Animal Ethics and Philosophy: Questioning the Orthodoxy

Animal Ethics and Philosophy: Questioning the Orthodoxy


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Bringing together new theory and critical perspectives on a broad range of topics in animal ethics, this book examines the implications of recent developments in the various fields that bear upon animal ethics. Showcasing a new generation of thinkers, it exposes some important shortcomings in existing animal rights theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783481811
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 12/16/2014
Pages: 236
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Elisa Aaltola is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Eastern Finland.

John Hadley is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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Animal Ethics and Philosophy

Questioning the Orthodoxy

By Elisa Aaltola, John Hadley

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 Elisa Aaltola, John Hadley and Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-183-5


A Metalevel Problem for Animal Rights Theory

John Hadley

In this chapter I argue that a leading form of animal rights theory is vulnerable to a fundamental logical inconsistency. The inconsistency takes the form of the well-known "inconsistent triad" problem: three principles that appear sound in isolation, when combined in a single theory, are logically incompatible, thus rendering the theory as logically unstable. The three incompatible principles that are constitutive of the relevant form of animal rights theory are: the psychology or sentience principle (hereafter, the psychology principle); the same kind or equality principle (hereafter, the same kind principle) and the evolution or genomic plasticity principle (hereafter, the evolution principle).

For the purposes of the following analysis, by "animal rights theory" I mean to refer to theories in which particular moral "goods", such as utility-trumping rights or the principle of equal consideration of interests, are extended to nonhuman animals on the grounds of sentience or, strictly speaking, the possession of a psychology above a threshold level of complexity marked by sentience. Accordingly, the target animal rights theories are "naturalistic" theories — that is, they identify or analyse evaluative properties (intrinsic value, inherent value, moral considerability, etc.) as natural properties (specifically, psychology or sentience). Notable examples of animal rights theorists who presuppose metaethical naturalism and, if the argument to follow is sound, are vulnerable to the inconsistent triad problem include Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Gary Francione, David DeGrazia, Mark Rowlands, Julian H. Franklin, Evelyn Pluhar, Gary Varner, Alasdair Cochrane, Robert Garner, Will Kymlicka — indeed, most animal rights theorists who write in the so-called analytic tradition.

Other nonpsychology-based theories — for example, life-ethic, biocentric or relational theories — may also extend rights or equal consideration to nonhuman animals, but these are not "animal rights theories" in the sense relevant for this analysis. For the purposes of this analysis, an animal rights theory is a sentience- or psychology-based theory. Moreover, insofar as a psychology-based theory of moral entitlements or status does not maintain a commitment to some version of the person-nonperson distinction or the equality of persons, it is also not an "animal rights theory" in the relevant sense. It is only because animal rights theories extend rights or equal consideration to animals on the grounds of sentience, while also maintaining the person-nonperson distinction and the equality of persons, that they are exposed to the triad problem. The person-nonperson distinction pits the psychology principle against the same kind principle, and the equality of persons pits the psychology principle against the evolution principle.

Below, I will briefly explain each principle and then show how important elements of the psychology principle, specifically, the person-nonperson distinction and the equality of persons, are at odds with the same kind principle and the evolution principle, respectively.

It is important to note that the inconsistent triad problem is a distinctly theoretical or metalevel problem pointing to the underlying logical structure of animal rights theory. This entails that it is not a viable response to the inconsistency charge to argue that, in comparison to rival nonpsychology-based theories of direct value or moral status, such as biocentric or life-ethic theories, animal rights theory is in good shape in terms of its conformance with commonsense intuitions about the normative significance of suffering and the moral status of persons and severely cognitively impaired human beings. The only viable response to an inconsistent triad problem is to abandon, or at least amend, one or more of the principles or related concepts so as to remove the incompatibility.


Direct value, moral considerability or moral status supervenes upon psychological complexity, irrespective of species.

Whether expressed in terms of "intrinsic value", "inherent value", "noninstrumental value", "moral considerability", or "moral status", the kernel of animal rights theory is the idea that, ultimately, what matters and ought to entitle an individual to particular moral "goods" (utility-trumping rights, equal consideration of their interests, etc.) is sentience — that is, a threshold level of psychological complexity at which the individual is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. For proponents of animal rights theory, psychological complexity is ordinarily explicated along "folk psychological" lines. Folk psychology is the network of commonsense or intuitive concepts and principles, chief among them beliefs and desires, used by normal people to make sense of the behaviour of other persons and, perhaps, the so-called higher animals.

It is commonplace in philosophy of mind and animal ethics literature for the domain of folk psychology to be divided up between, on the one hand, cognitive or rationalist elements and, on the other hand, hedonistic or phenomenological elements. Accordingly, while it might be acceptable, consistent with some proponents of animal rights theory, to say that the less psychologically complex animals have beliefs and desires pertaining to hedonistic aspects of their psychology — for example, an animal may desire to be relieved of pain and suffering — any further attribution of cognitive content to such animals is regarded as controversial. Indeed, some proponents of animal rights theory refer to animal beliefs and desires as "proto" or "pseudo" beliefs or desires, or they argue that animal beliefs lack forward-looking or reflexive content able to be explicated in propositional terms. Proponents of animal rights theory reflect the purported difference in psychological complexity between human and nonhuman animals by maintaining a distinction between persons and nonpersons or, more commonly, moral agents and moral "patients".


In virtue of having the same kind of psychology, human and sentient nonhuman animals ought to be grouped together, for ethical purposes, into the same kind, set, class, category, or group.

The same kind principle reflects the post-Darwin scientific orthodoxy that human beings and animals from other species have the same naturalistic origins. In a passage cited by almost every proponent of animal rights as having serious ethical implications, Darwin unwittingly laid out the descriptive foundation for a theory of cross-species normative equality: "There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. ... Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree not kind".

In line with Darwin's claim, proponents of animal rights theory hold that as the differences in psychological complexity between Homo sapiens and animals from other species are purportedly differences of degree not kind, as far as ethical theorizing is concerned there can be no naturalistic grounds for viewing humans and other animals as fundamentally different. Accordingly, the same kind principle is a normative principle about membership of a moral grouping or class and is not simply a descriptive claim about the scope of psychological complexity in the natural world. In other words, for proponents of animal rights theory, Darwin's claim stands as an implied act of moral categorization. This act of categorization is popularized in applied ethics literature as the idea of including animals within the "sphere of moral concern". Thus, animal rights theory, insofar as it takes its lead from Darwin, is at bottom an equalizing project; its rationale is to promote or reflect equality between all sentient ("directly valuable") individuals.

It is important to note that while the same kind principle implies a measure of equality between humans and other sentient animals, it does not entail radical egalitarianism or identical attributions of value or status across species boundaries within the morally significant grouping. As will become clear below, within animal rights theory there are distinct subgroupings within the group of directly valuable individuals.


For proponents of animal rights theory, a point exists along the psychological complexity continuum above which direct value ceases to vary (and moral status equalizes), and yet below which the distribution of value remains variable. In other words, in line with animal rights theory, direct value is a natural property that has both categorical and admit-of-degree manifestations. This upshot of the psychology principle has been noted by some of its proponents as a potential source of embarrassment. McMahan, for example, concedes:

If certain psychological capacities are to be the basis of a person's worth, it seems that the possession of those capacities to a markedly higher degree ought to give a person a higher degree of worth. The idea that there is a threshold beyond which worth ceases to vary with the capacities that are its basis may seem an arbitrary, ad hoc stipulation motivated entirely by a desire to salvage our egalitarian intuitions.

While the invariance of direct value above a threshold level of complexity enables the long-standing norm of the moral equality of persons to be maintained within animal rights theory, it generates a tension with the same kind principle that jeopardizes the overall theoretical coherence of the theory. As is well known, personhood has long been associated with so-called higher-order psychological capacities, which have frequently been invoked as markers of fundamental differences between humans and other animals. To use personhood capacities as a marker of distinct subgroupings within the morally significant group or class, however, calls into question the inclusion of the same kind principle within animal rights theory. Imagine a variant of Nozick's Experience Machine. Would we say that two individuals, a nonperson Fido and a person Susan, are members of the same kind on the basis of having the same kind of psychology, if life in the experience machine represents a good life for Fido but a poor life for Susan? In other words, if a good life for Fido was to be adjudged solely with reference to how his life "feels from the inside" but a good life for Susan required "actual contact with a deeper reality", then it would be reasonable to conclude that the degree of difference between their respective psychologies warrants locating them within altogether different kinds. To invoke a distinction I mentioned earlier between the cognitive and the phenomenological elements of folk psychology, it would be reasonable to say that Susan's psychology is best categorized as rationalist, while Fido's is best described as hedonist. What is needed to reflect the idea of "sameness of kind" and to render credible the claim that all sentient animals, human and nonhuman, are members of the same group or class is a conception of psychological complexity that meshes the hedonistic elements with the rationalist elements in a less strikingly demarcated way.

An objection from proponents of animal rights theory is that the differences between persons and nonpersons are not so great as to warrant placing each in different groupings. On this view, there is nothing inconsistent about having two individuals who have different psychologies within the same group or class. Two responses can be made to the objection: if the objector is talking about distinctions per se, then she is right. The mere fact that persons and nonpersons differ in terms of psychological complexity does not warrant that they should be regarded as members of different groups. Two buildings or two ladders can differ immensely in terms of tallness; yet both remain members of the kind "tall buildings" and "tall ladders", respectively. But if the differences between human and animal psychological complexity are explicated along folk psychological lines, then there is a danger that the appeal to sameness of normative grouping will ring hollow. The myriad ways in which the distinction between humans and animals is ordinarily invoked — persons versus nonpersons, agents versus patients, desires versus proto desires, desires versus preferences, and interest in continuing to live versus interest in avoiding pain — serve to reinforce axiological division. In other words, the claim that human and animal psychology can be a shared basis for value is undermined by a folk psychological vocabulary that readily draws attention to differences between human and animal mental states.

Ironically, most proponents of morally enfranchising animals do indeed draw sharp dividing lines through the class of psychologically complex animals, even while maintaining a steadfast commitment to the evaluative claim for cross-species equality that is implicit in the same kind principle. In utilitarian theory, for example, the greater psychological complexity and, by entailment, superior moral importance of persons over nonpersons is reflected in the distinction between the morality of killing and the morality of causing pain. In his three-tier hierarchy of interests, Gary Varner likewise draws a line when he allows the categorical desires of persons to trump the noncategorical desires of nonpersons. Similarly, Julian Franklin, in his treatment of so-called lifeboat cases, and Mark Rowlands, in his analysis of the harm of death, also draw demarcatory lines among the class of psychologically complex and, thereby, directly valuable beings. Finally, in his worse-off principle, Tom Regan enjoins that in cases of unavoidable killing we should kill a million nonpersons before we kill one person.

These theorists may respond that we should not read too much about direct value or moral importance from what are logically distinct concepts or principles that find a place in only tangential elements of their theories. Indeed, theorists such as Peter Singer and James Rachels may argue that there is no concept sufficiently analogous to direct value that plays a role in their theories. A related objection is that an increase in psychological complexity marks a difference in interests, but this difference in interests does not entail a change in value or status. In line with this objection, perhaps it is logically coherent to argue that two individuals equal in direct value have differing status, or that two individuals with different interests have the same status.

But while the notion of direct value may play no explicit role in certain psychology-centred theories, it is reasonable to suggest that judgements about direct value are implicit in the theories when concepts such as "moral standing", "moral status" and "moral considerability" play a role in their theories in strongly analogous fashion to the functional role played by direct value in animal rights theory. After all, in Singer's utilitarian theory, for example, an individual is entitled to equal consideration if they are sentient. It makes sense to say, then, that an animal's entitlement to the moral "good" equal consideration supervenes upon psychological complexity. Similarly, in Regan's theory, an individual has inherent value if they possess the [folk] psychological capacities constitutive of what he refers to as the "subject-of-a-life" criterion. But it is implausible to suggest that use of personhood capacities by some theorists to solve supposedly only tangential theoretical problems is not reflective of a broader axiological commitment, particularly considering that the "tangential" problems include hypothetical life and death cases. It is fair to say, then, that the orthodox approach in animal rights theory has been to include animals within the morally significant group or class, but then to locate them along with human nonpersons within a distinct subgroup with "second-class" status. In commenting on neo-Kantian theories that, analogously, employ higher and lower subgroupings, Arneson expresses the worry this way:

If the capacity for rational agency is a capacity that varies continuously in magnitude, one wonders how one picks out some threshold level of the capacity such that variations in rational agency capacity above the threshold do not generate corresponding differences in fundamental moral status. On the face of it, the Kantian account of rational agency is like an account of moral status that identifies height as the characteristic of living beings that determines their moral status, proclaims that tall is better than short, and identifies beings over six feet tall as the first-class citizens of the moral universe.


Excerpted from Animal Ethics and Philosophy by Elisa Aaltola, John Hadley. Copyright © 2015 Elisa Aaltola, John Hadley and Contributors. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Notes on Contributors / Introduction: Questioning the Orthodoxy, John Hadley and Elisa Aaltola/ Part I: Intrinsic Value and Moral Status: Rethinking Sentience/ 1. A Meta-level Problem for Animal Rights Theory, John Hadley / 2. Against Moral Intrinsicalism, Nicolas Delon / 3. Beyond Sentience: Biosemiotics as Foundation for Animal and Environmental Ethics, Morton Tonnesen and Jonathan Beever / 4. Animal Agency: What It Is, What It Isn't, and How It Can be Realized, Zipporah Weisberg / Part II: Epistemology: Knowing and Speaking for Nonhuman Animals / 5. Enchanted Worlds and Animal Others, Wayne Williams / 6. 'The Flesh of My Flesh': Animality, Difference, and 'Radical' Community in Merleau-Ponty's Late Philosophy, Jonathan D. Singer / 7. The Problem of Speaking for Animals, Jason Wyckoff / 8. Doing Away with Rights, Elizabeth Foreman / Part III: Moral Psychology: Emotions and Metaethics / 9. Disgust and the Collection of Bovine Foetal Blood, Robert Fischer / Hume on Animals and the Rest of Nature, Angela Coventry and Avram Hiller / 11.The Politicization of Animal Love, Tony Milligan / 12. The Sentimentalism Revival and Animal Philosophy, Elisa Aaltola / Further Reading / Index

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