PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday April 3, 2014


Continuing the notes on Singer and animal rights…



[] The Basic Principle of Equality: Equality of Consideration.


So in what way are animals and humans morally equal, according to Singer?


It doesn’t have to do equal treatment; rather, it has to do with equal consideration.


“The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights.” (RTD 118, emphasis added)


To better understand this, let’s first consider what we mean when we say that all humans are equal...


The claim that all humans are equal is not true, if understood as a descriptive claim; obviously, different humans have different actual traits and capacities.


But it is true if understood as a normative claim:


...the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact. Equality is a moral ideal, not a simple assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. (RTD 124, emphases added)


The fundamental idea of moral equality adopted by Singer was expressed by the classical utilitarian Jeremy Bentham as: “Each to count for one and none for more than one.” (RTD 124)


In other words, the equality of all human beings amounts to equality of consideration: each human’s interests counts exactly the same as that of every other’s, and so each human being should be given the exact same consideration, regardless of how he or she differs from other humans.


Racism and sexism are wrong because they base moral consideration on factual differences, such as race and sex. The fact that a person is black, or Hispanic, or a woman, does not, in and of itself, imply that his or her interests are less important than those of others.


The same is true with regard to human intelligence. The fact that one person is more intelligent than another does not imply that it is moral for the former to use the latter for his or her own ends.


Says Singer, “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purpose?” (RTD 125)



[] Sentience.


For Bentham and Singer, the difference between those beings that count (from a moral point of view) and those that do not is sentience, the capacity for conscious experience. In particular, it is the capacity to experience suffering and enjoyment.


Singer’s view is that “sentience (using the term as a convenient, if not strictly accurate, shorthand for the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others.” (RTD 127, emphasis added)


[“Sentience” normally refers to the capacity for having conscious experiences; Singer is using it in a narrower sense, to refer to the capacity to have experiences of suffering and of enjoyment.]


The capacity for suffering—or more strictly, for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness—is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language, or for higher mathematics. ... The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a pre-requisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way. It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare. The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is, however, not only necessary, but also sufficient for us to say that a being has interests—at an absolute minimum, an interest in not suffering. A mouse, for example, does have an interest in not being kicked along the road, because it will suffer if it is. (RTD 126-27, emphases added)


So the suffering and enjoyment of non-human animals is morally relevant, just like the suffering and enjoyment of human beings.


It is wrong to cause non-human animals pain unless doing so results in an overall increase in well-being.


Again, they do not have all the same moral rights as humans (e.g., the right to free worship, to free speech, to vote, etc.).


But they do have some of the same moral rights, including the right not to be caused undue physical pain.



[6.9.2.] Alastair Norcross on Torturing Puppies.


The next reading, by Alastair Norcross (professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder[1]), is an article published in the Southwest Philosophy Review in 2004.


Norcross describes himself as a “card-carrying, no-holds-barred, … utilitarian.”


His argumentative strategy is to compare the actual treatment of chickens in factory farms to an imagined case of the torture of puppies by Fred. Fred must torture puppies in order to extract from them the hormone that will allow him to experience the taste of chocolate. Norcross argues that “human gustatory pleasure does not justify inflicting extreme suffering on animals” (RTD 132).


gustation (df.): the act or sensation of tasting (“gustatory” is the adjectival form, meaning “having to do with the act or sensation of tasting”).


Obviously, it is immoral for Fred to torture puppies simply so that he can enjoy the taste of chocolate.


Norcross seems to intend the following argument from analogy:


1.      Fred’s actions cause numerous animals to experience tremendous pain, and the reason for his actions is his own gustatory pleasure. 

2.      Those of us who eat factory-farmed meat and animal products are in same situation: our actions cause numerous animals to experience tremendous pain, and the reason for our actions is our own gustatory pleasure. 

3.      What Fred does is immoral

4.      Therefore, it is immoral for us to eat factory-farmed met and animal products.


According to Norcross, there are no relevant disanalogy between what Fred does to the puppies and what happens to billions of chickens, pigs, calves, etc. every year.


He considers a number of possible relevant disanalogies between Fred and eaters of factory-farmed meat and animal products, but he argues in each case that the alleged difference is really no such thing:


1.      Fred tortures the puppies himself, whereas consumers of factory-raised meat do nothing to the animals they eat.

·        Norcross: “What if Fred had been squeamish and had employed someone else to torture the puppies and extract the cocoamone? Would we have thought any better of Fred? Of course not.” (RTD 129) In other words, what Fred does is morally bad even if he is not directly causing the pain of the animals. His actions are still resulting in those animals experiencing terrible pain, just like the buying habits of meat-eaters result in factory-farmed animals experiencing great suffering.


2.      Fred is aware of the puppies’ suffering, whereas many (perhaps most) consumers of factory-raised meat do not realize how much suffering is endured by animals raised for food.

·        Norcross: (1) No one who has read this far into his article can use this excuse anymore. (2) Awareness of this sort of animal suffering has been spreading for years, so as time passes fewer and fewer people can use this excuse.


3.      “Causal Impotence.” Fred is the sole cause of the puppies’ suffering; if he didn’t torture them, they wouldn’t be tortured. But no single consumer of factory-raised meat will stop animal suffering by becoming a vegetarian—animals will continue to be raised for meat and slaughtered, no matter what any single one of us does. “Since the animals will suffer no matter what I do, I may as well enjoy the taste of their flesh.” (RTD 130)


Norcross considers two ways of responding...


(A)  Even if you are causally impotent, consuming factory-raised meat is still wrong. Norcross argues for this claim with the Alabama Cocoamone Industry story (RTD 130-31). The person who drinks the cocoamone-laced coffee is also causally impotent to prevent the past production of the cocoamone that has already been collected. So if you would not condone ordering the cocoamone-laced coffee, you cannot cite causal impotence as a relevant disanalogy between consumers of factory-raised meat and Fred.


(B) In fact, you are NOT causally impotent.

·         It is very likely that if only one person stops eating chicken (for example), that is not going to change the number of chickens bred, tortured, and slaughtered by the chicken industry. But neither is it the case that everyone has to give up chicken in order to affect the number of chickens that have such lives. Suppose that the chicken industry will reduce the number of chickens it produces every year by 250,000 chickens every time another 10,000 people stop eating chicken. (It doesn’t matter for Norcross’s argument whether these numbers are right. The point is that there is some number of people who, if they stop eating chicken, will cause the chicken industry to stop producing some number of chickens.) This means that if you stop eating it, you have a 1 in 10,000 chance of saving 250,000 chickens a year. By continuing to eat chicken, you are taking a small risk of causing a very great harm... and “[w]e commonly accept that even small risks of great harms are unacceptable” (e.g., child safety restraints in automobiles; safety devices in airplanes; smoking and drinking a lot while pregnant) (RTD 132).

·         Even if you are not the 10,000th person to convert to vegetarianism and so do not yourself bring about a reduction in the number of chickens with miserable lives, still, “your conversion will reduce the time required before the next threshold is reached. The sooner the threshold is reached, the sooner production, and therefore animal suffering, is reduced. Your behavior, therefore, does make a difference.” (RTD 132)

·         By becoming a vegetarian, you can influence others to do the same, who can in turn influence others. So this is yet another way in which you are not causally impotent to help change what the meat-production industry does.


Stopping point for Thursday April 3 . For next time, read all of EMP ch.9 (“Are Moral Rules Absolute?”) and RTD ch.7 (Immanuel Kant, “The Categorical Imperative”) and study today’s lecture notes.



[1] ; .

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