which organisms in these categories, and defend the view that the moral status of an organism depends not on its current states or even its capacities, but on its telos, which is grounded in the genetic information which supports the range of functions and pursuits that a typical member of that species is capable of engaging in.

Throughout this chapter, I shall refer to animals with mental states as sentient animals, for convenience.

(1) Which entities have moral standing?

For the purposes of this discussion, I intend to employ the following defintion of the term "moral standing":

What is moral standing? ... [A]n individual has moral standing for us if, when making moral decisions, we feel we ought to take that individual's welfare into account for the individual's own sake and not merely for our benefit or someone else's benefit (Santa Clara University, 1991).

In chapter 1, I argued that all living things, and only living things, have a welfare of their own. I made a sharp distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic finality, and defended the view that living things, unlike man-made artefacts, are not good in a merely instrumental sense, but have a good of their own (or telos). I also argued that for non-sentient organisms, the fulfilment of biological functions is in their interests, irrespective of their being able to take an interest in their fulfilment. Finally, I argued that the notion of "doing good" or "acting morally" is more logically construed as acting in an individual's interests (i.e. promoting its welfare), rather than satisfying its desires for the objects it takes an interest in, as the the former is by definition good for the individual, whereas the latter may not be. I proposed that the proper sphere of moral action is the promotion of the welfare of individuals (i.e. acting in their interests).

Gary Varner. Picture courtesy of the Philosophy Department, Texas A & M University.

Varner (1998) distinguishes three ethical standpoints one might adopt towards the interests of individuals: 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), and biocentric individualism (the view that all (and only?) living organisms have moral standing or intrinsic value). The first two views ascribe value to living things only insofar as they serve the interests of rational human agents or sentient beings. In chapter 1, it was argued that these views are arbitrarily narrow, as they overlook the biological interests of non-sentient beings. If one acknowledges these interests, it follows that anything with a welfare of its own is an appropriate object of moral concern, which implies that all organisms have moral standing. Each and every living thing matters in its own right. Insofar as I espouse this view, I am, like Varner, a biocentric individualist.

The position I have adopted here has obvious affinities to that of Paul Taylor (1986), who has argued that each living organism has "inherent worth" 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.

Taylor's position has been criticised (Brennan and Lo, 2002) for trying to derive a moral prescription from a biological description of an organism's flourishing. I suggest that this "is-ought" gap can be filled if we assume that the notion of "doing good" or acting morally has some content (the notion is not, after all, a meaningless one), and then ask ourselves what it might be. All ethical argumentation has to start somewhere, and we might take as a point of departure the principle that acting morally requires one to advert to one's own good and that of other individuals. Since it has been argued that interests rather than desires per se are a reliable indicator of an individual's good, we may conclude that one is morally required to respect the interests of an individual, including its biological interests.

My ethical position can also be described vis-a-vis Naess's (1989) distinction between shallow and deep ecology: a shallow ecologist is someone whose concerns are limited to his/her fellow human beings, while a deep ecologist has an attitude of "respect for nature" in its own right. My contention that organisms have a good of their own puts me in the latter camp. The first principle of Naess's Deep Ecology Platform, encapsulates this position:

The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves... independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

Can we compare the intrinsic value of organisms?

While Naess is right to affirm the intrinsic value of all life-forms, this need not imply that their intrinsic value is quantitatively equal. Indeed, I would argue that the very notion that we can quantify the intrinsic value of different life-forms and compare them on a single sliding scale is a misguided one. I therefore cannot endorse either Paul Taylor's (1986) assertion that all individuals that are teleological-centres-of-life have equal "inherent worth" (his term), or Robin Attfield's (1987) claim that while all living things have intrinsic value, some (e.g. persons) possess it to a greater degree. Instead, I shall argue below that living things possess "dimensions" of intrinsic value, some of which are common to all life-forms, others unique to sentient animals and others unique to human beings.

The notion of a sliding scale of intrinsic value is profoundly morally misleading. First, it is inconsistent to affirm that all life-forms have intrinsic value, while arguing that the ends of "less valuable" life-forms are completely subordinate to those of "more valuable" ones. The complete subordination of less important entities to more important ones is unproblematic, only if the former possess purely instrumental value, which is a (though by no means the only) variety of extrinsic value. Beings possessing merely extrinsic value are important only in a derivative or parasitic sense, and entities possessing instrumental value can be regarded purely as a means to a greater end. Intrinsic value has a different kind of moral logic: anything possessing it, in whatever way or to whatever degree, matters in its own right. As such, it has at least a prima facie entitlement to be left alone and not be sacrificed to any individual's ends. To say that life-forms with lesser "inherent worth" are completely subordinate to those with greater inherent worth is to say that the former are not intrinsically valuable.

To make this point clearer, it might help to consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that intelligent beings from Vega who are as far ahead of us mentally as we are ahead of fish, come to visit our Earth. If these beings have an unforeseen accident that destroys the food they brought along for their trip, are they then morally entitled to eat human beings, if no other animals prove to be palatable?

Second, absolute comparisons of the intrinsic value of living things are pointless in the real world, where parasitism, predation and competition for scarce resources are rife, and "higher" and "lower" life-forms routinely kill each other. When the interests of two living things inevitably conflict, each has to put itself first or die. Self-preference is thus a practical requirement of life for all organisms. The logic of self-interest makes nonsense of any absolute comparisons of value, whether they affirm equality (A = B, but A may act as if A > B) or inequality (A may act as if A > B, and B may act as if B > A). These idle comparisons divert attention from the substantive ethical question (to be addressed in the following chapter): what kinds of self-preference are permissible for moral agents, who are aware that all living things possess a good of their own?

Deficiencies of holism

So far, I have not addressed the question of whether individuals alone have moral standing, or 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 - a position Varner (1998) describes as environmental holism.

Varner (1998, chapter 1) attacks holism on several grounds, arguing that environmental holists have failed to adequately 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 would argue that a non-reductive measure of the health of an ecosystem can be formulated, even though the flourishing itself is derivative upon that of the living organisms whose interactions constitute the ecosystem. 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. Does this make holism a viable position?

Pure holism

Varner (1998) 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 maintain that pure holism is misconceived, because ecosystems do not possess the kind of unity which warrants the ascription of interests to them, whereas living things do. My argument can be sumarised thus:

1. A necessary condition for an entity to have interests is that it possess a certain kind of unity: the functioning of its parts must be directed or regulated by that of the whole.

2. Individual organisms possess this kind of top-down functionality; ecosystems do not.

3. Therefore, individual organisms may have interests; ecosystems cannot.

4. A sufficient condition for an organism to have interests is that the attainment of its ends can be understood as good for it in non-relative terms, without reference to some larger system.

5. The attainment of individual organisms' ends can be understood in just such a fashion.

6. Therefore, individual organisms do indeed have interests.

In support of step (1) of my argument:

It would be superfluous to ascribe interests to an entity that was directed "from the bottom up".

In support of step (2) of my argument:

It was argued in chapter 1 that every individual organism possesses a top-down internal program in their DNA, which enables the organism as a whole to regulate the functionality of its parts. This program need not govern everything that goes on inside an organism; all it has to do is code for the structure and function of its parts.

Ecosystems, by contrast, lack this kind of hierarchical regulation. An ecosystem is a loose, flexible federation of organisms, with varying degrees of interdependence. The system does not regulate the members from above; rather, the members loosely regulate one another. Additionally, most of the regulation mechanisms are replaceable over time; the number of "keystone species" whose removal triggers ecological breakdown is relatively small.

An ecosystem thus lacks the hierarchical organisation and nested functionality that impart unity to a living thing, and thereby give it interests. 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. (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.)

In support of step (4) of my argument:

Since the entity in question is an organism, we already know that it has its own built-in ends. The only question remaining is: are these ends good in absolute or relative terms? To answer this question, we have to ask whether the ends can be understood as good in their own right, independently of any "greater" overall good.

In support of step (5) of my argument:

It was argued in chapter 1 that the flourishing of a living thing can be understood as intrinsically good, by virtue of the dedicated functionality and hierarchical organisation of its parts, which impart a teleological unity to it. We do not need a "larger context" (such as the state of the environment in which an organism exists) to grasp the goodness of its built-in ends.

The conceptual mistake of pure holism, I would suggest, is that it envisages 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 overlooks the fact that an organism is not "dedicated" to its ecosystem in the way cogs are related to wheels, or cells to bodies. 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. For a living thing, the whole is conceptually prior to its parts; for an ecosystem, it is the other way round.

Pure holism nevertheless contains a kernel of truth. 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 inseparable from that of their local environment, within which they are "embedded" (Taylor, 1999, p. 131). (There are obvious exceptions to this rule: 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.) 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 (in typical cases) 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 or the environment.

Pluralistic holism: the need for environmental impact statements

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. It should be clear from the preceding discussion that the latter answer is correct. Since ecosystems do not do any extra ethical "work", biocentric individualism is a more parsimonious hypothesis.

Nevertheless, it can sometimes be more convenient to consider 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 the benefits or harms to the individual members of the ecosystem.

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, individual 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 thus a convenient way of expressing the combined interests of the organisms which inhabit that ecosystem. In chapter 6, it will be argued that human beings have the right to defend ecosystems against human activities that cause unsustainable damage.

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.

(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 organism matters because it 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). 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. 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.

If we accept the principle (argued for above) that the interests of individuals command the respect of moral agents, 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, and that the interests of others must at least be taken into account, in one's moral deliberations. 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.

O'Neill (1992) questions the idea that harming a living thing is even a prima facie wrong, arguing that there are some things that simply should not flourish:

That Y is a good of X does not entail that Y should be realized unless we have a prior reason for believing that X is the sort of thing whose good ought to be promoted...

[T]here are some entities whose flourishing simply should not enter into any [utilitarian] calculations - the flourishing of... viruses for example. It is not the case that the goods of viruses should count, even just a very small amount. There is no reason why these goods should count at all as ends in themselves...(O'Neill, p.117).

Davison (1999) counters that we cannot judge the intrinsic good of an entity by its effects on human beings. Instead, he asks us to compare a world in which there are no viruses and no living things at all to a world in which there are viruses [dormant, one presumes] but no other living things at all. Surely, the latter world would be a better one: it would possess a richness that the inanimate world lacked. It is perfectly consistent, I would suggest, to appreciate the unity, complexity and intrinsic finality of a lethal organism, even while seeking to eradicate it out of legitimate self-interest.

The example of viruses shows that our duty to respect the interests of other organisms is massively defeasible. This duty cannot be a moral absolute; if it were, we would be obliged to let other things flourish to our detriment, and we would not be permitted to use them as sustenance. It would be immoral to combat AIDS or to harvest crops in order to eat the produce. An unconditional obligation to respect the telos of other life-forms would be ethically suicidal. In the following chapter, I shall argue that a principle of self-preference, rightly understood, is ethically justifiable, morally rigorous and compatible with human flourishing.

(ii) Duties owed to animals with minds

Earlier, I criticised the enterprise of comparing the intrinsic value of two living things. There may, however, be several irreducibly distinct ways in which a living thing is intrinsically valuable. We might say that it has several "dimensions of value". One living thing could then be said to have more dimensions of value than another. Of course, the proposition "A has more dimensions of intrinsic value than B" in no way entails the conclusion "B may be sacrificed for the sake of A" but it could well imply that C (a moral agent) has a different set of duties to A than to B, and perhaps that C's duty not to harm A is stronger than C's duty not to harm B. It is only in this qualified moral sense that one might speak of a "hierarchy" of life-forms.

So far, we have discussed only the biological interests of organisms, but as we saw in chapter 1, there are other kinds of interests: animals with minds may take an interest (as opposed to merely having an interest) in getting what they want. Animals with wants therefore have "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?

Is there a hierarchy of life-forms?

Gary Varner. Picture courtesy of the Philosophy Department, Texas A & M University.

Varner (1998) has argued for 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).

According to Varner, 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).

Varner's argument is a little unclear at this point. He could mean that sentient 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.

Additionally, Varner complicates his case by trying to argue for two kinds of priority at the same time: that of desires over biological interests (1998, pp. 79, 95) and that of organisms with desires over those without (1998, pp. 78, 95). The former, I would suggest, is redundant; in order to establish a moral hierarchy, he only needs the latter kind of priority. In any case, the supervenience of desires upon biological interests (1998, p. 94) does not establish that desires are more important than biological interests.

One might invoke Varner's point about supervenience to defend the priority of organisms with minds, on purely biological grounds. One could argue that an organism with a mind requires a body that is neurologically (if not computationally - see chapter 2) more complex than that of a mindless organism. If we compare a multicellular animal with a nervous system and a brain with a unicellular bacterium, the former could be said to have more "levels" of dedicated functionality, and hence a richer kind of unity, than the latter. One might then judge the animal to be worthy of greater respect than the bacterium, and view the death of the animal as a greater tragedy than that of the bacterium (Varner's principle P1).

However, the biologically grounded moral hierarchy proposed here would differ from that used by most people in several important respects: killing a multicellular but mindless animal (e.g. a jellyfish or possibly a flatworm) would be nearly as bad as killing an animal with a mind (e.g. an insect), but somewhat worse than killing a plant, which would be considerably worse than killing a single-celled, eukaryotic amoeba, which would be much worse than killing a prokaryotic bacterium.

Additionally, it is not clear why the proposition "A has more levels of dedicated functionality than B" should imply that "A is worthy of more respect than B". The mere fact that an entity possesses dedicated functionality is a morally relevant characteristic, insofar as it is a necessary condition for the morally significant property of being alive. However, it does not follow that the number of layers of functionality matters morally.

Nevertheless, Varner's book highlights important features of desires which, I shall argue, explain why the wrongful killing of sentient animals is worse than the wrongful killing of other organisms: desires (i) supervene upon biological interests (1998, p. 94), and (ii) often promote biological interests, yet (iii) the object of a desire is not always a biological good - indeed, an animal may even desire something that is biologically harmful to it (1998, p. 60). Point (i) establishes that biological interests are the platform which make desires possible; (ii) suggests a criterion for ascertaining whether the object of an animal's desire is objectively good (viz. Does it promote the animal's biological well-being?), and (iii) hints at a diversity of ends that are independent of the animal's biological well-being. Indeed, it is this diversity of ends or goods pursued which augments the wrongfulness of killing an animal, as it is being robbed of the opportunity to pursue several kinds of goods, not just biological ones.

Basic animal goods

In chapter 2, it was argued that animals with minds are agents with beliefs and desires relating to their ends, who exercise self-control as they try to attain their ends. In chapter 3, the emotional life of these animals was described. What concerns us here is that animals, as beings that try to satisfy their desires, are capable of pursuing a variety of ends that organisms without desires cannot pursue.

David Beisecker. Photo courtesy of University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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, any goal pursued by an animal which serves a biological function is unquestionably legitimate. Among the goals desired by animals, we can discern certain categories of good, whose realisation contributes to the well-being or thriving of the animal, in a way that can be discerned objectively (e.g. by a veterinarian or an ethologist). 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. The following is a rough (but not necessarily exhaustive) list of the categories of "goods" legitimately pursued by an animal for their own sake, together with their biological justification, which serves to legitimate them. It goes without saying that the subjective reason why an animal pursues a good is quite independent of its biological function, or as Masson and McCarthy put it, "the fact that a behavior functions to serve survival need not mean that that is why it is done" (1996, p. 28). I shall refer to categories of goods pursued by animals as basic animal goods:

The above list is not meant to be exhaustive. Readers will recognise the resemblance between these "goods" and some of the basic human goods which figure in natural law theories of ethics (for a discussion see Murphy, 2002). Basic animal goods are intrinsically valuable, as each of them can be desired for its own sake and is a legitimate object of pursuit (as shown by its biological usefulness). Additionally, none of the basic animal goods can be reduced to an aspect of the others. As such, the pursuit of these goods requires no argumentative justification: their goodness is self-evident, although it may be inappropriate to pursue these goods on particular occasions (e.g. playing while a fire is raging).

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Courtesy of Jeffrey Masson's Web Page.

The satisfaction of wants belonging to these categories of basic animal good can be said to contribute to the animal's thriving, and thereby promote its telos, just as the thwarting of these wants causes a "failure to thrive". This thriving occurs not only on a biological level but also on a mental level: Masson and McCarthy (1996, p. 30) use the word funktionslust to describe the delight taken by an animal in doing what it does well (e.g. the pleasure taken by a cat in climbing trees). For an animal with a mind, then, its telos includes not only the satisfaction of its biological interests, but also the satisfaction of those wants which belong to some category of "proper" pursuits.

What I am suggesting is that the killing of animal is prima facie immoral, not merely because it thwarts biological ends (as is the case when a plant or bacterium is killed), but also because it thwarts the realisation of basic animal goods. Basic animal goods add extra "dimensions" to the wrongfulness of killing an animal, because the animal is robbed of more than biological thriving.

If we compare the wrongful killing of an animal with the wrongful killing an organism without a mind, we can detect certain similar themes - a life rudely thwarted, goals that will never be realised, interests cruelly doomed. Here, the doomed interests are purely biological interests, for mindless organisms. However, there are other features of wrongful killing that are unique to sentient animals: 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 or remembered, feelings (love, anger, desire, fear) that will never be felt, friendships that will never be formed. Here, the foregone mental states and acts relate not only to biological ends, but to the entire suite of basic animal goods.

If the notion of "dimensions of wrongness" is a valid one, we can derive a modest ethical principle (the Wrongful Killing of Animals principle, or WKA):

The wrongful killing of an animal that has desires 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 occurrence of agency in animals does not imply that the killing of animals is necessarily wrong, but it does provide us with additional prima facie grounds for not taking their lives.

Are we then obliged to become vegetarians? It should be borne in mind that killing animals in order to eat is inescapable in the real world: even a vegetarian lifestyle requires us to kill legions of pests to protect our crops. What WKA implies is that we have a strong prima facie obligation to kill as few animals as we can in the process of obtaining our food. In industrialised countries, that means that a vegetarian lifestyle is preferable, and a vegan lifestyle is ideal, if practicable. In extreme climates, or remote locations, only a hunting and gathering lifestyle may be feasible.

Animals are others whose feelings must be respected

So far, we have highlighted animals' capacity to pursue different categories of ends as a reason to place them in a special moral category, but we have said nothing about their feelings: especially their wishes, likes and dislikes. Does animals' possession of feelings put them in a special moral category?

Mary Midgley. Courtesy of The Increasingly Official Mary Midgley Web Page.

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. Likewise, the Mahabharata (18.113.8) simply states,"One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one's own self." These versions of the Golden Rule do not stipulate that an individual must have wishes of its own to qualify as an "other". They could apply to any living thing that can be injured or have bad things done to it, as 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. If one adopts a minimalistic "no-harm" version of the Golden Rule, then animals are not in a special moral kingdom.

Midgley acknowledges that we have some duties to all kinds of living things, but argues strongly that conscious beings belong in a special moral category:

Sentience is important because of the very dramatic difference it makes in the kind of needs which creatures have, and the kind of harm which can be done to them... 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, pp. 90, 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 intrinsic value of a living thing does not depend on its being conscious, but on its being alive. The world would be a poorer place without any organism, even a virus.

My biocentric position in no way implies that sentience should count for nothing in our moral considerations. Indeed, if my argument regarding basic animal goods is correct, there are dimensions of intrinsic value that can only be possessed by sentient beings with desires. While Midgley is surely wrong in claiming that the capacity to feel is necessary for an individual to have value, an individual's possession of a capacity to feel certainly counts as an additional reason why it should matter morally.

Until now, I have only discussed the ethical implications of a minimalistic version of the Golden Rule: do not harm others. However, Midgley's stronger construal of the Golden Rule as an injunction to respect the wishes of others is an equally valid interpretation, which carries the ethical implication that feelings do indeed count for something. The two versions of the Golden Rule ground two kinds of duties: a prima facie obligation (owed to all organisms) to refrain from harming them, as well as an obligation (owed only to sentient animals) 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 would 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 (basic animal goods) listed above, simply because their fulfilment is unambiguously good for the animal, as well as being psychologically rewarding.

J. Baird Callicott (University of North Texas) rejects animal liberation because he thinks it implies that we should protect prey from predators. Photo courtesy of University of San Diego.

By "advert", I do not mean "assist": that would impose impossibly burdensome obligations upon us. Additionally, positive obligations to assist animals would place us in an ethical dilemma: should we help predators in their search for prey, whose flesh they crave and need, or should we protect their prey from the predators they fear? One way to escape this dilemma would be to limit our moral obligations to negative ones. In that case, both the stronger and weaker versions of the Golden Rule would be construed as negative injunctions: "Do not thwart animals' telos-promoting desires" and "What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do unto others", respectively.

It goes without saying that our (negative) obligations to respect animals' wishes are prima facie rather than absolute: obviously, we are entitled to destroy animals which want to do things that kill us or make us ill (e.g. mosquitoes that cause malaria). I shall discuss the limits to our obligations to animals in the next chapter.

Our obligation not to be cruel to animals

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 (Midgley, 1984) or the deliberate frustration of animals' first-order desires (Carruthers, 1999).

Left: Mary Midgley. Courtesy of The Increasingly Official Mary Midgley Web Page.
Right: Peter Carruthers. Photo courtesy of the Philosophy Department, University of Maryland.

Midgley's (1984) ethical position vis-a-vis cruelty to animals is grounded in the Golden Rule, applied to beings with "experiences ... like our own" (1984, p. 91). The proper response to a small child found tormenting an animal is "You wouldn't like that done to you" (1984, p. 91) - an explicit appeal to the child's sense of sympathy. By contrast, Carruthers (1999) denies that animals experience subjective pain, and argues that when we harm animals, the chief wrong done is not the pain caused but the frustration of their first-order desires. Despite my disagreement with Carruthers' bizarre denial of animal subjectivity, I find his criticism of the utilitarian ethic to be insightful, insofar as it characterises suffering animals as frustrated agents, although I would query his claim that the desires of animals are of paramount importance. As I have argued, harming animals (and organisms generally) is wrong because it frustrates their attainment of their natural ends (including desired ends), rather than their desires per se: we saw in chapter 1 that some of the desires of animals may even run counter to their interests. In any case, lack of time or relevant information prevents animals from being able to form desires for everything that is in their interests.

Carruthers' (1999) reinterpretation of animal suffering is a salutary one, as it broadens our moral horizons. Instead of simply focusing on the minimisation of subjective pain in animals, we should alo try to minimise our interference with animals' exercise of their faculties, and maximise their opportunities for what Masson and McCarthy (1996, p. 30) refer to as funktionslust - an animal's pleasure in doing what it does well.

Human taboos against cruelty to animals are long-standing: the Noachide code of Judaism, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (13.27-28, 16.2) and the Dhammapada (paras. 129-130, 225, 405) (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 in chapter 6 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. These grounds include animals' capacity to pursue multiple basic animal goods as agents, their possession of feeings, especially wants or wishes, and their capacity to suffer pain and have their desires thwarted. Our obligations to sentient animals collectively 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 respect animals' feelings, and refrain from frustrating them in their pursuit of telos-promoting ends; and (iii) we may never inflict cruelty on animals as an end in itself.

(iii) Duties owed to companion animals (pets)

In addition to our general duties to animals, there is an additional category of obligations that we have towards companion animals, simply because they are our friends. On the basis of the evidence presented in chapter 3 (Midgley, 1991) that people and their pets often have emotionally symbiotic relationships, I shall assume here that genuine friendship with some kinds of animals is a possibility.

Our obligations towards companion animals, with whom we share bonds of friendship, are especially strong if we have assumed the responsibility of caring for these animals. These obligations are much stronger than our obligations towards other animals: if they are our friends, we have a concern for their well-being, and if we are responsible for looking after them, we have made a commitment to promote their well-being. Thus 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, when needed. This positive obligation is however not an absolute one. For instance, one has no obligation - indeed, it would be wrong - to promote the welfare of a companion animal by putting an ecosystem at risk. One would also be justified in having one's pet put down if it endangered the health of a family member, and no-one else was willing to adopt it.

Left: Tom Regan. Courtesy of The Culture and Animals Foundation.
Right: does this dog belong on a crowded lifeboat?

While owners of companion animals have the right to protect themselves (and others) from any dangers posed by their companion animals, I would argue that they may not harm, injure or kill their companion animals, simply in order to procure or promote their 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 I consider the life of a dog (as a non-moral agent) to have fewer "dimensions of intrinsic value" than that of a human being. Likewise, if the dog's owner were starving, he/she may not eat the dog. (The situation is different with a non-companion animal, for reasons that will become apparent in the next chapter.)

(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. Among the goals desired by human beings, we can discern certain categories of good, whose realisation contributes to our well-being or thriving. These goods are said to be intrinsically valuable (properly desirable for their own sake), objective (in that their goodness is independent of the attitude of the subject pursuing them) and universal (good for everyone). These goods are commonly known as basic human goods. Unsurprisingly, different natural-law theorists have drawn up somewhat different lists of these goods. I have culled and re-arranged the following table of basic human goods from Murphy (2002), listing the goods by author and grouping them according to their shared category, to demonstrate their broad agreement:

Category of Human Good Aquinas Finnis 1980 Grisez 1983 Finnis 1996 Chappell 1995 Murphy 2001 Gomez-Lobo 2002
Life Life Life Life and health Life Physical and mental health and harmony Life Life
Procreation Procreation Included in Life Included in Life The marital good Included in Life? Included in Life? The family
Friendship The social life Friendship Justice and friendship Justice and friendship Friendship Friendship and community Friendship
Practical reason Rational conduct Practical reasonableness Practical reasonableness Practical reasonableness Reason, rationality and reasonableness - -
Knowledge Knowledge Knowledge Knowledge of truth Knowledge of truth Truth and the knowledge of it Knowledge Theoretical knowledge
Work - - - - Achievements Excellence in work Work
Agency - - - - Achievements Excellence in agency -
Play - Play Playful activities Playful activities Achievements Excellence in play Play
Appreciation of beauty - Aesthetic appreciation Appreciation of beauty Appreciation of beauty Aesthetic value Aesthetic experience Experience of beauty
Satisfaction - - - - Pleasure and the avoidance of pain Happiness -
Integrity - - Authenticity Authenticity - - Integrity
Self-integration - - Self-integration Self-integration - - -
Inner peace - - - - Physical and mental health and harmony Inner peace -
Fairness - - Justice and friendship Justice and friendship Fairness - -
Religion - Religion Religion Religion - Religion -
People - - - - People - -
The natural world - - - - The natural world - -

Chappell (1995) deserves special commendation for including in his list of basic human goods a good - the natural world - which liberates us from the moral hazards of excessive anthropocentrism. For my part, I suggest it would be more accurate to describe the care of living things and/or ecosystems as a basic human good. (Keeping the air, land and sea pollution-free could be regarded as indirectly taking care of living things.) The care of living things is good, because it promotes the welfare of things that possess intrinsic value. It is a human good, because human beings, unlike non-rational creatures, are capable of loving living things for their sheer aliveness, and the promotion of other creatures' telos is good per se. It is properly basic, because it is irreducible to the other human goods.

My reliance upon a natural-law tradition assumes that the concept of "nature", applied to humans and other animals, is a valid one - a notion that will be defended below. The key points that emerge from the table are that the list of basic human goods is much more extensive than the list of basic animal goods, and that there is broad agreement about its contents. (The list by Finnis (1980) is fairly representative.) In other words, basic human goods add extra "dimensions" to the wrongfulness of killing a human being, as compared with the wrongful killing of an animal, because the human being is robbed of much more.

This becomes apparent if we compare the monstrously immoral act of killing a human being with the cruel and barbarous act of gratuitously killing a sentient animal (assuming that both acts of killing are wrongful). There are strong similarities between the two - a life rudely thwarted, goals that will never be realised, interests cruelly doomed, 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 or remembered, and (for some animals) friendships that will never be formed - as well as other features unique to homicide: achievements (small or great) that will never be accomplished, discoveries that will never be made, artistic or scientific acts of creation that will never see the light of day, beauty that will never be enjoyed, lifetime plans rudely interrupted, kind and loving words and deeds that will never be said or done to other human beings, virtues that will never be cultivated, a blighted struggle to create a meaningful existence for oneself, a thwarted endeavour to make the world a better place, and the brutally truncated moral and spiritual drama of a life that was never allowed to unfold: the life of a unique and irreplaceable person.

The basic human goods described above are (temporarily or permanently) out of reach for some human beings (so-called marginal cases, discussed in Dombrowski, 1997). The moral status of these human beings will be discussed below.

Despite sentient animals' capacity for intentional agency and their rich emotional life, 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, while organisms without minds can only be metaphorically be described as agents: although they pursue their own good, as living things, they act without intent.

The flourishing of human beings, by contrast, 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, experiences enjoyed and friendships formed, but a moral drama in several acts, whose opening, 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 after his life was saved in World War II, asks his family, "Have I lived a good life?"

What are our obligations to human beings, whose telos has moral aspects? While we have a prima facie obligation to respect the lives of organisms, a stronger prima facie obligation to respect the lives and wishes of sentient animals, and an even stronger positive obligation to take care of companion animals, these obligations are, as we have seen, defeasible. By contrast, there is only one generally accepted moral ground that over-rides our obligation to refrain from harming other human beings: namely, the defence of innocent human life.

It is reasonable to ask why the lives of human beings should be sacrosanct. For example, why should it be morally acceptable to put down a companion animal carrying a highly contagious infection, but not a fellow human being?

The main reason, I suggest, is that an essential part of what it is to behave morally is to respect other subjects of a moral life, as I shall call them - beings who live the sort of life that can be evaluated in moral terms. (I shall discuss below exactly which human beings belong in this category.) Now, moral goodness (like Aristotle's eudaimonia), can only be said to be properly realised over the course of a lifetime, so cutting short the life of a moral agent prevents them from realising these goals properly.

A second, and more practical answer might be that because human beings are capable of using language, their capacity to resolve mutual conflicts of interests peacefully is exponentially greater than that of non-rational beings, who have at most a very limited capacity to understand what we mean and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

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 - the argument from marginal cases (Dombrowski, 1997).

(v) Duties pertaining to groups of organisms: greater wholes (e.g. ecosystems) and classes (e.g. species)

Can we have any duties towards a greater whole, such as an ecosystem, or the biosphere, or our natural environment? I would argue that we do not. 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 entity having interests of its own unless the function and thriving of its parts are dedicated to that of the whole. While the organisms in an ecosystem are certainly inter-dependent, the inter-dependence is generally fairly loose, and they could hardly be described as dedicated to each other's (let alone the whole's) well-being. If ecosystems lack interests, there can be no obligations on our part towards them as such.

Nevertheless, 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.

Snakes: would we be better off without them, as Passmore thinks?

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 that 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 (intentional) causation of such a loss is a prima facie moral evil. The argument that species die out all the time in the natural world is irrelevant here; in the natural world, new species typically arise to take the place of old ones, 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) groups of organisms: 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 from causing them pain; 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 sentient animals 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 our obligations to 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 an animal's potential properties matter because (and insofar as) they are grounded in the telos of the animal, and I shall also defend the metaphysical claim that an animal (or any other organism) has a nature that defines its telos.

On the "sentientist" side, utilitarians such as Peter Singer (1977) include only animals who are sentient within the scope of their ethical concerns; animal embryos, decerebrated animals and permanently comatose individuals do not count. For instance, Rollin (1992) has proposed that we should render food animals and experimental animals decerebrate (and thus incapable of pain) through genetic engineering. Decerebrated animals, according to Rollin, cannot be said to have a welfare of their own.

If sentientists were consistent, they would exclude not only potentially conscious animal embryos, anencephalic animals that lack 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.

Peter Singer.

Marginal animal cases - why they matter

I shall use the term "marginal animal cases" to refer to animals whose immaturity, genetic damage or physical injury precludes them (at least temporarily) from exercising agency or being sentient - e.g. animal embryos, anencephalic animals and decerebrated and permanently comatose animals. I shall defend the view that these animals matter as much as mature, sentient animals. I shall argue that they matter, not because of potential or historical properties such as what they will be (animal embryos), could have been (anencephalic animals), or once were (decerebrated and permanently comatose animals), but because of what they should be. What an animal should be is here defined as what it is (objectively) good for it to be, which is defined by its telos.

I maintain that an individual's telos determines its moral status. The argument can be summarised thus:

(1) "Right moral conduct" towards an individual could be defined as respecting the individual's moral status.

(2) The moral status of an individual is determined by some or all of its interests.

(3) Only those interests that are grounded in an individual's telos are morally relevant. (Argued for in chapter 1.)

(4) The moral status of an individual is therefore determined by its telos, which defines those capacities whose realisation is or would be (objectively) good for it.

(5) Hence "right moral conduct" towards an individual can be defined as respecting its telos.

I would also argue that "marginal cases" have the same telos as their "normal" counterparts. Briefly:

(1) (a)An individual's telos can be defined in terms of the various kinds of (biological and non-biological) ends whose realisation is or would be (objectively) good for it.
(b) The telos of an individual animal consists of the entire suite of basic animal goods whose realisation would be good for it.

(2) Only those goods whose realisation is compatible with the individual retaining its identity can be said to be good for it. An end whose realisation cannot be achieved with the individual losing its identity is not part of its telos, as this supposes something absurd: that the individual is not itself.

(3) Individual identity is species-specific. (Strictly speaking, the counterfactual antecedent "If I were a butterfly" makes no sense, because then I would not be "me".)

(4) Only those goods that characterise the species to which an individual belongs can be said to be good for it.

(5) The possibility of an individual animal's realising its telos is grounded in the genetic information which it must possess in order to exercise the basic animal goods that characterise the species to which it belongs.

(6) A "normal" (i.e. fully functional) animal possesses a complete set of intact information which allows it to realise the entire suite of its basic animal goods.

(7) The telos of a normal animal consists of all of the basic animal goods that characterise the species to which it belongs. The counterfactual: "If this individual realised any of the basic animal goods that characterise its species, that would be good for it", is true in a straightforward sense, as no loss of the individual's identity is supposed in its realising any of these goods.

(8) Many "marginal animal cases" (e.g. embryonic and permanently comatose animals) also possess a complete set of intact genetic information which allows them to realise the entire suite of their basic animal goods. They thus have the same telos as normal animals of their species. We can suppose them to realise any of the goods whose realisation is permitted by their genes.

(9) Individual identity is not DNA-specific: the DNA in our own cells is being continually altered by cell damage, without compromising our individual identity. The counterfactual antecedent "If my DNA were different" or "If my DNA were repaired" therefore makes sense, subject to the limits of (3).

(10) Even for "marginal animal cases" such as anencephalic animals, which possess a genetically damaged copy of the information that grounds the telos of their species, we can still imagine the damage being repaired without loss of the individual's identity. ("Repaired" here means altered in such a way as to permit the full range of functionality possessed by a normal member of the species.) Thus we can, without absurdity, combine the counterfactual: "If this individual's DNA were repaired, that would be good for it", with: "If this individual were to realise any of the goods permitted by its repaired DNA, that would be good for it", to obtain the conclusion: "If this individual were to realise any of the goods that characterise a normal member of its species, that would be good for it".

(11) The telos of an individual animal, whether it be "normal" or "marginal", can thus be defined as the range of basic animal goods that typify a member of its species.

Since an individual's telos determines its moral status, and "marginal animal cases" have the same telos as their normal counterparts, it follows that "marginal animal cases" have the same moral status as normal animals. "Marginal" and "normal" animals have the same moral significance, because the same things are good for them. What they should be is the same, because they share the same nature, which grounds their telos.

The teleological properties of an organism can be deduced from their (actual, not potential) informational properties - that is, the internal program (in its DNA) that contains instructions for its development. Ultimately, it is informational properties - more precisely, its internal program - that constitute the nature of an organism.

It should be stressed that the internal program in an organism's DNA is not dormant but actually executing: it controls its development and supports its bodily structure and functions, during every moment of its waking or sleeping life. This is true for so-called "marginal cases" too. Finally, even in cases where the program instructions coding for biological functions have been corrupted by genetic copying mistakes (mutations), the actual function that the corrupted DNA is supposed to code for can be ascertained by comparing it to that of conspecific individuals.

Does the concept of nature make sense, and is it morally relevant?

Human DNA: the basis of human nature?

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.

It is thus incorrect to assert, as Clark (1988) does, that the unity of a species consists in its being a common breeding population - a property Clark (rightly)does not consider to be morally significant per se. Rather, the unity of a species consists in its members' shared possession of information that defines the range of basic goods (including biological functions) typical of that species. In certain individuals, the information in a gene may be corrupted, but the damage is identifiable by comparing the gene to that of healthy members of the same species, and it is also capable (at least in principle) of being repaired.

The "marginal animal cases" we have looked at possess a complete, actually executing copy of their internal program in every cell of their bodies. In embryonic animals, the only obstacle to the full expression of the internal program is time; in anencephalic animals, DNA damage that has corrupted a few of the program instructions; and in decerebrated animals and animals in a permanently vegetative state, bodily injury. In all these cases, the instructions that code for the possibility of animal agency are already there within the individual's body cells. I contend that since these instructions are what gives animals their specific telos, which determines an animal's moral status, any individual possessing these instructions is entitled to the same respect as an animal, regardless of immaturity or impairment.

The following "thought experiment" (intended for illustrative purposes only) may serve to clarify why it makes sense to regard animals that lack mental states due to genetic damage or bodily injury as the moral equals of "normal" animals. Future medical advances might allow doctors to restore some of these impaired individuals' capacity for animal agency, without altering their individual identity or changing their nature as members of their species. Doctors may one day be able to repair any damage to these animals' DNA, and adult stem cells could even be used to enable them to grow a complete brain, if they have nothing more than a brain stem. (As we saw above, the objection that an individual whose DNA was repaired would no longer be the same individual is groundless.)

What does the foregoing argument imply for the scope of our duties to animals? It implies that "marginal cases" possess the same moral significance as their sentient counterparts, with whom they share a common nature. However, this does not entail that we have the same duties to both (see below).

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", or activated, in a suitable environment. 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 and nature of an animal.

Is my proposal unacceptably counter-intuitive?

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 (i.e. any kind that codes for the possibility of intentional 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 does not imply that the same actions are morally wrong towards them, or that the same actions are wrong for exactly the same reasons. For instance, if a scientist were performing an experiment that caused pain but no injury to mature sentient animals, then the use of animal embryos in their place would clearly be acceptable, if they were not harmed. On the other hand, if the experiment were fatal, then it would be at least a prima facie wrong in both cases, because it would harm the animals. However, the harm done in each case would not be the same: the experiment would rob the embryo of more years of life than the sentient animal, but it might also cause distress and frustration to the sentient animal. I shall have more to say about animal experimentation in chapter 6.

A test case: Do decerebrated animals matter?

Bernard Rollin (Colorado State University). Courtesy of Department of Animal Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Rollin (1992), who has written extensively on animal suffering (1990), 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, which defines its 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 the information that expresses its existing nature - a corruption which stunts the animal forever. Such an action can hardly be described as consistent with respect for an animal's telos.

It is important to realise that even here, the animal retains its nature (and its moral status), as the altered genes which fail to code for its brain development, normally do in other animals of the same biological species.

(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 sentient 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, whom we could befriend.

It should be added that although we can befriend many different sentient animals, we cannot consistently befriend all of them, simply because our interests inevitably conflict with those of other sentient species, whom one may have to compete with or even kill for food.

(iv) Which human beings count?

The status of moral agents is unproblematic. The status of human moral patients remains controversial: utilitarians (e.g. Singer, 1977) and contractarians (e.g. Carruthers, 1992; Leahy, 1994) consider them to be much less important than normal adults.

The argument from marginal human cases

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 solely on the potential rather than the actual properties of these human beings.

I have argued that an organism's moral standing is grounded in its telos, which is defined by its nature. I have defined an individual's nature in terms of the genetic information which the individual must possess in order to exercise the entire range of basic goods that typify the species to which it belongs. (A given individual will inevitably possess a copy of this information that is slightly damaged by mutation, but the standard information required to encode each of its functions can be determined by examining the DNA of other individuals with whom it can inter-breed.) It is this information, encoded within each cell as an internal "master program", which regulates the development and structure of the organism and the interactions between its parts, and thus determines the telos of that species - i.e. what its flourishing consists of.

What makes human individuals different from other animals is the information that they have: an internal program (in their DNA) that contains instructions 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.

The "marginal human cases" discussed by Dombrowski (1997) possess a complete, actually executing copy of this internal master 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. It is this master program that determines what things are good for these human individuals to realise, even if they are precluded from doing so. What is good for us would be good for them, and vice versa, whereas what is good for a chimp would not necessarily be good for them. Since, as we have argued, their telos determines their moral status, they matter as much as we do.

Dombrowski (1997, p. 92) criticises the arguments of Holmes Rolston, who believes we should respect injured or damaged "marginal cases" on grounds of charity, for historical reasons:

We do not respect them for what they are but respect the full humans they were or might have been; we repair the tragedy by charity, rather than do strict justice to their condition (quoted in Dombrowski, 1997, p. 92).

Dombrowski (1997, p. 93) argues that we should respect these human beings, not for historical reasons, but because of what they are: sentient beings. It should be quite clear that my own position is different from Dombrowski's and Rolston's: I maintain that we should respect these human beings as our moral equals, not because of what they are or were or will be or might have been, but because of what they should be - in other words, because of their telos.

Just as we could envisage future medical advances enabling severely impaired "marginal animal cases" to attain sentience, we can realistically imagine some of these "marginal human cases" becoming human moral agents, thanks to the same medical advances, without altering either their physical identity as individuals or changing their nature as human beings. 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.

Thus all of Dombrowki's (1997) marginal cases qualify as bona fide holders of human rights. 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).

Is this speciesism?

I contend that ultimately, the moral standing of marginal human cases derives from their membership of the human species. Is such a position "speciesist"?

The notion that mere membership of a species can confer moral standing seems absurd, as a biological boundary has no apparent moral significance. However, on the account that I have defended here, a species is much more than a boundary. It is a repository of genetic information, shared (in varying degrees) by the individuals that belong to it. This shared information defines what the telos of these individuals is. The telos is what grounds their moral standing. Species membership per se has no moral significance, but it is morally significant in an indirect sense, insofar as it determines telos.

Case study: people and chimps

Orang-utans, gorillas, chimps and other non-human primates can communicate by facial, hand and verbal gestures, but are incapable of speech and language. Courtesy of

Recent research (Walton, 2002; Randerson, 2002) indicates that a gene called FOXP2 is linked to language and speech ability in humn beings. People share this gene with other mammals, but in human beings there have been two slight amino acid changes, believed to have occurred in the last 200,000 years. These changes are believed to have caused alterations in both human beings' face and jaw structures and their abilities to understand grammar. People with one faulty copy of this gene in their DNA cannot move their lips, tongue and mouth normally, and also have difficulties understanding language structure and grammar.

There are most likely many genes that are implicated in human beings' language ability, but let us simplify here and focus solely on FOXP2. It is easy to see why humans with a defective copy of this gene should still be said to possess human nature, as they belong to a class (Homo sapiens) whose members typically have two normal copies of this gene (one from each parent) that permits the possibility of speech and language. Even in the case of an individual with two defective copies, we could say that the information that coded for human capacities had been damaged as a result of mutations. In chimpanzees, on the other hand, the FOXP2 gene never codes for speech or language ability. These abilities are not natural to chimps, and a chimp lacking them is normal, not defective.

Hybrid paradoxes

Finsen (1990) considers the notion of a species to be an arbitrary boundary, because closely related species (e.g. humans and chimps, lions and tigers) can often inter-breed. She asks where we should draw the line in the case of a human-chimp hybrid:

Should such a half-human primate receive the protection accorded to human subjects, or only the protections of the Federal Animal Welfare Act? What about a one-quarter human, or a three-quarter human? (quoted in Dombrowski, 1997, pp. 172-173).

It is worth remembering that humans and chimps belong to distinct species, which last shared a common ancestor five to ten million years ago. They certainly cannot interbreed to produce fertile offspring. There are no known cases of human chimp hybrids being born, so it is not known if they would even be viable.

Assuming that a human-chimp hybrid is viable, the question of what is "normal" for it simply becomes unanswerable, as it does not belong to a single biological class (species) whose members' genes define what is "normal" and "defective" for that class. A hybrid simply would not have a nature - human, chimp or otherwise. It would be an untidy amalgam of two (similar) natures, each with different sets of abilities. However, some abilities could be said to be "natural" for such a hybrid - namely, those shared by both humans and chimps. Thus communicating by hand gestures would be natural for such a hybrid, but language would not. Lacking a human nature, a human-chimp hybrid could not be accorded human moral status.

What if scientists subsequently hybridised the "50% human" DNA with normal human DNA to create a second-generation hybrid more like us - 75% human, and then 87.5% human in the third generation, and so on? There would presumably have to be a point at which the n-th generation hybrid was sufficiently close to us to interbreed with us naturally and produce fertile offspring, with human linguistic capacities. At this point, we would have to say that the hybrid had acquired human nature and human moral status.

Are super-chimps our moral equals?

Other nightmarish experiments suggest themselves (and will doubtless be attempted by some reckless researcher in the future). What if scientists tinkered with the DNA of a fertilised ovum from a chimp, and altered the FOXP2 gene, and other genes relating to human language and rationality, to make them like ours, thus conferring language ability and rationality on the chimpanzee zygote? Would the resulting super-chimp have the nature and moral status of a human being?

It needs to be borne in mind here that the number of genes that code for human rationality and language use is probably large, and that engineering all these changes at once would almost certainly result in the creation of a new biological species - assuming the super-chimp proved to be viable. For instance, human rationality almost certainly requires a human-size brain, whose cerebral cortex possesses a critical level of neural complexity, and is organised in a uniquely human way. In other words, the super-chimp would no longer be a chimp, but sui generis. As a being whose (artificially engineered) nature allowed it to reason and use language, it would have the same moral status as we do.

If, however, the super-chimp were still able to inter-breed with normal chimpanzees, it would still possess the nature and moral status of a chimp. In that case, we would have to revise our definition of "chimpanzee" and include rationality and language use as incipient traits that are part of the nature of a chimp, but whose emergence by natural means may not become apparent for thousands of generations. The moral status of chimpanzees would have to be adjusted accordingly.

(v) Which groups of organisms count? Ecosystems and species

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 would be stronger for richer ecosystems such as the Amazon, whose biodiversity is greater and whose destruction might trigger global changes. I shall argue in chapter 6 that it is sometimes permissible to harm individual organisms, 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 descendants 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.

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