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Alan Bradnam

The Moral Difference between Animals and Humans

A moral issue is generally considered to be one which arises from the need to take another person's interests into consideration. However, by saying another person's interests this seems to rule out the interests of animals from the moral debate. Although many people do value animals, there are still others who consider animals as no more than a source of food. It could be argued that our primary moral obligations towards those people who value animals includes secondary obligations towards the animals they value. The problem then is that we have no secondary obligations towards those animals which are not valued by people. Consequently those animals would have no moral rights. Despite that argument we still feel that it is morally wrong to inflict certain actions, such as torture, on animals. We should, therefore, consider the possibility that animals do have moral rights. If we change the initial statement to read 'a moral issue is one which arises from the need to take another living being's interests into consideration' we can then consider what gives a living being moral rights, and what moral difference there is between animals and humans.

The interests of others may range from simple hobbies to caring for the sick. Obviously these interests have differing levels of moral importance. Although there are a number of moral principles that we could use as examples, let us consider two which are most relevant to animals and humans. They are, the right to individual freedom, and the right not to suffer harm from another. Humans expect these rights from each other, but do not necessarily grant them to animals. What is it then that gives humans these rights but not animals? Language and consciousness have been used by philosophers as separate criteria for moral rights, but we should also consider the possibility that some other criteria may determine moral right.

Let us consider first the validity of language as the crucial moral difference between animals and humans. The idea that someone possesses a right to a thing is understood to mean that if he is denied that thing then the person has grounds for complaint. In order to complain I must be able to show the other person why he is wrong in his action. As moral beings we must be able to justify such criticisms and evaluate our actions so that we agree on what is right and wrong action. In order to do so we must be able to communicate, and that requires a language. It has been argued by those who support the validity of language argument that if a being is not able to complain on its own behalf then it has no rights. In Klempner's Moral Philosophy unit 13, the ethics of dialogue is an important basis for the validity of language. To participate in a dialogue one must have a language, and that is something that animals do not have. But that is also true of some humans. In the early stage of their lives babies do not have a language yet they are still granted moral rights. It could be argued that we know babies will soon attain a language and, therefore, should be granted moral rights. What then of brain damaged patients who have no hope of regaining any form of communication? It is wishful thinking to expect some miracle that would allow them to speak again. However, it could be argued that moral rights should not be taken from them simply because an accident has deprived them of communication.

So far only moral rights have been considered, but as Raphael points out is his book Moral Philosophy pp 127-9 humans also have moral duties. Raphael claims that humans and animals both have moral rights. Humans also have moral duties because of their ability to reason and speak. Animals have rights but not duties. It could then be argued that babies and mentally deficient people have rights but not duties. Children acquire duties only when they attain the reason to understand duty. However, Raphael does not explain why animals have rights alongside humans. It could be argued that moral right and duty go together and we cannot have one without the other. If I have a moral right to certain behaviour from you, then you have a duty to behave towards me in accordance with my right. Similarly your possession of the same moral right means you can expect the same duty from me. If animals possess moral rights then surely duty of some sort must go with those rights. Moral duty in animals seems more difficult to argue for than rights and if it is true that rights and duty are inseparable then the argument for animal rights seems to weaken.

If animals do not have moral rights what prevents us from treating them as mere objects? Suppose I buy some fresh flowers and when they fade I throw them in the rubbish bin. There is no moral issue with that action. But if I bought a puppy and threw it in the garbage crusher when it aged a little, it would be considered morally wrong of me. It seems that there is a moral difference between animals and mere objects. But what accounts for that difference when there is no language at stake?

In his book The Rational Foundation of Ethics p219, Sprigge argues that it is wrong to torture any being because it causes pain. Torture is an extreme action intended to cause, not only pain, but also suffering. Some actions are intended to relieve suffering but necessitate causing pain in order to do so. The doctor who resets a dislocated shoulder causes a short, sharp pain and the patient is relieved of the suffering caused by the dislocation. Instead of saying it is wrong to torture a being because it causes pain, it could be argued that it is wrong to cause any being to suffer.. This allows Sprigge's statement to stand as all torture causes suffering, but does not prevent the doctor from helping patients if some pain is caused in order to relieve suffering.

Suffering, however, is not the same experience for all beings. It is a mental reaction to physical pain and each being suffers at different levels depending on its consciousness. An animal's brain is not developed enough to allow it to indulge in self-pity or questioning life, therefore, it does not suffer from minor pains in the same way as humans do. Pain and suffering can only be wrong if the being to whom they are directed is conscious of them. The question then is whether consciousness is different for animals than it is for humans.

A conscious being is one which is aware of itself as a thinking being, whereas a sentient being is one which feels but is not aware of itself as a conscious being. As a moral issue is one arising from the need to consider another's interests, we could say that a moral being is one who gives consideration to the interests of other beings. To be able to give consideration to anything requires the ability to think and reason. It follows that a moral being must be a conscious being and not merely a sentient being. The question then is whether animals are conscious beings, and further, are they moral beings? For an animal to be a conscious being it must have the ability to think, and to be a moral being it must give consideration to the interests of others.

Let us first consider whether an animal is a conscious being by looking at its ability to think. The act of thinking is a process of working things out by a process of reasoning. However, that does not mean that the reasoning has to be a complicated affair. Although humans may think of many different activities to their life plan, animals do not have such complex lives. Consequently, we should not expect to see complex thought and reasoning processes. As an example consider the life of a mountain rescue dog. Its lifestyle is relatively simple. When it is required to search for someone lost on the mountain it may follow paths which its trainer has used. It could be argued that the dog is simply reacting from constant repetition. But the are examples of where routes have been impassable yet the dog finds another way which it has not been trained to use. I would argue that the dog is using a form of thinking, albeit at a lower level of complexity than human thinking. Human thinking has developed to such complexity that much of it is unnecessary and involves contradictory negative thoughts. For example, if I am planning to catch the train, I may have thoughts such as, will I get to the station in time, what if I am late, how will I get to the airport, can I claim from my insurance for a missed holiday, and so on. If I stopped all the negative thoughts I would simply walk to the station almost without thinking at all. Because I have walked to the station so often it would appear as if I am going there on automatic pilot. In animals we would say that they are simply walking to a place from instinct. However, I do not walk blindly to the station, but recognise various landmarks, such as buildings, along the route which allow me to continue without having to think about the route in detail. The detailed route is a complex form of thinking which is extended by the inclusion of negative thoughts, but the recognition of the route is thinking in a compact form. In the compact form there are no negative thoughts. Consequently the positive thoughts do not need to be verbalised in the mind. There is simply one thought which takes place in an instant and which is perceived as recognition. I would then argue that, because the lifestyle of an animal is relatively simple compared to the complexity of a human's lifestyle, the animal does not indulge in negative thoughts. Its form of thinking is thus compact and perceived as recognition, or what is usually written off as animal instinct. The point of this argument is that there are different forms of thinking and consequently different levels of consciousness. This is an idea that Dennett explores in his book Brainchildren.

Instead of saying that a conscious being must be a thinking being, Dennett says that in order to be conscious some sort of informational organisation is necessary which endows the being with a wide set of cognitive powers. However, he argues that the informational organisation in an animal is different to that in a human because of its lifestyle, e.g. its needs, functions etc. For example, by generalising the life of a cow we could say it needs grass to eat in order to live and produce milk. It does not need to converse with its neighbour over whether the grass is as fresh as it ought to be. The cow simply moves to a patch which is suitable. It does not make sense, therefore, to ask whether what it is like for a cow to eat grass is the same as what it is like for me to eat a chocolate gateau. A cow does not possess the mind of a human so it cannot conceive what it is like for a human to think. The form of thinking in a cow is similar, if not simpler, than that in a dog. It takes the compact form of recognition. Its consciousness is thus at a much lower level than that of a human.

Not everyone accepts this view of consciousness, preferring instead that consciousness is an all or nothing phenomenon. But even in human beings it cannot be shown when or if consciousness suddenly appears in a human being. From the above arguments it seems more reasonable to claim that living beings all possess consciousness. At the beginning of their lives consciousness is at a low level and increases to higher levels depending on the particular being and its lifestyle. In humans, consciousness rises to a high level fairly quickly in the life cycle. With animals, consciousness rises only to a low level, depending on the species, and is significantly below the level of humans. If this is the case then the moral difference between animals and humans is one of the degree of consciousness. For example, suppose I owned the only restaurant where humans and animals could obtain food. Without that restaurant every being would starve to death. It would be morally wrong of me to throw food on the floor for humans to eat. The level of consciousness in humans demands a certain standard of hygiene as well as food. But it would not be morally wrong of me to throw a bone on the floor for a dog. The lower level of consciousness of a dog does not demand the standard of hygiene that humans demand. However, it would be morally wrong of me to give no food to the dog and let it starve to death.

Having argued that animals are conscious beings we can now consider whether they are moral beings by looking at whether they are able to give consideration to the interests of others. Humans give consideration to the interests of others in many different ways. That is possible due to the advanced reasoning capability and lifestyle of humans. It is also necessary because the interests of others are so wide ranging. Animals do not have such complex lifestyles nor such advanced brains. The consideration they give to the interests of others is therefore less complex. As I have argued that consciousness is not an all or nothing phenomon, so I would argue the same applies to giving consideration to the interests of others. It is a matter of degree depending on the lifestyle of the being.

Consider the following example. While hiking along a wilderness trail in Canada, I came across a bear near the trail some way ahead of me. I stopped in my tracks. The bear had seen me and was watching me. My prime consideration was for my own safety, but a second consideration was for the bear. This was its territory and I was the intruder. The bear had shown consideration for my interests by not attacking me. However, if I had continued then at some point the bear would have attacked me in order to protect its territory and cubs. In doing so it would be giving consideration to the interests of its cubs. But the bear does not reason out the moral rights as a human may do because it does not have the mind or lifestyle of a human. It recognises that I am at a safe distance and posing no threat to it at that moment. At some point between me and the bear there is a line at which the threat becomes real and the bear attacks. The bear has not been trained to know where that line is. It could be argued that it has learnt through trial and error, but humans also learn in that way. Even with trial and error there is still not a definite point which shows when the action should change from watching to attacking.

The bear's recognition of whether or not I am a danger is a rudimentary form of thinking. A human would think of another person or animal as a friend or foe with many grey areas in between. The bear's simpler lifestyle requires it to make only a simple recognition. However, there is a very narrow grey area in which the intruder is possibly turning into a danger. But the animal's actions do not immediately change from watching to attacking. Instead, the bear moves from a state of watching to one of preparing for attack and displays this change in the form of prowling. During that process the bear is making a judgment which is displayed by either attacking or not attacking depending on whether or not I pose a danger. By not attacking, the bear is displaying consideration for an other which is a basic form of moral judgment. It could, therefore, be argued that to the extent that certain animals display similar behaviour they then deserve moral consideration from us.

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Dennett, Daniel C. Brainchildren (Penguin, 1998) Essay 24

Klempner, G. Reason, Values and Conduct Unit 13

Raphael, D.D. Moral Philosophy (2nd edn OUP 1994)

Sprigge, T.L.S. The Rational Foundation of Ethics (Routledge 1990)