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If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re a speciesist?

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.

On any of the versions of egalitarianism presented above, the individuals among whom value should be equalised are all those whose lives can go well or badly. They include all sentient beings. Since most nonhuman animals are sentient, our concern about inequality among individuals should be extended to them as well. To exclude some sentient beings from the scope of equality on the grounds of species membership (simply because they are not human) would be unjustified – an instance of speciesist discrimination. Therefore, any sound version of egalitarianism must reject speciesism.

This has very important consequences, as nonhuman animals are very badly off, both in absolute terms (the majority of them exhibit negative levels of well-being) and when compared to most humans. Consider first the animals under human exploitation. These individuals are deprived of virtually every source of enjoyment during their whole lives, only to be killed in extremely painful ways. The number of individuals affected by these practices is appalling. More than 60 billion land animals in the food industry alone, not including aquatic animals, which number in the trillions. Next, regarding animals that live in the wild, even though numbers are hard to obtain, the situation for the overwhelming majority of them is, at least, as bad (and probably worse) than that of exploited animals.

Thus, given that most animals are worse-off than most human beings, egalitarianism implies that a significant amount of resources should be transferred from the latter to the former in order to reduce the inequality in well-being among them. This implication was acknowledged by Peter Vallentyne as a “Problematic Conclusion”, pointing out to the counterintuitive character of treating human and nonhuman well-being on a par. Instead, he suggests that the currency of distribution should be well-being relativized to cognitive capacities (what he terms “fortune”). The implication is that small improvements of well-being in individuals with higher cognitive capacities should be favoured over greater increases in the well-being of individuals with lower cognitive capacities. Since most humans are endowed with high cognitive capacities, they require a greater number of resources than nonhumans in order to have a similar level of fortune. Thus, on this account, our reasons to transfer resources from most humans to most nonhumans are weaker than on an account that considers that well-being is the thing to be equalised. This is clearly an instance of a demandingness objection. The underlying idea is that morality cannot require such substantial sacrifices of human interests for the benefit of nonhuman individuals.

However, this account might end up creating bigger problems than those it attempts to solve. Its implications also apply to humans with cognitive capacities similar to those of nonhuman beings. Yet, it seems hardly acceptable that the interests of human beings with severe cognitive disabilities count for less than the similar interests of the best cognitively endowed humans. The unacceptability of this is particularly clear when considering negative levels of well-being, which there are no reasons to exclude from our assessment. In fact, insofar as these individuals tend to have a lower level of well-being, the satisfaction of their interests should be considered more pressing.

In addition, the account cannot explain how similar interests of rational agents should count for the same when they have differing levels of cognitive capacities. Of course, one could establish a threshold above which the well-being of all rational agents had similar weight, in spite of their different capacities. However, to my knowledge, no non-arbitrary way of defining that threshold has been put forward. And it is hard to see how that could be done. For example, some might claim that the capacities necessary for moral agency ground the relevant threshold. That would imply that similar interests of moral agents count for the same and that they count for more than similar interests of non-moral agents. Yet, that would not do. After all, these are also cognitive capacities, which still come by degrees. Pointing to moral agency as the marker of the threshold does not solve the problem, it merely postpones it. Consequently, Vallentyne’s objection does not stand on solid ground.

Moreover, demandingness objections in general rely on the assumption that any moral theory that makes substantial requirements of us is, on its face, less plausible than a theory that does not. However, it is not clear why a low degree of demandingness should be considered a theoretical virtue in ethics. In fact, the state of the world is so calamitous that any plausible moral theory must entail that hard sacrifices are required.

This is especially true regarding nonhuman animals. Given their very low levels of well-being egalitarianism prescribes that we should not only refrain from harming nonhuman animals (for instance, by becoming vegan) but that we should actively benefit them with the aim of equalising their levels of well-being with our own. This is true both of animals under human control and animals living in the wild, most of whom have lives not worth living. Thus, it is not egalitarianism itself that is demanding. It is because the world is so far removed from the best possible scenario that egalitarianism makes such demands on us.

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14 Comment on this post

  1. This is interesting – there’s a question on OKCupid, popular internet dating site: “which is worse, children suffering or animals?”
    The three options are the two obvious ones, plus “both are equally bad” – I very rarely see others who choose that.

    That’s a theoretical position I hold. I am right now eating a chicken and bacon sandwich, and I’m sure those pigs and chickens had pretty shitty lives. I don’t like that. But I’m also not well-enough in terms of time or money to find all the best stuff. Or so I tell myself.
    I’m also a scientist and have experience of animal research – and one of the many justifcations for that is that medical knowledge of animals and humans can and does benefit animals as well as humans.

    As far as I know, people donate more to people charities than animal ones. That does make sense for the most part. But people are also fiercely loyal to pets – often not in ways that benefit them, but maybe intention matters. Very few individuals wish to make species extinct, yet together we’re doing that very efficiently.

    Tough stuff.

    1. Hi Marianne,

      Thanks fro your comment! You raise many different questions. I will try to tackle some of them.

      Regarding human and nonhuman suffering, if you really hold that “both are equally bad” I find it hard to make that compatible with eating animal products. The costs in terms of time and money are truly negligible. A quick search for “chooseveganism” will help you find everything you need.

      Regarding the benefits of animal experimentation, in this same blog you will find several posts, some of them by philosopher Christine Korsgaard arguing why it is unjustified.

      Regarding people’s donations, you are right that is what people do but I am not so sure that it makes sense. In fact, if my argument is sound, we should transfer most resources to the worse-off individuals, which are nonhuman animals.

  2. If your argument is sound, then justice is not a property of institutions or societies, but a property of states of affairs. But justice is not a property of states of affairs, it is a property of institutions or societies. Hence your argument is not sound.

    I think the problem comes from the fact that you are mixing up a metaethical question (“who does have moral status?”) with a political question (“how does income/wealth/opportunities should be distributed?”). I don’t see any reason to jump from the answer “All sentient beings” to the former question to the answer “Equally among all sentient beings” to the latter question. It is fine to acknowledge the moral status of non-human animals and yet to restrict egalitarianism to persons in virtue of the fact that only persons can or could have stood in the type of two-way relations on which participation to society and institutions depends — i.e. at some point of their lives they can or could have done something for society and vice-versa.

    It won’t do to point out at marginal cases such as disabled persons since disabled persons still satisfy this counterfactual conditional, i.e. would have been participants to society had they not suffered from a disability.

    1. I agree with your focus on political community rather than state of affairs. However, your inclusion of “marginal cases” (an unfortunate term, but it is ubiquitous in the literature) is ad hoc. We might also say non-human animals would satisfy the counterfactual conditional, i.e., they would have been participants in society had they developed the capacities to do so. You might think your counterfactual exists in a possible world closer to our own, but it’s not obvious why this should be morally significant.

      Further, it’s not clear that the counterfactual condition, i.e. these individuals would have contributed to society were they not to have cognitive disabilities, is true if any individual’s disability is in part constitutive of their identity. Finally, it’s just not clear why counterfactuals should be relevant at all; they are only brought in to explain away “marginal cases”. Consider, for instance, the fact that in some possible world I could have been a the winner of a gold medal in the Olympics does not entitle me to any of the benefits that in fact go along with winning a gold medal. We do not generally think desert works this way, unless we are trying to exclude non-humans from the moral (or political) community.

      I think there are meaningful senses in which we can include most humans, of all abilities, and many non-humans (but certainly not all) in our political community. But obviously that’s a larger argument than I have space for here.

      1. Thanks for your follow up, Cody. I agree that counterfactuals are not the end of the story here — we could and mabye shoud instead talk of dispositions, i.e dispositions in virtue of which an individual can be considered to be a person. (I’ve used talk of counterfactuals merely to express the difference between a condition that do not impinge upon an individual’s personhood and biological features which create too wide a gap to be considered as a person. I am all for speaking of dispositions directly, without using counterfactuals.)

        Of course, it did not make it clear what dispositions are constitutive of persons. But assuming this can be done, we can preserve the intuition that political views such as egalitarianism do not concern most non-human animals and still accept, plausibly I would say, that non-human animals could in principle fall under the scope the view if they were to acquire these dispositions. For instance, if we were to encounter Martians with most dispositions we see as constitutive of persons, we could happily include them in the view.

        1. Hi Andrew and Cody,

          Thanks for your comments.

          You are right that in my post I am not considering that equality is merely a property of political communities (or, more generally, systems of cooperation). I am assuming an axiology that claims that when accessing the value of worlds there two aspects which we must take into account. One is the amount of welfare and the other is how it is distributed among those who can be recipients of welfare.Thus, political equality matters only insofar as political communities might be good instruments to further the equal distribution of welfare.

          But, even assuming that equality is merely a property of political communities I do not see how it follows that only persons are included within its scope. It is true that only persons have the necessary psychological capacities to actively participate in the system of social cooperation but it is false that only persons are affected by such system. In particular, a great number of nonhuman animals are affected by it. Thus, there is a meaningful sense in which they are participants in the system (albeit passive ones), which is by being forced to bear some of its burdens.

          If justice has to do with how the benefits and burdens of social cooperation are distributed, then its principles must apply to all those who can be benefited or burdened by the system.

          1. If justice has to do with how the benefits and burdens of social cooperation are distributed, then its principles must apply to all those who can be benefited or burdened by the system.

            Having a welfare or well-being that could possibly be affected by social cooperation is certainly a sufficient condition for having a moral status putting negative constraints on how society should act toward one, thus creating negative moral duties for members of that society (i.e. do not harm if possible, etc.).

            But it hardly seems to be a sufficient condition for being a subject of the principles of justice determining positive duties, for instance, how the benefits and burdens of social cooperation are to be distributed. It seems that being such a subject presupposes having a share in the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. Now one could argue, along Rawlsian lines, that nonpersons have no share in the benefits of social cooperation since they cannot participate to any sort of social contract in which participants accepts burdens in exchange for benefits until they reach a position in society that is acceptable from their point of view. Hence the conclusion that nonpersons are not entitled to a share in the benefits and burdens of society.

            Now, pace Rawls, marginal cases such as severely handicapped persons do seem to be entitled to a share because they would like to participate, but are prevented from participating by nothing else than a cause on which society has no power (i.e. the actual dispositions that would enable them to participate are prevented from manifesting by an accident of nature).

  3. Hello Catia,
    Thank you for your post. I can only agree.
    The magpies, robins, squirrels, butterflies and hedgehogs in my garden (to mention only a few of the non-human animals I observe there) are, as you correctly say, very badly off and every day they exhibit extremely negative levels of well-being : indeed their condition is indeed worse, as you state, than exploited animals.

    Their song, so overly-romanticised by so-called poets, their behaviours, so anthropocentrically interpreted as “playful”, their incessant hunting and scavenging for the very essentials of life… These only serve to hide their condition and are best seen as the expressions of real suffering and a protest against real suffering – the sighs of the oppressed creature, the hearts of a heartless world, and the souls of soulless conditions.

    1. Hi Anthony,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I am glad that we both see how the idyllic view of nature is false. Actually, in a previous post I tackled this issue and discussed the reasons we have to intervene in nature to benefit animals.

  4. Thanks for the post. It strikes me as a great reason for rejecting egalitarianism, or at least strong versions of it that entail lots of positive duties to help, where your resources are small and the potential demands are infinite.

    It seems to me that you need to cap the obligations, either by using some sort of scale parameter (e.g. special relationships with entities you actually interact with) or by using some sort of conception of egalitarian that is less demanding (e.g. by contending that negative duties to refrain from doing something harmful are kind of enough in most cases).

    Your post reminds me of a line I found arresting in Schopenhauer: “The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.” I don’t see how it’s a reasonable demand on human beings to make this cycle be less painful on a scale that would be significant. (Economic growth gives us our best shot at finding at least some positive-sum games – at least for human societies.)

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I fail to see how given the very low levels of nonhuman well-being (considering both animals under human exploitation and those living in the wild) we would not be morally required to alleviate their situation, even at the expense of sacrificing some our interests.

      I disagree with your factual claim that our resources are small, what happens is that most of them are used to satisfy trivial interests of a minority of human beings. At any rate, even if that was true, what follows from my position is that our resources should be employed fro the benefit of the worse-off.

      1. Hi Catia,

        Thanks for the reply. I think I’d make a difference between ecosystems in which we already play god and those in which we don’t. I see the case that we should pay attention to/invest in the former, since those systems are of our making and then can be more or less welfare-reducing and we might have some idea about what nonhuman welfare might look like. (I’m less optimistic we have much idea about the marginal value of the next dollar spent on nonhuman welfare vs human welfare.) But I don’t really understand the case for investments in improving animal welfare in wild environments – if these are basically zero sum games (seems a reasonable expectation to me…) then investing in the welfare of some is just playing favourites. If some individuals (or species) are favoured then this is a loss for other individuals (or species). Given the opportunity costs of those investments they make no sense to me. But even in managed environments I’d have a hard time explaining to the family of someone who was dying of something easily treatable why a living wage for chickens was more important than their mum.

        Secondly – most f our resources are not used to satisfy trivial interests. Global GDP is ~$17 trillion. Food production and manufacturing make up about 35% of that; the rest is services – everything from pest control, food processing, transport (to get that food distributed to people), public healthcare, education and so on. Education and healthcare, especially, are large chunks of those service sectors. Perhaps you consider education, healthcare, food production and so on as “trivial” but most people would disagree with you (especially sick people and their families). In other words – the idea that the global economy is primarily about people sitting in cafes flicking through vogue and sipping lattes is simply inaccurate.

        Finally (on your other post) I can’t see any case for the idea that we should start from the prior that all sentient animals have the same inherent value. That doesn’t strike me as intuitively plausible at all. I struggle to treat that sort of approach as anything other than a back of the envelope abstraction of limited applicability when applied to human beings. I find it a total non-starter when applied to the Earth’s zoomass. (why not equal consideration per kg? Or equal consideration per gram of brain? Or something else that might get at something to do with the nervous system which thinks/feels pain/etc?)

  5. Catai,

    Thank you for the discussion.

    I wanted yo ask if you had considered making this argument more from an egalitarian view of inherit moral value as opposed to the physical egalitarian of reception? To be clear: All men (and in your case animals) have the same inherit moral value. As apposed to all men/animals receiving equal resources and opportunity.
    The reason I make this distinction is because the physical argument appears Utopian. Its not possible, there will always be random acts that favor some with resources and disadvantage others without.
    The moral value view ( which you touch on a little with your discussion of cogitative ability) however is plausible. My discretion decides if I value a dog and a man the same. A low demanding decision I can make with a few seconds of thought.

    What this moral decision implies for physical actions is less clear. Your thoughts?

    1. Hi Nicholas,

      Thanks for your comment.

      My consequentialist approach to this issue certainly differs from the one you are considering. Nevertheless, one could indeed claim (along the same line as Tom Regan) that all sentients beings have the same inherent value. Yet, it would not follow from it that you can discretionally decide to favor some individuals over others. In your example, a human being (woman or man) over a dog. What would follow instead is that they deserve equal treatment.

      Regarding the allegedly utopian character of my position, I don’t see how that is true. There are two kinds of random acts, some that we cannot control and some that we can control. As to the first, there is nothing we can do about them. As to the second, we must either prevent them from happening or alleviate their harmful consequences. Since that is all that can be in our power, that is all that we are morally required to do.

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