Should we care how fish feel? In his 1789 treatise An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham—who developed the theory of utilitarianism (essentially, the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals)—articulated an idea that has been central to debates about animal welfare ever since. When considering our ethical obligations to other animals, Bentham wrote, the most important question is not, “Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

(It's Official: Fish Feel Pain)

Are you aware of any philosophers who have applied this rationale to people? Many people have very poor reasoning skills, and there may also be a technological/cultural gap. For example, no one could have expected Native Americans or Australian Aborigines to understand the people who invaded their lands.

Of course, we don't expect children to have strong or mature reasoning skills.

In summary, humans are generally treated as different than other animals because we are supposedly alone in having consciousness and/or reasoning skills. Yet not all people have good reasoning skills. It's hard to put this into a question form, so let's go with this:

What are some major philosophers or philosophical doctrines that treat humans and other animals similarly? Buddhism is an obvious example, but I'm particularly interested in knowing about notable Western philosophers who have come to similar conclusions.

  • You say - "...humans are generally treated as different than other animals because we are supposedly alone in having consciousness and/or reasoning skills. Yet not all people have good reasoning skills." This is a fascinating statement. One could argue that the reason for the truth of the first sentence is the truth of the second.
    – user20253
    Jan 17 '18 at 12:05

Peter Singer speaks to this question directly, and even uses the exact quote you referenced from Bentham, in his work, "All Animals are Equal".

Your question can be phrased in many ways (if I understand it correctly), depending on your aim. It can be "What is a human being?", or "If rationality is not the qualifying factor for being human, than what is? Should such a factor exist at all?", or "When considering our personal ethical obligations to others, what is the most important question?", or "When considering the state's ethical (or contractual) obligations to its citizens, what is the most important question?". This touches on everything from political philosophy and the foundations of the social contract, to environmental ethics, to even the kind of metaphysical questions that Aristotle was writing about when he spoke of human substance and essence in his Metaphysics.

One thing I would suggest you look at is how this topic intersects with the philosophy of disability studies. The real thing you seem to be catching onto is that many philosophies (along with a general opinion prevalent in Western society) treat the qualifying feature of humanity as being the faculty of human reason. But given that many human beings with intellectual impairments cannot "reason" to the same extent that an "able-bodied" person can (I'm using abilist language here to illustrate the point), some people might question whether or not such individuals can truly qualify as human beings if we define humanity by our capacity to reason. Because this obviously raises some pretty contentious (and in my view, abhorrent) conclusions about the moral standing of people with disabilities, as well as that of individuals in vegetative states, and so on... there has been a lot of interesting debate about this topic by many notable philosophers, such as:

  • Kumari Campbell, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness
  • Martha Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism”
  • Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice (see specifically: Section vii of chap 1, ‘The Capabilities Approach’, and chap. 3 “Capabilities and Disabilities”)
  • Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (see specifically: “A Critical Examination of Certain Concepts”; “Disease, Cure, Health”; “Conclusion”; “From the Social to the Vital”, and “On Organic Norms in Man”)

Hard Objective View:

Metaphysical presupposition (MP): physicalism.

Truth 1: animals are not the same, not even humans are entirely same. Even if they have some similarities.

Truth 1 implies e.g.:

  • There do not actually (as per MP) exist universal rights, laws that sort of thing.
  • Since animals are indifferent even inside a species, then their rights cannot based on actuality (as per MP) be equivalent (meaning of =).

Therefore in actuality (as per MP), they cannot equal.

They can equal in a social constructionist manner, i.e. "if we choose to believe so". But this is a weaker form of actuality.

Context-Dependent View:

If one limits one's ethics to certain parts, e.g. cognitive capability, ability to sense pain, then different animals will appear "more comparable", but this is a limited context.

So if our measure is: "no-one should feel pain", then obviously in this context it's possible to (in a demonstrateable way) say that human rights and animal rights ought to be comparable, if humans and (some) animals can feel pain in a similar way.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.