Are Humans and Animals Moral Equals?


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.

In a 1985 interview, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk uttered a provocative (and, notorious (depending on your point of view)) remark:

“Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all mammals.”

Since then, the statement, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”, has been used by anti-animal liberationists as a kind of reductio ad absurdum against the theoretical underpinnings of animal liberation. But most critics of Newkirk’s assertion seem to read the phrase as uncharitably as possible. Could she really intend that a rat and a human child are moral equals? Perhaps, but I think the answer requires a bit of nuance and an understanding of the work of Peter Singer.

All animals are equal

In his influential 1986 essay, “All Animals are Equal“, philosopher Peter Singer outlines the philosophical underpinnings of the kind of sentiment expressed by Newkirk. When we reflect, for example, on human social justice movements, we notice that one thing that underlies and connects these movements is a belief that, in an important and profound sense, all humans are equal. This belief, the principle of equality, is the key to making sense of Newkirk’s statement. But what does it really mean to say that all humans are equal? Given that humans differ from each other so significantly in their physical, moral, emotional, and cognitive abilities and capacities, surely, as a descriptive empirical assertion, claims of human equality in this sense are clearly factually untrue. But the principle of equality is not intended as a fully factual but rather as a normative concept. In this sense, equality is not a description but rather a prescription of how we should treat human beings. The primary empirical claim grounding the principle of equality is the fact that human beings are experiential subjects; that is, there is a “what-it’s-like” to be human, experiences philosophers refer to as qualia. Put in simpler terms, human beings are sentient.

Equal Consideration of Interests

This principle of equality, coupled with sentience, and combined with the interests that the possession of sentience provide (e.g., an interest in not being harmed), lead to the central principle driving Singer’s view: the principle of equal consideration of interests, the essence of which is to “give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions” (Singer, 2002, p. 8). When engaged in any decision-making procedure concerning how we ought to treat one another morally, this principle requires that we consider the interests of all humans equally. But since sentience provides the basis for the equality of human beings, and since human beings are not the only sentient beings, to be consistent, we must extend the principle of equal consideration of interests to all sentient beings. The principle of equal consideration of interests requires that we weight interests not on the basis of species (or race or gender), but on an individual’s abilities and capacities. To do otherwise, to privilege the interests of humans over nonhumans solely in virtue of species membership, is speciesist, plain and simple.

Yet, equality for nonhuman animals does not entail equality of treatment, but merely the equal consideration of interests. Adjudicating differences in treatment between competing interests requires what Singer calls the relevance principle. According to the relevance principle, whether a difference between individuals justifies a difference in treatment depends on the kind of treatment in question. Thus, equality for animals does not require, for example, that we grant pigs the right to vote, not because the interests of pigs are of less moral concern, but rather because pigs, unlike humans, have no interest in voting. On the other hand, since pigs, like humans, have an interest in not suffering, livestock production techniques that inflict suffering on pigs solely to satisfy the palates of consumers are impermissible. (Cochrane, 2012).

A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy?

In light of this discussion, we are better positioned to make sense of Newkirk’s claim. Given that rats and pigs and boys are sentient, rats and pigs and boys all have robust interests; to avoid speciesism, in considering these interests, we must do so equally.

Further reading

Cochrane, A., (2012). Animal Rights Without Liberation: Applied Ethics and Human Obligations, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Gruen, L. (2011). Ethics and Animals: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press.

Jones, R.C. (November, 2015). “Animal Rights is a Social Justice Issue“, Contemporary Justice Review, pp. 467-482.

Jones, R.C. (2013). “Science, Sentience, and Animal Welfare“, Biology and Philosophy, 28(1), 1–30.

McCabe, K. (August, 1985). “Who Will Live, Who Will Die,” The Washingtonian.

Proctor, H.S. (2012). “Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading?”, Animals 2, 628–639.

Singer, P. (1986). “All animals are Equal”, in P. Singer (Ed.), Applied Ethics (pp. 226–228), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals


(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:

  1. The infliction of gratuitous, unnecessary harms—such as pain, suffering, and death—upon sentient beings is cruel and immoral.
  2. Industrial animal farming inflicts gratuitous, unnecessary pain, suffering, and death upon billions of sentient beings.
  3. 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.

Further reading

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.

Why is Sentience Ethically Significant?


I forgot to link to another blog piece I wrote for the World Animal Protection / Global Animal Network site. The piece is titled “Why is Sentience Ethically Significant?”

Check it out!

Tom Regan 1938–2017


This tribute was originally posted at Animal Liberation Currents.

Like many animal liberationists, I came to an understanding of the plight of our animal kin through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Many people are surprised to learn that this “father of the modern animal rights movement” did not argue that nonhuman animals have rights, at least not in the moral, philosophical sense. That case was to be made powerfully and convincingly less than a decade later by Tom Regan. In The Case for Animal Rights, Regan presented what was basically one long sustained and rigorous argument for animal rights of the actual moral and philosophical kind.

Since its publication in 1983, in many ways, the book has stood in the shadow of Animal Liberation. Yet for those less-than friendly to Singer’s utilitarian framework, The Case for Animal Rights provided a sound foundation upon which animal liberationists could make a case for rights—inviolate rights—for nonhuman animals.

Though broadly Kantian, Regan’s approach rejected the notion (central to Kant’s moral framework) that only “rational” beings (i.e., for all intents and purposes, humans) possess moral value. By contrast, Regan argued that what mattered morally is not rationality per se, but the capacity to be the subject of experiences. However, not just any kind of subjective experience warrants inherent value. To possess inherent value and consequently, moral rights, requires that one has the capacity to be the subject of experiences that matter to oneself, what Regan famously termed being the subject of a life. This view, that the capacity for this kind of subjective experience confers upon its possessor inherent value, is both intuitive and meticulously argued for in the book. I cannot tell you how many times I have referred to that passage on p. 243 of his book (I know the page number by heart) where Regan outlines which physiological, emotional, psychological, and cognitive capacities—over and above mere sentience—make one the subject-of-a-life. So impressed was I by this aspect of Regan’s view that my doctoral dissertation, focused on the moral significance of animal cognition, came about in no small part due to my simply trying to flesh out the moral ramifications of that passage. Of course, critics rightly pointed out how even such a thoroughly worked out view had blind spots, lacunae that Regan himself eventually came to fill then build upon.

Tom Regan was a pioneer in the struggle for the liberation of animals from the bonds of institutional and systemic violence, oppression, and domination. Though I never met the man, by all accounts he was what Aristotle would have called a person of great virtue, a warm, kind, compassionate human being. The world is a darker place now that he has left us, but fortunately Tom Regan left behind a profound and indispensable body of work to act as a beacon for animal liberationists to follow.

Knowing Animals Interview


I was recently interviewed for the Knowing Animals podcast. The subject of the interview, “Is Vegan Enough?”, focuses on my chapter in the just-released Critical Perspectives on Veganism. Check it out!

Animals & Society Institute Fellow Travelers Conference


I just got back from the Animals & Society Institute Fellow Travelers Conference where I gave a talk called “Is Veganism Speciesist or Exterminist?” There were some really great talks there. Thanks to Lori Gruen and Kari Weil for organizing such a cool conference.

Global Animal Network


The Global Animal Network (formerly World Society for the Protection of Animals) has a new site. I am blogging there!