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Our moral obligations to animals


To: Heather E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Our moral obligations to animals
Date: 14 February 2002 09:34

Dear Heather,

Thank you for your e-mail of 2 February, with your last essay for the Moral Philosophy program, on units 12-15, in response to the question, "'Brute animals are not moral beings. Therefore, we do not have moral obligations towards them.' - Is this a good argument?"

I did see your point about the more advanced aliens. There are lots of reasons to complain about language (as Ted Hughes does). So creatures who possessed a tool which did the job better would have an enormous advantage over us. But the difference between us and the aliens would not be comparable to the difference between us and non-human animals. What we and the aliens share is a concept of *truth*. They might have immeasurably greater knowledge than us; but we would be alike in having that concept, and the other concepts essentially connected to it: 'reason', 'judgement', 'validity', 'knowledge' etc. My argument for the objectivity of moral judgement appeals to the conditions for the possibility of a concept of truth. That is all it appeals to. It is not concerned with other differences, small or great, between human beings and non-human animals, for example, conscious awareness or the capacity for suffering. That is its strength, and also its weakness.

As I explained before, I see this as a worrying objection to my argument, but I am prepared to see how far one can go to mitigate this counter-intuitive result.


There is a very significant difference between the case of Hitler and the case of young babies and old people with dementia. In order to see this, we must take care with the use of the term 'moral being'.

A moral being is an individual who possesses the capacity for moral judgement. Hitler possessed the capacity for moral judgement, but either misused it or failed to use it. Some historians will take the view that the Nazis thought of themselves as following a (pseudo-) Nietzschean morality according to which there are 'those who count' and 'those who do not count'. Others take the view that Nazism was a deliberate experiment with evil. I think that the majority, and probably Hitler himself, were too confused and consumed with hatred to be able to tell the difference.

My paper for the Shap conference on 'Is Morality an Illusion?' (22-24 February) is entitled, 'In pursuit of the amoralist'. The amoralist is the fictional individual first discussed back in unit 1 of the program, who is simply blind to moral considerations. If Hitler was an amoralist, in this philosophical sense, then he was not a moral being. In that case we would *still* have moral obligations towards him and those of his kind, just as we have to the incurable psychopath.

No law is ever going to be passed which allows psychopaths to be cut up for the purposes of spare-part surgery, whereas it is considered a triumph of medical science if a surgeon is able to give a man the heart of a pig or a monkey.

So, the case of psychopaths, young babies and old people with dementia adds significantly to the objections against my account of the logical basis for moral judgement. We cannot, in their case, advance the explanation given of why we ought morally to take into consideration the interests of non-human animals. However, as before, I am prepared to continue this line of investigation to see if an adequate explanation can be given.

I would have to move too many books to get at my 'Shorter Oxford Dictionary' but I am pretty confident that if you look up 'brute' in a good dictionary you would find that its literal meaning is the lack of a capacity for acquiring language. So the description 'brutal' implying wanton cruelty is indeed a slur on the animal kingdom. No animals are cruel in the way that humans are able to be, because to be cruel you have to be a moral being. (The cats that come into our garden to kill birds are not acting 'cruelly'; it only looks that way to us, because we project onto them human characteristics. The cats are simply behaving according to their evolutionary design, which dictates that killing for play is an essential element in maintaining the skills required for killing for food.)

Moral philosophy does not have any obligation to justify the status quo. At the present time, it is still OK to do things to animals that, perhaps, in the future will be regarded as wantonly cruel, just as we now view slavery as an evil, where once it was regarded as just good business. I am pursuing the argument in the interests of philosophy, because that is the enterprise I am committed to. For philosophy's sake, we ought to find the best reasons that we can for the beliefs that we hold. But if we fail to find the reasons we are searching for, it does not automatically follow that we ought to give up those beliefs.

- Well done for completing the program. I shall keep this letter on my desk to remind me to send you my tutor's report and Pathways certificate.

All the best,