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The Moral Significance of Animal Suffering

Recently I attended a fascinating Society for Applied Philosophy lecture by Shelly Kagan, entitled ‘What’s Wrong with Speciesism?’. Kagan began the lecture by explaining how, while teaching a course involving some of Peter Singer’s writings on non-human animals, he had begun to doubt the view, defended by Singer, that other things equal the suffering of animals matters no less than that of human beings.

Kagan ably criticized Singer’s suggestion that many of us are ‘speciesists’, who believe species-membership to be morally relevant. Consider Superman. No one thinks he matters less because he’s of another species. Rather, we are ‘personists’, and attach greater moral status to persons rather than non-persons.

In the philosophical literature on rights in the second half of the twentieth century, there was much discussion about what should be the criterion for ascribing rights: rationality, language use, willingness to co-operate, sentience, humanity…? These debates seemed to me ill-founded. The correct criterion depends on the right in question: the right to vote, say, requires a certain level of rationality; that not to be tortured depends only on sentience.

The same sort of point seems to me to apply to discussion of moral status. It may be that persons require a certain kind of respect from us on grounds of their personhood (you can’t really be rude to your dog, for example). But one shouldn’t think that because some quality matters in one area of morality, it matters everywhere. (This general point was made brilliantly by Kagan himself in a 1988 article, ‘The Additive Fallacy’.)

The only thing that really matters about suffering is its unpleasantness, and how unpleasant it is. Whether the being experiencing the suffering is or is not rational is no more relevant to the wrongness of causing that suffering than is the race or the sex of that being. Personism, then, turns out to be just as unreasonable and objectionable as racism, sexism, or indeed speciesism.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for the post on an important topic. A few thoughts:

    This conception of “person” is a philosopher’s notion, often ill-defined and highly controversial. The idea that there is a kind of prejudice against non-persons is thus dubious, and is belied by the large disparity in the treatment of animals vs. those humans who have limited rational and cognitive abilities. Of course, many people think that humans with cognitive disabilities also are victims of unfair prejudice, termed ableism. I think, empirically and on reflection, it’s pretty obvious that speciesism towards animals and ableism towards the humans with cognitive disabilities function very differently; it is unhelpful and misleading to lump them together as “personism.”

    The Superman example is interesting, but mistaken. First, obviously, since he is a fictional character, it’s hard to take our reactions to him all that seriously. I can easily imagine that, were he real, there would be significant prejudice against him, where his identity known (though obviously his advanced abilities would make our relationship to him very complex; another distorting fact about the example.)

    What’s worse for the example is that while it’s true in the world of the story that Superman is an alien, he still looks and behaves almost exactly like us. To suggest that our reactions toward Superman show that we’re not speciesist is like a white person suggesting having a friend with a tan is evidence that they’re not a racist.

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      Hello Cody.
      You write : “This conception of “person” is a philosopher’s notion, often ill-defined and highly controversial. The idea that there is a kind of prejudice against non-persons is thus dubious, and is belied by the large disparity in the treatment of animals vs. those humans who have limited rational and cognitive abilities.”

      Sorry, but I don’t follow :
      1 Is the concept of “personhood” really just a philosopher’s notion ?
      2 Even if it were, is this the cause of its being often ill-defined and controversial, or is this some additional information that you are giving ?
      3 How does this additional information make the idea of prejudice against non-persons dubious ? (The border between India and Pakistan is partly ill-defined and highly controversial, but this doesn’t render dubious my belief that Delhi is in India.)
      4 How is the idea that there is prejudice against non-persons belied by the disparity between how we treat people with limited abilities and how we treat other animals? I’d have thought that the opposite was more likely to be the case : ie, the fact that we (generally, nowadays) treat people with limited rational and cognitive abilities differently from animals suggests that we have a prejudice towards persons.

      1. What I got out of Cody’s response is that “persons” is an artificial category, because we treat animals very differently from how we treat folks with very limited cognitive abilities, even if they technically are not “persons”. That first struck me as empirically accurate but, then again, I’m definitely not an expert on legal rights of the profoundly retarded or folks in potentially permanent comas. Actually, I’d have to guess now that although we might treat them very differently from animals, there remains enough commonality that “persons” is still somewhat useful as a concept.

      2. Kagan and Crisp notion of “personhood”, as utilized here, is certainly a philosopher’s use of the term, rather than a common use of the term. My point is that we should suspicious of hypotheses of irrational biases or prejudice making use of philosophical jargon. It is, of course, not inconceivable that we could have such biases, just doubtful, to my mind. But this isn’t terribly important.

        Your point in (4) shows the deficiencies in the term. The example of humans with cognitive disabilities in these types of discussions is used to break apart the concepts of human and person. Presumably, however you want to define “person”, if it’s all distinct from “human” (and if it’s not, the above discussion is pointless) there will be some humans who do not count as persons. Since the contemporary discussions of personhood tend to single out some certain cognitive capacities as the criteria for personhood, humans who are not persons would fall into the category of those with cognitive disabilities.

        And since “personhood” is usually employed as a concept to distinguish the qualities that make humans different from animals, presumably non-human animals are not persons. But given, as I mentioned, the case of humans who are not also persons, who are doubtlessly treated better than the majority of animals used by humans (though not necessarily as well as would be appropriate), this suggests that the bias is not based on possessing the qualities of personhood, but based on species membership.

        All of which is just to say that Singer and others are right, that speciesism, not personism, is the problem. Personism, as a category, is I think useless. The dynamics of the biases towards the two groups that would be affected by peronsism (non-human animals and humans who are not also persons) are distinct and are not usefully lumped together.

    2. That was a good reply.

      I think saying that all that matters for the right not to feel pain is the capacity for suffering is an elegantly simple view that runs into problems with the case of wild animal suffering.

      1. The wild animal suffering issue is an interesting one, I think. It reminds me of the distinction Bull draws between pluralism and solidarism in international relations. Basically, pluralists in IR think that living with cultural and ethical diversity comes before our commitment to any particular version of the good life. Solidarists argue the reverse – they think our ideals for a good life trump other societies’ rights to choose for themselves. In the ecosystem case, pluralists (or whatever you might call them) would put nature ordering itself ahead of human intervention to alleviate suffering, and solidarists (or whatever name they might prefer) would argue that we should put the alleviation of animal suffering ahead of animals’ rights to sort out their own affairs.

        (I’d count myself as a pluralist in both cases for several reasons, including the inability to foresee the impacts of our interventions, normative uncertainty, costs of intervention and so on.)

  2. Just to agree and disagree with Cody. We are indeed speciesists; but I think some of us are personists as well (at the very least, quite a few philosophers are and have been, and it’s their view that is up for discussion). Bentham got it right all those years ago: ‘The question is not, Can they reason?’, etc.

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