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Our moral obligations towards non-human animals


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Our moral obligations towards non-human animals
Date: 21 December 2004 12:35

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 1 December, with your fifth and final essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Brute animals are not moral beings. Therefore, we do not have moral obligations towards them.' - Is that a good argument?

Congratulations on completing your program! I will be sending you your Pathways Certificate shortly. I am glad that you feel that you have gained something positive from the program, and look forward to continuing our dialogue on the Philosophy of Language.

Is it clear, without requiring any further argument, that brute animals are not moral beings? If we can imagine an I-thou relationship with another species, as you claim - for example, a Labrador Retriever - is it not possible that one's non-human companion might perform an action (as one of my students on the Moral Philosophy program pointed out to me) which was deemed worthy of moral praise or respect? In that case, would that not show that the animal in question was a 'moral being'?

That is one line of objection which might be brought to bear on the stated claim. Another line, potentially more damaging to the ethics of dialogue, is that it does not follow from the fact (assuming it to be fact, for the sake of argument) that brute animals are not moral beings, that we do not have moral obligations towards them. Peter Singer, for example, would argue on utilitarian grounds that it is sufficient that animals have the capacity for pleasure or suffering for them to necessarily figure in our moral calculations.

Even persons who have little sympathy for the theory of utilitarianism would regard the idea that we have no moral obligations to brute animals as abhorrent.

Yet, as you seem to recognize, that does appear to follow from acceptance of the ethics of dialogue. That is why the animals issue appears the biggest challenge to the line which I have taken.

You obviously cared a lot for your Labrador Retriever, and, as a result, the animal had a high value for you. In virtue of that high value, you were obligated in many ways - to provide sufficient food, to care for its health, to provide companionship in return for companionship which you received. But this was not, according to to the ethics of dialogue, a moral obligation. As you implicitly recognize in your essay, we have drawn a clear distinction between the 'theory of conduct' and the 'theory of values'. The right thing to do in a moral sense, depends on my non-moral values and the non-moral values of those who are affected by my actions. That is why I ought not to harm your Labrador, irrespective of whether the animal in question holds value for me or not.

But what about animals which no-one values? Why should we are what happens to them? The possibility that someone, somewhere might value the snake or rat which you caught in your kitchen seems altogether too tenuous a justification for the belief - which any decent person holds - that there are moral restrictions on what you can do to it. For example, if it has to be killed, then the death should be as 'humane' as possible.

The only explanation which a proponent of the ethics of dialogue is in a position to offer is in terms of the 'practice of virtue': 'Because they are in certain respects so like us, or because they are part of our lives, or both, cruelty to animals is perceived as what it is: as the exercise of a vice. How things are from the dog’s perspective must remain an enigma that we shall never fathom. But we don’t need to fathom it, because it is ultimately not the thing that counts. What counts is the continued practice of virtue irrespective of who or what is on the receiving end, to maintain the resonance of virtuous individuals in a moral community' (265).

- Are you convinced by that argument? I am not sure that I am.

Consider the question of 'rat disposal'. As it happens, the poison of choice is Warfarin which causes massive internal bleeding. Cyanide would be much swifter, but has the serious disadvantage that the animal dies right there and then (e.g. under the floorboards) creating a serious health hazard. Whereas (so I was told by the man from Rentokil) a rat which has ingested Warfarin will run away to look for water, and die sufficiently far from the house not to create a bad smell.

This is a case where we balance up considerations of 'humane' killing against other considerations which we deem to be important. We don't say, 'Well, it's only a nasty rat, so it doesn't matter whether it suffers or not.' It matters, but not sufficiently to risk a health hazard. But why does it matter at all - in the ethics of dialogue? That's the problem which I am still stuck on.

All the best,