Ask a Philosopher, Part Three: Who Deserves Moral Consideration?

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Ask a Philosopher, Part Three: Who Deserves Moral Consideration?

Robert Johnson is a British ethicist and moral philosopher. He is the author of Rational Morality: A Science Of Right And Wrong and commissioning editor of Ockham Publishing. He has kindly agreed to allow us to pester him with questions relevant to veganism. This time, I asked him how we decide which kinds of things deserve moral consideration.

PMF: Though my cats try very hard, non-human animals very rarely communicate linguistically with humans. They also don’t seem to formulate sophisticated moral reasoning. How important is the ability to talk, think, or act in a moral way to the consideration of how we should treat animals?


RJ: I think you can dissect this question down into two interesting parts. Firstly, how important is their ability to communicate in giving them interests? Important enough that if they had no way of communicating, it could make it difficult to realise they actually experienced life in any meaningful way. Sentience means the ability to feel what is happening, which is evolutionarily useful in order that one might avoid organic harm. If one can not communicate a sense of suffering – whether audible of physical in any way – then it seems unlikely that there actually is any sentience present. A lack of signs of suffering, for instance, could imply there wasn’t any reason to suppose any suffering occurred. But the ability to communicate in and of itself is not a necessary factor in moral reasoning at all. If we rate communication ability on a scale of 0-10, with one identical twin being a 0 and the other being a 10, there should be no moral difference in how we treat those two twins (all else being equal). It’s arbitrary to think otherwise, in the same way that the colour of the carrots in the shop doesn’t dictate what flavour of ice cream you will buy. It’s not rationally related.

This informs the second part of the question – the real crux of it – whether the ability to recognise and act upon moral thought is important in how we treat them? If we’ve said that an ability to communicate isn’t relevant, because it’s arbitrary as that’s got nothing necessarily to do with an ability to suffer, then the same goes for the ability to be a moral agent. A moral agent is someone who can understand morality and act morally, and whilst this is a necessary reason why an individual would not be able to form their own moral code, it’s not a necessary reason why they should not benefit from the moral code of others. They didn’t choose to be vacant of moral agency, just as they didn’t choose to exist. Animals are individuals entombed within the atmosphere of a planet which has unintentionally imbued them with the ability to suffer. That we can, and do, deem it positive to relieve them of any of this suffering has nothing to do with their ability to notice or repay the favour.

Here, in a nutshell, is the difference between a moral code and a social contract. A moral code is something we need if we want to protect the less fortunate and less naturally able as well as the majority. A social contract, without a moral aspect, is something that we enter into only with those whom it immediately and constantly benefits us to do so. Society opts in to the former, and over time has gradually expanded outward.

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