Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

Can Moral ‘Discrimination’ Be Non-Speciesist?

In response to some criticisms I raised about his paper “What is Speciesism?”, Oscar Horta has graciously replied with some Clarifications to it. To extend that discussion, I am offering this follow-up reply, which will neither address all of Horta’s points, nor do so in the sequence he presents them. In addition, not all of my comments will pertain directly to something he has written, since I cite the views of Mary Midgley, Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Steve Sapontzis, Gary Varner, and Mark Bernstein. My purpose here is to clarify my own position in light of the structural definitions he has proposed in his longer paper and to explain why I think the question in my above title deserves a ‘yes’ answer. To help readers follow my discussion, I have added a few subheads to identify major themes.

Horta says that I think he “defined anthropocentrism too narrowly.” This is not quite accurate. My complaint was not that he defined anthropocentrism too narrowly, but that he defined speciesism too broadly, such that it included all versions of anthropocentrism—i.e., such that the meaning of ‘A’ necessarily entailed an ‘S’ premise. As I tried to explain, I chose (somewhat unconventionally, I admit) to use the ‘A’ term in a benign (non-moral) sense, while he chose to use the ‘A’ term as a prescriptive moral position. But regardless which definition one prefers, it is important to keep in mind that being human-centric is not necessarily (always) to be at odds with the interests of other creatures—even as being “feline-centric” is not necessarily (always) to be at odds with the interests of canines. Moral conflicts arise only when interests collide, but when they do, the “priority problem” must be addressed. Horta thinks we can put off the problem of prioritizing (or adjudicating) animal interests until AFTER we have “structurally” defined speciesism; I do not think so, because the very meanings of ‘speciesism’ and ‘discrimination’ and ‘disadvantaged’ are linked to the ways in which priorities are decided in practice.1 In other words, the sense and reference of these words cannot be specified without knowing the context in which they are applied.


1.  Terminological ambiguity: Usage determines meaning

This last point raises a consideration about which Horta and I may differ. It has to do with the semantic ambiguity of terms. The definition of a term (such as ‘speciesist’ or ‘discriminatory’ or ‘disadvantageous’) does not arise in a vacuum—that is, apart from the manner in which it is actually used. So when we attempt to define a term, it must refer to a particular context in which the term is applied. If we attempt to define terms without reference to their usage in practice, we are inclined (or forced) to be arbitrary and to disregard other uses of the same terms, or to use them equivocally. 

For example, take the phrase ‘disadvantageous treatment.’ Does the adjective ‘disadvantageous’ refer objectively to the treatment itself, or subjectively to its affect on the patient’s state of mind? If it refers to the treatment itself, then denying chimpanzees access to college—or any other privilege we might contrive—would be ‘disadvantageous.’ However, if the term refers to its affect on the patient’s internal welfare, then denying chimpanzees access to college would NOT be disadvantageous, because chimps have no interest in attending college and, therefore, are not “worse off” for not having done so. (If, by some fortuitous miracle, a qualified chimp or strange alien from space were to apply for admission to college, it would be discriminatory or speciesist to deny him access solely because of his strangeness.)


2.  Difference in interests or sentience constitutes a hierarchy

Similar doubts about sense and reference arise when—as good Cartesians—we try to be “clear and distinct” about what ‘hierarchy’ and ‘discrimination’ mean. I will try to sort out what I think is the main source of disagreement—or misunderstanding—between Oscar’s view and mine. In his response to my previous post, he writes the following:

 “Hansen also points out, in passing, that “our reflective moral intuitions generally lead us to believe “that ‘moral subjecthood’ is almost certainly a matter of degree—corresponding roughly to a hierarchy of conscious self-awareness in the animal kingdom.” I disagree with this view. I think we should respect everyone who has interests, and that the attention that we should give to them must depend on the weight of those interests, rather than with any hierarchy.”

The misunderstanding here is that Horta and I have a different notion of what constitutes a ‘hierarchy’ and, therefore, a different notion of when ‘discrimination’ based on it becomes disrespectful. This is obvious from the fact that I fully AGREE with his above statement (that we should respect everyone who has interests and attend to them according to the weight of those interests), except for the final phrase, “rather than with any hierarchy.

Horta construes ‘hierarchy’ is a sense that is opposed to ‘respecting everyone’s interest’, while I do not construe it in that oppositional sense. In my view, ‘hierarchy’ is not an arbitrary ontological or taxonomic (or fixed “structural”) premise from which we deduce which “species” deserve more or less favorable consideration than others, but the conclusion of an empirical process by which we try to assess whether various animals in fact have a “modifiable welfare,” to use Bernstein’s terminology. If in fact they do, then (according to Bernstein) it follows that we ought to consider or respect their interests and not diminish their welfare.

The difference here is a semantic or definitional one. I contend (and Horta below agrees) that “having interests”—even in the minimal (passive) sense that warrants moral consideration or respect—requires sentience; so that the process to which Horta alludes of ‘weighing those interests’ is in fact equivalent to the process of “weighing” or assessing sentience. Further, I would argue that since sentience itself seems to vary by degree between animals, therefore any difference in ‘interests’ (corresponding to a difference in sentience) itself constitutes a hierarchy. So my use of the term ‘hierarchy’ refers to a hierarchy of sentience that is judged empirically—not a hierarchy of ‘species’ that is predetermined arbitrarily


3.  Pejorative use of ‘discriminatory’ begs the justification question

Moreover, I contend that this “weighing” process, however difficult it may be, is by definition a process of “moral discrimination” (where ‘discrimination’ is understood in a non-pejorative sense). Here, I do not beg the question by using the term ‘discrimination’ in the pejorative SENSE—that is, in the sense that entails the notion of “unjustified disadvantageous treatment.” Treating moral patients in a manner that is commensurate with their respective interests and sentience is, even in Horta’s schema (as on Singer’s), justifiable.

  Let me elaborate by noting a major point of agreement. Horta admits the following in his Clarifications:

“It’s not discriminatory to not consider the interests of entities that aren’t sentient. The reason is that those entities simply have no interests to take into account.” 

I fully agree—which is why I believe that sentience is a sufficient criterion for moral considerability (or respectability).

Horta also tells us what should be obvious: that all speciesism is discriminatory—a statement with which I also agree. (This assertion is true regardless whether ‘discriminatory’ is construed in a pejorative sense or a non-pejorative sense.)

However, from the assertion “all speciesism is discriminatory”, it does not follow that “all instances of discrimination are speciesist.” Where we differ is that Horta seems to ignore or deny the possibility that some discrimination as it applies to animals is defensible for reasons that have nothing to do with species classification, but rather certain functional capacities or “traits” that an individual has that are considered morally relevant. Those capacities might vary by scale or intensity, and so run parallel to a taxonomy of species, but it is the capacities—not the species—that constitute the moral relevance. (Note: The view I’m proposing here is akin to those of Richard Ryder and Tom Regan, although Ryder aims to define when speciesism is present, whereas my goal here is to identify when speciesism is absent.) 

The reason for this denial, I suspect, has to do with Horta’s definition of discrimination (given in his longer paper) as treatment or consideration that is “unjustifiably disadvantageous.” While Horta claims that a discussion of discrimination is not the subject of his paper, he offers the following definition on page 5:

x discriminated against = df x is treated or considered in a way that is unjustifiably disadvantageous with respect to some y. 

I find this definition quite acceptable when used to express the ordinary, pejorative sense of the term ‘discrimination.’ But how are we to define cases of disadvantageous treatment that might be fair or justifiable? Of course, one is free to assume (by definition) that ‘all cases of disadvantageous treatment are unjustifiable’, but that assumption is quite arbitrary, and so begs the question.

  An attitude or policy is ‘discriminatory’ in the pejorativesense if it excludes individuals from benefits (or exposes them to harms), recognition, or a hearing for reasons that are irrelevant to the treatment in question. (Horta calls such treatment “unjustifiably disadvantageous.”) But ‘discrimination’ is not only a pejorative term—that is, not always unfair or unjustified. For examples: 

(1) When we raise children, we want them to learn to ‘discriminate’ between right and wrong, virtue and vice, worthy and unworthy goals, and so forth. Learning to discriminate is one of the essential marks of maturity, and is a positive trait in that context. (2) Senior mobile home parks, which deny residency to buyers under age 55, are clearly ‘discriminatory’; but park owners would argue that the right to such exclusions is justified based on reasons that are appropriate. (3) Restaurants and other businesses that give “senior discounts” discriminate against non-seniors, but defend the practice on the assumption that seniors have “fixed incomes” and cannot afford to pay normal prices. (4) Prisons may be said to ‘discriminate’ against inmates by depriving them of benefits and privileges available to free citizens, but society considers this kind of disadvantaged treatment justified. (5) Denying pregnancy leave to male workers might be considered ‘gender discrimination’, but it is arguably justifiable on the grounds that men don’t get pregnant. 

These five examples illustrate an important general point: The use of pejorative labels tends to mask the relevant extenuating circumstances that necessarily determine the appropriate SENSE of the word. Moreover, they demonstrate how semantic and logical confusion can result if we do not keep the justification question separate from the ostensive definition. So, if we accuse a person or policy of being ‘discriminatory’ in the pejorative sense, we had better be prepared to explain why such discrimination is (by implication) unfair or unjust—not merely ASSUME that it is unfair or unjust.

The term ‘discrimination’, like other politically “loaded” terms, is subject to ambiguity and misuse. If one DEFINES the term so that it implicitly entails the notion of “treatment that is unjustifiably disadvantageous”, then one logically begs the question as to whether any instance of discrimination could be justified. (Informally, question-begging is sometimes called “stacking the deck.”) But I don’t think Horta is surreptitiously trying to beg the question here: he simply restricts his use of the ‘D’ word to cases of unjustified treatment—that is, to the pejorative use of it. I prefer to acknowledge that ‘discrimination’ may be used in a non-pejorative SENSE (that of ‘discernment’) when applied to cases of JUSTIFIED treatment—cases which Horta admits are possible.

I admit that anthropocentric views may be called “discriminatory” insofar as they take into account the “moral subjecthood” of an individual as well as the relational bond between agent and patient, but that these forms of discrimination are justified and, in fact, frequently exercised even by animal rights defenders. [Note: ‘moral subjecthood’ is Warren’s phrase; I prefer to call it ‘moral patienthood’, because any allusion to ‘treatment’ implies the presence of an agent; but the concept is the same. In the terminology of Tom Regan and Paul Taylor, a moral patient is any individual who is the “subject of a life.”] As many others have pointed out, we “discriminate” against (injure) small bugs & animals when we plow the fields to do agriculture; but we justify this consequentially by the fact that growing our food is less harmful than slaughtering cows, pigs, and chickens, etc. (It is also healthier and less polluting.) It is precisely this sort of discrimination, based on a “least-possible-harm” principle, that is both justified and necessary. Perhaps this is what Mary Midgley had in mind when she wrote the following:

“People readily become suspicious of suggestions that they could have any duty to animals because they see this as likely to lay on them an infinite load of obligation…. Ought implies can. Indefinite guilt is paralyzing.… But it is not infinite, because what each of us ought to do is limited by the alternatives he can reach. We have to consider priorities. Conflicts of interest must be recognized both within the human species and outside it. We have to take sides, and are entitled to put our own species first. All species do this. No creature can in fact subsist without killing some others, if only by competing with them for food. The point is not that we can hope to avoid injuring either animals or people. It is that we ought to recognize that such an injury matters, and to try to avoid it where no adequate reason justifies it.”2


4.  Moral ‘patienthood’ is judged according to capacities, not species

To suggest, as Horta does, that anthropocentrism (understood in the above sense) is always, in principle, speciesist is to put virtually everyone in the speciesist camp—including Peter Singer. In a frequently read (but under-appreciated) passage from his 1974 essay, Singer writes:

“A rejection of speciesism does not imply that all lives are of equal worth. While self-awareness, intelligence, the capacity for meaningful relations with others, and so on are not relevant to the question of inflicting pain…, these capacities may be relevant to the question of taking life. It is not arbitrary to hold that the life of a self-aware being, capable of abstract thought, of planning for the future, of complex acts of communication, and so on, is more valuable than the life of a being without these capacities.”3

This certainly sounds to me like a hierarchy based on capacities. However, I differ with Singer’s appeal to the replaceability argument, which claims that the loss of some animals for food may be compensated (i.e., justified) by their replacement through breeding. To me, this argument seems tantamount to treating farm animals as “renewable resources.” According to Singer, animals that are not mentally developed are, on utilitarian grounds, interchangeable with each other in a way that mentally developed animals are not. Even if the life taken would have been a pleasurable one, no direct wrong is done if the animal with an undeveloped mental life is killed painlessly and is replaced by another animal with an equally pleasant life.

Of course, one could rebut Singer’s argument by pointing out that the life of a factory-farmed animal is anything but “pleasant.” But my primary objection is this: While the mere presence of pain is sufficient to establish an individual’s moral patienthood, it does not constitute a complete account of harm. If relieving animals of pain were the only morally relevant issue, then killing them would be justifiable if we simply made their deaths painless, which could be done through lethal gas or injection.4 However, as a deontologist, I would argue that depriving them of a future life constitutes the harm—a harm that cannot be measured by any calculus.

Tom Regan gives an evaluation criterion similar to Singer’s in explaining his deontological “rights view.” In a lifeboat situation, a dog would be thrown overboard before any humans not on any arbitrary grounds of sentiment or species favoritism or on the grounds that the aggregate of the harm spared the humans, as a group, outweighs the animal losses, but because to throw any one of the humans overboard, to face certain death, would be to make that individual worse-off (i.e., would cause that individual a greater harm or loss of satisfaction) than the harm that would be done to the dog if the animal were thrown overboard. So Regan justifies discarding the dog by appealing to what he calls the “worse-off principle.”5

Some think this admission represents a compromise or inconsistency on the part of liberationists. However, as Steve Sapontzis points out, “No one would suggest that if we hold the traditional belief that women and children are entitled to first place in the lifeboats, consistency requires us to conclude that they would be justified in using men as research tools, eating them for dinner, and hunting them for sport. So why should one require such an inference in the case of comparing the moral value of human life with that of animal life?”6 The argument Sapontzis defends here is that crises situations, in which a choice between the lesser of two evils is compelled, cannot be used to test the validity of our common moral principles in situations where no such “emergency” choice is compelled. Rather, they function as “auxiliary” principles that guide us in cases not covered by the common ones.

“We cannot infer from the principles used when we are forced to choose the lesser of two evils to the principles of moral status in force when such a hard choice is not required. Such emergency principles are invoked not as extensions of common moral principles but as auxiliaries needed because those common principles do not provide satisfactory guidance in these uncommon situations. Consequently, it is not self-contradictory to say that when we can fulfill both human interests (e.g., in food) and animal interests (e.g., in life), we ought (morally) to do so, but when we cannot fulfill the interests of both, we ought (morally) to give preference, within the bounds of fairness, to fulfilling the interests of those beings capable of the greater range of moral actions.”7

The latter principle, applying to cases in which moral choices are compelled, would not necessarily always favor humans. It could command us to sacrifice humans to save animals on occasion; for example, it could (ceteris paribus) command us to sacrifice cancerous old men to save healthy young wolves and to sacrifice rapists to save Seeing Eye dogs. Therefore, liberationists are not speciesist or otherwise prejudiced when they hold that, although all individuals are entitled to “equal consideration of their interests” (Singer’s phrasing), there may be occasions on which it would be morally justified to sacrifice the interests of some to fulfill the interests of others.8 Further, Sapontzis points out that moral evaluations based on interests, rather than species, “is common even within our humanist, egalitarian tradition. Even if we advocate equal human rights for all, we can still acknowledge that the life of a normal, healthy young adult is (ceteris paribus) more valuable than that of a retarded, senile, or brain-damaged person, that of a person suffering from some crippling disease, or that of someone with a progressive, incurable disease.”9 This common distinction between ordinary and extraordinary cases in morality undercuts many of the reductio criticisms of the animal liberation position.

In an effort to defend an environmental ethic he calls “biocentric individualism,” Gary Varner proposes a view that seeks not to suppress the interests of nonhuman animals, but to help them flourish. He writes (bold emphasis is mine):

“My view can fairly be characterized as anthropocentric, at least in one sense. As I use the terms, a view is valuationally anthropocentric just in case it involves attribution of intrinsic value only to human beings, and a view is axiologically anthropocentric if its principles favor at least some human interests when these are in conflict with the interests of nonhumans. My view is not valuationally anthropocentric, because it involves attribution of intrinsic value to the satisfaction of every interest of every living thing, whatever its species. However, my view can fairly be described as axiologically anthropocentric, for principle P2' is that the satisfaction of a ground project creates more value than the satisfaction of any other kind of interest, and I am willing to admit that only human beings have ground projects.… That is, in the axiology of my view (the principles I defend in chapter 4), pride of place is given to certain interests that only humans have.”10

Of course, to give Varner’s view a fair hearing, one should read his entire book. But his distinction between valuational and axiological anthropocentrism is noteworthy, because his rejection of the former seems tantamount to a rejection of speciesism, and his axiological criteria focuses on interests, not species.

To thwart misunderstanding here, let me clarify a point. In my view, it is NOT the case that the interests of a person would always trump the interests of a nonhuman animal. There may well be cases in which—if I were in a position to exact retribution—I might favor the welfare of a tortured animal over that of a scoundrel, or the life of an elephant or tiger over that of a poacher. But these are not the sorts of dilemmas about which we can formulate a universal rule; each decision must be judged in its own context. What I CAN affirm universally is that wanton cruelty is NEVER justified.11 

In fact, our legal system has long recognized the reprehensibility of “needless cruelty to animals.” Examples abound, but a few recent cases are interesting. In 2005, a motorist was prosecuted for felony cruelty to animals for using his car to mow down a local flock of ducks as he drove away from a car wash. In March 2008, an elderly man was charged with felony animal cruelty for attempting to drown his small puppy in the swimming pool because the dog had pooped on his carpet once too often. And in March 2011, a Minnesota woman was charged with animal cruelty for killing her chihuahua puppy because it had urinated on her leg and couch. (The woman apparently got mad and threw the puppy at the hutch/dresser, causing it to go limp and die of a broken skull. If convicted, she could be fined $5000 or be forced to serve two years in jail.) Such judgments may seem harsh, but they illustrate how morally offensive our legal system considers wanton cruelty to animals.

The crucial point is this: My criterion for moral patienthood is based on conscious awareness, not species membership per se—which is why I consider it non-speciesist. So when I referred to a “hierarchy” by which we discriminate, it is NOT a hierarchy based arbitrarily on species, but on consciousness (i.e., the ability to be harmed). The reason that “consciousness” (which I take to be functionally synonymous with “sentience”) is a morally relevant criterion (and species is not) is that animals who lack sentience cannot be harmed and have no apparent “interests”—which Horta admits. (This would include brain-dead humans on “life support” or comatose patients whose condition was deemed irreversible.)


5.  Assessing sentience or weighing interests is epistemically uncertain

Now, admittedly, we can all see (as does Warren) that even the sentience/consciousness criterion is problematic: We just don’t know “what it’s like to be a bat,” or a spider, or an ant, or a bacterium. We can only surmise (or project) what degree of sentience creatures have based upon how they respond to stimuli. Perhaps this is why most people have greater empathy for mammals—because they respond more like we do. So what most of us “zoophiles” try to do is “err on the side of caution”—that is, to not injure animals if we are able to avoid it. If I am about to be mauled by a bear or hyena, I may have to respond in self-defense; but cases of self-defense for the sake of survival in the wild are the exception, not the rule. (And, as Stephen Clark would admit, I have no “right” not to be mauled by a bear.) If I lived in a north polar region and couldn’t grow my food, I would have to kill my food; but for most of civilized humanity, predation is avoidable because agriculture is possible. 

Trying to weigh the relative “interests” of various animals, as Horta and Singer propose, is no easier than trying to assess their degrees of sentience. Whether we try to weigh interests or determine sentience, we run into an epistemic roadblock: we just don’t know how to quantify or compare them with unwavering confidence. ’Sentience’ in this context should be understood not as the mere reaction to stimuli, but the ability to feel pain. ‘Interests’ in this context may be understood in two different senses—an active sense and a passive sense. In the active sense, X is said to “be interested in” or to “take an interest in” Y. In the passive sense, X is said to “have interests” that affect his/her welfare, even if X is unaware of them. In my view, the active sense is too strong a requirement for moral considerability and leads to speciesist views (unjustifiable discrimination), whereas the passive sense is sufficient to accord moral respect (or “rights”) to individuals who have them. (E.g., children deserve rights against abuse, even if they are unaware of those rights and cannot argue in their own defense.) A chimpanzee may not take an interest in going to college, but all sentient beings have an interest in avoiding pain, suffering and death. Thus, the sentience requirement is sufficient to establish moral patienthood for a great variety of nonhuman animals. However, beyond those basic interests in surviving and flourishing free of pain, suffering and death, it is difficult to specify—and therefore “weigh”—what sort of “interests” nonhumans have. Ants may have an “interest” in searching for watermelon on my kitchen counter, but I believe I am justified in limiting their access to it. (Call that anthropocentric, if you wish.)

In his scenario describing two animals suffering pain—one severe and one mild, Horta says “I think I should help the first one, regardless of anything else. In making this decision, I don’t need to know the species to which these two animals belong.” I agree.12 The same may be said of the sentience criterion: I don’t need to know the species to which these two animals belong in order to ‘discriminate’ in favor of the first (or against the second). In such scenarios, “weighing interests” or “assessing sentience” (efforts which really coincide) is equivalent to “prioritizing moral patienthood,” because an individual who lacks interests and sentience cannot be a moral patient. Understood in this way, I see no reason why Horta should object to using the phrase “moral subjecthood” or “moral patienthood” to stand for affirmative results of that assessment process. Furthermore, to “prioritize” or “weigh” interests in this manner is just to discriminate between them, where ‘discriminate’ is meant not in the pejorative (unfair) sense, but in the procedural sense of ‘discern’.


6.  An internalist (subjective) account of welfare

Basically, my ‘consciousness’ or ‘sentience’ criterion is akin to a view defended by Mark Bernstein—as well as Jeremy Bentham’s now-famous criterion, “Can they suffer?”. In his book, On Moral Considerability: An Essay on Who Morally Matters (Oxford University Press, 1998), Bernstein defends a position he calls “experientialism,” or the “experiential theory of welfare.” The following excerpts capture his thesis (bold emphasis is mine):

“The capacity for moral consideration requires that the individual have a welfare. To have a welfare or well-being is to have the capacity to be benefited and harmed, to be capable of being made both better and worse off. (p. 13)

“Roughly, experientialism proclaims that an individual’s well-being is exhaustively constituted by how well or poorly she is faring “from the inside.” Welfare is purely and totally subjective…. To qualify as a moral patient, then, to be the sort of individual who can be morally considered, one needs the capacity for conscious experience. (p. 22–23)

“[But] that capacity alone is not quite sufficient.… As long as the subjective experiential states are not subject to modification, experientialism would seem to preclude their possessors from moral standing. There is nothing that anyone can do, nor is there anything that can transpire, to make these individuals either better or worse off. (p. 23)

“But even the capacity for modifiable conscious experience will not quite suffice, since the capacity must be of a certain sort of modifiable experience. The experiences must be of the sort that are pleasurable or displeasurable to the agent. Only if the individual has the subjective capacity to enjoy and suffer does he qualify as an individual with a welfare, and so as an individual with moral standing.… Experientialism, then, is a theory of welfare that tells us that how well or poorly an individual is doing is purely a matter of how well or poorly he is doing from the inside, where benefits and harms are functions of the individual’s subjective hedonic states. (p. 23–24)

“[However,] it is not committed to the view that there exists a set of experiences such that if an individual has them, he is better off, and a set of other experiences such that if an individual has them, he is worse off. This is what we should suspect; one’s experiential life is essentially subjective, in that experiences owe their identities as good or bad to the way they seem to their possessor. Alternatively,… the world seems different to different persons. Despite this truism, however, experientialists can, and indeed must, make a distinction between welfare-enhancing experiences and welfare-diminishing experiences, keeping in mind the fact that the content of these experiences can dramatically differ among persons or even among distinct stages of a single person’s life.… (p. 24)

“To use “pain” and “pleasure” elliptically, we must understand pains and pleasures as being phenomenologically bad and good.… The commitment of the experientialist is simply that if and only if the pain diminishes the individual’s subjective welfare is the pain bad for its possessor.… If pain is always (perhaps necessarily) welfare-diminishing or harmful to an individual, then, in accordance with experientialism, any individual with the capacity to suffer pain is a moral patient and is therefore deserving of moral consideration. In fact, we would have an explanation of why it is wrong to gratuitously inflict pain; it is wrong because it makes the individual worse off. (p. 25, 27)

“Thus, an individual has moral standing if and only if he has phenomenological or sentient capacity. … Moreover, our commonsense moral categorizations of individuals fits well with experientialism.… We think of ourselves—normal adult human beings—as paradigms of moral patienthood, and surely it is uncontentious, if anything is, that we have the capacity for sentient experience. Similar reasoning applies to many nonhuman animals. We take monkeys, dogs, cats, and so forth as capable of similar experiencing, and so, religious prejudices to the side, deserving of moral consideration.” (p. 35)


Bernstein calls the foregoing account of experientialism a descriptive one, rather than a normative one, and draws an ethical imperative for those who satisfy it:

“My reason for choosing the nonnormative or descriptive characterization is to make explicit a relationship that might otherwise go unnoticed. If one begins with a normative characterization of patienthood, there is a possibility that ultimately one will be satisfied with the account but not know what implications hold for those individuals, if any there be, who have the capacity for moral consideration and yet lack the desert for such consideration. Starting with a value-neutral account of moral patienthood naturally invites a discussion concerning the relationship between having the capacity for consideration and deserving it. Moreover, it presents a forum for discussing some metatheoretical concerns.

Consider the following:

(M) If an individual can be morally considered or treated, then she ought to be morally considered or treated.

“I suggest that this statement is extremely plausible, especially where “ought” is understood defeasibly. That is, I am minimally claiming that, all else being equal, or “special circumstances” aside, if an individual has the capacity for being morally considered, she warrants (deserves, merits) moral consideration. Moreover, I believe that all parties interested in providing an account of moral considerability at least implicitly subscribe to (M). Still, there may be detractors from other quarters; apologists of Hume’s dictum that there is no legitimate inference from an “is” to an “ought” may find any alleged inference from a “can” to an “ought” even less palatable. Nonetheless, although in general one is not justified in drawing normative conclusions from premises concerning possibilities, the inference in (M) should be granted.” (p. 10)


I doubt that Bernstein’s account will satisfy those pro-life apologists who are fond of defending “the sanctity of human life” using ontological arguments for ‘substance’ or ‘essence.’ But that is their problem, not mine. My own inclination is to say that experientialism and Bernstein’s intuitive ‘can-to-ought’ inference will suffice to motivate moral respect for humans and nonhumans alike.13



In summary, Oscar Horta’s 22-page paper is aimed at identifying the conceptual parameters of ‘speciesism.’ To that end, his contribution is extremely valuable. My concern as an ethicist is to arrive at criteria of moral considerability that “make sense” of moral intuitions and provide a working (albeit imperfect) guide to the just treatment of both humans and nonhumans, so that the powerful do not victimize (harm and oppress) the weak.14 I contend that if a theory of moral considerability appeals to certain functional capacities (or “traits”) of an organism without any arbitrary reference to species, then to call such a theory ‘speciesist’ is a misnomer. The capacities—not the species—warrant moral consideration, and ‘discrimination’ (in a non-pejorative sense) is exercised when adjudicating among differing interests. In addition, the relational commitment of the agent to patient can (and often does) influence moral decisions, but, as Horta admits, that is not strictly a function of species either, since bonds of affection may warrant favoring the life of a companion animal over that of a stranger who is terminally ill. Like Gary Varner, I reject ‘valuational anthropocentrism’; but whether it’s fair to interpret ‘axiological anthropocentrism’ as ‘unjustified speciesism’ is dubitable, since Varner’s axiology appeals to interests, not species membership.



1. Albert Schweitzer, in his “reverence-for-life” ethic, sought to respect all forms of life, but felt perhaps unwarranted guilt for inadvertently having to harm some creatures; thus, he never solved the “priority problem.”

2. Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature, Revised edition (Routledge, 1995), pp. 222–223.

3. Peter Singer, “All Animals Are Equal,” in Classic Works in Medical Ethics, edited by Gregory E. Pence (McGraw-Hill, 1998), pp. 232-233. Originally published in Philosophic Exchange, Vol. 1, No. 5 (Summer, 1974), pp. 243–257.

4. Making animal death painless is beside the moral point, even as if gassing Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz were painless, it would have been beside the moral point.

5. Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 324–325.

6. Steve Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), p. 80.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Gary E. Varner, In Nature’s Interests? Interests, Animal Rights, and Environmental Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1998), p.121.

11. The adjective ‘wanton’ is seldom used in popular literature, but it has application in moral discourse, for its secondary meaning, according to the dictionary, is: “capricious, random, indiscriminate, whimsical, unjustified, unprovoked, purposeless, groundless, motiveless, unjustifiable, arbitrary, gratuitous, reckless, rash, heedless, irresponsible, careless.”

12. This idea of blindness to species suggests the Rawlsian idea of a “veil of ignorance” to ensure species impartiality.

13. While Bernstein’s account may suffice to motivate moral respect, the task of grounding moral obligation may require something more, such as an adequate theory of intrinsic value.

14. Construed as an effort to defend the weak against the strong, the goal of altruistic morality is thus diametrically opposed to what occurs in wild nature, where the Spencerian notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ reigns and nearly every animal (herbivores excepted) preys on another animal. Humans have the option to do otherwise.


Views: 545

Add a Comment

You need to be a member of Animal Rights Zone to add comments!

Join Animal Rights Zone

Comment by Carolyn Bailey on October 1, 2011 at 17:51

Hi Paul, 

I'd also like to thank you for your participation in the ongoing discussion with Oscar. It's been very interesting to follow the discussion and learn from both of you. 

We certainly appreciate it! 

Comment by Paul Hansen on October 1, 2011 at 4:23
Thanks, Tim. I guess you’re the first to read it. And I want to apologize for its length, because I suspect that most people (even ARZ readers) don't have the “patience” to engage the analytical stuff. Rather than quibble over theoretical differences with like-minded people, we’d rather be on “the front lines” persuading self-indulgent cultures that they need to change their ways and start respecting ALL lives on the planet. Animal abuse and species loss is a worldwide phenomenon and needs to be addressed—with the help of media—on all levels (social, ethical, nutritional, medical, economic, environmental, political, legal, etc.). Best wishes, PH
Comment by Tim Gier on October 1, 2011 at 2:57
Hi Paul, 

Thank you for taking your time to write such a lengthy, comprehensive and valuable contribution to your ongoing discussion with Oscar Horta; it is much appreciated.


  • Add Videos
  • View All

ARZone Podcasts!

Please visit this webpage to subscribe to ARZone podcasts using iTunes


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Follow ARZone!

Please follow ARZone on:




A place for animal advocates to gather and discuss issues, exchange ideas, and share information.

Creative Commons License
Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) by ARZone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) Disclaimer

Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) is an animal rights site. As such, it is the position of ARZone that it is only by ending completely the use of other animal as things can we fulfill our moral obligations to them.

Please read the full site disclosure here.

Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) Mission Statement

Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) exists to help educate vegans and non-vegans alike about the obligations human beings have toward all other animals.

Please read the full mission statement here.





© 2022   Created by Animal Rights Zone.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service