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Our moral obligations to brute animals


To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Our moral obligations to brute animals
Date: 20 April 2005 13:34

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 10 April, with your fifth 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 second Pathways program! I will be sending your Certificate to the Secretary of the ISFP for his signature, along with my report. - Do you have any ideas about what you would like to do next?

If you were answering a question, say, from a Moral Philosophy paper, my main criticism would be of the structure of your essay.

The question asks you to consider an argument and give your reasons why you think it is a good or bad argument. In order to do that, the first thing you need to consider is the philosophical view according to which moral obligation necessarily arises in the context of relations between 'moral beings'. Instead, you address this question almost as an afterthought, in the last paragraph of your essay when you briefly outline a position which you term 'the contractualist viewpoint'.

The bulk of your essay is concerned with making the case that we have moral obligations towards animals in virtue of the fact that they are subjects with a viewpoint on the world, having needs, and capable of feeling pain when they are harmed or when those needs are not met.

It does seem counterintuitive, to the point of being paradoxical, to admit that animals have feelings yet deny that we have obligations towards them, simply in virtue of their possession of feelings. As I remark in unit 13, this is a problem for my account because, 'In the ethics of dialogue, by contrast [with the ethics of the disinterested view], the question of the quality of consciousness is not the crucially relevant factor. Where there is no possibility, even in principle, of being called to account by a brute animal for the harm we have done it, or of being called to respond to its plea for consideration, there *is* nothing resembling the moral obligations we owe to members of our own species' (13/251).

Anyone who takes this view has his work cut out explaining why we do, nonetheless, have moral obligations in respect of animals (if not strictly 'towards' animals). I don't know of any moral philosopher who is prepared to allow that in respect of human behaviour towards animals, anything goes. (It is interesting to note that Nietzsche's mental breakdown in 1889 was apparently triggered when he saw a man flogging a horse in the street, which at least raises a question mark against what you say in your third footnote, that 'Nietzsche... considered kindness a feature of slave mentality'.)

The question is therefore, not so much whether the argument is a good argument or not, but rather why it is a bad argument.

For anyone who takes a more or less utilitarian view, there is room for debate on how much the feelings of animals should 'count', depending on whether or not we are prepared to attach equal worth to the feelings of animals of different species (there is Singer's notorious claim that in certain circumstances we should put the interests of a mature ape above those of a human baby) and also on the more metaphysical question of whether, or to what extent, animal 'feeling' should be regarded as a quality of consciousness (with philosophers like Peter Carruthers in 'The Animals Issue' arguing that animals are not 'conscious' in the full or proper sense because their awareness lacks reflexivity).

For the contractualist, or for someone who wishes to defend the ethics of dialogue, a lot more work needs to be done in finding an alternative explanation of how obligations in respect of animals arise. This is something I attempt to do in unit 13.

As you quite rightly say, the view that it is 'virtuous to be kind to animals' should be distinguished from the view that 'animals have intrinsic moral worth'. The former would suffice for generating moral obligations regarding animals. However, this is not altogether sufficient to dispel the sense of paradox. That is why I am left with a residual feeling of dissatisfaction with the outcome. But I am prepared to bite the bullet.

By a cruel irony, something happened this week to remind me of these issues. Yesterday, we were told that Thumper (the pet rabbit which I referred to in 13/255) has a stomach tumour. My wife brought the rabbit in to the kitchen last week because he was looking very poorly. The vet offered us the stark option of allowing Thumper to die 'naturally' or give a lethal injection to hurry up the process. After heated argument, my wife came round to the view that the best option was the injection. How different the argument would have been had Thumper been human! (June is Catholic and strongly opposed to any form of euthanasia.)

All the best,