The Moral Status of Animals First published Tue Jul 1, 2003; substantive revision Mon Sep 13, 2010 What is distinctive about humanity such that humans are thought to have moral status and non-humans do not? Providing an answer to this … Continue reading →
The Moral Status of Animals
First published Tue Jul 1, 2003; substantive revision Mon Sep 13, 2010
What is distinctive about humanity such that humans are thought to have moral status and non-humans do not? Providing an answer to this question has become increasingly important among philosophers as well as those outside of philosophy who are interested in our treatment of non-human animals. For some, answering this question will enable us to better understand the nature of human beings and the proper scope of our moral obligations. Some argue that there is an answer that can distinguish humans from the rest of the natural world. Many of those who accept this answer are interested in justifying certain human practices towards non-humans—practices that cause pain, discomfort, suffering and death. This latter group expect that in answering the question in a particular way, humans will be justified in granting moral consideration to other humans that is neither required nor justified when considering non-human animals. In contrast to this view, many philosophers have argued that while humans are different in a variety of ways from each other and other animals, these differences do not provide a philosophical defense for denying non-human animals moral consideration. What the basis of moral consideration is and what it amounts to has been the source of much disagreement.
The species Homo sapiens share a genetic make-up and a distinctive physiology, but this is unimportant from the moral point of view. Species membership itself cannot support the view that members of one species, namely ours, deserve moral consideration that is not owed to members of other species. Humans are morally considerable because of the distinctively human capacities we possess. But which capacities are only human? There is no activity that is uncontroversially unique to humans. Both scholarly and popular work on animal behavior suggests that many of the activities that are thought to be distinct to humans occur in non-humans. Darwin brought us closer to the animal world, but equally brought animal nature closer to us. (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-animal/ ).
The notion of personhood identifies a category of morally considerable beings that is thought to be coextensive with humanity. Historically, Kant is the most noted defender of personhood as the quality that makes a being valuable and thus morally considerable. Yet Kant’s view of personhood cannot distinguish all and only humans as morally considerable. Some humans are not persons, i.e. infants, children, people with advanced forms of autism or Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive disorders—do not have the rational, self-reflective capacities associated with personhood.
More to the point, rationality itself is suspect as a basis for moral right. On one hand, human rationality is bounded by lower level instincts and mechanistic behavior, and on the other, non-humans exhibit behavior that can be deemed moral. Thus morality is orthogonal to rationality. As a matter of fact, individuals that are hyper rational and lack lower level motional control of their behaviors are nor deemed highly moral, but rather are characterized as psychopathic (http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/04/29/psychopaths-and-rational-moral/ ).
Al Dunlap [That would be “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, former CEO of Sunbeam and notorious downsizer.] effortlessly turns the psychopath checklist into “Who Moved My Cheese?” Many items on the checklist he redefines into a manual of how to do well in capitalism. There was his reputation that he was a man who seemed to enjoy firing people, not to mention the stories from his first marriage — telling his first wife he wanted to know what human flesh tastes like, not going to his parents’ funerals. Then you realize that because of this dysfunctional capitalistic society we live in those things were positives. He was hailed and given high-powered jobs, and the more ruthlessly his administration behaved, the more his share price shot up.
Some models of human behavior in the social sciences assume that humans can be reasonably approximated or described as “rational” entities (see for example rational choice theory, or Downs Political Agency Models). Many economics models assume that people are on average rational, and can in large enough quantities be approximated to act according to their preferences. The concept of bounded rationality revises this assumption to account for the fact that perfectly rational decisions are often not feasible in practice because of the finite computational resources available for making them.
Bounded rationality is the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the time available to make the decision (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bounded_rationality ).
If morality is defined in terms of social behavior, non-humans exhibit different moral behavioral modes (http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals?%ca&language=en ). Social life may be regarded as a sort of symbiosis among individuals of the same species: a society is composed of a group of individuals belonging to the same species living within well-defined rules. When biologists interested in evolution theory first started examining social behavior, some apparently unanswerable questions arose, such as how the birth of sterile castes, like in bees, could be explained through an evolving mechanism that emphasizes the reproductive success of as many individuals as possible, or why, amongst animals living in small groups like squirrels, an individual would risk its own life to save the rest of the group. These behaviors may be examples of altruism. Revengeful behavior has been reported in non Homo sapiens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethology ).
Humans are animals in ways so subtly that we are unaware of it. Humans are subject to the same instinctual drives and influences as other animals are; it’s only human arrogance that would ever lead us to think otherwise. Fifty to seventy percent of the variation between individuals – in intelligence, in personality, in political leanings, or just about any other mental character you care to name – derives from the genes; zero to ten percent derives from the home environment; and the mysterious remainder is due to chance or to non-parental environment. (The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker)
The understanding that other people’s emotional states depend on the fulfillment of their intention is fundamentally important for responding adequately to others. Psychopathic patients show severe deficits in responding adequately to other people’s emotion. Psychopaths can teach us a lot about the nature of morality. At first glance, they seem to have perfectly functioning minds. Their working memory isn’t impaired, they have excellent language skills, and they don’t have reduced attention spans. In fact, a few studies have found that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities; their logic is impeccable. But the disorder is associated with a severe moral deficit. (http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/04/29/psychopaths-and-rational-moral/ ).
So what’s gone wrong? Why are psychopaths so much more likely to use violence to achieve their goals? Why are they so overrepresented in our prisons? The answer turns us to the anatomy of morality in the mind. That’s because the intact intelligence of psychopaths conceals a devastating problem: the emotional parts of their brains are damaged, and this is what makes them dangerous.
When normal people are shown violent imagery or other painful stimulus, they automatically generate a visceral emotional reaction. Their hands start to sweat, and their blood pressure surges. But psychopaths feel nothing. When you peer inside the psychopathic brain, you can literally see this absence of emotion. After being exposed to fearful facial expressions, the emotional parts of the normal human brain show increased levels of activation. So do the cortical areas responsible for recognizing faces. As a result, a frightened face becomes a frightening sight; we naturally internalize the feelings of others. The brains of psychopaths, however, respond to these fearful faces with utter disinterest.
I am more inclined to take the position of Schopenhauer. For him, all individual animals, including humans, are essentially the same, being phenomenal manifestations of the one underlying Will. The word “will” designated, for him, force, power, impulse, energy, and desire; it is the closest word we have that can signify both the real essence of all external things and also our own direct, inner experience. Since everything is basically Will, then humans and animals are fundamentally the same and can recognize themselves in each other. For this reason, he claimed that a good person would have sympathy for animals, who are our fellow sufferers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Schopenhauer ).
Schopenhauer emphasizes the necessity of finding a basis for Ethics that appeals, not to the intellect, but to the intuitive perception (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Basis_of_Morality/Translator%27s_Introduction ). According to Schopenhauer, the end of Ethics is not to treat of that which people ought to do (for ” ought ” has no place except in theological Morals, whether explicit, or implicit)