Monday, January 05, 2009

Animals and Morality

Yesterday, in The Predator Problem Revisited, I argued that animal rights concerns does not necessarily imply vegetarianism or the view that it is wrong to kill animals.

However, as Chris pointed out in a comment to that posting, animal rights concern is broader than this. Therefore, let me take a few moments to state some broad morally relevant facts about animals.

First, animals operate on a system of beliefs and desires. The best way to explain a wide range of animal behavior is in terms of statements about what the animal wants (sex, food, avoidance of pain, comfort) and what the animal believes to be true about the world. Somebody who owns a pet makes perfectly good sense when he says that the pet wants to go outside, or that the pet "thinks that I still have his toy."

Desires are reasons for action. This is no less true in non-human animals as it is in humans.

Animals' desires are reasons-for-action for realizing a state in which humans have particular desires and aversion. That is to say, animals have reasons-for-action for causing humans to have desires that fulfill the desires of animals, and for inhibiting in humans those desires that thwart the desires of animals.

What animals lack, and humans have, is an advanced capacity to realize complex relationships between states of affairs and desires and, thus, the ability to make complex plans that will help to fulfill those desires. Consequently, animals cannot think to promote desires in humans that they have reason to promote, or to inhibit desires in humans that they have reasons to inhibit.

Those reasons for action still exist, even if animals lack the capacity to act on them in particular ways.

However, humans (and animals) seek to act so as to fulfill their own desires, and act so as to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. So, humans are going to act to realize states that promote their own desires, which means that humans are going to act so as to promote in others to desires that fulfill and/or prevent the thwarting of their own desires.

Yet, humans do have a reason to promote in others an aversion to thwarting the desires of those who cannot act on their own behalf. This is true because each of us, at times, cannot act on our own behalf (while unconscious or otherwise disabled) or care about somebody who cannot act on their own behalf (infants, pets, friends who might fall unconscious or are similarly disabled).

These "reasons for action that exist" for promoting those desires in others are "reasons for action that exist" for promoting desires that fulfill the desires of animals, and inhibiting in others those desires that thwart the desires of others. What another human cannot do to an animal that is incapable of defending its own interests is something he or she cannot do a human that is incapable of defending its own interests, and leaves all of us more secure.

These, then, represent a body of morally relevant facts concerning the status of animals. What follows from these facts gets complex. However, this at least provides a foundation from which further conversations can be launched.


Anonymous said...

What another human cannot do to an animal ... is something he or she cannot do a human

That's not neccesarily always true. Humans often justify harming/killing other humans on the basis of "they deserved it". While that's possible (sometimes easy) to do with humans, it's much harder for most people to ever think that an animal "deserves" being tortured to death.

Joe Otten said...

I realise you don't give a formula for aggregating and weighing desires in Desire Utilitarianism, but rather observe that this is something we inescapably do all the time anyway.

Does this mean that within Desire Utilitarianism there is room for both those who place considerable weight on the desires of animals compared with the desires of humans, and for those who place little or no such weight?

And might this disagreement be one that could be largely resolved by some future brain science?

Anonymous said...

"Consequently, animals cannot think to promote desires in humans that they have reason to promote, or to inhibit desires in humans that they have reasons to inhibit."

I've known cats who'd argue with that statement...

Damion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Damion said...

Suppose that certain non-human animals (unidentified for now) are aware enough to have a desire not merely to avoid suffering in the short term, but also not to be killed and eaten. Instead, they desire to continue to live, and find a mate, and perhaps find a larger area in which to roam, etc.

Does desire utilitarianism imply that we should work to identify and protect those animals from the practices of human carnivory, however humanely it may be carried out?

(p.s. Please just point me in the right direction if there is already a post on point. Thanks!)

Kristopher said...

since human and animals have no intrinsic value difference and soemthing that is incompetent to affect the desires of others still has equal protection (babies, deer) then your arguments seem to be saying that we should protect entities (animal or human) from predetors and should take care that the predators are fed non-violently.

is your argument merely that it is, as of yet impracticle? should we do what we can to minimize the number of predators? (by not being predators ourselves?) or do we wait until the problem is 100% solvable before acting?

theoretically could we not build fences between groups of animals for their protection. use chemical castration to control populations without killing and ration synthetic food to the carnivores?

does DU mandate this once it is practicle to do so?

until such time that it is practicle does do so i have another question. it would seem that meat eating tends to thwart more desires than a vegetarian diet.

if it is ok under DU to farm and eat cows, is it also ok to farm and eat baby humans? how about orphaned baby humans? to cut out the parental grief.

in your predator post you said culling through violonce was allowable to keep animal populations under control. is this then a good way to keep human populations under control. if not where do you find your distinction?

if you draw the distinction that humans can be reasoned with to change their actions and animals cannot, then can we hunt and kill the children and people who reject society telling them how many childrean they can have in an overcrowded area?

you claim there to be no intrinsic difference between humans and animals but you seem to be treating them differently for some reason.

you claim that humans have the power to change the desires of other and animals don't. how is this different from orhpan babies. or a hermit. i can assume i should hunt and kill hermits as well merely becuase they are not socially active.

in this one area i can't seem to follow your logic.

Anonymous said...

i always wondered why do meat eating people spend so much time trying to find reasons why we should continue to eat animals when it became obvious that we don't. science found that we can live without eating them.

is this some sort of psychological problem? usually, when people give me an evidence - for example, "chocolate you eat came from child slavery", i take some time on the internet, make some research and make a change. when my father told me that it is a painful experience for a woman to be raped and provided some evidence (women are emotional and sensitive beings...), then i decided not to rape them. when i found out that gay people have a basic need to feel free to express their love with a same sex person, then i decided not to interfere with their basic interests. when i found out that animals have a basic interest to stay alive and devoid of pain and suffering, i decided to let them live. it is all very simple.