Towards a coherent theory of animal equality

See also the e-book (draft) The ethical consistency of animal equality

In this article I want to give an overview of how to systematically arrive at a coherent theory of animal equality. The basic structure of the argument is as follows: we start with a factual property of the world, which ignites within us a moral intuition or emotion. In a process of reflection, this intuition is translated into a particular ethical principle, valid in a particular situation. Next, this particular principle is universalized to all similar situations. A situation is characterized by three elements: the act, the person who acts (the agent) and the individual acted upon (the patient). So we can universalize the particular principle to all similar actions, all similar agents and all similar patients.
But one of those similar situations might involve some facts that again ignite another moral intuition or emotion, which might be in contradiction with the universalized ethical principle. That means a new particular principle comes into play, that trumps the first universalized principle in that particular situation. This new particular principle also needs to be universalized as well. Then we test these two universalized principles in new moral dilemmas, to look for further refinements. So in this process we refine ethical principles or we introduce stronger principles that trump previous ones. Eventually, we cover all situations and all facts that ignite moral intuitions, and we move to a consistent ethical system of hierarchical universalized principles. In the end, we reach a theory in “reflective equilibrium”, which means that our moral intuitions and ethical principles are coherent, they mutually support each other, just like the words in a crossword puzzle. In a crossword puzzle, the individual letters represent the particular ethical principles, the words are the universalized principles, and these words mutually support each other. So let’s derive a coherent ethics of animal equality, starting from the most basic facts.

Fact 1: I feel good when my well-being is high.
Moral intuition 1: My well-being is important.
Particular ethical principle 1: My well-being should be improved now.
Universal ethical principle 1: My well-being should be improved at all times, so that my quality of life (total well-being over my lifespan) is as high as possible.

Fact 2: I see that some other people (close relatives and friends) sometimes suffer.
Moral intuition 2: The well-being and qualities of life of those people are important. I feel empathy with those who suffer.
Particular ethical principle 2: I should improve the well-beings of all those beings with whom I feel empathy.
Universal ethical principle 2: All moral agents (beings who can feel empathy and help others) should try to improve the quality of life of those people and respect the universal ethical principles.

Fact 3: Not only close relatives and friends can suffer. All beings with a sufficiently complex functioning central nervous system (such as vertebrate animals) can suffer. It is possible to feel empathy with all sentient beings.
Moral intuition 3: Developing empathy is important.
Partial ethical principle 3: Empathy is a moral virtue and I should develop it by extending it to all sentient beings.
Universal ethical principle 3: We (all moral agents) should develop empathy for all sentient beings.

Fact 4: All sentient beings, like me, value their own well-being.
Moral intuition 4: Impartiality is important. I feel resentful when there is partiality.
Particular ethical principle 4: I should strive towards impartiality, by taking all beings who have a well-being into account.
Universal ethical principle 4: All moral agents (beings who can understand impartiality) should strive towards impartiality in all situations, just like me. In particular, all moral agents should take the qualities of life of all sentient beings into account in an impartial way.

Fact 5: Sentient beings have complex interests and can subjectively feel their interests.
Moral intuition 5: Having interests is morally relevant.
Particular ethical principle 5: I should respect sentient beings, for example by giving them rights that protect their interests.
Universal ethical principle 5: All moral agents (who can understand rights) should respect the rights of sentient beings.

Fact 6: Humans have special mental capacities (self-consciousness, sentience, rationality, moral consciousness, complex emotions,…). But not all humans have the same capacities. Of those mental capacities, sentience is the only one that babies or mentally disabled humans have.
Moral intuition 6: I want to respect mentally disabled humans and babies.
Particular ethical principle 6: Mentally disabled persons should be respected because they are sentient.
Universal ethical principle 6: If mentally disabled persons should be respected because they are sentient, then all sentient beings should equally be respected for the same reason.
Remark: Universal principles 3, 4, 5 and 6 are all coherent. This makes a very strong case for sentience as a morally relevant property. On the other hand, the species boundary or the criterion Homo sapiens is not morally relevant for several reasons. First, it is arbitrary to pick out one biological classification (species) and not one of the many others. Second, the biological definition of a species is actually very complicated, so this would make the species boundary artificial or farfetched as a moral criterion. Third, it is possible to cross the species boundary (human-animal hybrids and chimeras are probably not impossible). Fourth, having a specific appearance or genes is not something we chose or are responsible for, so we do not deserve a preferential treatment by having some genes.

Fact 7: There can be a situation X where applying universal ethical principles 3 to 6 might be unclear. For example, there might be a situation with two sentient beings (A and B) who have equal qualities of life, but where we can choose between a five-fold increase in the well-being of A versus a very slight increase in the well-beings of both A and B.
Moral intuition 7: Simplicity is important. We should take a simple and efficient rule for well-being.
Particular ethical principle 7: We should take sum-utilitarianism in situation X (where utility refers to the quality of life): simply add all qualities of life and try to maximize this sum.
Universal ethical principle 7: Sum-utilitarianism should be applied in all situations.

Fact 8: There can be a situation Y where sum-utilitarianism implies we should lower the well-being of the worst-off being in order to increase the well-beings of others by a higher amount.
Moral intuition 8: I feel strongest empathy with the being in the worst-off position.
Remark: There is a conflict between moral intuition 8 and universal ethical principle 7. Moral intuition 8 is a bit stronger, so the universal ethical principles 7 should be adapted in particular situation Y.
Particular ethical principle 8: We should improve the well-being of the worst-off position in situation Y. This is the maximin strategy.
Universal ethical principle 8: Maximin-utilitarianism (instead of sum-utilitarianism) should be applied in all situations.

Fact 9: There can be a situation Z where we can improve the well-being of the worst-off individual with a negligible amount, at the cost of much more well-being of others.
Moral intuition 9: Efficiency is (at least a little bit) important.
Particular ethical principle 9: We should give a high but not maximum priority to increasing the qualities of life of the worst-off beings in situation Z. This is a version of prioritarianism, which lies in between maximin and sum-utilitarianism (but close to maximin). It is called quasi-maximin.
Universal ethical principle 9: Quasi-maximin prioritarianism should be applied in all situations. [Mathemathically, this can be expressed as the maximization of the expectation value of a weighted average of qualities of life of all sentient beings. The quality of life refers to the total preferred well-being of an individual over his/her complete lifespan (which spans from the first till the last subjective feeling). The weighted average is over all sentient beings that exist in the present or will exist in the future, whereby the lowest qualities of life get the highest weight factors (resulting in a higher priority to maximize those lowest positions). The expectation value is in case the outcomes of qualities of life are uncertain.]
Remark: This universal ethical principle is coherent with a thought experiment of impartiality (John Rawls’ veil of ignorance). Imagine you are behind a veil of ignorance and you don’t know who you will be. You can be born as anyone or anything. Now you can deside what moral rules should apply. Which ethical system would you prefer? If you would be incarnated as a non-sentient being, then you don’t have a well-being. Your well-being cannot be influenced by any moral rule, so non-sentient beings should not be taken into account. As you can be any of the sentient beings, it is a game of chance that you have to play, because some beings can be worse-off than others. A rational strategy is to opt for a moral rule that maximizes the sum of qualities of life of everyone (sum-utilitarianism), because that sum is related to the expectation value of well-being that you have in this game of chance. But you have to be aware that there is a risk that you might be born as one of the worst-off individuals. Most people have a risk aversion (need for safety), and in this game of chance that means that they would not opt for sum-utilitarianism, but to some kind of prioritarianism. If you have maximum risk aversion (a maximum need for safety), you would take the maximin strategy, because you are so worried to be this worst-off individual. Most of us have a high but not maximum risk aversion, and that results in quasi-maximin.
In summary: impartiality (veil of ignorance) with a high but not maximum risk aversion (need for safety) coheres with empathy with a low but non-zero need for efficiency. These are two approaches resulting in the same principle.

Fact 10: There is a possible situation where I have to choose between some person I hold dear and some unknown sentient being. E.g. in a burning house dilemma where I have to choose between saving my child or another individual.
Moral intuition 10: I’d prefer to choose the person I hold dear.
Particular ethical principle 10: It is allowed to be partial in that situation.
Universal ethical principle 10: It is allowed to be partial in all situations where someone is involved whom you hold dear (with whom you have a personal relationship or strong feelings of empathy), as long as you respect similar partiality of everyone else. This principle trumps principle 9 to some degree, but not too much.

Fact 11: There is a possible situation, where 5 patients in a hospital would die unless we sacrifice an innocent person against his will and use 5 of his organs for transplantations. This would be allowed according to prioritarianism (principle 9).
Moral intuition 11: I feel emotional distress and restraint to sacrifice this one person against his will.
There is a conflict between moral intuition 11 and ethical principles 7-10. Intuition 11 is much stronger. We should not sacrifice someone, even if prioritarianism is violated and even if someone I hold dear is one of the patients in the hospital.
Particular ethical principle 11: We should not sacrifice this person (even if it is a mentally disabled human).
Universal ethical principle 11: We should never sacrifice any sentient being for organ transplantation. This principle trumps both principles 9 and 10.

Fact 12: There are a lot of other situations (e.g. experiments,…) where we can use a sentient being as merely means, where we can violate someone’s bodily integrity without voluntary permission, where we can treat an individual as property.
Moral intuition 12: I feel emotional distress, restraint and resentment. I have a need for respect, which is not satisfied when someone is used as merely means.
Remark: There is a strong coherence with intuition 11. Thousands of moral dilemmas ignite moral intuitions of restraint to act and to use someone as merely means. These intuitions are also coherent with the notion of respect, which is next to empathy considered as an important moral virtue. And these intuitions are also coherent with the notion of intrinsic value (the moral value that is the opposite of instrumental or use value).
Particular ethical principle 12: We should not treat a sentient being as merely means for our ends in a situation where the well-being might increase according to prioritarianism.
Universal ethical principle 12: All sentient beings have a basic right not to be used as merely means to someone else’s ends. A victim is used as merely means, when the agent causes disrespectful harm (in the sense of violations of bodily integrity or treatment as property or commodity), and where the presence of the victim is required in order to reach the ends. (There are moral dilemmas whereby you are allowed to cause harm to someone in order to save others. In those dilemmas, the presence of the victim was not required in order to save the others.)

Fact 13: There can be a situation V where we can use one being as merely means in order to save a huge number of other sentient beings.
Moral intuition 13: efficiency is important in that situation.
Remark: There is a conflict between intuitions 12 and 13.
Particular ethical principle 13: In situation V it is allowed to use one being if a huge number of others can be saved.
Universal ethical principle 13: The basic right trumps the prioritarian principle (9) to some large degree. But it is not absolute.

Fact 14: Predators need meat in order to survive. If predators cannot use other sentient beings as merely means, they will all go extinct. If principles 12-13 are universalized to predator animals, that would imply that they have to go extinct.
Moral intuition 14: Predators are allowed to hunt. It would be a tragedy if they go extinct.
Particular ethical principle 14: If a being needs meat in order to survive, it is allowed to eat meat.
Universal ethical principle 14: If a sufficiently large group of sentient beings became by an evolutionary process dependant on the use of other sentient beings for their survival, they are allowed to use other sentient beings for that purpose (until feasible alternatives, that don’t violate basic rights, are found). That is because biodiversity has a very high moral value, biodiversity is everything that is the direct product of evolutionary processes. So predators and their behavior contribute to biodiversity and we should not destroy that biodiversity.
Remark: We can reformulate principle 14. When a behavior is “natural, normal and necessary”, that behavior is allowed, even if the basic right is violated (prey animals are used as merely means, for their meat). Those “three N”-criteria need to be met. Natural means that the behavior is a direct consequence of a process of evolution (genetic mutation and natural selection). So it means that the beings who have such behavior contribute to biodiversity. Normal means that the behavior happens a lot. And necessary means those beings would die or go extinct if they would no longer have that behavior. So natural+normal+necessary means that a lot of biodiversity will be lost when the behavior would stop. Predation is normal, natural and necessary, so it is allowed (as long as there are no feasible alternatives), even if it violates the basic right. For humans, eating animal products is not necessary (according to the American Dietetic Association), so we are not allowed to violate the basic rights of animals. Organ transplantation (by sacrificing a sentient being against his will) is not allowed either, because it is a violation of the basic right and it is not normal and natural (it is necessary though).
Universal ethical principle 14 is related to the triple-N condition. The reference to “sufficiently large group” indicates that the behavior is normal, the reference to the “evolutionary process” means that it is natural, and the reference to “dependency for survival” means that it is necessary.

Fact 15: There are situations where predators attack us or beings that we hold dear.
Moral intuition 15: I am allowed to defend myself and others. I feel a strong duty to protect humans.
Particular ethical principle 15: We have a right to self-defense and to defend others, even if this involves a partial choice.
Universal ethical principle 15: All sentient beings have the right to defend themselves or others from predators, they have the right to be partial in such decisions, as long as they respect similar kinds of partiality of others. We can add that we also have a duty to protect all beings who have or will develop special mental capacities such as self-consciousness, moral agency or rationality, or who have close relatives (e.g. parents) with such special mental capacities. Those rational beings not only feel their interests, but they  also know and understand their interests. This rationality applies to most human beings, except seriously mentally disabled human orphans. (If we say we have a duty to protect those disabled orphans whereas we do not have a duty to protect non-human animals, because all humans have a higher moral status than non-humans, then we become too partial. It is a kind of speciesism, and like racism or sexism it is a kind of partiality and arbitrariness that we cannot tolerate.)

This completes the process. We now have a theory of animal equality, with clear and coherent universalized ethical principles that best fit our strongest moral intuitions, and without too many arbitrary elements.

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