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Our moral obligations to non-human animals


To: Trevor P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Our moral obligations to non-human animals
Date: 7 September 2002 11:45

Dear Trevor,

Thank you for your letter of 26 August, with your fifth and final essay for your Moral Philosophy program, in response to the provocative question, "'Brute animals are not moral beings. Therefore, we do not have moral obligations towards them.' - Is that a good argument?". I am very glad that you enjoyed the program.

A Certificate showing that you have completed the course requirements together with my tutor's report will be on their way shortly.

Your answer to the question, in short, is:

1. Many non-human animal species are *not* 'brute', but on the contrary are able to reason and/ or possess a form of language.

2. Some non-human animal species exhibit moral behaviour, therefore *are* 'moral beings'.

3. We have moral obligations towards *any* entity which is capable of experiencing suffering or happiness.

As you are no doubt aware, these considerations overlap but are by no means equivalent.

Accepting 3. would be sufficient to establish that we have moral obligations to all non-human animals, regardless of whether they are 'brute', and regardless of whether the exhibit moral behaviour. However, this claim made by Peter Singer is based on the utilitarian principle that the only defensible ground for moral decision making is maximization of happiness and minimization of suffering, together with the evident fact that non-human animals are indeed capable of happiness and suffering. If you are a utilitarian, then this consideration would be convincing. However, it is worth while asking whether, and on what basis one can establish that we have moral obligations to non-human animals if utilitarianism is rejected.

Let's start with 1. I intended the designation 'brute' to be non-controversial. Perhaps this is wrong. Many animals use natural systems of signs which serve to communicate information on a purely cause and effect basis. For example, the dance of the bee 'informs' the other bees in the hive how far, and in what direction to fly in order to find honey. Dolphins exhibit a sophisticated ability to convey to other dolphins information about underwater objects that they have encountered. There is no evidence, however, that a bee decides upon the best means of expression, or what information would be most appropriate to convey in the circumstances. The communication is spontaneous. However, as the case of Washoe the chimpanzee showed, some non-human animals do have the ability to learn a conventional system of signs, and to show intelligence and discrimination in the use of such signs. Similar claims have been made about dolphins. So let us agree for the purposes of discussion that 'brute' includes bees, but not Washoe, and possibly not dolphins. I am claiming that the designation 'brute' is meaningful, even though there may be dispute about its application in a given case.

Why would someone argue that brute animals are not moral beings? To be a 'moral being' requires more than simply behaving in a way that benefits other members of one's species, or indeed other species. The co-operative behaviour of ants is not moral, though it would be moral if humans exhibited it. To be a moral being implies at the very least a certain power of choice, where the interests of another being are deliberately taken into consideration. The assumption here is that to consider alternatives as genuine alternatives, to reflect upon them, requires something which mere 'brute' animals (by the definition above) do not possess.

Kant argued that an action motivated merely by sympathy is, as such, not moral. Moral motivation involves taking interests of another individual into consideration irrespective of your feelings towards them: all that matters is whether the individual in question *has* interests. It follows that any description of putative 'moral' behaviour by non-human animals is bound to be controversial: there is always the possibility of an alternative, non-moral explanation. The same is true of human beings too: the difference is that you can challenge someone to explain their actions.

The most challenging cases, however, arise from experiences which we find difficult to articulate, such as the relationship you describe with your dog, who 'tells when he is anxious, happy, hungry or tired'. Horse riders describe a similar form of bonding, of intuitive communication. It is here, I think, when we enter into an 'I-thou' relation with another being - such as Martin Buber describes in his book 'I and Thou' - that it becomes impossible to think of the other in non-moral terms, irrespective of whether the other is human or non-human.

Here, the behaviour in question is not observed from the outside, and subjected to clinical, detached analysis, but experienced from within the I-thou relationship. Someone who has had the benefit of this experience has a much better chance, one might say, of *seeing* all non-human animals as deserving of moral consideration, whether it is possible to enter into such a relationship with them or not.

All the best,