The focus of the panel was to highlight the moral, scientific, and legal arguments for nonhuman personhood, and contrast those with what judges on their denials of legal personhood for nonhuman animals. Watch the session!
I contributed this piece to the World Animal Protection / Global Animal Network site in 2016, but that site is gone, so I am re-posting it here.
We all agree that animals have an interest in avoiding pain, but why does that matter morally? Subjective experience is the key here—and sentience is the ticket into the moral community.
Despite disagreement on precisely how to end the suffering of nonhuman animals, one thing that we can all agree on is that beings who possess the capacity to experience pain have an interest in avoiding pain and suffering. But why is that?
Is all life more important than all non-life?
Consider the differences between a rock and a cat. Of course there are many, but in discussions of ethical import, the central ethical difference is that the kitty is alive, while the rock is not. Though true, is this the central reason that we grant a higher moral status to the cat than to the rock? Is it because the cat is an animate object and the rock an inanimate object that the cat demands our moral attention in a way that the rock does not? In other words—all things being equal—does life trump non-life? At first blush, the answer may seem to be yes. But let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine you were forced to choose between destroying, say, the Rosetta Stone or one single bacterium. Whichever you would choose to destroy, it’s certainly not obvious that you should destroy the Rosetta Stone merely because it isn’t alive. And if that seems right, then it’s not clear that the moral value of life trumps non-life. However, imagine it turns out that bacteria can feel pain. That might complicate things, and that’s because sentience is, as it should be, morally significant.
As Peter Singer writes, “[i]f a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for disregarding that suffering, or for refusing to count it equally with the like suffering of any other being. But the converse of this is also true. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of enjoyment, there is nothing to take into account.” (171)
Subjective experience grounds basic moral considerability
In thinking about the cat/rock distinction, the salient ethical difference is not the fact that the cat is alive and the rock is not, but rather that the cat is sentient and the rock is not. Why is the fact that the cat feels pain ethically significant? To answer that, we need to take a step back and look at the notion of subjective experience. This is what philosophers like to call the what-it’s-like aspect of existence. From the cat’s perspective, she has interests that matter to her from the inside, for example, interests in her own well-being. Basic notions central to morality itself—concepts like justice, fairness, reciprocity, obligation, etc.—depend upon the possession of interests. The cat’s ability to feel pain generates an interest (in not feeling pain), grounding ethical significance.
But isn’t the choice of sentience privileged, anthropocentric, and arbitrary?
Sometimes, when I argue for the obvious and noncontroversial claim that possession of the capacity for pain and suffering makes the possessor morally considerable, I am confronted by the following challenge:
Why pick out pain as the criterion for moral considerability? There are so many other abilities and capacities that one could see as being morally relevant. Your view might not be speciesist, but it’s certainly sentientist, privileging the capacity for pain and suffering over other capacities that might be more morally relevant (such as the capacity for empathy or reciprocal behavior) and ignoring other domains of moral significance such as non-sentient life (e.g., trees) or entire ecosystems. Focusing on sentience seems arbitrary and ungrounded.
Sentience is not arbitrary
First, the claim about the moral significance of sentience does not say that sentience is the only morally relevant capacity. It merely says that the capacity to experience pain and suffering is sufficient for entrance into the sphere of things that are morally considerable: if you’re sentient, you get a ticket into the moral community. Once you’re in, then we can weight values by considering various other capacities, properties, and relations to help us determine moral significance and adjudicate moral disputes (issues I will address in a future post).
Second, I must ask those of you who see the choice of pain as arbitrary to reflect on how you would feel about someone who caught stray cats and set them afire merely because he thought it was fun. Now, reflect on why you feel that way. If you think that the fact that the cat can suffer isn’t sufficient to give you any moral reason to refrain from burning her, then I despair at what to say in reply.
Clearly, sentience confers on its possessor an interest in avoiding pain, an interest that commands ethical attention. The more we discover about which species are sentient and to what degree, the greater our obligations to end animal suffering everywhere.
Gruen, L. (2011). Ethics and animals: An introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Jones, R.C., 2013. Science, sentience, and animal welfare. Biology and Philosophy, 28(1), 1–30.
Nagel, T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat?. The Philosophical Review, 83(4), 435–450.
Proctor, H.S., 2012. Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading? Animals 2, 628–639.
Singer, P., 2002. Animal liberation, 3rd edition.
(Originally published at World Animal Protection, Global Animal Network)
A recent paper published in the Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics with the title “Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals” presents a weak philosophical defense of animal agriculture. However, the missteps of the essay are instructive as a way of helping us clarify our own arguments for the centrality of sentience in the struggle for animal liberation.
The commonsense moral argument against animal agriculture
The basic, commonsense moral argument against animal farming is simple and straightforward and does not rely on abstract philosophical notions like rights, rationality, or personhood. Indeed, the basic argument rests on a commitment to one simple, widely-shared principle, namely, that it is immoral to unnecessarily harm sentient beings (like pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, or Homo sapiens). Note the qualifier “unnecessarily”. The notions of necessary versus unnecessary harm are relevant here. Causing pain, suffering, or even death, may not always be wrong. In cases when such harms may be necessary—for example, the sharp but transient pain a child feels from a vaccination when no other means of delivering the inoculation exist, or in our euthanizing a beloved companion suffering from a painful and terminal condition—causing pain and suffering certainly is not morally wrong, and may even be obligatory. But when harms like suffering and death are gratuitous and unnecessary, as is the case with animal farming, then clearly, they are wrong.
For clarity’s sake, let’s break down the basic argument against industrial animal farming like this:
- The infliction of gratuitous, unnecessary harms—such as pain, suffering, and death—upon sentient beings is cruel and immoral.
- Industrial animal farming inflicts gratuitous, unnecessary pain, suffering, and death upon billions of sentient beings.
- Therefore, industrial animal farming is cruel and immoral.
(For a more detailed discussion of this argument, see my essay “Veganisms“.)
So the question of whether animal farming is cruel rests, in this context, primarily on (a) whether animal agriculture is nutritionally necessary, and (b) whether it causes harm to nonhuman animals.
Clearly, industrial animal farming is not nutritionally necessary since it is possible (and perhaps even preferable) for us to nourish ourselves without having to consume animal products. If that’s the case, then it looks like the question of the moral wrongness of animal farming rests on whether industrial animal farming inflicts gratuitous, unnecessary pain, suffering, and death upon billions of sentient beings.
Not so fast…
Now, before we fist pump over such an easy moral victory, it’s worth taking a look at the argument for why industrial animal farming is not cruel since, as I say, the missteps of the essay are instructive. Importantly, the confusion of the essay turns on a rather odd and idiosyncratic notion of harm, and the gist of the argument goes like this:
If the gratuitous infliction of pain, suffering, and death of sentient beings is cruel and immoral because such actions constitute a form of harm, then it looks like the notion of harm is what is doing the moral heavy lifting here. But lots of things can be harmed, not only sentient beings. For example, running a car with no motor oil harms the engine. But no one would claim that it is immoral to run a car engine without oil, so that means that there are both moral and non-moral harms. But if that’s the case, then why should we think that the harm of industrial animal agriculture is a moral harm rather than a non-moral harm like that of the oil-less car engine?
Sentience is not arbitrary
Of course, the obvious answer is that nonhuman animals are sentient, whereas things like cars are not. But that raises a question that lies at the heart of our moral treatment of nonhuman animals, namely, why does sentience make one matter morally? As Puryear, et al. argue, the answer is simple: the harms we cause nonhuman animals when we confine them, mutilate them, and inflict gratuitous, unnecessary pain, suffering, and death upon them are of the same fundamental nature as these same harms inflicted upon humans, beings whom all parties agree are morally considerable. Here the flaw of the essay becomes clear, namely, that it conflates two senses of the term ‘harm’. The so-called “harms” we cause in running oil-less motors are nothing at all like the moral harms we inflict on nonhuman animals. While it’s true that when we run a motor without oil we certainly damage the motor and cause the motor to cease to function well, we do not cause the motor to suffer. As I argued in an earlier blogpost, the choice of sentience as morally significant is not arbitrary. Sentience confers on its possessor an interest in avoiding pain, an interest that commands ethical attention. However, what is highly arbitrary is supposing that the harms caused to nonhuman animals are non-moral, while only the harms caused to humans are moral. Reason and commonsense require that we treat like cases alike, and avoid creating—as the essay in question does—an irrelevant, and speciesist moral distinction.
Hawthorne, M. (2013). Bleating hearts: The hidden world of animal suffering. John Hunt Publishing.
Hsiao, T. (2017). Industrial farming is not cruel to animals. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 30(1), 37–54.
Jones, R. C. (2016). Veganisms. In Critical Perspectives on Veganism (pp. 15-39). Springer International Publishing.
Jones, R.C., (2013). Science, sentience, and animal welfare. Biology and Philosophy, 28(1), 1–30.
Proctor, H.S., (2012). Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading? Animals 2, 628–639.
Puryear, S., Bruers, S., & Erdős, L. (2017). On a Failed Defense of Factory Farming. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 1-13.
Singer, P., (2002). Animal Liberation, 3rd edition.