Catia Faria, Pompeu Fabra University
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Throughout history, countless species have come into existence only to later become extinct. Whether extinction is caused by natural processes or human agency, environmental scientists and the general public seem to agree that extinction is a bad thing and that, therefore, conservation efforts should be made to counteract, and perhaps revert, the losses. Resources are often devoted to the reintroduction of endangered species into ecosystems in which they have long been absent. In other cases, states implement measures to protect autochthonous species (that is, species which are native to a certain natural environment, as opposed to introduced as a result of human activity) which are threatened by the presence of a foreign species by eradicating the members of the latter. There are entire organisations dedicated simply to the aim of preventing the extinction of species whose continued existence is at risk. However, these practices rely on rather controversial assumptions.
Catia Faria, PhD Candidate
Department of Law, Universitat Pompeu Fabra
In 2004, the Hunting Act banned fox hunting with dogs from England and Wales. More than ten years later, 80% of Britons still believe that it should remain illegal. Strictly speaking, the Act did not establish an absolute ban on fox hunting with dogs (or the hunting of other wild mammals) but rather a conditional prohibition, filled with many exemptions.
In spite of how loose the current law already is, Prime Minister David Cameron recently proposed a new relaxing amendment to the Act. If it had been approved, the change would have shown a complete disregard for the animals involved. It would have also deviated British law from the moral path followed by its own people. The plan to relax the ban has now been postponed. Not based on the strong moral reasons against it, but because conservatives realised they couldn’t win the vote.
The only relevant discussion here is an ethical one: Is (fox) hunting an immoral practice? If so, shouldn’t the government uphold the ban? It seems that no sound way of understanding ethics can leave room for the huge amount of harm caused by fox hunting. This is a practice whose only aim is to provide hunters with some entertainment. This would still be so even if we set aside the harm these animals suffer by being deprived of their lives. Even a minimally stringent moral view would consider it unjustified to cause such severe suffering to animals merely for the sake of trivial human interests.
At any rate, it’s worth taking a look at the main arguments put forward by supporters of the amendment.
Written by Catia Faria
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Last month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, one of the world’s most influential organizations in its field, published an updated version of a paper concluding that animal-free diets are absolutely healthy (Cullum-Dugan & Pawlak 2015). The article presents the official position of the Academy on this topic, according to which, when well designed, vegetarian and vegan diets provide adequate nutrition for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.
It would be reasonable to expect that such conclusion had a significant impact on people’s dietary choices. If adopting a vegan diet imposed great costs on the health of human beings, then doing it might not be what we are required to do. Yet the health argument has been, again, debunked. So, why aren’t people going massively vegan? Continue reading
Practical ethics should be all about really having an impact on the world. This requires, among other things, working on the topic regarding which we are expected to produce the most good. Plausibly, these are topics that have been traditionally neglected or at least that remain under-researched. These are also moral issues that may seriously affect a great number of individuals.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Animal Liberation, in 1975. With it Australian philosopher Peter Singer initiated one of the highest impact careers in philosophy of the last century. It is not surprising that in 2005, Time magazine included him among the list of the 100 most influential people. It is remarkable, though, that the growing respect for Peter Singer has not been accompanied by a similar change of attitude regarding animal ethics —precisely the field in which he is recognised to have made a greater difference.
Animal Liberation boosted the contemporary academic debate on animal ethics and inspired the work of many other philosophers. This book contributed significantly to the growth of the movement for the equal consideration of nonhuman animals. It has influenced countless individuals to adopt veganism and to become activists in defence of animals. Even though the end of speciesist attitudes lies in the far future, very few other moral aims can produce a similar or greater good. Given the importance of the book, it is worth reviewing, on occasion of its anniversary, the position that Singer defended in it as well as some of the controversies it raises and issues it leaves open.
Animal Liberation is a non-academic book targeted at the general public. It is written by a philosopher with a particular moral outlook —utilitarianism— and with particular views about specific moral problems. Its aim is clear: denouncing speciesism and abandoning the consumption of animals, especially for food. Its method is effective: using arguments that most people already accept without having to commit to some of the author’s most controversial views.
The book’s main thesis is that the interests of all those who can suffer and enjoy should be equally considered. This is derived from the combination of two premises many of us find uncontroversial. Firstly, the widely shared and robust intuition about the equal consideration of all human beings and, secondly, the need for consistency in moral reasoning. The acceptance of the first idea is what leads us to reject assigning different weight to the interests of some individuals based, for example, in certain biological attributes such as sex or skin colour. Analogously, inasmuch as species membership does not condition the weight of an individual’s interests, it should also be rejected as a morally relevant attribute. The unequal consideration of similar interests based on the species of individuals should thus, for the sake of consistency, be abandoned as another form of discrimination (speciesism).
Furthermore, the argument from ‘species overlap’ shows us that any attempt to draw a moral line between human and nonhuman animals will ultimately fail. No matter what attribute one may appeal to, some human beings will lack it and/or some nonhumans will possess it. Of course, it is implausible to derive from this that those humans who lack the selected attribute should be denied moral consideration. Instead, Singer claims, equality in the consideration of interests should be extended beyond the human species to cover all sentient individuals. Since suffering has negative value, we have reasons to prevent it or alleviate it whenever we can, no matter the species of the individual who experiences it.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect in Singer’s view has been the one related to the ethics of killing animals. As it is suggested in Animal Liberation, and later clearly stated in Practical Ethics (2011), Singer believed at the time that only those individuals with a capacity to see themselves as extended over time can have an interest in continuing to live and thus be harmed by dying. Singer took this to follow from his version of preference utilitarianism, according to which death can only be bad if it frustrates a desire in being alive. Given that most nonhuman animals lack the necessary psychological capacities to harbour the relevant desire, this would entail that death cannot harm them. Thus, their interests would give us no reasons against killing them. If those reasons exist they will be given by other considerations, such as the maximisation of net positive experiences.
However, recently, Singer changed his view about the badness of death, prompted by his transition from preference utilitarianism to hedonistic utilitarianism. In The Point of View of the Universe (Lazari-Radek & Singer 2014), he acknowledges that all sentient beings with a life worth living (understood in hedonistic terms as containing a surplus of positive experiences) are harmed by death, since they are thereby deprived of the benefits they would have otherwise enjoyed.
Nevertheless, Peter Singer has not yet completely fleshed out his new account of the badness of death and the wrongness of killing animals. In fact, in a recent talk, he identified this topic as one of three most important open questions in animal ethics. The other two are, according to Singer, (a) the problem of performing interspecies comparisons of well-being and (b) whether we have reasons to intervene in nature to prevent or alleviate wild animal suffering.
Even if we disagree with Singer’s general utilitarian approach (e.g., if one believes, as I do, that equality matters as such) we must concede that very few philosophers can be said to have had an equally high impact. Forty years ago, Peter Singer realised that working on animal ethics was one of the most effective ways of doing good. Given the work that needs to be done and the billions that can benefit from it (considering both animals under human control and those living in the wild), that is still true today.
Singer, P. (2004). Animal Liberation, 4th Edition. New York: HarperCollins.
Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics, 3rd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lazari-Radek, K. & Singer, P. (2014). The Point of View of the Universe. Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
According to Oxfam’s latest report, by 2016 the richest 1% will own more than all the rest of people in the world. For many, the current and increasing inequality among individuals is deeply worrying. For many of us this is because we believe that equality matters. That is, we hold the view that how desirable a state of affairs is not only depends on the extent to which value is maximised but also on how equally it is distributed among individuals. The underlying idea is that there are no reasons why all those individuals who can be recipients of value should not receive it equally. Who these individuals are depends on what we take the currency of distribution to be. That is, the particular value that should be enjoyed equally. If we accept egalitarianism of well-being, then equality will apply to every individual that can have a well-being of her own. If we believe that it is resources or opportunities for well-being what should be equalised, then equality will apply to all those that can benefit from them. Of course, one could nevertheless restrict the scope of equality to a subset of these individuals. But that would no longer be an egalitarian view. Just as view that claimed that aggregated well-being should be maximised only on Wednesdays would no longer be a version of utilitarianism. Continue reading