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Hunting For Consistency

Angus Taylor argues that to be consistent, we must either exclude some humans from the moral community, or else include at least some animals.

Let me begin with a story.

My mother’s family were minor nobility from Transylvania, near the border with Hungary. When Romania was invaded by Soviet forces during the Second World War they managed to make their way first to Switzerland, and after the war, to Canada. It was not until the downfall of the Ceausescu regime in 1989 that they were able to re-establish contact with former acquaintances. Last summer I had the pleasure of staying as the guest of Count Lucarda, at his estate in the Carpathian uplands. The Count’s father’s connections with pro-German resistance elements had helped my relatives escape.

The Count was the very model of genial hospitality. Distinguished-looking and still vigorous in his late sixties, his hair still dark, with a pronounced widow’s peak, my host struck me as a man of great personal integrity. Mindful of his family ’s dubious past – not only during the war but in the time of his ancestor Vlad the Impaler, the notorious fifteenth-century prince of Walachia – the present count has taken it upon himself to rehabilitate the family’s name. He has tirelessly devoted himself to famine-relief projects as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. But his special pride is the large orphanage he has established not far from his residence, near a large, partially-forested park.

The sad story of Romania’s orphans, many of them mentally handicapped and living in dreadful conditions in overcrowded state institutions, is all too familiar. These orphans are not wanted for adoption, and in fact feeding and housing them is rather a drain on taxpayers. Thankfully, the Count has made a real difference to a significant number of these unfortunates. In his orphanage, which he finances personally, the most severely mentally handicapped are provided with all the necessities of life, including plenty of social interaction and excellent medical care. In good weather they are allowed to play in the adjacent park. In short, despite their disabilities, they enjoy a type of idyllic childhood. Indeed, the very fact that they are unable to imagine their own long-term futures, and therefore live almost purely in the present, untroubled by thoughts of what may come, no doubt heightens their enjoyment of their lives. The Count visits the orphanage frequently. He knows the children by name, and treats them with great affection.

Occasionally, when not occupied with his UN ambassador’s role, the Count goes hunting in the park in lieu of buying beef or pork at the supermarket. (The park wardens and the police, all of whom have been beneficiaries of the Count ’s largesse, are only too happy to look the other way.) He says he feels he has a moral obligation to refrain from buying factory-farmed meat, which imposes great suffering on the creatures farmed and is ecologically damaging. Hunting in the park is his way of harvesting the bounty of nature, a bounty he seeks constantly to replenish from his supply of livestock at the orphanage.

Noting my surprise and consternation on first hearing this, the Count explained that his resources are not unlimited, and room has to be found for the orphanage’s inevitable new arrivals. Better a short, sweet existence, surely, than to end one’s equally few days starving under a bridge in Bucharest?

I must say he made a persuasive case, or so it seemed at the time. Blood-red wine from the estate ’s cellars lulled me into satiated contentment as we lingered over the remains of our repast in his large dining hall, a fire crackling in the hearth against the unexpected evening chill. He made the point, to which I had no ready reply, that if I have yet found no objection to consuming creatures who can enjoy the company of their fellows, take pleasure in a sunny day, suffer cold and hunger, and look forward to a warm place to sleep, then I would be a hypocrite to condemn his dietary preferences. Not only does his hunting of the most severely brain-damaged minimize suffering, but it is ecologically sustainable. More than this, it has a spiritual basis, for it celebrates the cycle of life and death of which we are all an integral part. He never fails to give heartfelt thanks for the food he eats, at each meal fondly murmuring the name of the departed one.

Immoral Conclusions

That’s the story, take it for what you will. You are probably thinking: how hideous! This Count is obviously a moral monster, a criminal who should spend the rest of his life in prison. The fact that he tries to excuse his crimes with talk of ecological responsibility, spirituality, and the reduction of suffering only makes his behaviour more outrageous.

But I can’t help reflecting on his charge of hypocrisy. Most of us are quite willing to kill and consume animals whose mental and emotional capacities may well exceed those of many humans – the very young, the severely mentally handicapped, the senile elderly. Indeed, we seldom raise an objection to confining, and inflicting great suffering on, many such animals, simply to satisfy our taste for meat. Whatever criterion we require for a being’s membership in ‘the moral community’ – whatever measure we use to distinguish those worthy of being treated with respect from those we may justly exploit – whether that criterion be reason, moral agency, the ability to communicate or engage in social relations, or simply the capacity to experience pain and pleasure, it seems that either not all human beings will qualify, or some non-human animals will.

Ethicists call this ‘the argument from marginal cases’, because it points to the overlap between non-humans and those humans who lack the full faculties of normal, developed members of Homo sapiens. The argument claims that we cannot draw a neat, permanent line in the sand between humans and animals if we apply our ethical principles consistently.

One response to this is simply to bite the bullet and conclude that some human lives are worth less than others. Some people, it could be maintained, simply do not merit the protection that we extend to normal people. Perhaps they do not really merit being called ‘persons’. In principle there is nothing wrong with treating them the way we commonly treat animals. With his feast, Count Lucarda has bitten the bullet (and more than just the bullet).

Of course, this conclusion will be – how shall I put it? – unpalatable to most of us. Many people claim that all human beings have a special value simply because they are human. But that’s like saying, “Men are worth more than women simply because they are men.” The claim begs the question, by assuming the very thing that needs to be demonstrated – namely, that there is some morally relevant characteristic of men that entitles them to be treated better than women, or of humans that makes them worth more than non-humans. ‘Simply’ will not do.

If human beings have a unique moral worth, there must be something about being human that gives them such unique worth. The something often pointed to is moral agency. Only humans are moral agents – that is, able to reason about right and wrong, to reasonably choose, and be held accountable to each other for their actions. To the objection that not all humans are moral agents, the reply may be that since moral agency is a typical and distinguishing characteristic of human beings, all human beings must be accorded the moral worth that is entailed by typical moral agency. This distribution of moral value to all humans on the basis of the moral agency of most humans has been dubbed ‘the argument from species normality’.

But by what logic can intrinsic value based on moral agency be distributed from the generic human species to its members? Collectivities such as species are not conscious beings, and so cannot possess moral agency. If moral agency is to confer intrinsic value on its possessor, this intrinsic value must be an attribute of the individual, not just the species to which it belongs. The value of a species, qua species, derives not from its possessing moral agency, but from, say, its place in the web of life, or perhaps from the fact that its individual members are moral agents. A human lacking moral agency cannot derive intrinsic moral value simply from membership in the human species.

Further, although we may be tempted to think of species as essentially distinct from each other, the theory of evolution indicates that humans are related by descent to other forms of life, which often closely resemble us. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, our illusory sense of the uniqueness of Homo sapiens is bolstered by the accident that other hominid species no longer exist. But surely the hominid relatives of modern humans, including Australopithecus and earlier Homo species, could not easily be excluded from the moral community were they alive today? Would it have been okay to eat or enslave Neanderthals, members of a hominid species with brains larger than ours, who died out about 30,000 years ago? (Perhaps our ancestors did just that: there is some speculation that the Neanderthals may have been victims of genocide.) What if tomorrow we discover some isolated community in the Alps, whose living members are part Homo sapiens and part Homo neanderthalensis? Would they qualify for moral rights? Would it be a hideous crime to eat or experiment upon individuals who were 51% sapiens, but fine and dandy to eat or experiment upon their next-door neighbours, who were only 49% sapiens?

Even if we grant full moral status to Neanderthals on the basis of their being members of another human species, we can push the thought experiment back in time and imagine variations involving time travellers trophy-hunting our remote, proto-human relatives. Going back in time, following our ancestors, we would never come to a neat break between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

In rejecting the notion of the rigidly-defined grouping of organisms, Darwinian theory gives further weight to the idea that the proper treatment of individuals depends on their characteristics as individuals rather than on the typical characteristics of some class of beings of which they are members. This ‘moral individualism’ does not rule out a threshold, such that anyone who meets some minimal requirement (being rational, or simply having the capacity to experience pain, etc) is entitled to full moral standing. But it does rule out excluding the interests of some individuals from consideration just because they are not members of one’s own family, tribe, race or species.

This is not to say that species membership is wholly irrelevant. The argument from marginal cases does not claim that everyone who has a valid ticket to the moral community ought to be accorded exactly the same treatment or set of rights. The thrust of the argument is rather that criteria of moral considerability cannot be applied arbitrarily. The fact that most men, like most women, can reason and are therefore entitled to vote in national elections does not imply that men are entitled to pregnancy leave from work. The fact that dogs can feel pain may entitle them not to be physically abused, but it does not entitle them to vote in national elections or be given free education. Treating a dog with respect means respecting the dog’s natural capabilities, in the first place by not harming the dog (except in cases of self-defence).

One plausible way to justify giving severely mentally deficient humans special treatment that we would not give to animals is to focus on the ‘acquired duties’ that we have to those near to us. Consider children. Not only do I commonly attend to the needs and interests of my children before I attend to the needs and interests of my neighbour’s children, but in many instances I would be wrong not to prefer my own children. That is not because my children are intrinsically more valuable than other children (although I may like to think so). Neither is it simply because I am more closely related to them and hence have a natural inclination to prefer them. Rather, by bringing children into my life, I have acquired certain responsibilities to them that I do not have to most other people. Perhaps we each have ‘acquired duties’ towards other humans just by living in community with them.

But my duties towards my children do not give me a licence to abuse my neighbour’s children. In fact I have an unacquired and inescapable duty to treat my neighbour’s children, and every child in the world, with basic respect, never harming them unnecessarily, and never using them as mere means for the ends of others. Similarly, the special treatment that we may owe disadvantaged members of our human community does not license our treating aware non-humans without the respect also owed to them.

Contracts and Challenges

To sum up, humans, including infants and the mentally handicapped, have certain species-specific rights that animals do not have, and acquired duties can give us reason to favour one individual over another. But none of this provides justification for treating any experiencing beings as mere means to our ends.

At least one ethical theory can be used to separate all humans from all other (known) animals. That is the contract view of morality, of the type espoused in the seventeenth century by Thomas Hobbes. On this view, morality is an agreement entered into by rational individuals in order to advance their own interests. But because the ability of animals to understand and abide by contracts is limited or non-existent, and because in any case we have no incentive to enter into contracts with them, animals just do not count, morally speaking. At best, some of them will be protected out of sentimental concern (eg, dogs and cats).

But this ‘contractarianism’ ascribes no intrinsic worth to humans either. Who gets protected by the contract is in effect a matter for negotiation among the contractors. The weak and the mentally deficient, even if currently protected, are perpetually at risk from renegotiation.

The argument from marginal cases challenges the traditional notion that we can coherently ascribe intrinsic worth to all human beings and at the same time use non-humans as mere instruments for our purposes. It suggests that if we refuse to ascribe to perceptive, aware animals the right to be treated with respect, then we undermine the right of all humans to be treated with respect. Logical consistency therefore appears to require a reassessment of who qualifies for membership in the moral community. We must decide either to enlarge the present boundaries of the community, or to reduce them.

This matter has been occupying my thoughts. You see, just the other day I received a letter from Count Lucarda. He has invited me back to his estate for a week of hunting and feasting. I am pondering the offer.

© Angus Taylor 2008

Angus Taylor lectures in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Victoria, BC, Canada. He is the author of Animals and Ethics (2003).


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