Category Archives: moral philosophy

Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals

Blind Tradition: The Historical Moral Status of So-Called “Brutes”

From pre-history until the 20th century, it was believed by almost everyone that humans needed to use and eat animals to thrive and even to survive. This was especially true prior to the 19th century; and philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant had grossly distorted visions of the nature of nonhuman animals which fit well with the idea that God “put” animals in our world for our use, and that we had no moral obligations to animals whatsoever. Descartes viewed animals as insentient automata or “God’s machines”. For Descartes, one of the founders of modern vivisection, the intense squeals of dogs being beaten or tortured were merely the sounds of a broken machine, not cries of extreme pain. John Locke viewed animals as natural resources, like land and trees, which we may acquire as property and have “natural rights” to that property. For Immanuel Kant, animals were literally “things”: “…Beings whose existence depends…on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.” (Kant, 1785) The old, traditional distorted view of animals is still in our language today as most of us refer to an animal as “it” even when we know the sex of an individual animal and therefore his or her proper gender.

Given the prevailing view and circumstances of the 17th and 18th centuries that animals needed to be raised, used, and killed for basic human needs, is not surprising that thoughtful philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant sought to avoid thinking and writing seriously about the similarities between humans and nonhumans and how those similarities might have serious moral implications. Instead, to protect the perceived need of animal use, they emphasized a morally irrelevant difference between nonhumans and most, but certainly not all humans: rationality. Another, more intellectually honest approach would have been for these thinkers to admit that there were morally relevant similarities, and that these imposed a direct duty to animals to reduce suffering as much as possible, but that ultimately, moral consideration would have to yield to the perceived survival needs of humans. But we have to remember that these were times when women did not count as full persons, and humans owned other humans as chattel property and were often as cruel to human slaves as to nonhuman slaves. We can see how even careful thinkers as Locke and Kant may have been lost in the fog of their culture’s deeply-held prejudices.

“Food” Animals and Human Brutes

The torture endured by farmed animals from birth to slaughter in our industrialized and mechanized processing systems is unimaginably horrible, and there is no significant difference between free-range, cage-free, and “certified humane” versus the traditional industrial methods, despite the misleading claims of large welfare organizations (incorrectly referred to by the media and themselves as “animal rights” organizations). If you are born a chicken in the most “humane” environment, the best thing that might happen to you is that you are gassed or tossed alive into a wood-chipper as a baby chick, so you don’t have to experience a life of hell as a cage-free or “certified humane” egg chicken (a “layer”) or flesh chicken (a “broiler”). Make no mistake; both the old methods and the new, so-called “humane” methods rely on intensive confinement with filthy conditions, diseases, no individual attention, and no veterinary care to speak of. One thing is obvious: It is literally impossible to raise and slaughter hundreds of thousands, millions, or billions of nonhumans without industrial methods. What is less obvious, but nevertheless true, is that “humane” labels are little more than a marketing ploy to ease the growing public sensitivity to the (unavoidable) reality of animal agriculture’s cruelty. Further, transportation and slaughter itself is extremely cruel, with slaughterhouse workers intentionally torturing animals, especially chickens, and animals often inadvertently being boiled or ripped apart alive (such cruelty is common knowledge among welfare advocates and has been documented in the Washington Post [‘They die piece by piece’] and in various films and documentaries of slaughterhouse conditions). When we do these things to a dog or cat, we are charged with a felony; when we do these while marketing unnecessary food preferences, we get paid a wage for it. Even if it were possible (and it’s not possible) to heavily police transportation and slaughter so that the cruelty was significantly reduced, it is still wrong to treat sentient beings with a crucial interest in their life and its quality as a means to an end. We need not wonder who the brutes are; a mirror will tell us.

Animal agriculture, on its modern scale of production, is an environmental disaster, with “cattle” and hog waste polluting groundwater, rivers, and streams and killing millions of fish throughout the country; and flatulence contributing significant quantities of carbon and other pollutants into the air. “Food” animals, particularly “cattle” and pigs, are reverse protein factories, consuming up to 10 times more protein in their short lives than they provide after they are slaughtered for food. A vast majority of the land used for growing plant food is to feed animals who will use up to 90% of that protein in their daily living, returning relatively very little after slaughter. The only way to achieve more pollution and greater inefficiency in food production is to breed and raise more nonhumans for food.

The Solution to Animal Agriculture

Now, early in the 21st century, more and more mainstream dieticians and health professionals are telling us that balanced vegan diets are optimal for our health. (For information about vegan nutrition, see the link on this blog.) There are now vegan alternatives to most animal-based ingredients and expanded vegan options, making gourmet vegan entrees and desserts as delightful to the palate as non-vegan versions ever were, and much healthier too (see the vegan menus links in this blog). Dieticians are also telling us that traditional animal-based diets, especially in the quantities we consume them, are literally killing us with heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, strokes, and cancer. For clothing, there are now synthetic materials, such as nylon, synthetic fleece, faux “leather”, faux “suede”, and faux “fur”, which easily replace, and are better than, the animal alternatives. The solution is to go vegan.

Animal Experimentation: Archaic, Brutal, and Dangerous

The things we do to sentient nonhumans in labs, 90% of the time for trivial reasons and never for crucial reasons, are beyond savage. Again, if we are unspeakably cruel to a dog or cat in the street, we get hit with felony cruelty charges (as we should); if we do the same thing in a lab under a thin veneer of respectability backed up by the law (laws heavily influenced politically by the vivisection industry), however, we get paid a wage.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of well-researched literature showing that modern alternatives to animal testing and training on animals, such as computer modeling and simulation, human tissue research, clinical observation and research, epidemiology, pathology, genetics, prevention, autopsies, and post-marketing drug surveillance are making animal testing archaic, obsolete, and even dangerous to humans. Indeed, it is blind tradition, powerful business interests, and wealthy lobbying which supports a vast majority of current animal research. Jean Swingle Greek, DMV, and C.Ray Greek, MD, have contributed volumes of valuable research, ranging from non-technical research appealing to the lay reader to highly technical research appealing to scientists and health professionals on the lack of need for animal use in modern medicine. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is also playing a valuable role in educating scientists and health professionals about responsible alternatives to animal testing.

Moral Reflection and Conclusions: The Personhood of Animals

We are clearly no longer in need of any animal use which would preserve the meaning of the word “need”, and in fact, if there is a need, it is a need to avoid animal use for our health and environmental sustainability. This has profound implications for our behavior toward nonhumans. Nonhumans have always had morally crucial and important interests in not being intentionally harmed or killed. The psychological and emotional interests of sentient nonhumans are too similar to and overlapping with our own to continue to ignore those interests, especially at a time when ignoring those interests is so unnecessary and destructive in so many ways. Rationality is a nice tool to use for good or evil, but it has no moral relevance when it comes to crucial basic interests such as the avoidance of serious physical or psychological harm or death. It is arbitrary to look to rationality as defining moral or legal personhood. Also, to do so is to necessarily exclude many humans from personhood, such as infants, the senile, and the mentally disabled or mentally ill. Sentience, the ability to have experiences (including pleasure and pain), is certainly sufficient for moral and legal personhood, and any being who has sentience to the high degree that cows, pigs, chickens, geese, deer, goats, sheep, elk, marine mammals, and many fish do, clearly has crucial interests and profound corresponding moral claims on our behavior. There may well be other criteria which would also suffice for personhood, such as the likely future acquisition of sentience. Such a criterion as a high probability for future sentience would be appropriate for considering the moral and legal personhood of comatose normal human adults and fetuses. Criteria other than sentience for moral and legal personhood, however, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that sentience itself is sufficient.

It has been clear empirically, even from the 18th century, that there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish morally relevant characteristics of humans from nonhumans. In other words, there is no morally relevant characteristic which all humans and only humans have which would give humans special moral consideration. As such, attempts to distinguish between humans and nonhumans on species membership alone, without some morally relevant characteristic that all and only humans have, is plainly arbitrary, and therefore, is plainly speciesist. Such speciesism is every bit as morally unacceptable as racism and sexism. There may have been a weak excuse for such speciesism back in Locke and Kant’s day, considering the perceived need to use animals and the cultural racism and sexism of the time (all of which itself was wrong, even then), but with the knowledge and alternatives available today, there are no more excuses, not even half-baked excuses. A speciesist is a racist is a sexist: it is all the same moral wrong. If we do not consider ourselves racist or sexist, and if we are to avoid hypocrisy and maintain consistency, we must eliminate our speciesism by going vegan.

Comments Off on Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals

Filed under animal rights, moral philosophy, present realities, Veganism

On Veganism and Being Fully Human

Those who accept speciesism often do so because they believe humans “superior” on the basis of rationality and empathy, but in a terrible twist of irony, reject all rationality and empathy in refusing to acknowledge sentience as the morally relevant characteristic on which to base inclusion in the moral community. In refusing to apply such rationality and empathy, they behave far worse than the nonhuman animals toward whom they feel so superior: They are like an odd bird who has functioning wings, but refuses to fly when it is appropriate to do so.

Those who reject speciesism apply that rationality and empathy – ever so exalted but forgotten in speciesism – in acknowledging sentience as the morally relevant characteristic on which to base inclusion in the moral community. Lifelong veganism is the natural outcome of such rationality and empathy. Being a vegan is what it means to be fully human; to live up to one’s potential in accordance with the rationality and empathy that are supposedly strong human traits.

Comments Off on On Veganism and Being Fully Human

Filed under being fully human, empathy, moral philosophy, moral psychology, Veganism

Do Vegans Violate Animal Rights?

Last week’s essay, ”Contrasting Harms”, was dedicated to the issue of contrasting the harms between vegan and animal agriculture populations, and found that 1) in feeding equal populations, any system of animal agriculture would be significantly more harmful than a vegan system of agriculture, and 2) the current animal agriculture system is unimaginably more harmful than a vegan system of agriculture, particularly in the degree of cruelty involved, but also in the number of deaths involved in each system.This essay will directly address the claim of some animal exploitation advocates that since 1) vegans consume grains, soybeans, corn, and other crops, and 2) crop production causes field animals to die, that 3) vegans cause animal deaths, and 4) are therefore violating the rights of animals.

A Comparative Analogy in Human Rights

On American highways and roads we inadvertently, but predictably kill an average of 38,000 human beings annually. This annual average of approximately 38,000 human deaths is as reliable and predictable as the change of seasons. Although we try to keep this number “as low as reasonably possible” through reasonable measures, such as speed limits, seatbelts, air bags, and anti-lock brakes, we do not take stringent measures to eliminate a majority of those 38,000 highway deaths, such as reducing the speed limit from the range of 55 to 75 miles per hour (88 – 120 kph) to the range of 35 to 50 miles per hour (56 – 80 kph) using either mandatory engine governors and/or extremely heavy fines or jail time for even moderate speeding. Are we violating human rights by only taking reasonable instead of stringent measures to prevent these fatal accidents? Most, if not all of us, would say no, there are no human rights violations inherent in our current highway and motor vehicle system, even if we inadvertently, but predictably kill 38,000 random humans annually, and even if we only take reasonable measures instead of stringent measures to prevent these deaths.

Let’s compare the “inadvertent motor vehicle fatalities” situation (“Situation A”) given above with another situation, which we’ll call the “prisoner execution” situation (“Situation B”). Situation B is as follows: To reduce the financial and economic burden of housing prisoners and to rid the country of its most violent sector, both for short-term relief of the violent burden and as a long-term “social improvement” program, we have adopted a policy of executing 38,000 prisoners annually, with the 38,000 to come from the prisoners with the most jail time left to serve. As the prison population declines due to our new execution program, the policy will eventually be tapered down from “38,000 prisoner executions no-matter-what” to executing anyone convicted of a crime normally garnering a sentence of greater than or equal to 4 years in prison. Of course, many of these prisoners will not have murdered anyone and will be receiving a punishment greater than their crime, but we anticipate that it will have positive deterrent and “social improvement” effects on society. Also, there will come a point when we’re killing far less prisoners than 38,000 per year. In addition to that, we kill 38,000 innocent people on our highways annually because of our lax driving restrictions, so why not kill not-as-innocent prisoners?

What’s the problem with Situation B? The problem is most of us would call this prisoner execution policy a very serious human rights violation.

Why do we come to different conclusions about human rights violations in the above two situations? In both situations, we can clearly foresee, with virtually no doubt, that 38,000 humans will be killed as a result of our policy. In both situations, the economic, social, and/or practical gains are significant.

There are at least a few reasons we come to different conclusions with regard to human rights in these two different situations, and they are as follows:

1) In Situation A, the policy of “allowing speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways” is not wrong in itself. By contrast, in Situation B, the policy of “executing prisoners innocent of capital crimes” is wrong in itself.

2) In Situation A, the bad consequence of 38,000 traffic fatalities is a foreseen side-effect, but not an intended consequence of the policy of “allowing speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways”. Our intent in our policy of “allowing higher speed limits” is not “to kill more drivers.” By contrast, in Situation B, the bad consequence of 38,000 prisoner fatalities is a foreseen and intended consequence of the policy of “executing prisoners innocent of capital crimes”. Our intent in our policy of “executing prisoners” is “to kill prisoners.” The dead prisoners will not be merely “foreseen side-effects” of our executions.

3) In Situation A, the good economic and practical consequence is a direct result of “speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways”. The higher speed limits themselves bring about the good consequence. The 38,000 annual traffic fatalities – which we are also taking reasonable measures to prevent from being higher – do not themselves bring about the good consequence. By contrast, in Situation B, the good economic and practical consequence is a direct result of the 38,000 annual prisoner executions. The prisoner executions themselves bring about the good consequences.

A Parallel Comparative Analogy in Animal Rights

Because of our policy of allowing speeds in excess of 35 to 50 mph on our highways, we inadvertently, but predictably kill thousands of humans. In the same way, because of our policy of allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops, we inadvertently, but predictably kill millions of wild field animals.

We, as vegans supporting animal rights, are willing to incur the crop production fatalities for the same reasons that a majority of people in our society, as citizens supporting human rights, are willing to incur the traffic fatalities on our highways. We, as vegans supporting animal rights, are unwilling to incur intentional slaughterhouse fatalities for the same reasons that a majority of people in our society, as citizens supporting human rights, are unwilling to incur the prisoner execution fatalities. The reasons stated above for the human rights case are the exact same reasons stated below in the animal rights case for easy comparison. We’ll call the inadvertent crop production fatalities “Situation C” and the intentional slaughterhouse fatalities “Situation D”.

1) In Situation C, the policy of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops” is not wrong in itself. By contrast, in Situation D, the policy of “slaughtering nonhuman beings” is wrong in itself.

2) In Situation C, the bad consequence of millions of crop production fatalities (to feed hundreds of millions of people) is a foreseen side-effect, but not an intended consequence of the policy of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops”. Our intent in our policy of “allowing crop production using machines” is not “to kill more animals”. By contrast, in Situation D, the bad consequence of billions of animal deaths is a foreseen and intended consequence of the policy of “slaughtering nonhuman beings”. Our intent in our policy of “slaughtering animals” is “to kill animals.” The dead animals will not be merely “foreseen side-effects” of our slaughterhouse operations.

3) In Situation C, the good consequence of obtaining economically affordable vegan food for hundreds of millions of people is a direct result of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops”. The machines themselves bring about the good consequence. The millions of wild field animal fatalities – which we should also take reasonable measures to reduce – do not themselves bring about the good consequence. By contrast, in Situation D, the (so-called) “good” consequence (and perhaps bad health consequence) of obtaining animal products for consumption is a direct result of “slaughtering nonhuman beings”. The slaughterhouse operation itself brings about the consequences.

The three reasons why Situations A and C are not rights violations can also be applied (and are applied) to rights questions involving self-defense, just war theory, triage, and health care economics. Crop production deaths are merely another paradigm case among many analogous cases where we accept regrettable consequences due to various other factors, such as intent, direct causation, and significantly worse alternative consequences.

It should be clear by now that if animal exploitation advocates are going to accuse vegans of animal rights “violations” because of inadvertent, but foreseen crop production deaths, they certainly ought to lead the way in criticizing our society’s human rights “violations” because of inadvertent, but foreseen traffic fatalities. If animal exploitation advocates think vegans should avoid machine-harvested crops, then they should literally ”walk” the talk and avoid modern rapid (and potentially lethal) transportation, not to mention go vegan and grow their own food manually. Of course, if they are reasonable and care about the rights of animals, the only imperative is to be vegan.

Comments Off on Do Vegans Violate Animal Rights?

Filed under animal rights, moral philosophy, objections to animal rights, objections to veganism

Property Status and Animal Welfare: Two Deep Roots of Cruelty

Before we start on this essay, we should be aware that both last week’s essay, and as we will see, this one, are dealing with moral philosophy (i.e. reasoning from basic moral principles), the law (property rights, individual rights, and welfare laws), and empirical and rational fact (e.g. the full sentience of nonhumans and its relevance to a basic right to physical security). Yes, there are gray areas and dilemmas in some questions of moral philosophy, but the areas we’re covering now, despite controversy, are mostly black, white, and straight forward.The controversy comes from our acculturation and our moral psychology, or the question, “Why be moral (especially when nobody else is)?” Most people are intelligent enough to at least follow the easy moral reasoning that I’ve set forth and will continue to set forth in this blog. The controversy and conflict comes from the social momentum of the acceptance of animal consumption (i.e. acculturation) and the psychological conditioningof life-long habits that current non-vegans experience in the face of and opposed to straightforward moral reasoning from basic moral principles; moral principles which were already plainly accepted long before a consistent application in clear reasoning was made to nonhumans. I understand the inner emotional turbulence faced by conscientious non-vegans, but I encourage non-vegans to continue with moral and emotional strength and courage in honestly questioning the status quo and making the modifications in behavior which recognize the moral value of nonhuman beings.In last week’s essay, we established the moral fact of the basic right of nonhuman beings to physical security against humans in virtue of their sentience. Since sentient nonhumans are no different from humans in the only relevant criterion for holding the basic right to physical security (i.e. sentience), this moral fact is just as secure in knowledge when applied to nonhumans as when applied to humans. If sentient nonhumans don’t have this basic right, then humans don’t either. If a nonhuman being’s life is worthless, then so is all life worthless, obviously including ours. From my viewpoint, however, all life with a high degree of sentience (which includes all “food”, “entertainment”, and “research” animals) has inherent value which must be respected as an end in itself.

Inherent Value

There is another basic right which will be the topic of this essay which is essential to the basic right to physical security: the basic right not to be treated as a thing. We often value humans as a means to an end; but morally, most of us agree that valuing humans exclusively as a means to an end is wrong. We might pay one employee far more in compensation and rewards than another employee, but we don’t kill, maim, torture, dispose of, or own that employee as a thing. Another way of conveying the same idea is that humans, regardless of their utility value to others, or the quality or misery of their life, or their intelligence or severe lack thereof, or any other characteristic, have equal inherent value or value as ends in themselves. If the equal inherent value of a human is ignored and the only value that human has is his or her utility value or the value of some other characteristic, then that human being is treated as a thing and is therefore also outside of the moral community.

It is important to remember that equal inherent value, like the basic right to physical security, is based on sentience, defined in last week’s essay as a non-cognitive experience of a self (which includes the experience of pleasure and pain). Also, for precisely the same reasons that we cannot exclude sentient nonhumans from the basic right to physical security as explained in last week’s essay, we cannot exclude them from having equal inherent value. To exclude sentient nonhumans from having equal inherent value is as arbitrary as excluding intelligent and curious humans from education based on race or sex.

Property Status and the Law

American law recognizes two types of entities: persons and things. There is no middle category. During American slavery in the 19th century, a middle category was attempted, and slaves were considered “quasi-persons” or “ things-plus” or “3/5ths of a person”, but that category utterly failed to bring any significant “legal personhood” to slaves or any relief of the cruelty they endured as property of their owners. The law protects the rights of persons to do what they want with the things they own, and if there is ever a conflict between a person with property rights and the thing they own, property rights always win, regardless of any other law whatsoever “protecting” the thing. This was true without exception during American slavery, and it is true today in all of our relations with nonhuman beings.

The importance placed on property rights in Anglo-American law cannot be overemphasized here. Although I will not make any judgments about the propriety of this priority of property rights, it is not an overstatement to say that property rights are revered and sacred in the United States. Indeed, as irrational as it may be, it is not an exaggeration to say that some people in the United States consider their property rights to be just as important, if not more so, as their basic right to physical security (e.g. their right to life), and would just as soon be shot to death as give up even a trivial portion of property rights. This reverence for property rights is reflected in our courts and it is no surprise that the strongest slave welfare laws in the antebellum South did nothing to protect slaves, as chattel property, from unspeakable cruelty inflicted by their property owners. When the property rights meet welfare laws, it’s like a speeding freight train meeting a light warm breeze; the effect is negligible.

As long as it is the case that nonhumans are owned as things and their owners hold property rights over them (which is one and the same thing), welfare laws will never be able to protect against the flagrant and extreme cruelty which is routine in all of animal agriculture, much less protect equal inherent value or the basic right to physical security. The first fact that anyone genuinely concerned about animal cruelty must fully understand and accept is that welfare laws are and always will be impotent to prevent cruelty. The most welfare laws will do is to protect the interests of property owners in utilizing their property to its maximum economic potential. Welfare laws will always be disastrous for sentient nonhumans, doing no more than they have in the past: making humans feel better about the exploitation and cruelty inflicted on nonhumans.

Deep Roots of Cruelty

It has been established in this essay and last week’s essay that, if we are to avoid the exact same kind of cultural prejudice that upheld slavery and the subjugation of women for many centuries until the 20th century, then nonhuman beings must have equal inherent value and the basic right to physical security under the law, as they already do morally, whether it is recognized by law or not. A deep root of cruelty and one of the largest barriers to the prevention of cruelty (both industrial cruelty and household cruelty) is the moral and legal status of nonhuman beings as “things”. Another deep root supporting cruelty is the notion held by new welfarists that welfare laws can stand up to property rights and improve conditions for nonhumans in any significant way.

We do not need welfare campaigns to show the general public how cruel nonhumans are treated. Videos like The Faces of Free Range Farming and constant, widespread information on industry conditions will suffice to educate people over time. Industry cannot fight this because if they were forced to open their “free range”, “cage free”, “humane” and “compassionate” concentration camps and abattoirs to the public for regular widespread tours and viewing (even if only on television), the public reaction to the cruelty would defeat them quickly. Industry also cannot change because it is economically and logistically impossible to raise and slaughter billions of nonhumans for consumption without extreme cruelty. Indeed, it is each and every consumer of animal products, regardless of any “special labels” on those products, who are ultimately responsible for this extreme cruelty. With persistence and perseverance, our efforts at education will result in more people shedding cultural prejudices about sentient nonhumans and discovering that veganism is the only solution to the inevitable, widespread, and extreme cruelty endured by farmed animals, again, regardless of what “special label” is placed on the package, and that veganism is the only way to live in a morally adequate relationship to nonhuman beings.

Comments Off on Property Status and Animal Welfare: Two Deep Roots of Cruelty

Filed under abolition, advocacy, animal rights, animal welfare, moral philosophy, property status

Sentience: The Morally Relevant Characteristic Justifying Basic Rights

In this essay, we will look at the moral relevance of sentience as the characteristic justifying a basic right to physical security (as defined in the next section), but first we should cover some preliminary notions which will set the stage for understanding how and why sentience matters when we are thinking about animal rights.A Brief Introduction to RightsA right is a way to protect an interest. Rights claims can be expressed as follows: A has a right to X against B by virtue of Y. A is the right holder; X is the interest protected by the right; B is the duty bearer; and Y is the relevant characteristic giving rise to X (i.e. the interest protected). We can also say that Y is the reason A has a right to X.

As there are many interests which vary widely in degree of relative importance from crucial to trivial, so there are many “rights” which vary in degree of relative importance in relation to the interest they are protecting. A right, the way the term is used in our society, can be as important as our basic right not to be tortured and killed or as trivial as our non-basic “right” of first refusal to buy an inexpensive and relatively unimportant item that a seller has set aside for us. It is therefore important to distinguish between basic rights and non-basic rights. In Introduction to Animal Rights [1], Gary Francione quotes the political theorist Henry Shue in Basic Rights [2] in describing a right as basic if “any attempt to enjoy any other right by sacrificing the basic right would be quite literally self-defeating, cutting the ground from beneath itself.” Shue also states that “non-basic rights may be sacrificed, if necessary, in order to secure the basic right. But the protection of a basic right may not be sacrificed in order to secure the enjoyment of a non-basic right” because a basic right “cannot be sacrificed successfully. If the right sacrificed is indeed basic, then no right for which it might be sacrificed can actually be enjoyed in the absence of the basic right. The sacrifice would have proven self-defeating.” [2]

The most important basic right Shue identifies is the “basic right to physical security – a right that is basic not to be subjected to murder, torture, mayhem, rape, or assault.” [2] As Francione says on page 95, “If a person does not enjoy the basic right to security, and may be murdered at will by any other person, then it is senseless to consider what other “rights” she might have.” [1] Of course, another basic right which is essential to a basic right to physical security is the right not to be the property of another; however, the basic right not to be property is beyond the scope of this essay. I will discuss the property status of nonhuman beings and their right not to be property in a future essay.

Sentience Defined

Sentience, narrowly defined, is the ability to experience, or to be conscious of, sensations. Sensations include pain, pleasure, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. More broadly defined, sentience includes the experience of a self. The experience of self which defines sentience is emotion- or sense-based and non-cognitive. In this essay, I mean sentience in the broad sense which includes a non-cognitive sense of self.

Sentience often varies in degree. If we are on pain killers or a substance which makes us less alert to our surroundings, our sentience is not as acute as when in a drug-free state. Also, some species have greater degrees of sentience with respect to specific senses than other species do. For example, dogs, pigs, and bears have a heightened sense of smell compared to most other species, and many birds have a comparative heightened sense of sight.

People often ask if insects are sentient. I don’t know to what extent they are. The question of where to draw the line on sentience, particularly its degree, is a difficult and lengthy topic to cover, and I will not address it in this essay. What we do know for certain is that birds and mammals are sentient in a way and to a degree highly similar to humans; so much so that any differences in sentience are morally immaterial. We have good reason to believe that other vertebrates, such as fishes, reptiles, and amphibians are also sentient to a high degree; although as we get further from biological similarities to humans, such as in the case of insects, it gets more difficult for us know what a being’s sentience or experience is like, in kind or degree.

An Interest in Physical Security [3]

Very closely related to sentience is a being’s interest in physical security. In fact, the only way we can determine whether an organism has an interest in physical security is to ask whether and to what degree the organism is normally sentient (or potentially sentient). A tree is alive, but because a tree has no sense organs or any other apparatus which might lead us to believe that it is sentient, nor does a tree behave outwardly in any way indicating sentience, we think it quite obvious that the tree cannot have any conscious interest in its physical security (since it cannot experience its physical security). On the other hand, chickens, pigs, cows, deer, sheep, goats, and many other nonhuman beings do have sense organs and well-developed central nervous systems, which, along with the outward behavior of fight or flight when facing perceived danger, cause us to know, to the same degree that we know with respect to humans, that they all have a strong conscious interest in their physical security.

So there is an obvious and strong connection between sentience and a conscious interest in physical security such that, to whatever degree there is sentience, there is a conscious interest in physical security; and to whatever degree there is a conscious interest in physical security, there is sentience.

Back to Rights

We said that a rights claim can be expressed as follows: A has a right to X against B by virtue of Y. Let’s fill in the terms: Sentient nonhuman beings (A) have a right to physical security (X) against human beings (B) by virtue of their sentience (which is virtually interchangeable with a conscious interest in physical security) (Y). We should note, and will explore more in the next section, that sentience is the same reason and the only reason why humans have a right to physical security.

Irrelevant Substitutes for Y

Self-interested animal exploitation advocates often attempt to suggest characteristics other than sentience for Y. As I stated in Understanding the Anti-Animal Rights Viewpoint”, animal exploitation advocates work backward from the conclusion that they want to exploit nonhuman beings and look for “premises” to “support” their preconceived, self-interested conclusion. So animal exploitation advocates think up characteristics that only humans possess to substitute for Y and insist that their selected (irrelevant) Y is the “justification” for humans possessing the basic right to physical security, but since nonhumans don’t have that Y, nonhumans don’t possess that basic right.

The objections to animal exploitation advocates are obvious in two ways, both of which we’ll explore in more detail below. First, the suggestions that animal exploitation advocates come up with for Y are irrelevant to a conscious interest in physical security. Second, animal exploitation advocates’ suggestions for Y, with only one exception, are not characteristics which all and only humans have, and therefore exclude millions of humans from the moral community. The one exception is human DNA, or species, per se; which is as irrelevant to an interest in a basic right to physical security as race or sex, for example, are to an intelligent and curious human’s interest in education.

Let’s unpack the first objection that the suggestions for Y are irrelevant. A very common suggestion is cognitive ability (sometimes referred to as “rationality” or “intellect”). How or why cognitive ability connects to a conscious interest in physical security is far enough beyond me to seem silly, but I’ll play along by acknowledging a couple of facts which may make it clear to the self-interested exploiter that cognitive ability is a dead-end possibility for Y in this case.

The first fact to acknowledge about cognitive ability is that it varies widely from human to human. Some humans are mathematical, linguistic, and logical geniuses, while other humans are functionally lower than dogs, pigs, and turkeys in cognitive ability, while the rest of us fall somewhere in between the two. Does this mean that the mathematical geniuses have a more significant conscious interest in physical security than the less cognitively endowed humans? No, it doesn’t. A high level of cognitive ability may cause us to dread the future or realize that the future will be fine, but a lack of such cognitive ability may cause similar dread or comfort, depending on the situation. For example, a human may dread the possibility, during wartime, of being captured and tortured by an enemy army or political faction which never actually happens; and a rescued, formerly tortured farmed animal or canine may dread her sanctuary or shelter rescuers for several weeks or months not knowing that the rescuers will show nothing but sympathy and kindness toward her. It is the emotional and sentient activity that we have in common with nonhumans, not the abstract reasoning activity, from which our interest in physical security comes.

The second fact to acknowledge is that today’s computers have mind-boggling mathematical and logical ability, but absolutely no conscious interest in their physical security. If exploiters want to assert intelligence for Y, then insentient and unconscious, but highly intelligent computers get a right to physical security (even though they cannot experience physical security); and the much less intelligent, but sentient humans go without such a right.

Other suggestions for Y are the ability to assert or defend rights and the related ability to reciprocate morally; but again, that leaves millions of humans without rights. The ability to defend rights also possibly grants rights to anyone who asserts or defends their “right” to commit genocide, rule as the world’s tyrant, or any number of other such absurdities, to which the sane among us agree that no such rights exist. The ability to reciprocate the observance of a basic right to physical security only becomes relevant if our own physical security is immediately and actually threatened; and if such security is threatened in this way, the capacity of our attacker for moral agency becomes irrelevant anyway. We are at least excused, if not justified, in defending ourselves from anyone, moral agent or moral patient, who immediately threatens our physical security using the minimum force necessary, and such a defense at times can include killing. [4]

The second objection against animal exploitation advocates is that there are no characteristics which all and only humans have which differentiate us from other species in any morally relevant way to a conscious interest in physical security. In fact, there is an overlapping continuum of all characteristics, except DNA (which is irrelevant for reasons already stated), such that for any given characteristic, there are nonhuman beings who hold that given characteristic (e.g. intelligence, emotion, sensitivity to pleasure and pain, etc) more than some humans.

It should be clear by now to any coherent and reasonably intelligent reader that sentience is the morally relevant characteristic for the right to physical security. When we are in a position of power over others, the choice of whether or not to act morally, as in all cases of morality, is our choice to make. But the question of what is moral and what is not moral is not our choice in such clear cases; and it is a matter of moral fact that sentient nonhumans have a basic right against humans to their physical security in virtue of their sentience, regardless of how we happen to feel about that fact. Survival situations may excuse us in overriding the rights of others, but in our exploitation of nonhuman beings in our modern era, nothing even remotely similar to survival is at stake.

This inevitable conclusion, combined with our modern knowledge of vegan nutrition and alternatives, entails a moral obligation of ours to go and stay vegan. Fortunately, being vegan is much easier and far more delightful than most people imagine it to be. We just need to learn the ropes and develop the habits. We’re on autopilot after that.


[1] Gary Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog (Temple University Press, 2000), pages 94 and 95

[2] Henry Shue, Basic Rights, 2d Ed. (Princeton University Press, 1996)

[3] Although sentient beings have an interest in absolute physical security, some violation of physical security is unavoidable, inevitable, and therefore “necessary” for all of us (e.g. car accidents and disease). It does not make sense to talk about a right or interest in physical security if the breach of physical security is really unavoidable. I have therefore limited the discussion to an interest in physical security where it is protectable, but it should be clear that I mean “protectable” in the strong sense as protectable even at a very high cost, actual or perceived. Given this definition of protectable, it should be clear that somewhere around 99.999999% of our society’s intentional uses of nonhuman beings violates their protectable interest in physical security, and are therefore violations of their right.

[4] Upon re-reading this paragraph the day after it was posted, I decided it wasn’t written as clearly as it could have been. It is clarified below by changing/adding language as follows (changes are in bold):

“The ability to reciprocate the observance of a basic right to physical security only becomes an issue if our own physical security is immediately and actually threatened, since if our security is not immediately threatened, our right to security is not being violated; and if such security is threatened in this way, the capacity of our attacker for moral agency becomes irrelevant to our response anyway. This is because we are at least excused, if not justified, in defending ourselves from anyone, moral agent or moral patient, who immediately threatens our physical security using the minimum force necessary, and such a defense at times can include killing.”

Comments Off on Sentience: The Morally Relevant Characteristic Justifying Basic Rights

Filed under animal rights, moral philosophy, sentience, Veganism

New York Times: “Two Pigs” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

On October 25, 2007, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg entitled “Two Pigs” about, as Klinkenborg puts it, “taming” two pigs and then having a farmer and his son come over to kill the pigs while Klinkenborg and his wife watch (kill them because, as Klinkenborg says, “That’s part of the job”).

Whenever I read about intellectual folks like Klinkenborg or Michael Pollan [1] raising an innocent nonhuman being to be killed or hunting an innocent being and writing an article rationalizing the ordeal, I imagine a similar rationalization is probably what goes through the mind of a person with a calm, rational plan to kill an innocent human being. Not that Klinkenborg or Pollan would ever remotely think of killing a human (they are very well-socialized); but the detachment, indifference, and morally vacuous rationale are probably disturbingly similar regardless of the species of the innocent victim of the deed.

To demonstrate this parallel in detachment, indifference, and moral vacuity in more detail, I’ve re-written Klinkenborg’s article as “Two Orphans”, penned by a fictitious character named Will Killjoy. I’ve used orphans in this re-write to eliminate the issue of the emotional suffering and pain endured by those left behind, whether those left behind are human or nonhuman. [2]

My changes consisted almost entirely of turning phrases like “stop eating pork” into “avoid cannibalism” and “pigs” to “orphans” and if you read the NYT article, you will see how very little I’ve changed it. Although this re-write is satirical, cannibalism is an unpleasant reality in human history; it’s where meat-eating is taken one more step closer to kin, and in some human cultures, kin is also why it is done (although “kin-cannibalism” doesn’t generally require killing since the relatives wait until [insert choice of relative here] dies naturally). The idea that Killjoy is a human cannibal is not as remote in history or the world as it would seem to our culture. In fact, we can think of the progression of human civilization as going from uncivilized and violent cannibalism to a slightly more civilized but still intentionally violent diet of flesh and bodily fluids excluding those of human origin to the most civilized and non-violent diet by far (i.e. the only civilized and morally adequate diet): a vegan diet.

One more note: Killjoy moved from where he adopted the orphans to a rural area remote enough that nobody knows about the orphans – Killjoy’s actions are beyond the reach of the law. Like for Klinkenborg and modern meat-eaters in general, there are no social consequences against Killjoy’s behavior in this article. Now, on to Killjoy’s article…

October 25, 2007
The Rural Life
Two Orphans

by Will Killjoy

Very soon, I will kill my two adopted orphan children. If that sentence bothers you, you should probably stop reading now – and you should probably avoid cannibalism. The orphans are 3 years old, fat and happy, and killing them is the reality of cannibalism. I treat the orphans very well, and ever since June, I’ve been building their trust in me, reading children’s books to them and tucking them into a comfortable, warm bed. There are two reasons. I truly love being with the orphans. And building their trust in me will make it that much easier to kill them swiftly, immediately. If I had no more foreknowledge of my death than these two orphans will have of theirs, I’d consider myself very lucky.

The questions people would probably ask (after they called the police) would make it sound as though I should be morally outraged at myself, as if it’s impossible to build a relationship of trust with the orphans and still intend to kill them. If I belonged to a cannibal tribe that performed human sacrifices – one that has elaborate killing ceremonies for burnt offerings to the gods – I would get to celebrate the ritual in it all, the sudden blessings of the gods bestowed upon us and the succulent pork-like flavor of human bacon. It’s hard to act that out when it’s just me in the backwoods silenced by the solemnity of what I’m about to do.

Because I do carry it out. That’s part of the job. It’s how we come to understand what cannibalism itself means. And to me, the word “cannibal” is at the root of the contradictory feelings the orphan-killing raises. You can add all the benefits you want – that the orphans were well-fed and cared for – and yet somehow the fact that I’m doing this for meat makes the whole thing sound like a bad bargain. And yet compared with the various genocides of the 20th century, this is beauty itself.

Knowing that you’re doing something for the last time is a uniquely human fear. I thought that would be the hardest thing about killing these orphans. In fact, it’s not so hard, though it does remind me that humans have trouble thinking about who knows what. One day soon I’ll read the orphans a story, gently tuck them into bed, and say good night. They will have the pleasure and comfort of feeling safe and having a good night sleep. It will be the last time. I will know it, and they simply won’t.




Now there’s some rock solid moral reasoning, eh? It seems that replacing a few words here and there makes salient to non-vegans just how empty, calloused, indifferent, and detached Klinkenborg’s rationale is (it was already quite salient to vegans before the re-write).

“I will know it, and they simply won’t.” In that statement, we see that Klinkenborg and Killjoy seem to apply the ancient Greek vegetarian philosopher Epicurus’ teaching that “death is nothing to us.” Only instead of using Epicurus’ teaching to reduce worries about their own death, they use his thinking to ease their worries about unnecessary killing and someone else’s death. I wonder what we might think about that rationale turned around – if a stranger in a dark alley considered our death “nothing to us.”

But what is death? Epicurus was right when he indicated that we won’t care at all about our death after dying. But then why is unnecessary killing wrong? If we don’t know we’re going to be killed and our killer kills us painlessly, there are literally no consequences for us that we can know. We can’t object that we had plans for the future, because after our death, not only will we not care, but we cannot possibly care. So is killing wrong only because of the emotional suffering of those with whom we had connections in life? If so, then painless, unnecessary killing is okay as long as the emotional connections to others are weak or non-existent?

Oh, wait. Is it because we’re human that killing us wrong? But why should that matter? Humans know no more than pigs after death and humans can be killed painlessly and without their knowledge just as pigs can be. It seems unnecessarily (or preferentially) killing humans without their knowledge is fine, at least by Klinkenborg’s reasoning about the insignificance of death.

Is it because of social cohesion that killing humans is wrong – a kind of social contract? If so, then the unnecessary killing of humans isn’t wrong per se, it is just wrong because of unpleasant consequences to ourselves that we must live in the cutthroat, low-trust society that is created by random killing. I suppose that reason might fly with egoists and amoralists, but it is false for those of us who live within a moral worldview.

Is it because humans aren’t food? What if humans are food to a certain culture and what if those cannibals experience humans as delicious and as an important ingredient in a festive meal? Would that make it okay for them to kill humans, perhaps from other tribes? No, it wouldn’t. Cultural prejudices and strong, sacred traditions that serve injustice are things to be overcome, not accepted, revered, or admired.

Most importantly, what is the relevant characteristic that all and only humans have which distinguishes us from pigs or any other nonhuman being such that our pain and death matters and theirs doesn’t? The fact is that there are no such differences. Stop and think about it. And if you come up with such a “relevant difference,” please email it to me. If it is not too ridiculous, I’ll post and evaluate it in this blog. (Caution: you may want to evaluate it carefully yourself before emailing it for public scrutiny. There simply are no adequate answers to my request. It is as if I asked you for an even integer between 2 and 4.) If killing human orphans painlessly for whatever desirable, but unnecessary reason is morally wrong; then killing pigs for whatever desirable, but unnecessary reason is also wrong.

Unnecessary killing is wrong because of 1) the depravation of life in such an unnecessary act which, under ordinary circumstances (i.e. excluding comas, torture, etc), severely harms its victim and 2) the strong and very primitive desire to survive that is innate in all sentient beings, such survival which is of crucial importance to that being (human or nonhuman) regardless of how unimportant it might be for any other being or group of beings. I see these two reasons as self-evident, beyond reasonable doubt, and standing each alone by itself as sufficient reason for the wrongness of unnecessary killing. Whether the potential victim (human or nonhuman) of an intentional unnecessary killing is unaware or not of their fate is irrelevant. Whether they have spun grand plans for the future in their mind or not is irrelevant. Their capability or incapability of achieving grand plans for the future is irrelevant. Their potential longevity is irrelevant. The size of their ego is irrelevant. And what DNA they share with what specific species is irrelevant.

It’s not that intellectuals like Klinkenborg and Pollan can’t comprehend this; it’s that they blow as much smoke as they can to avoid acknowledging it and to avoid cultivating an appropriate level of empathy toward nonhuman beings.

If we are to have adequate form and content in our moral reasoning and not fall into the detached moral nonsense of Klinkenborg, Pollan (in The Omnivore’s “Dilemma”), and Killjoy, we must go vegan.



[1] Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and author of the overrated book The Omnivore’s “Dilemma” (quotes are mine) falls into this category of intellectuals behaving bizarrely with respect to their current moral pseudo-qualms about killing nonhuman beings. Hopefully someday the pseudo-qualms will become genuine and more serious and appropriate qualms: Moral progress is beautiful.

[2] Contrary to the general public’s misinformed views on the grief of animals over lost companions, such grief can be significantly more severe than human grief over lost companions. The bond between a cow and a calf while the calf is young and between certain species whose members mate for life can be stronger than human bonds and the grief in separation is emotionally devastating for them. Claiming that their emotional devastation doesn’t matter because they’re not human is the same as saying that a certain ethnic or racial groups’ emotional devastation doesn’t matter because they are that certain ethnic or racial group. Such claims are our 21st century bigotry and such claims are just as nauseating as the 19th century bigotry.

Comments Off on New York Times: “Two Pigs” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Filed under animal rights, moral philosophy, two pigs

Moral Psychology and Development: Practical Considerations (Part 4 of 4)

Over the past three essays, we have touched on two major schools of thought regarding morality: theories of “the right” and theories of “the good”; and we have explored the basic and most relevant elements of two theories of moral development corresponding to the two schools of moral thought: Kohlberg’s stage theory and Hoffman’s empathy theory, respectively.

The most striking similarity between Kohlberg’s and Hoffman’s theories is that their highest stages entail a widening of the moral community ultimately to a universal application of the principle of equal consideration for all beings holding relevant characteristics.

I cannot see how the universal application of equal consideration as the highest stage could be otherwise in any theory of moral development. If we take morality and moral development seriously, we must remove as much arbitrariness as possible; for the more arbitrariness is permitted in any moral development theory, the less such a theory makes sense. For cognitive theories based on a principle of equal consideration, this is obvious. For affective theories based primarily on empathy, it is much less obvious due to the non-rational, non-cognitive nature of purely affective/emotive drives, but we must introduce a sturdy, rational, cognitive element into an affective theory if we are going to talk about concepts like “development” and “making sense.” Purely affective theories without rationality degenerate into blind personal preference and egoism, which we might call morality’s opposite. Rationality and the principle of equal consideration can be viewed as the structural support on which empathy is developed to achieve the greatest heights of moral behavior and character.

Developing Moral Character: Structural Integrity

When we set out to construct a building, we must first design and construct the foundation and structural support which will act to give form, strength, and stability to the building. Without a strong foundation and supporting structural skeleton, our building will either be a “nonstarter”, a heap of plywood or cement, or collapse into a heap at the first challenge of wind or other force against it. Once we have designed and built a strong foundation and structure, we can start to fill in the walls with plywood and insulation or cement.

In the same way, when we set out to build moral character, we must first ground the moral character in sound reason and the principle of equal consideration. With unguided empathy, we are likely to end up with a pile of emotional nonsense, having an abundance of empathy in some cases and a poverty of empathy in other cases, all in one distorted heap. We will be overwhelmed with empathy for our dog while chewing on a formerly tortured and unjustly killed pig who deserved as much empathy as our dog. This kind of disparate, non-rational behavior toward animals is what the distinguished legal scholar Gary Francione aptly calls our society’s “moral schizophrenia” toward animals. Martin Hoffman, whose empathy theory we looked at in the third of these four essays, thinks of the justice principle (i.e. the equal consideration principle, which is a principle derived from reason) as regulating empathy to more appropriate levels from both over- and under-arousal. Clearly, sound moral reasoning and a principle of universal justice or equal consideration of relevant characteristics are essential if we are to build a reliable moral structure on which to cultivate empathy, which in our analogy, is the plywood or loose cement in need of form and a sturdy structure to maintain the form.

Developing Moral Character: Substantive Integrity

Just as our building will end up in a useless heap if we don’t give it form and structural integrity, the form and structural integrity alone is a cold, worthless building if there are no walls on the skeleton to prevent the snow, wind, and rain from filling the interior.

Just so, practical reason and the principle of equal consideration will tell us what morality is and should look like (i.e. give us form and structure), but by themselves, reason and principle may too often leave us without adequate motivation (i.e. substance) to behave in accordance with the principle of equal consideration. We need to cultivate the empathy (i.e. substance) to build our moral character into a strong and worthwhile fortress. Violations of reason may motivate us to correct a math error we are aware of, but violations of reason by themselves cannot motivate us in the way genuine empathy can to right a moral wrong or avoid committing that wrong in the first place. Empathy is something that can be intentionally practiced, cultivated, and developed to conform to practical reason and equal consideration. Many religious traditions have a long history of encouraging the development of empathy, compassion, and caring for others.

Practical Considerations for Advocacy

We clearly need to appeal to both reason and empathy in our advocacy for nonhuman beings. However, there is already significant human empathy for (certain) nonhuman beings in our society. This is plainly evident in how many millions of us, including many hunters, have abundant empathy for our dogs and other companion animals. It is also evident in how many millions (billions?) of charity dollars go to humane societies and animal welfare organizations. Indeed, rare is the person, even in animal agribusiness, who doesn’t entirely agree with “animal welfare.” We clearly do not like to see nonhuman beings suffer “unnecessarily”, and that is an almost universal belief among the sane.

The problem with our moral character as it relates to nonhuman animals is not a lack of empathy per se, but a lack of both reason and the principle of equal consideration guiding our empathy to give it coherence and consistency. Our empathy toward animals is currently an incoherent, distorted heap of nonsense. Our empathy has no structure or form. Our empathy is amoral and egocentric.

What we need is to have our empathy guided and cultivated in the places where moral reasoning and the principle of equal consideration of relevant characteristics (such as sentience) determine it ought to be located. This guiding and cultivating can take place when we think about the characteristics of pigs, chickens, cows, goats, sheep, elk, deer, and our dogs, and see that all of these beings have the same relevant characteristics of a deep desire to live and survive, to avoid pain, and to experience pleasure. They are all sentient. Their species is irrelevant. Their species is just as irrelevant as race, sex, intelligence, religion, or ethnic group. Reason and the principle of equal consideration applied to the relevant characteristic of sentience require us to guide and cultivate our empathy properly and build our moral character into a coherent form. Reason and the principle of equal consideration also require us to become and stay vegan as a moral imperative. It is appeals to reason, consistency, and the principle of equal consideration which ought to be at the forefront of our advocacy, encouraging the development of empathy where it is most needed.

Comments Off on Moral Psychology and Development: Practical Considerations (Part 4 of 4)

Filed under advocacy, moral philosophy, moral psychology

The Development of Moral Reasoning: Kohlberg’s Stages (Part 2 of 4)

This essay is the second in a series of four essays on moral psychology and development.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development has its roots primarily in Jean Piaget’s two-phase theory of moral judgment in children and secondarily in John Dewey’s three-stage theory of moral development. Piaget’s first phase is that of young children who see rules as fixed and absolute and handed down from an authority; and who also base moral judgments more on consequences than intention. By contrast, older children in Piaget’s second phase see rules as more relative and changeable, somewhat like a malleable social construct; and base moral judgments more on intention than consequences. John Dewey’s three-stage theory consisting of impulsive, group-conforming, and reflective stages is what led Kohlberg to the three levels of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

Kohlberg’s Research Method

Kohlberg, over at least 20 years, interviewed or had other qualified researchers interview several dozens of people ranging from childhood to adulthood and across cultures. The questions were based on a series of moral dilemmas, with follow up questions for various types of responses. Kohlberg was interested in the reasoning behind the moral judgment, not the conclusion itself. To check the reliability of the scoring of responses, Kohlberg would have multiple researchers score the same responses. Kohlberg found the consistency of the score determination to be high among the researchers.

The Six Stages

Level I: Pre-Conventional Morality

Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience

Stage 1 is the morality of young children. An act is wrong because you’ll get punished. Punishment is what makes it wrong. Rules are handed down from an all-powerful authority and are to be unquestionably obeyed. At this stage, there is no realistic concept of morality.

Stage 2: Self-Interest and Fair Deals

Stage 2 is the morality of older children and unfortunately, many adults, especially in highly competitive occupations (certain corporate executives, most career politicians, and certain professionals) at least while they’re engaging in their occupations (they may move up to Stage 3 in family matters). At this stage, morality is relative to the self-interest of the deal maker and punishment is just a risk we want to avoid. We may exchange or return favors, but only if the continued relationship is worth carrying on from a self-interested point of view. There is no sense of community or even any substantial sense of morality, just self-interest and deal making.

Level II: Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Good Relationships

At Stage 3, people become genuinely concerned about good intentions and the well-being of their family and friends. The circle of concern, however, does not go much beyond kin selection. The moral community is small at this stage and is made up of those we know and trust. This stage is common in small, isolated villages and among tribal people. This stage is also common in many nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees and dogs.

Stage 4: Social Order

Stage 4 is about law and order, respecting authority, and maintaining the coherence of society as a whole. A typical Stage 4 comment is, “If everyone acted in self-interest and broke the law, we’d have chaos.” At this stage, what is moral is what society (including most religious groups, e.g. the Bible or the law) says is moral. As we shall see more clearly after covering stages 5 and 6, this is the level at which many adults in our current industrial societies eventually arrive and stay, especially if they are not in the more aggressive careers mentioned in Stage 2.

“Stage 4.5”: Moral Skepticism

Kohlberg noted in his longitudinal subjects (people he was testing more than once at various ages to look for stage progression) that some of them stated “principled-sounding” (i.e. stage 5 or 6) reasons in high school, but seemed to regress back to moral relativity (Stage 2) in college. Upon further questioning, these subjects seemed to be exploring meta-ethics and challenging the ultimate basis of morality, asking questions such as “Why be moral?” This moral skepticism often led them to adopt moral relativity as a solution to the problem.

What they hadn’t yet arrived at was the fact that moral relativity is inherently unstable through self-contradiction and an inherent moral degeneration into might-makes-right. Moral relativity is self-contradictory in the sense that if one person or society’s morals are as good as another, then moral absolutism is as good as moral relativity: an obvious contradiction. Also, if morals are relative, then we shouldn’t judge others’ morals; but then the morals which do judge other morals shouldn’t be judged either: another contradiction. Moral relativity degenerates into might-makes-right because it allows arbitrary judgments. If plainly arbitrary judgments are permitted at all, on what basis can we draw lines on how much arbitrariness is permitted? Certainly not consistent reason. Stage 2 might-makes-right (i.e. moral nihilism or universal amorality) is the logical conclusion.

The reasoning process of “Stage 4.5” is a prerequisite to advance to the “post-skeptical rationalism” of Stages 5 and 6. Otherwise, the “principled-sounding” reasons are likely little more than Stage 4 “received opinion” from Stage 5 or 6 mentors (e.g. parents or teachers) in high school. We need not spend any significant time at “Stage 4.5”, but we must genuinely think through “4.5” and reject it on rational grounds to prevent severe moral retardation at Stage 2.

Level III: Post-Conventional Morality

Post-conventional morality, particularly Stage 6, is the engine of all moral progress in civilization. By definition, post-conventional morality evaluates and challenges conventional morality from a higher and more impartial point of view. This level is the reason that the Church lost its “authority” to burn people alive for heresy, that we stopped burning “witches” alive, that liberal democracies formed, that chattel slavery was abolished, that women gained the right to vote, that federal civil rights laws were passed, and hopefully someday, that our society will eventually become vegan and give nonhuman animals the right to life and to be left alone. To most people, a vegan society sounds unrealistic now, but many of today’s realities sounded just as unrealistic 50 to 350 years ago.

Stage 5: Social and Individual Improvement and Individual Rights

Stage 5 is where people start to ask what makes for right action, a good individual, and a good society, without referring to their own society as a standard. People at Stage 5 think in terms of rights for individuals and democratic procedures in government for the improvement of laws.

Stage 6: Universal Principles

At Stage 6, universal principles of justice are the moral standard by which actions, individuals, and societies are judged. The philosophers Immanuel Kant [1] and John Rawls provide the theoretical framework of impartial, universal justice of Stage 6. Great moral leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King provide the spirit of Stage 6.

An example of the impartiality of Stage 6 is described by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. An even better example and more impartial and universal description of Stage 6, since it avoids Rawls’s speciesism [2], is provided in Animals Like Us (an easy read written for the general reader) and Animal Rights: A Philosophical Defence (written for the philosopher), both by Mark Rowlands. Briefly, the description goes like this: we are asked to take an impartial perspective by assuming a “veil of ignorance” of what role we will have in the society or situation which we are evaluating. We are then asked to prescribe the policies or acts which would be most fair to all roles involved, knowing we could end up in any of those roles (including birth as a chicken, pig, etc). If the prescriptive policies or acts given are irrational under the veil of ignorance, then they are immoral in the real world.

Two principles are salient in Stage 6: the principle of equal consideration and the principle of desert. The principle of equal consideration requires us to give equal moral consideration to others to the extent that others have interests which are crucial or important to them, regardless of whether those interests are important to anyone else. The principle of desert, inherent in the idea of justice as fairness, is that we (including nonhuman animals) should get what we deserve. In considering what we deserve, we must consider what we are responsible for, or what is within our control, versus what we are not responsible for, or what is beyond our control. Circumstances of birth, such as mental capacity, capacity for moral agency, place of birth, race, sex, and species are clearly beyond our control; therefore we don’t have responsibility for those circumstances; therefore we don’t deserve to have our important interests (e.g. life, liberty, bodily integrity) ignored because of those circumstances; therefore we have basic moral rights protecting those important interests.

The Six Stages and Speciesism

Speciesism can exist and even thrive at Stages 1 – 4, thriving best at the lowest stages and starting to be slightly threatened at Stage 4. At Stage 5, speciesism is significantly more threatened because of the willingness to question society, but there is nothing at Stage 5 which is inherently antithetical to speciesism because universal principles of justice are not yet considered important or even necessary. Speciesism is inherently antithetical to Stage 6 moral reasoning due to Stage 6’s impartiality and universality in the application of justice. If we engage in genuine and careful Stage 6 reasoning, we cannot avoid landing in the middle of a strong animal rights paradigm.

The most significant reason that animal rights is currently “on the fringe” of current society is that a vast majority of people, perhaps around 99% of the population, are dwelling in Stages 2 through 5, at least in behavior, if not also in reasoning. Even when animal rights advocates reason with non-vegans at Stage 6, there are other factors, such as cultural and psychological influences (primarily habits), which cause non-vegans’ behavior to remain largely unchanged. Still, Stage 6 is the primary moral reasoning under which all previous social justice movements succeeded. Stage 6 thought also entails animal rights, and at this point, the best animal rights advocates can do is to continue to repeat Stage 6 principles to non-vegans until these principles penetrate the social barrier of conventional-level morality as they have in the past for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from witch trials, freedom from chattel slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights.


[1] For an excellent analysis on why Kant’s universality entails moral consideration of animals while Kant failed to live up to his own idea of universality in this regard and other ways, see Tom Regan’s classic 1983 work, The Case for Animal Rights, pages 174 to 185. For 18th century cultural prejudices and ignorance Kant was likely a victim of, see the September 2007 essay in this blog entitled, “Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals.” Kant’s universality is a Stage 6 concept, but Kant was not a Stage 6 thinker in the application of his universality.

[2] We might reasonably ask, if John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice provides a Stage 6 framework for impartiality, and Stage 6 entails animal rights, then why didn’t John Rawls argue for animal rights? Tom Regan examines this contradiction in Rawls’s thought in The Case for Animal Rights in significant detail.

Rawls is considerably ambiguous and equivocal not only on the issue of what duties, if any, we owe to nonhuman animals, but even on the issue of what duties, if any, we owe to moral patients (i.e. those incapable of moral reasoning, but capable of benefiting from the moral behavior of moral agents). In an essay written prior to A Theory of Justice, Rawls claims, in so many words, that moral agency (e.g. the ability to have a sense of justice) is required to qualify as an object of direct duties of justice. In other words, we have no direct duties of justice to moral patients (e.g. very young children, the mentally ill or disabled, the senile or nonhuman animals). Rawls backs off of this position in A Theory of Justice, but is still ambiguous and equivocal about direct duties to sentient nonhumans. Regan, from pages 163 to 174 in The Case for Animal Rights, analyzes Rawls’s position quite carefully and charitably, and in the process, shows how Rawls grossly misapplies and contradicts his own theory when it comes to nonhuman animals. Essentially, Regan shows in detail how setting up Rawls’s “original position” so as to exclude nonhuman animals is no different (i.e. no less arbitrary) than setting up the original position so as to exclude certain racial or ethnic groups or to exclude everyone except white, propertied males. Rawls’s theory of justice is a Stage 6 framework, but Rawls was not a Stage 6 thinker in the application of his theory.

Comments Off on The Development of Moral Reasoning: Kohlberg’s Stages (Part 2 of 4)

Filed under advocacy, Kohlberg, moral philosophy, moral psychology

Moral Psychology and Development: An Introduction (Part 1 of 4)

This essay is the first in a series of four essays concerning moral psychology and development. Moral psychology is an important area of knowledge for understanding various attitudes and beliefs regarding morality and, more importantly, for effecting moral progress. A society’s collective attitudes and beliefs toward social justice issues like animal rights are ultimately the collection of individual attitudes toward those issues. If we can better understand individuals at the psychological level, it will help us to better understand our society. In this series of essays, we will primarily look at moral psychology as it has developed during the 20th century up to the present. We will not consider evolutionary psychology or anthropology in this series of essays. Evolutionary psychology and anthropology are interesting for exploring the limits of our collective violence and altruism, as well as where we fit in an aggressive-altruistic continuum and how we arrived there, but compared to contemporary moral psychology, they don’t contribute much in the way of explaining how we behave and why in our modern industrial and informational societies.

Two Dominating Theoretical Groups of Moral Philosophy

There are two dominating groups of theories of moral philosophy which have been with us since the Enlightenment. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I am going to discuss just the two groups of theories, rather than the specific theories under each group. One of the dominating groups in moral philosophy concerns actions and “the right” (often referred to as non-consequential or deontological theories). The other group concerns consequences and “the good” (often referred to as consequential theories). Theories other than the two dominating theories include virtue ethics, social contract theory, and various moral doctrines and precepts of religions. Again, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, we will not consider these other theories in this series of essays.

A theory of the “right” is primarily (and in, e.g. Immanuel Kant’s case entirely) cognitive, logical, and philosophical; and heavily emphasizes the intention of the actor and justice in determining “right action” while diminishing the consequences of actions in determining “right action.” Examples of theories in this philosophical group are Kantian morality, contemporary deontology, and rights-based theories. Another distinguishing characteristic of theories of the “right” is that they generally consist of prohibitive restrictions on behavior rather than a normative claim on all behavior. In other words, the moral agent is generally free to do whatever he or she wants, as long as he or she does not violate certain moral principles, such as justice, in his or her actions.

A theory of the “good” is primarily affective, empirical, and psychological; and heavily emphasizes the consequences and preference satisfaction of all sentient beings having an interest in the consequences in determining “right action” while diminishing the intention of the moral agent in determining “right action.” British sentimentalism and utilitarianism are examples of theories in this psychological group. Another distinguishing characteristic of theories of the “good” is that they generally attempt to maximize “the good” for all parties potentially having an interest in the consequences in all choices of action (e.g. utilitarianism), rather than merely prohibiting certain action which violates justice or a similar moral principle. Depending on how seriously the consequentialist takes the obligation of maximizing the “good” for everyone involved, the theory can significantly restrict freedom of action in everyday life, because most, of not all, actions should probably be subject to moral evaluation and only certain actions will maximize consequences, assuming we can calculate a maximum good in any specific choice. Most consequentialists, however, don’t take the theory that far, and look at consequentialism as a theory of justification in specific choices or conflicts rather than a theory of deliberation on all actions.

Two Dominating Theories of Moral Psychology

Just as there are two dominating groups of theories of moral philosophy, there are two dominating theories of moral psychology which correspond to the theories of philosophy.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

The dominant psychological theory corresponding to theories of action, justice, and “the right” is Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. It emphasizes logic and cognitive reasoning in moral development and is primarily philosophical in nature.

Kohlberg was a brilliant psychologist who performed significant research in moral psychology and taught at the University of Chicago and at Harvard University. He was influenced by the great child psychologist Jean Piaget. His research consisted of in-depth interviews of many people of various ages (children and adults), from various socio-economic groups and from different cultures. In his interviews, which consisted of narrative moral problems and follow up questions, Kohlberg was not so much interested in the content or conclusions of his subjects, but the cognitive reasoning behind the content or conclusions. A subject could arrive at the same conclusion, but the cognitive reasoning could be at drastically different stages of development.

Kohlberg came up with six stages of moral development with two stages in each of three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. The stages are based on cognitive reasoning in arriving at moral decisions, with the highest stage being based in universal principles of justice and/or fairness. We will look at Kohlberg’s stages in more detail in the second essay of this series.

Hoffman’s Theory of Empathy Development

The dominant psychological theory corresponding to theories of consequences, feelings, and “the good” is Martin Hoffman’s Theory of Empathy Development. It emphasizes empiricism and emotion and is primarily psychological in nature.

Martin Hoffman is a Professor of Psychology at New York University who has engaged in three decades of study and research on moral development. Whereas Kohlberg’s theory emphasizes cognitive reasoning in moral development, Hoffman’s theory emphasizes affective/emotive response in moral development, including guilt and compassion, but particularly empathy and empathic distress.

While Hoffman has stages in his theory, he downplays the stage aspect of it compared to Kohlberg. Hoffman has two levels of empathy development, immature and mature, and two stages within each level. The highest stage in Hoffman’s theory is one where empathic distress extends “beyond the situation” into areas removed from the here and now. In this higher stage, people will respond with empathic distress to individuals and groups far removed from their geographical location, or removed temporally, such as slaves long ago. One might also say that “beyond the situation” implies a response of empathic distress removed from one by kin, such as overcoming racism, speciesism, or some other cultural prejudice. We will look at Hoffman’s theory in more detail in the third essay of this series.

Philosophy and Reason versus Psychology and Passion

At the core of these different perspectives of moral philosophy and psychology, cognitive and affective, is a dichotomy as old as philosophy itself: the struggle between reason and passion.

Immanuel Kant saw the degree of morality inherent in a given act as proportionate to the degree that one does it in accordance with obedience to the moral law that reason dictates as opposed to one’s passions or desires. For Kant, a moral philosopher who sought to define morality, only the good will is inherently good, and the good will is at its greatest when it triumphs over a base passion to do other than what reason and the “moral law” (i.e. morality defined) dictate one ought to do.

David Hume, on the other hand, believed that “reason is, and ought only to be, a slave of the passions.” For Hume, a moral psychologist who sought to explain why we behave morally, our sentiments of approbation and disapprobation determine what, for us, is moral or immoral. Reason only helps us determine what is most likely to be pleasing to our sentiments and beneficial to social utility (assuming our passions are directed toward social utility, and Hume thought our “calm passions” were in that direction, in the same way we have a “calm passion” for natural beauty). Interestingly, Hume believed that only social utility supports our calm passion for justice, and that without utility, we have no use for justice. For Hume, this explained the unjust treatment of women and Native Americans, and moral progress meant widening the circle of the moral community.

It is important to emphasize that Kant was offering us a rational definition of morality and a prescriptive code, while Hume was offering us his empirical observation of why we do what we do. Many people misinterpret Kant and Hume by conflating moral philosophy and psychology. Arthur Schopenhauer ridiculed Kant severely for postulating reason instead of compassion as a “basis of morality” (i.e. the motivating factor behind moral behavior), but what Schopenhauer failed to realize was that Kant was attempting to rationally define morality, not attempting to offer empirical observations on motivations for it. Hume, on the other hand, has been misinterpreted by many of today’s moral relativists as offering a moral philosophy or definition dependent on our feelings, and thus what is “moral” for me might be “legitimately” different from what is “moral” for you. What today’s moral relativists fail to realize is that Hume was silent on moral philosophy and definition; Hume was discussing only his empirical observation of moral motivation and psychology.

In morality, both philosophy and psychology can be broken down into primarily cognitive and primarily affective schools of thought. Also, moral philosophy is a primarily cognitive enterprise, while moral psychology is a primarily affective enterprise. Words like “primarily” are important here, because while there are major differences in these areas of thought which are irreducible and irreconcilable, they sometimes interrelate and sometimes have each other’s primary considerations as secondary considerations. Hume may be correct, in a certain sense, that our passions ultimately dictate our behavior, but it is also true that reason, impartiality, and justice can be our passion. In fact, through reason, we can intentionally cultivate virtuous passions and let our baser passions atrophy, thereby cultivating our character into a noble one providing us with a more fulfilling existence.

We will explore Kohlberg’s and Hoffman’s theory in the next two essays in the series, respectively, and wrap it up with a fourth and concluding essay, which will address practical considerations for advocates.

Comments Off on Moral Psychology and Development: An Introduction (Part 1 of 4)

Filed under advocacy, moral philosophy, moral psychology