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Most people seem to agree that animals cannot act immorally, even when they inflict suffering. They are thus completely excluded from being subjects of any kind of ethical framework.

At the same time, there is an entire branch of ethics dealing with animals as objects, and trying to describe rules for how they should be treated.

This seems paradoxical. If animals are incapable of recognizing right and wrong in their own actions, how can they possibly do so in actions towards them? And if they indeed cannot, how can actions towards them be morally wrong? How can killing a lion be evil when the lion killing another animal is not evil? Indeed, if animals are incapable of moral agency, how is killing an animal different from destroying a (complex) machine?

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    Forget about animals, just consider humans themselves, there are humans that do not think that torturing others is wrong, does it mean that we have the right to torture them too, since they are not subject to the same morals we have ? – SmootQ Feb 28 at 9:40
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    The subject himself is tied to morality, to define morals, you have to think of them as the way you ought to respond to different situations. For me, torturing an animal is worse than killing them, and killing them is worse than captivity, and captivity is worse than setting them free in the wild. So the last is what I ought to do, whether I do it or not, that is what I ought to do, Morality is about what you ought to do, and it does not change, regardless of what you did. (from a deontological point of view) – SmootQ Feb 28 at 9:44
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    It's not about whether animals have an ethical system. It's about whether they feel pain and suffering. – PeterJ Feb 28 at 12:21
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    There are also ethics around how you use money, which is completely inanimate. And ethics around how you use vehicles, which also can not commit crimes. The simplest answer to this question is that we have a responsibility for animals, or at least one not to harm them. – AJFaraday Feb 28 at 13:49
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    This only seems paradoxical to you because you are imposing the axiom that the ability to recognize moral value is a necessary condition for having moral value. I'm not sure why you imposed this, and in fact, you probably already hold many values that are contrary to this. (For example, you probably think human infants or the severely mentally handicapped hold moral value.) Drop this axiom, and there's no more paradox. – Bridgeburners Feb 28 at 14:16

14 Answers 14

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There's no paradox here.

Let A be the characteristic of having moral value.

Let B be the characteristic of having the ability to recognize moral value.

You have imposed A -> B. Which implies ~B -> ~A. Yet you observe that some people attribute A to those who have ~B. This is only a paradox if you hold the axiom A -> B. Drop this axiom and there's no paradox. Most moral theories do not require this.

In fact, you probably already hold values that are contrary to this axiom that you seem to be imposing here. Examples of things that have ~B are human infants and the severely mentally handicapped. If you think they also have A then you violated your original assumption.

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    I'm not sure everyone would agree that human infants or the severely mentally handicapped are not able to recognise moral value. – Nacht - Reinstate Monica Mar 1 at 1:27
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    @Nacht I think you're underestimating just how severe severe mental handicaps can get: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anencephaly – Cubic Mar 1 at 11:53
  • You picked just the simplest way of reaching the conclusion and then refuted it. A more complex way might be that having moral value comes from being capable of recognizing moral value with the evaluation of this capability being multi-variable and the results not always yes or no. So while human infants can have moral value because they may well become capable of recognizing moral value and the mentally handicapped by being members of a species that is capable of moral value or by other factors, the paradox remains that animals, with no claim to B, are claimed to have A. – David Schwartz Mar 1 at 19:39
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    @DavidSchwartz I'm simply addressing the OP's confusion that people attribute moral value to those that cannot recognize moral value, by demonstrating that this conclusion may be valid if you do not assume that the latter is a necessary condition for the former. What you're presenting here is different: that recognizing moral value is a sufficient condition for having moral value (i.e. B -> A). That position can certainly be adopted or rejected, but it doesn't address the OP's confusion. – Bridgeburners Mar 1 at 19:48
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One does not need to have a sense of morals to be sentient. Ethical practices aim to reduce suffering (?), which is present in all sentient life by definition. Sentient life does not have to understand that what is being done to them is wrong/right to suffer from it.

So sentient life (are non-human animals sentient life?) can still be objects of ethics without being subjects of ethics if they don't have a sense of morals.

  • Don't you think we humans are animals? – Rodrigo Feb 28 at 11:42
  • Yes, but we uniquely (?) have a sense of morals and so are objects and subjects of ethics while all other animals are only objects. – Leosha Feb 28 at 12:03
  • I was talking about your question "are animals sentient life?" -- we are animals, we are sentient, and by looking and intuiting one can perceive that many other animal species are sentient as well. About your last (?), Jane Goodall makes it clear that Pan troglodytes also have a moral sense, in the episode when the whole group ostracized an old female that had just killed another female's cub. – Rodrigo Feb 28 at 16:15
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    In the spirit of this answer, I think whether something is an animal or not is irrelevant. I think we would have moral obligations to machines that are sufficiently advanced to be sentient, and we have no obligation to things that are animals and are clearly not sentient (e.g. sea sponges). – Bridgeburners Feb 28 at 19:54
  • @Rodrigo I think that parenthetical question is intended to mean either "are all animals sentient life" or "are animals in general sentient life". Alternatively, "animal" is often used to mean "non-human animals", particular in discussions that are specifically about the distinction between humans and non-humans, like this question. – Barmar Feb 28 at 20:27
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Welcome user37552

I'd phrase my answer in terms of a moral community. You might say that only humans can belong to a moral community because only they can have moral agency, owe obligations, deserve moral praise or blame. Only subjects, you seem to imply, can belong to a moral community and only towards such subjects can we act in ways that are morally wrong.

First point, on this logic not even all humans belong to a moral community. For certainly not all humans have moral agency. Some of the irreparably brain-damaged don't, and nor does a person in a coma. Yet we can act morally wrongly towards them.

The second point, following this up, is that since having moral agency is not a necessary condition for being morally 'considerable', we can act morally wrongly to other than moral agents. Moral judgements are sensitive to considerations of suffering; and on this basis non-moral agents such as non-human animals, through their capacity for suffering, fall within the moral community and we can act morally wrongly towards them.

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    I would add children to the list of people who have limited moral accountability but equal moral standing. – henning -- reinstate Monica Feb 28 at 12:41
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    "certainly not all humans have moral agency. Sociopaths or psychopaths don't." [citation needed] – Mason Wheeler Feb 28 at 18:04
  • @Mason Wheeler. I cannot claim that a sociopath or psychopath as such lacks all shame, regret or sense of guilt or all regard for others, though some might. Therefore I have made the appropriate deletion from my answer, which otherwise I maintain. Thank you for challenging me on this point. You have saved me from a careless error. Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Feb 28 at 19:03
  • I wouldn't have gone so far as to delete the entire thing. Psychopaths have varying degrees of mental impairment (i.e. a lack of physical association between certain critical areas of the brain: example) So while it is true that some psychopaths may experience a muted sense of the emotions and responses we associate with moral awareness, it would be precipitous to presume that it is universal among them. – Paul Parker Mar 1 at 0:21
  • @Paul Parker. Thank you. I will try to rephrase. I deleted because I realised that I had made an unqualified universal statement. Comment really much appreciated. Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 1 at 9:24
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I can't give you a cite, but if you believe animals have no soul and if you believe ethics only apply to things with souls then it would be improper to judge the actions of an animal. Just as it would be improper to judge the rock which falls off a cliff and kills a woman.

Another possible justification would be interpreting Genesis such that morality only applies to humans because they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

With regard to treatment of animals as objects, this would delve into the philosophy of personal property - the animals owners, the owners of property the animals interact with, etc.

Regarding your question on whether animals are sentient, this is a historically contentious topic. I believe all the way from Descartes until Bernard Rollin (1980s) it was not definitively known whether animals could feel pain, let alone have consciousness.

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    Do you use Genesis as a justification for morality, but don't know if animals can feel pain? Don't you know we are all animals, and that other animals have the same "pain neurons" that we have? – Rodrigo Feb 28 at 11:41
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    @Rodrigo Right, until about the 1980s it was not definitively known that animals had the same pain neurons that humans have. For certain philosophies, such as Descartes dualism or certain variants of behavioralism, it is still argued that animals do not have consciousness/sentience/souls and thus only react to pain as a reflex. In these philosophies animals do not actually suffer any more than a plant or rock and thus are undeserving of the same rights we give to humans. – Max Feb 28 at 15:26
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    Well, one doesn't need to know about "pain neurons" to intuit that other animals have feelings. Any person who has a dog sees happiness and sadness in them, as well as pain. Only monotheists require that "logic" explains what is visible to the naked eye. And that's because monotheists refuse to accept the simple fact that we are animals too. – Rodrigo Feb 28 at 16:08
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    @Rodrigo Everyone needs logic to explain what is visible to the naked eye, because all too often, what's easily visible and "obvious" turns out to not be true at all due to counterintuitive factors happening on some deeper level. To give just one well-known example, there's intuitively no reason at all why reality should have a speed limit. You can get faster than anything else by simply continuing to accelerate enough; why should light be any different? It's only with the careful, meticulous application of science that we learn there's something deeper going on there... – Mason Wheeler Feb 28 at 18:07
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If animals are incapable of recognizing right and wrong in their own actions, how can they possibly do so in actions towards them?

Many objects of ethics are incapable of recognizing right and wrong. For example, if I kill somebody, that person is dead and cannot recognize anything. Unborn humans cannot recognize anything. If I hurt a fresh baby, it certainly was not yet able to recognize that act as morally wrong, even though it felt the pain in an animalistic way. Same goes for demented or otherwise brain-damaged people (hence, for example, all the fuss about when to "turn off the machines" with people in a permanent coma). Generally, the capability of the "receiver" of our actions seems not to matter so much.

How can killing a lion be evil when the lion killing another animal is not evil?

This is generally directly related to the intent behind the killing. For example, killing a lion in self-defence is not evil. Killing the animal as food is generally not considered evil (let's stay away from the vegan discussion here - assume being a native hunter-gatherer tribe which kills exactly the amount of animals they need to survive).

Killing the lion can be evil if done for fun or adventure, for profit, for gloating, etc.

Indeed, if animals are incapable of moral agency, how is killing an animal different from destroying a (complex) machine?

Firstly, ethics is concerned with values, in general, not just direct personal damage to humans. Values are subjective. Some people consider the fact that we live in a world with a complex ecology a value. Some people view it as a value to live like a guest in a very big house - where you would not go around destroying random items either.

Secondly, one can view ethics as a way to keep people from abusing their power. We all have the power to literally eradicate any animal and plant around us, and Bob knows we (as a species) are certaily doing so in many occasion. So restricting our own power to destroy - no matter the object of the destruction - certainly is a valuable part of ethics. If nothing else, the world would be very boring if everything except us was dead!

Thirdly, all mysticism and personal opinion aside, one utilitarian argument that's a relatively simple metric is to ask "if I destroy object X, can I repair or replace it (and do I really know all the results of my actions)"? For a machine, the answer is probably "yes" (if I have enough money etc. I can buy a replacement, but there may be exceptions, like a machine that runs life support for someone...); for an animal (or, say, a 500 year old rare tree, a species of flowers, etc.), the answer is "no". Thus, something being "one of a kind" is a value in itself, where it certainly behooves humans to pay attention. Funnily, in my experience, this is one surprisingly valuable argument to teach to little children (for totally everyday questions - whether to kill that bee that sits on your cone of ice, or not...).

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Where do you draw the line between humans and other animals?

If Neanderthals were still living, would we consider them non-human? Probably so, as all non-African people have Neanderthal DNA. But what about the tiny people who lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Would they qualify as human?

Even people who believe that we don't have souls can believe that we should treat each other ethically. We're also expected to treat people who are immoral, amoral, insane or brain-dead ethically. Don't at least some animals deserve the same consideration?

I think it's ridiculous to argue that animals don't feel pain. Are we really the only creatures that have nerves?

Some animals clearly feel emotional pain as well. Some species are clearly disturbed when one of their own dies. Or consider the famous story about the Japanese dog who waited at a train station for its master, who had died, for years.

In addition, how we treat animals can be guided by our concern not for animals but for other people. For example, imagine a person who has no qualms about torturing a cat. Would we want such a person to bring a cat into a classroom in a public school and torture it in front of the students? I guess a key word here might be anthropomorphism.

Of course, there are also ecological principles to consider. The North American bison was nearly exterminated as a means of defeating the plains Indians. Its destruction thus had a terrible impact on both Native Americans and wild predators (e.g. the wolf) as well as the environment as a whole. Considering that we're in the midst of one of the greatest extinction events, the lives of individual members of some species are especially valuable. Killing a lion may be tantamount to killing a pice of the Serengeti.

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The biggest moral difference between an animal and a person is the capacity to understand moral reason. A human realizes that an animal feels suffering, and realizes this is bad, while an animal typically does not.

It is not that an animal actions do not carry moral weight, but rather that because animals are incapable of understanding the moral weight of their actions, there is nothing gained by decrying what they do as immoral.

There are some noteworthy exceptions that reinforce this claim. When a dog misbehaves, his master usually punishes him, and people have no problem labeling a dog as "bad" for doing something much less egregious than a lion. The difference here is that a dog has been taught, and continues to learn, whether certain actions are good and bad, and there is something to be gained by letting it know when it does something wrong.

Essentially I am claiming that the reason we consider animals objects but subjects of ethics is not because they actually aren't both, but because pragmatically there is no reason to treat them as subjects.

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An act does not have to be (directly) towards a moral agent to be a moral wrong. This is the case whether you are thinking in a utilitarian or a deontological framework.

For example, the destruction of the Buddha statues by the Taliban was a moral wrong, or at least I think so. It was a purely destructive act. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhas_of_Bamyan)

Similarly, the destruction of ants with a magnifying glass is a moral wrong even if ants do not feel pain (or at least I think so).

There are different ways to think about this.

  • One is to consider that the act was wrong in itself, as a failure of a duty (deontological).

  • Another is to think that the act affects others indirectly, perhaps by depriving them of the opportunity to see the Buddhas of Bamyan.

  • And yet another is to think that the act makes the person who does it into a worse person (i.e. it corrupts or depraves), so they are more likely to act badly to other people.

So taking the last one as an example, it is quite possible to believe that it is wrong to kick a sheep for pleasure, or out of anger or for no good reason, and yet by quite happy to kill and eat a sheep.

Kicking a sheep for no reason is cruel. Aristotle said character is largely a matter of habit, so allowing yourself to be cruel will make you more cruel and you will become a worse person who will behave worse in future.

Sharing a meal of a delicious shoulder of mutton with friends and neighbours may strengthen friendships, help you learn about your neighbours, and make you a better person.

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It suggests that there isn’t a middle ground between adults and the inanimate world. Since animals are obviously not human beings or like them in their capacities, it seems that people then refer to them as objects. This does not seem quite right to me. It seems a language adequate to their own nature, and acceptable to all, will have to be uncovered.

How can killing a lion when a lion can kill another animal is not evil?

In Islam, hunting is fine so long as the end in sight is for food. Lions aren’t food. So hunting lions in Islam would be seen as morally wrong.

Also in Islam, all life is seen as sacred which is why even when an animal is killed, a prayer is said over it. This suggests that life in general should be held sacred. Whereas, lions have a limited capacity for destruction, humans have been known to wipe out whole ecological niches. This does not necessarily mean that this is evil, given that it may be an unintended consequence, or a result of ignorance, or lack of statecraft. But I would say, given what one hears about the kind of ecological crashes seen recently, with repeated warnings by various experts in ecology and wildlife, that’s it is tending towards an evil.

It’s also worth noting, that an expert in the oil industry at Chatham House, a UK think-tank, not known for making radical statements, is on record for stating that if oil companies such as BP or Shell International do not completely change their business model in the next decade, they are in for a ‘nasty, brutish and short end.’

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Suppose a Lion kills a Human. You agree that since the Lion is not the subject of an Ethical Framework, the act is not Evil. However, you are also agreeing that despite the Human being the subject of an Ethical Framework, the act is still not Evil.

The implication is that Evil is dependant on the entity undertaking the action, not that what is being acted upon. Or rather: "It is wrong for me to undertake arbitrary destruction", and not "It is wrong for arbitrary destruction to be undertaken against me"

So, destroying a (complex) machine without valid purpose would be morally wrong - no different from killing a Lion.

(As for what constitutes "valid purpose" - well, that's a second and much larger argument)

  • This is an interesting claim, but I don't think your argument really works, because it has no account of natural evil. The lion's can be an amoral agent that still produces something horrific about which we might form a moral judgment. It's just that we would not blame the lion for this outcome. (to make it more palatable imagine that the lion is someone's pet people killer -- then we blame the moral agent who uses the lion this way). – virmaior Feb 28 at 23:52
  • @virmaior But without a moral agent, does "natural evil" exist - or it it just an unpleasant and unfortunate situation? Whom could you blame for the destruction caused by a tsunami? (In your example, it is the Lion's "handler" who has undertaken the immoral action, with the lion being an instrument they use to carry it out) – Chronocidal Mar 1 at 0:10
  • That's actually just a part of my point. The question of how something can be an object of moral concern is not necessarily linked to the question of moral subjects in the way you describe. Or at least it cannot be so resolved without taking a position on natural evil, which is a pointless thing to introduce for answering this question. – virmaior Mar 1 at 1:06
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I would reject the premise of your question, in particular, I'd argue that animals can indeed act immorally. In fact, anyone with a poorly trained dog can attest to this fact.

This makes the answer to your question simple- animals do have the ability to act immorally. But we have mostly given up on trying to get them to actually act this way.

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    I agree with your position, but I wonder if you have any references that would support it. This would give me a place to go for more information. – Frank Hubeny Mar 1 at 2:10
  • @FrankHubney I don't actually know anything about philosophy, I'm just a guy with opinions. So no. – DreamConspiracy Mar 1 at 2:24
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From the Thomistic approach, any act done to an animal is ethical. What would make that action unethical is the purpose for doing it.

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I think the same is applicable to children -- you don't expect a human infant to be ethical, even so it's wrong to inflict suffering on them.

It's because they're "sentient" that they're able to "suffer", and "infliction of suffering" (especially intentional and when you know better) is seen as Wrong.

Perhaps it (duty) is an example of Noblesse oblige.

Perhaps it's also an expression of sympathy -- it's good to have a capacity for sympathy, and it's because you're sympathetic that you don't hurt other people -- a.k.a. the "golden rule", the biblical "(Matt. 7:12)". You don't want people to lack in sympathy, and they say that those who are cruel to people may have been previously cruel to animals in their childhood.

If you do feel sympathy then perhaps that's another reason to avoid inflicting suffering, i.e. because you find it unpleasant to perceive another's (even an animal's) suffering.

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They aren't. But other simple humans, like children, are. And other simple humans naturally suffer when they witness animal suffering.

From a Kantian perspective, empathy is the nearest natural human motive to a real ethical imperative. We therefore need to limit the degree we are willing to undermine and impair empathy, if we wish for those whose moral compass is not logically explicit to have the most chance of leading moral lives acceptable to human culture. It is also laudatory to practice and develop empathy as a habit.

Humans also naturally anthropomorphize. Again this is more common in those with less explicit thinking in their ethical deliberation.

So to be fair to everyone, ethically, we should accept these two natural traits and work around them. This gives us an obligation to empathize with those who anthropomorphize, and thus to anthropomorphize second-hand, ourselves. This makes humane treatment of animals a duty to other people, and not to the animals themselves.

This is why this duty is not as direct or binding as other duties to people. It is a secondary, derived duty, which can be foregone in favor of direct duties to consider human suffering of a similar degree of immediacy.

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