Saturday, November 9, 2013

Who Makes the Cut? (or) Sentience as the Unrelentingly Undeniable Sufficient Condition for Moral Consideration


Those who take seriously the question of the moral status of animals find it very difficult to preserve our common sense intuitions. Of the people I've known who have taken this question seriously, they have decided either that we ought to reject institutionalized animal use or reject the idea that we can have obligations to animals. The fact that intelligent people find themselves on the horns of this dilemma suggest that most people radically misunderstand our obligations to non-humans.

For those who seek to deny any strong obligations towards animals, and avoid arbitrary speciesism, the go-to method is proposing some criterion for moral status that most fully developed humans possess and that most non-humans lack. There are well-known problems with these arguments, as I've demonstrated repeatedly here and elsewhere. I believe these problems with these arguments to be insurmountable. However, it's useful to question even the basic methodology of these arguments.

Why should we start with an exclusivist notion of morality, and begin by limiting it to humans? We know that historically some of the great moral failings of our species have been to exclude many from full membership in the moral community. This alone suggests we should resist the impulse to begin with an exclusionary approach.

So why not begin with the assumption that everything is a legitimate candidate for moral consideration? We can then proceed by abandoning only those entities for which there can be no reasonable way in which they could be considered in a moral framework.

There are many things, in the set of everything that exists, that prima facie seem to have no possibility of placing moral claims on us. Abstract objects, like numbers, the laws of physics, have no causal relation to us, and so it is hard to see how the could possibly fit into the moral community. Space, time, and mystery are similarly non-starters as potential objects of moral obligation.

Next, we might consider more material entities, like rocks, planets, electrons. It makes more sense to imagine that I might have an obligation to a bolder than it does to imagine I could have an obligation to the number 9. But once we consider what kinds of obligations one could possibly have towards these things, non-living objects also appear to be non-starters.

It's possible I could have an obligation to leave a boulder alone, I suppose. But then, I could also have an obligation to push it down a hill. I would have no way of knowing which of these would be a better or worse thing to do, for the boulder. What's more, it's hard to imagine would could be better or worse for a boulder. I could smash the boulder to a million pieces, and you might say it's bad for the boulder. But I might just as easily say that it's a good thing for so many smaller rocks to come into existence, and for the boulder to be a part of that. There's no actual place to ground a discussion about what could be good for a boulder, or a planet, a star, or a river.

This is not true for plants, and other living organisms. It does make sense to say that growing and thriving are things that are good for non-sentient organisms. After all, those are things that we value in ourselves. So on the face of it, it might seem like we could have obligations to non-sentient organisms; at the very least, an obligation not to frivolously hinder their growth and flourishing.

I think under further consideration, however, this obligation does not make sense. For after all, some mountains grow, and sedimentary rocks can accumulate more mass over time. It's not obvious that this is necessarily a good thing for them.

And if we consider ourselves, it seems growth is not something we value intrinsically. Imagine I could grow another three inches, but it would give me mild pain and render me less physically competent. In this case, there seems to be no reason for me to want to grow at all. It's not even that the mild pain and reduction in my abilities outweigh the growth, it's that the growth has no inherent value to me at all. It would only be valuable if it somehow improved my skills, or otherwise aided achievement of my goals and values.

You might say that a plant could value its growth, even if we don't, and we should still respect that. But it's really hard to make sense of what "value" could mean in this sense. It certainly does grow, under many conditions, but it's not clear that means it values growing. Rivers do flow, and fires do burn, but that certainly does not mean we should attribute evaluative attitudes to these phenomena. After all, if I were rendered completely brain-dead after an accident, my body might still operate without any sentience. In this state, I don't think it's proper to say that that body values anything. Not in the way I value anything now. (It is no accident that we use the indelicate term "vegetable" to describe human beings who no longer have any mental faculties, and whom many think have no reason to continue living.)

Some defenders of obligations to plants will say that this is an overly humanistic conception of value. It certainly is a humanistic conception of value, but such a conception is reasonable. We're discussing what values humans ought to have. If there's some form of valuation beyond what human beings can understand, then it's hard to see how there could be any obligation on the part of humans to respect it. We can't possibly respect a value that is in principle incomprehensible to us.

Which brings us to other sentient organisms, the only form of which we're aware is animals. It seems hard to deny that things can go better and worse for sentient organisms, if by sentient we mean perceptually aware and capable of feeling pleasure and pain. Naturally, we'll think that at a minimum it's bad for these beings to feel pain, and better if they feel pleasure. We can imagine that they value pleasure and disvalue pain, for the same reasons we do. This is because by accepting that they are sentient, we accept that they share a good deal of what we consider good and bad about our lives. Although my sensory experiences are not all that is valuable about my life, they are a good portion of what is valuable. And it hard to deny that animals value their experiences in meaningful ways.

At this point, it's up to those who deny non-human animals membership in the community of moral consideration to explain why we should agree. And unlike the other categories of things I considered, it's hard to see how there couldn't in principle be a way to consider animals morally. We need a reason that we shouldn't care about the experiences of sentient animals. But when we approach the question from this direction, it seems to me this is obviously wrongheaded. We shouldn't be looking for reasons to deny the consideration of animal interests that are so directly analogous to interests that we already consider very important.

Consider how the form the denial has to take. We might posit that to be considered a member of the moral community one must be able to conceivably enter into a hypothetical contract. Or one must be able to conceive of oneself from another's perspective, or possess moral concepts. (Or less plausibly, one must be a member of the species homo sapiens.) Any characteristic we could propose would function as a reason not to care about the interests of animals. But it's already clear that they're open to consideration, in a way that obligations to plants or planets just could not be. To add further criteria for membership in the moral community misses the point of the moral project altogether.

Morality is about recognizing the other, and determining how their interests ought to figure into our practical deliberation. Once we recognize that a being is an other, another who possesses interests, we already have all we need to know they matter morally.

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