Cultural Prejudice, Sentience, Rationality, and Basic Rights

In the essay Sentience: The Morally Relevant Characteristic Justifying Basic Rights, I explained the moral relevance of sentience in justifying a basic right to physical security; that is, a basic right not to be tortured, killed, or caused serious physical or psychological harm. While I believe I was sufficiently clear in articulating the relevance of sentience, the essay was somewhat abstract and theoretical and most of us remember points better if a concrete example is provided. This essay will provide a concrete example of why sentience, rather than rationality or any other criterion, is the morally relevant criterion for the right not to be exploited, tortured, or intentionally killed.
An Example of Two Children [1]

Suppose we have two equally sentient 10 year-old children, Child A and Child B. Child A is a math prodigy and is already starting on university-level mathematics and advanced formal logic. She is the epitome of rationality. Child B, by contrast, has trouble with the most basic arithmetic, cannot read despite his efforts and the efforts of his parents and teachers. He also has emotional problems. He may have a slight degree of rationality, but it is negligible.The two children are out walking together in their neighborhood and are abducted by a dangerous psychopath. The psychopath takes them to a remote cabin and proceeds to torture and kill them, thus violating their basic moral right to physical security.Basic Rights Based on RationalityAccording to the theory that rationality is the relevant criterion for basic rights, it is Child A who has a much greater interest in not being tortured and killed because Child A is highly rational. Under this way of thinking, it doesn’t matter very much if Child B is tortured and killed, because although he is equally sentient and his life is important to him, he is not very rational. So under the “rationality justification”, we ought to be morally-at-ease with the psychopath torturing and killing quasi-rational Child B, or at least it would not be nearly as morally wrong as torturing the highly rational Child A, which would be a grave wrong due to her impressive abilities in analytic geometry and modern logic. Make sense? Anti-animal-rights advocates who (misguidedly) base rights on the possession of rationality are forced to say it does make sense to deny that Child B has any basic rights.

Basic Rights Based on Claims or Power

(The “rights theory” of claiming or fighting for rights criticized in this paragraph is not worth considering other than to ridicule it, but since some of the more obtuse, but presumably armed-to-the-teeth, anti-animal-rights advocates bring it up on occasion, I’ll mention it here. If you’re of average intelligence and you skip this paragraph, you won’t miss anything serious.) According to the theory that the ability to claim or fight for rights is the relevant criterion for basic rights, if our psychopath doesn’t speak the children’s language, the children won’t be claiming much of anything from the psychopath’s point of view (assuming the children are aware that they can claim some rights here), and will therefore have no rights and no serious moral wrong will have been done since the rights weren’t properly claimed. If “claiming” rights is taken to mean “fighting for” or “defending” those rights, I suppose it’ll depend on how well the children can fight the psychopath. If the psychopath is a full-grown, healthy, average-sized adult, the children again have no rights (since the psychopath wins the fight), and the psychopath has done no serious moral wrong in torturing and killing them (since he won the fight). Any “rights theory” that depends on claiming or fighting for or defending one’s rights oneself simply reduces to rational egoism or some kind of Hobbesian social contract. Under such a reduction, the weak simply perish at the hands of the strong in an implicit war of all against all. It is the rejection of morality as a guide to our character, habits, and behavior.

Basic Rights Based on Sentience

According to the theory that sentience is the relevant criterion for basic rights, both children, A and B, have an equal interest in not being tortured and killed because both are equally sentient. Under the “sentience justification”, their rationality and abilities in abstract thinking per se are irrelevant, as are appeals to power and might irrelevant, and because of their sentience alone, it is equally wrong to torture and/or kill each of them.

Challenging Our Cultural Prejudice

If we are to avoid dogmatism and be reasonably consistent in our moral thinking, we are compelled to apply the same criterion – sentience – to sentient nonhuman beings as we do to sentient human beings when it comes to the right not to be exploited, tortured, and intentionally killed.

The fact that the children happen to be human is as irrelevant as the fact that they happen to be of a certain sex or ethnic group. Speciesism, sexism, and racism are at their root all the same “-ism” and the same cultural prejudice. The only difference is the other who is unjustly excluded from the in-group. The bases of arbitrary discrimination are like different flavors of non-dairy rice or soy ice cream (which is delicious, by the way). Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry flavors are the metaphorical differences of species, sex, and race and the non-dairy ice cream is the metaphorical injustice and cultural prejudice underlying the superficial differences of species, sex, and race. What flavor of prejudice are we embracing today? Or are we too determined to avoid the question in defense of our existing habits and trivial preferences to give it the serious thought it deserves?

Of course, as history has shown, the deeper the cultural prejudice, the blinder the prejudiced person is to the wrongness and injustice of their prejudice. The same arguments used to defend the cultural prejudice promoting the ownership, exploitation, torture, and abuse of slaves in 19th century America are regurgitated today to defend today’s cultural prejudice promoting everything from industrial animal agribusiness to raising pigs or chickens in one’s backyard in a quaint, peaceful environment only to unjustly send them to slaughter when the prejudiced human has decided that it’s time for that being to die. Even in many cultures today, women are viewed as property or servants of the men in the community. Yet people who are marinating in a cultural prejudice – whether the prejudice is against women, certain ethic groups, or species – are at least very reluctant to transcend it, and more often seem completely incapable of even seeing it as a problem. The cultural prejudice is even stronger when it is as widely held as our society’s speciesism is today.

We need to recognize and acknowledge our cultural prejudices and moral blind spots, which are every bit as wrong as the prejudices of cultures that severely abuse women and slaves in our own time or abused slaves a century or two ago. We need to apply that “rationality” – of which we’re apparently so proud – to our thinking about our own behavior toward nonhuman beings. We need to go vegan and encourage others to do likewise.


[1] I chose children rather than adults for the example because of the innocence and vulnerability that children have in common with the typical nonhuman beings who we exploit and kill. Such innocence and vulnerability of any victim (whether human or nonhuman) adds to the moral wrongness of exploitation and killing. By “innocence”, I mean a lack of experience in the world as a moral agent, not whether or not a sentient animal or 10 year-old child can cause serious harm to another. Both obviously are capable of serious harm to others in certain conditions, but they would not be culpable for such harm since they lack moral agency.

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