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Why It’s OK To Buy that Steak

photograph of grocery shopper debating purchase at meat aisle

We’ve all been there. Walking through the supermarket, you’re suddenly confronted by a refrigerator cabinet full of plastic-wrapped chicken and prepackaged sausage, or the butcher’s display case larded with cuts of marbled beef, richly red. Gazing at these morsels of animal flesh, you recall all of the ethical reasons why you shouldn’t eat meat — meat production violates animals’ rights and ruins the environment. The right thing to do in this situation seems clear: skip the steak and buy lentils instead.

But while the arguments against meat eating present a compelling case for societal-level change to the composition of our diets, it does not quite follow from this that your individual decision to buy a steak is unethical.

Indeed, there is a plausible argument that, notwithstanding the wrongness of meat consumption in the aggregate, there is nothing wrong with individual carnivorous choices. In short, it might not be OK for all of us to eat meat, but it is still OK for any one of us to eat meat. This column will attempt to articulate that argument, with due acknowledgement of its limitations.

The argument’s major premise is a very general claim: faced with the choice to do either A or B, we are morally obligated to do B only if A is, or at least is objectively likely to be, morally worse than B. What makes one choice morally worse than another? It’s beyond the scope of this column to provide an exhaustive answer to that question, but clearly two things that make a choice morally bad are that it causes harm to a person and that it violates a person’s rights. By “person” I mean here an entity worthy of strong moral consideration, which could include animals. So, one choice can be worse than another if the former causes more harm or violates more rights. In addition, it may violate more fundamental rights — think of the difference between the right to life and the right to vote.

It follows from this premise that buying the steak is worse than not buying the steak only if the former is morally worse than the latter. This is the case if buying the steak causes more harm or violates more rights, or more fundamental rights.

The question, then, is whether buying the steak does any of these things.

Let’s consider harm first. Clearly, buying the steak does not cause harm to the cow from which the steak was harvested — that cow no longer exists as a subject capable of feeling pain. Perhaps, however, buying the steak causes harm to presently existing or future cows or the environment, since it sends a signal to meat producers — a signal that would otherwise not have been sent — to produce more meat, and meat producers may respond to that signal by increasing the number of cows they raise and slaughter.

The trouble with this argument is that it is almost surely false. Your sixteen-dollar purchase will have no effect on the meat producers’ decisions,  which are influenced only by the aggregate demand of hundreds of thousands or millions of consumers. Furthermore, if you don’t buy the steak, someone else almost certainly will. Thus, even if you choose not to buy the steak, the aggregate demand for steaks almost certainly won’t be reduced even by as little as sixteen dollars — a reduction that, to reiterate, wouldn’t make a difference to meat producers’ market decisions anyway. So, if buying the steak is morally worse than not buying the steak, it isn’t because the former causes more harm than the latter.

The same points apply to the issue of whether buying the steak violates more rights, or more fundamental rights, than not buying the steak.

If killing the cow from which the steak was harvested violated its rights, buying its meat does not cure the violation — but it also adds no new violation. Eating a steak does not constitute a violation of an animal’s right, although it may depend upon it.

And if buying the steak will not cause more harm to present or future cows or the environment because of the insignificance of my individual consumer choices to meat producers’ decisions, neither will it lead to more rights violations.

It appears, then, that buying the steak is not morally worse than not buying the steak. If the major premise is true, it follows from this that you are not morally obligated not to buy the steak. Now for the fun part: answering objections.

First, it may be objected that precisely the same argument can be made with respect to any moral problem that arises due to the aggregate effects of many individual choices. Pollution and unfortunate election outcomes are two obvious examples. Some philosophers are happy to “bite the bullet” here and accept that individuals do not have obligations to behave in ways that would make a difference only if many others followed suit, like voting or refraining from polluting.

Actually, bad election outcomes are quite different from meat consumption in at least one key respect.

In elections, there is no reason to believe that when one person omits to vote, another person, who would not have voted unless the first person made her omission, will vote in that person’s stead. This is unlike when one person chooses not to buy a steak.

In that case another person will very likely buy that very same steak, which she could not have done had the first person bought it.

This distinction is important because it means that any individual’s vote might make a difference to who gets elected — it just has a very, very low likelihood of doing so. However, given the profound consequences of many elections, even that low probability of making a difference arguably makes it likely enough that not voting is morally worse than voting to ground an obligation to vote.

It might be objected here that if the exceedingly small probability of casting the decisive vote is enough to ground an obligation to vote, then the exceedingly small probability of influencing others in some way by not buying the steak is also a sufficient basis for an obligation not to buy the steak. But this objection fails for two reasons. First, voting is only morally required if the election’s outcome is likely to have significant downstream effects. While this is plausible with respect to elections, it is not plausible with respect to the act of not buying the steak. Because someone else will almost surely buy the very steak you omitted to buy, we can safely say that your omission’s influence will be nil. Instead, what can be influential is some further act, such as talking to someone about your choice not to buy a steak.

Nothing I’ve said in this column means that you aren’t morally obligated to perform some other acts that help promote a large-scale shift to vegetarianism if you can. My claim is merely that you aren’t morally obligated not to buy the steak.

Pollution is a more serious problem for my argument, since unlike a single person’s vote, a single person’s quantum of pollution is certainly not going to have a decisive effect on the overall health of the environment. Suppose you are considering whether to dump one day’s worth of garbage in a nearby lake. That amount of garbage may have no perceivable impact on the ecological health of the lake — perhaps not a single organism will or is likely to be affected. That can be the case even if, had the entire city in which you live followed suit, it would have destroyed the lake’s ecology. This seems to imply that dumping your garbage into the lake is not morally worse than refraining from doing so, and so there is no moral obligation for you not to pollute in this way.

However, this conclusion would be overhasty. It might be true that your garbage dumping does not cause ecological harm. But there are other ways in which even a small amount of pollution can have a small, but tangible negative impact. For example, pollution can be an aesthetic affront to people who have a strong interest in enjoying “unspoiled” nature. More importantly, there is another way in which our choices can be morally bad: they can violate rights.

One can violate rights without making the rights-holder worse off in a particular instance. It may plausibly be argued that animals, plants, and even ecosystems have rights not to be polluted at all. This is one way of explaining the intuition many people have that natural ecosystems are in some sense “sacred.”

If that’s so, then even an ecologically insignificant act of pollution may violate those rights, and so may be morally impermissible, despite not making a tangible difference in terms of the well-being or functioning of the affected animals, plants, and ecosystems.

A second objection comes in the form of a question: what if everyone subscribed to the foregoing reasoning? Then the morally bad aggregate effects of meat consumption would be realized. The implication is that the test for whether an individual morally ought to do something is whether the result of everyone doing the very same thing is acceptable. Admittedly, as a sort of quasi-utilitarian sister of Kant’s Formula of Universal Law, as well as a distant cousin of the Golden Rule, this claim belongs to a very illustrious family of moral theories. Apparently, these theories simply deny the major premise of my argument: even if your choice of A over B does not cause more harm or violate more rights, if everyone’s choice of A over B would do so, then your choice is nevertheless wrong.

Philosophers have collectively devoted literally thousands of pages to some version of this disagreement, so I don’t expect to settle it here. Suffice to say that there is something odd about focusing on some hypothetical scenario when considering whether one’s act is morally wrong, rather than on the act’s intrinsic nature and effects.

It is worth emphasizing the limitations of the argument I’ve just defended. As I mentioned, nothing in this argument means that you are not obligated to promote vegetarianism in ways likely to have significant aggregate effects. This means that public officials, public figures, and prominent or influential members of communities likely have stronger obligations to promote vegetarianism than ordinary people. Indeed, since even their omissions may be influential, such people may have obligations to be vegetarians themselves.

In short, the argument I’ve outlined here does not get you off the hook for doing something to help reduce aggregate meat production if you can. And it does not dispute that there are compelling moral reasons for societies to reduce aggregate meat consumption. It simply suggests that you shouldn’t feel too guilt-stricken about your particular consumption choices.

Creepy-Crawlies and the Long Dreamless Sleep

image of large spider silhouette at night

In graduate school, I lived in a dingy little apartment near the sea. My apartment faced a slough, beyond which was the water. On the wall next to my door was a bright light. At first, I could turn this light on and off. But after a year or two, some men came and altered the light to make it stay on all night. The area around the light and the eave above it became a den of death. At night, droves of insects would emerge from the littoral darkness of the slough to flap and buzz in a confused frenzy around the light. Dozens of spiders awaited them. When I entered my apartment, I could see the insects wriggling pitifully in their webs.

The situation became too much for me. The spiders started to draw their webs over my door. A nasty one sprung on top of my head. I decided to take drastic action. I found a sprayable toxin for killing insects and arachnids, some horrible thing with a sickly sweet chemical smell. In the morning, when the spiders were hidden in their crevices, I sprayed the toxin all around the den and leapt back. For one second, nothing happened. And then, all at once, thirty or forty large spiders began to erratically descend, desperately clinging to threads of silk. They were writhing as the toxin destroyed them. Some of them curled as soon as they hit the ground. Others stumbled off before dying. It was horrible. I couldn’t shake the thought that those spiders, like the insects they caught in their webs, died in pain.

My colleague, Daniel Burkett, has recently written about some new empirical research which suggests that insects can experience pain. Burkett argues that if insects (or spiders, which are arachnids) can experience pain, then that pain matters morally and thus we have defeasible moral reason to avoid causing them pain.

The basic thought is that pain is inherently bad no matter where it occurs, and it’s unacceptably arbitrary to discount a creature’s pain simply because that creature isn’t a human being (or isn’t cute or friendly or lovable).

Burkett’s argument is unsettling. It implies that I may have done something terrible when I slaughtered those spiders.

I agree with Burkett’s basic argument. We have pro tanto moral reason to refrain from inflicting pain on any creature, no matter how creepy or crawly. However, I do not think (as Burkett seems to) that this means we have pro tanto moral reason to avoid swiftly killing insects, for example swatting mosquitoes or squashing lanternflies. First, I doubt that the process of swiftly swatting or squashing a creepy-crawly causes a morally significant amount of pain. Being swiftly swatted is analogous to being vaporized in an explosion. The process totally destroys the creature’s body (rendering it incapable of experiencing pain), and the destruction occurs in a fraction of a second. Second, it does not follow from the fact that we have moral reason to avoid causing a creature pain that we have moral reason to avoid painlessly killing it. And there are good reasons for thinking that painless death is not bad for insects in any morally relevant sense.

To see why, let’s take a step back and talk about why death is bad generally.

When someone dies, they permanently cease to exist. The dead are beyond any sort of experiential harm. The dead can’t suffer; the dead can’t feel distressed, sad, bored, or lonely (it’s true that the dying process can be painful, but dying things are still alive). The imperviousness of the dead to any sort of suffering raises an ancient philosophical puzzle:

why is death bad for or harmful to the dier at all? And why is painlessly killing someone wrong, apart from how this affects people other than the victim?

One popular answer is that death is bad for a dier if and because it deprives the dier of good things that the dier would have had or experienced had they not died when they did. Consider a person who is instantaneously vaporized by an explosion at forty. Suppose that this person would have lived another forty good years had she not been vaporized. The explosion is not bad for the victim because it causes her pain or distress; actually, the explosion renders her completely impervious to pain and distress. Rather, the explosion is bad for the victim because it prevents her from experiencing those good years and thereby makes it the case that there is less total good in her life than there otherwise would have been.

A related answer is that death is bad for a dier if and because it frustrates the dier’s desires and curtails the dier’s projects. Many of our desires are directed toward the future and can give us a reason to go on living. For example, I want to visit space someday. Unlike a desire to, say, get a cavity filled, this desire gives me reason to try to stay alive until I can achieve it. If I were to die in my sleep tonight, this desire would go unsatisfied. Arguably, even if I don’t feel sad about it, it’s bad for me if this desire is never fulfilled. My life is worse as a result, all else being equal. Similar things can be said, mutatis mutandis, about many ongoing projects that are cut short by death.

These explanations of death’s badness presuppose that the dier is a temporally extended subject. All living things are temporally extended in a physical and biological sense, of course. But persons are extended through time in a psychological sense, too.

My current self is connected to my past self by a continuous chain of beliefs, memories, desires, preferences, intentions, character traits, and so forth, which change over time in regular, familiar, and typically gradual ways. For example, I now have a memory of an experience my twenty-year-old self had while riding a rollercoaster. And if I live till forty, my forty-year-old self will be similarly connected to my current self. For example, my forty-year-old self might remember writing this essay. On top of this, I have desires and projects that are directed at the future. For example, I want my forty-year-old self to be happy. All this explains why it makes sense for me, now, to identify with my future self, and why it would make sense for me to feel self-interested dismay if I were to discover that I won’t make it to forty after all.

Now imagine a human being, M, whose internal mental life is completely discontinuous from day to day. M wakes up every morning with new desires, preferences, and intentions, which are all directed at the day to come. M has enough general knowledge to function in a basic way but no autobiographical memories of past days. When M goes to sleep at night, M’s mental life is erased and rebooted in the morning. Effectively, M’s mind is a series of distinct, evanescent subjects, each of which occupies a small fraction of a temporally extended biological whole.

Death would not have the same significance for M as it has for you and me. The main reason is that when M dies, this is less like cutting a person’s life short and more like preventing a new person (i.e., a new iteration of M) from coming into existence. And this makes a difference.

Morally speaking, killing a person is quite different from preventing a new person from coming into existence. Look at it from M’s perspective. If on Monday M discovers that M’s body will be vaporized in sleep on Friday night, it’s hard to see why M should, on Monday, be disturbed about this in a self-interested way. After all, M’s desires and projects are all directed at the immediate future, and the psychological subject who exists on Monday is going to disappear on Monday night in the reboot. Thus, the vaporization won’t terminate an ongoing internal life that M, on Monday, is a part of, or even one M is invested in. And for this reason, the vaporization is not going to deprive the M who exists on Monday of anything or frustrate any of M’s desires or projects. It’s as if someone else is being vaporized.

This suggests that the extent to which death is bad for a dier depends on the extent to which the dier has a complex psychological life – a psychological life that has future-directed elements and is unified over time by a continuous chain of beliefs, memories, desires, preferences, intentions, character traits, and so on.

With this insight, we are in a position to return to the issue of whether death is bad for insects, spiders, and the like.

Death is bad for creepy-crawlies only if they have temporally extended mental lives that are unified over time through reasonably thick chains of mental states like beliefs, memories, desires, preferences, intentions, and character traits.

And while some insects have the ability to remember things and execute somewhat complex tasks (bees have a relatively sophisticated spatial memory that can be used to navigate, for example), it seems overwhelmingly likely that at most very few creepy-crawlies have brains that are sophisticated enough to support such chains, much less desires and projects directed beyond the specious present that could give them a reason to continue living. In other words, creepy-crawlies probably live in the present to an even greater degree than M does. Brain size alone would seem to suggest this. Mosquito brains only have about 200,000 neurons. For comparison, human brains have 86 billion.

The upshot for our purposes is that death probably isn’t bad for creepy-crawlies, and therefore it seems doubtful that we have any pro tanto moral reason to avoid painlessly killing them (or rather any reason unrelated to the side-effects that killing them might produce). This is consistent with saying that we should not cause insects pain and that painful methods of killing creepy-crawlies, such as my sprayable toxin, are objectionable. But swatting and squashing is probably fine.

This line of reasoning is somewhat comforting to me. Scientists estimate that there are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects alive at any given moment. Most of those will die very soon. Fortunately, that probably isn’t bad for them. However, like the insects in the den of death outside my old apartment and the arachnids I slaughtered, many of those insects will suffer a great deal in the dying process. The weight of that collective suffering is unfathomable. I can only hope that our tiny brethren pass swiftly into the long dreamless sleep that awaits us all.

On the Morality of Squashing Lanternflies

photograph of spotted lanterfly

This summer, the East Coast of the United States has been plagued by the spotted lanternfly. First discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014, the lanternfly is a highly invasive species that – if allowed to spread throughout the U.S. – could devastate the ecosystem, and seriously impact the grape, orchard, and logging industries. States have been swift to respond. Ohio is setting traps, while Pennsylvania has employed sniffer dogs to track down their eggs. Connecticut and Virginia, on the other hand, have issued a very clear message to their residents: “Squash these bugs on sight!”

Several weeks ago, I discussed the revelation that insects might experience pain and – for this reason – might be worthy of moral consideration. This was based upon Peter Singer’s assertion that the only prerequisite for having interests is the capacity to experience pleasure and pain (since if something can experience pleasure then it has an interest in pursuing pleasure, and if something can experience pain then it has an interest in avoiding pain). Once identified, these interests must – according to Singer – be counted equally with the same interests when experienced by any other being.

Put simply, if it is morally wrong to cause X amount of pain to a human, then it must also be morally wrong to cause X amount of pain to any other creature capable of experiencing pain – even insects.

But that reasoning seems to run counter to what we’re being urged to do in light of the lanternfly invasion. Being squashed is clearly a painful experience. As such, we would consider it morally reprehensible to squash a human, or a dog, or even a mouse. Yet, for some reason, this very action is here being condoned. How can we make sense of this? Are we in fact doing something morally wrong every time we squash a spotted lanternfly?

An important first step is to note that the experience of being squashed will not be consistent across species. For a human, it will be utterly traumatizing – filled with not only physical pain, but the dread and terror of one’s imminent end. Arguably, the pain will be slightly less for the dog or mouse – if only since they will largely lack awareness of what’s happening to them. What, then, will the experience be like for the lanternfly? This is a difficult question – made all the more difficult by the fact that we are only on the cusp of discovering that insects might feel pain, let alone being able to quantify it. Let’s assume, then, that the amount of pain (both physical and psychological) experienced by a lantern fly upon being squashed is significantly less than that felt by a human or dog or mouse going through the very same experience. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of a human receiving a particularly bad papercut.

What this means, then, is that our moral attitudes towards squashing lantern bugs should be roughly the same as inflicting painful papercuts on others. And, chances are, even though the latter is a relatively minor harm, we would usually refrain from doing this on the assumption that it is morally wrong.

For this reason, we would seem to have a moral reason to refrain from inflicting the precise same amount of pain on lanternflies. To do otherwise would, according to Singer, be speciest.

But we cannot stop our moral considerations there. While it might be wrong to inflict pain on a single insect for no good reason, we also need to take into account how our actions will affect the pain and pleasure of other living beings. This is particularly relevant in the context of invasive species. Some species – by their very existence in an alien environment – create enormous suffering and death for the local fauna. Just look at the ecological devastation wrought by domestic cats. In such cases, a small amount of harm to some animals might be justified by the fact that it avoids a much greater harm to other animals.

The lanternfly might be one such case. While the damage they cause is largely flora-based – feasting on around 70 host plant species – the flow-on ecological effects are set to be devastating, as native fauna finds itself starving as a result of dwindling food supplies.

But here’s the thing: even if some greater good justifies us causing harm to an invasive species, we are under a moral obligation to do all we can to minimize the harm necessary to achieve that good.

And this shouldn’t be surprising. It might be morally permissible for me to break someone’s car window in order to save the life of a severely dehydrated dog on a hot summer’s day. But that same justification wouldn’t allow me to then go on to key their door and slash their tires.

The same limits apply here. Even if we have good reason to do all we can to destroy lanternflies, this does not warrant wanton cruelty. This is why ethicists are so concerned about implementing ‘bounties’ on certain invasive species. Perverse incentives can bring about perverse outcomes. If there is a greater ecological good to be achieved, we may be morally justified in causing harm to certain invasive species. However, this harm will only be permitted to the extent that it is necessary in order to achieve that good. Gratuitous harm will remain morally impermissible. We should endeavor, then, to solve ecological crises while treating invasive species as humanely as possible. And if insects can experience pain, then this includes them too.

On the Morality of Declawing Cats

photograph of cat claws pawing at chair

In late May, the California State Assembly advanced a bill banning the declawing of cats. If the bill is passed by the State Senate, California will become only the third U.S. state – along with New York and Maryland – to have banned this particular procedure. But what does cat declawing involve, and why might we have reason to think that it’s wrong?

Several months ago, I argued that we have strong moral reasons to keep our pet cats indoors at all times. It’s a necessary step in order to prevent the decimation of native wildlife (including many endangered species) and it’s also much better for cats themselves – extending their expected lifespan from 2-5 years to 10-15 years. Further, so long as owners are attentive to indoor enrichment, these benefits can be obtained at almost no cost – with indoor cats capable of being just as happy as outdoor cats.

There may be some minor drawbacks, however – chief among these being the potential damage caused to furnishing and décor. Cats regularly (and instinctually) pull the claws on their front paws through surfaces that offer some kind of resistance. This is done for a number of reasons, including (1) marking their territory, (2) exercising their muscles, (3) relieving stress, and (4) removing worn sheaths from their claws. While outdoors, cats will typically direct this clawing behavior towards hardened ground, tree trunks, and other rough surfaces. Indoors, things get a little trickier, with cats obliviously directing their clawing behavior towards leather couches, expensive stereo speakers, and Grandma’s antique furnishings.

Frustration at this continual damage can often drive owners to declaw their cats. In fact, around 23 million pet cats – more than 20 percent of all domestic cats in the U.S. – have been through this procedure. To the uninitiated, ‘declawing’ might sound relatively harmless. But sadly, this is not the case.

Cat claws grow not from the skin, but from the bone. Thus, a cat declawing procedure – or onychectomy – necessarily requires the amputation of the last digital bone on each front toe. This would, for a human, be equivalent to cutting off the tips of your fingers at the knuckle just below the fingernail.

Understandably, this is far from a simple procedure, and is often accompanied by weeks to months of post-operative suffering and pain management. There are also accompanying risks of infection, tissue necrosis, nerve damage, and bone spurs. Even where successful, the procedure fundamentally alters the way in which a cat walks, often leading to lifelong pain.

It is these harms to cats – both actual and potential – that have already led more than forty countries (including UK, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway) to ban the declawing of cats. In California, the only opposition to the bill came from the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), who claimed that veterinarians must be able to declaw the cats of autistic children.

This was unusual reasoning, given that scientific evidence shows that declawed cats actually bite more often – and much harder – than cats that have not been through the procedure.

It’s perhaps worth noting that declawing procedures are often charged at a rate of more than $1000/hour, meaning that successful passage of the bill will stem a large source of revenue for veterinarians.

There are, of course, certain circumstances in which declawing might be absolutely necessary – particularly for the well-being of the cat. But legislation often contains exceptions for such cases. The California Bill, for example, continues to allow the procedure for the medically necessary purpose of addressing a recurring infection, disease, injury, or abnormal condition that affects the cat’s health. What it does prohibit is the use of declawing for cosmetic or aesthetic purposes or “to make the cat more convenient to keep or handle.”

And this is precisely where the real immorality of cat declawing becomes evident. Suppose we take a consequentialist approach to an issue like this, claiming that we’ll be morally justified so long as the good consequences justify the unsavoury means. To be fair, there are good consequences that come from declawing. Having a pristine home with unshredded décor is a good thing. As is avoiding the replacement of a valuable piece of furniture or a priceless heirloom. But these very same goods can be achieved by other means – means that come at far less cost to our cuddly companions. For one, providing a cat with an abundance of more attractive clawing alternatives – like scratching posts – can minimize their desire to scratch other objects. This can be coupled with behavioral training, where cats are rewarded for clawing the right things, and discouraged from clawing the wrong things. Even frequent nail trimming (where a cat’s claws are clipped – but not removed) can go a long way to minimizing damage when a pet does target an item they are not supposed to. Unfortunately, these methods require time and energy – something many pet owners are unwilling to spend in addressing the issue of cat-related damage to furnishings. Declawing provides an easy (if not cheap) solution to the problem – but it’s certainly hard to argue that it’s the morally right one.

The Smithfield Piglet Case: Factory Farms and Civil Disobedience

photograph of pigs vying to look out of chain-link pen

In the middle of the night sometime in 2017, members of the animal welfare group Direct Action Everywhere entered Circle Four Farm, a factory farm in Beaver County, Utah, that processes and kills 1.2 million pigs a year for Smithfield Foods, the largest meat production company in the country. One of their objectives was to film the way that the animals in the facility were being treated. A second objective was to rescue some of the most vulnerable animals that they found.

On July 6th, the group posted the video of their experiences that night on YouTube. As it begins, the filmmakers describe witnessing a sow who had collapsed with sickness and was no longer capable of feeding piglets being tossed headfirst into a pile of at least a hundred dead young animals. The footage goes on to document countless sows and their piglets kept in very small crates. It includes disturbing images of a sow in a gestation crate, feeding some piglets while surrounded by other dead and crushed piglets, covered in feces, crammed into the tight space. The group selects two piglets to take with them. The first was a piglet who was found with her face covered in blood. She was small and close to death. The nipples of her mother were so badly cut that they no longer provided milk and her piglets were drinking blood to survive. This piglet was not likely to survive without intervention. The second piglet was weak with starvation and had collapsed. Prospects for survival for this piglet were similarly bleak. The cash value of the two animals was $42.50 each.

The loss of pigs such as these is built into the business plan of Circle Four Farms since many animals do not survive under these conditions. These piglets in particular, because of the state of their health at the time that they were found, were likely to die and to be counted among these losses.

The group took the two piglets from the facility, and brought them to a waiting vehicle where they were immediately fed. They received veterinary services and were then taken to an animal sanctuary to live out the remainder of their lives in peace. At the end of the video, the piglets are shown healthy and seemingly happy, while a member of the welfare group explains that rescuing animals from factory farms is crucial for the animals involved, but also serves an important function for the movement; optimism and hope can serve as an antidote to the despair caused by the magnitude of the problem of animal mistreatment in the world.

After the video was published on YouTube, an FBI manhunt for the people involved ensued and significant resources were used. During a government raid of an animal sanctuary, FBI veterinarians sliced off a portion of a pig’s ear for the purposes of genetic testing. Eventually, the investigation led to the arrest of activists Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklesimer. The federal government declined to prosecute, but Utah prosecutors elected to pursue felony burglary and theft charges for which the defendants could have potentially faced ten years in prison.

When the case went to trial, District Court Judge Jeffrey Wilcox made a series of admissibility rulings that shocked those watching the case closely. He blocked the jury from viewing the video that the group took that night, which was the very video that motivated the investigation and prosecution in the first place. He only let jurors see photographs of the scene in an edited form (for instance, he ordered an image cut in half that portrayed a piglet sucking from a cut and bloody nipple), and he did not allow any evidence about the motive for the removal of the piglets to be introduced.

In other words, the judge would not allow the jury to hear that piglets were removed to save their lives or that the group entered the facility to raise awareness about animal mistreatment and cruelty. His justification for these rulings was that the case was about burglary, not about animal rights.

These rulings were made in the political context of a state with an economy that relies heavily on industrial animal agriculture. In 2012, as protection for these institutions the state implemented an “ag-gag law” that made it illegal to document evidence of animal abuse on factory farms. That law was ruled unconstitutional in 2017.

Despite the evidentiary restrictions, on October 8th, 2022, the jury acquitted Hsiung and Picklesimer of all charges. This is now being treated as a landmark case in animal law and animal ethics in general, and as an important case study for discussion of a potential right to rescue animals in distress.

Though many view the outcome of the trial as a victory, others are critical. They argue that trespassing, burglary, and theft are against the law for good reason. If a person or group has an important message to convey, surely they can do so without breaking the law. Some argue further that animals have a lesser or even non-existent moral status — they exist on this planet for us to do with what we will. We simply do not have the space to raise these animals on large farms where they can roam free and doing so would be impractical. If we want to feed the world’s population and to do so in ways that many people consider healthy and delicious, this form of meat production is our only choice. Critics also raise concerns that abandoning industrial animal agriculture would be devastating to the economy. The overriding principle to which many people on the other side of this case appeal is that our sole obligation is to do what is best for human beings. That animals trap and kill other animals is just a fact of nature, and there is no reason why humans should be exempt from that general principle.

Animal advocates argue that it is simply not true that this is the only way we can feed the human population in both healthy and delicious ways. Humans can satisfy their nutritional needs by eating plant-based foods.

Non-human animals, and farm animals in particular, can experience a full range of emotions, including suffering and joy. They form strong emotional attachments to their peers and to their offspring.

In light of this, if we can meet our food needs in other ways, we ought, morally, to do so.

The strategy employed by Direct Action Everywhere is nothing new. Their defenders argue that the actions of the group were an instance of justified civil disobedience — a strategy defended and practiced by figures like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Thoreau, for instance, refused to pay taxes in support of a government that actively participated in the institution of slavery. He argues that if a law

is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

Martin Luther King Jr. broke unjust laws on many occasions and was jailed 29 times. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he argues to the local clergy imploring him to change his tactics,

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with the underlying causes.

The activists who broke into Circle Four Farm that night in 2017 made no attempt to keep their actions secret, indeed, they posted their activities on the internet for the whole world to see. They engaged in civil disobedience fully aware that they might face consequences. In their trial, Justice Wilcox ruled in ways that sought to prevent careful consideration of underlying causes and encouraged jurors to focus on only one effect — theft. The jury refused to do so. The powerful lobby for industrial animal agriculture does everything in its power to control public perception of food production in the country and worldwide. With such widespread manipulation taking place, if the well-being of animals matters, we arguably can’t afford to wait. As Thoreau says, of unjust laws and practices,

Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

Trophy Hunting Is Immoral Only If Hunting for Meat Is Immoral

photograph of stuffed birds and animal heads on hunting lodge wall

On July 2nd, 2015, American dentist Walter Palmer (legally) killed a lion named Cecil, a favorite of visitors of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The news of Cecil’s death and several unsavory pictures of Palmer went viral, prompting a vicious backlash against Palmer and an international discussion about the morality of trophy hunting. People all over the world condemned the practice, and many people became convinced that trophy hunting is immoral.

My topic in this post is the morality of trophy hunting. Instead of denouncing or defending the practice, I argue that a distinction sometimes drawn by opponents of the practice cannot be maintained.

Some people believe that trophy hunting is inherently reprehensible yet hunting for meat is not. In my view, there is no inherent morally significant difference between trophy hunting and hunting for meat.

So, trophy hunting ought to be universally condemned only if meat hunting ought to be universally condemned.

First, let’s get clear on some terms and the scope of my claims. By ‘trophy hunting,’ I mean recreational hunting (or fishing) for trophies, sport, or prestige, without the intention of keeping meat for consumption. By ‘meat hunting,’ I mean recreational hunting (or fishing) with the intention of keeping some meat for consumption. Crucially, I limit my discussion to hunting as it is practiced by well-to-do Westerners and others who do not need to hunt to sustain themselves.

Now, to the argument.

Most people believe that animals matter, morally speaking. Although people disagree about how much and in what ways animals matter, there are zones of clear consensus. For instance, almost everyone would agree that it would be wrong to vivisect a stray dog in order to amuse guests at a party (as it is rumored the philosopher René Descartes did), mainly because the great harm that would be done to the dog by such an action would not be outweighed by other sufficiently important moral considerations.

Likewise, almost everyone would agree that hunting is permissible only if the harm or setback to the hunted animal is outweighed by other morally important considerations.

If hunting were, in general, perfectly analogous to frivolous vivisection, everyone would universally condemn it.

As it stands, hunting is not perfectly analogous to frivolous vivisection. While both activities involve animal suffering and death, the former but not the latter is associated with morally important goods. For one, hunting can have beneficial environmental and social effects. Hunting can be used to control invasive species, raise money for conservation, and so forth. Then there are the benefits to the hunter. I’m told hunting can be deeply pleasurable. Reportedly, it can be exhilarating, relaxing, challenging, satisfying, even transcendent. I’ve never been hunting, so I can’t speak from personal experience. But the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset can:

When one is hunting, the air has another, more exquisite feel as it glides over the skin or enters the lungs, the rocks acquire a more expressive physiognomy, and the vegetation becomes loaded with meaning. But all this is due to the fact that the hunter, while he advances or waits crouching, feels tied through the earth to the animal he pursues, whether the animal is in view, hidden, or absent.

Unlike the experience of partygoers watching a frivolous vivisection, the experience Gasset describes seems significantly valuable. Apart from the experience of hunting, the projects, skills, activities, and communities connected with the practice are part of what makes life meaningful and interesting to many hunters. And finally, there are the spoils. Trophy hunters obtain war stories, heads, antlers — that sort of thing. Meat hunters obtain meat. Hunters desire these spoils and are pleased when they obtain them, and since we have moral reason to care about whether a person is pleased and gets what they want, these spoils are morally important, too.

Now, you might think that the goods associated with recreational hunting can never outweigh its morally objectionable features. If so, then you probably already agree with me that there is no fundamental distinction between trophy and meat hunting. Both are always wrong. Many people, however, believe that hunting is permissible if and only if it yields some particular combination of the goods just enumerated. In other words, the overall benefits of hunting can (but won’t always) outweigh the harm to the hunted animals. For instance, you might think that deer hunting is permissible so long as the practice benefits the ecosystem and the hunter eats the meat.

I believe that ideas of this sort are what usually lead people to conclude that there is some inherent moral difference between meat hunting and trophy hunting.

Somehow, the fact that the hunter consumes parts of the hunted animal is supposed to justify the harm done to the animal in a way that nothing else, except perhaps direct environmental or social benefits, can.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that the value gained by eating hunted meat is not relevantly different from the value associated with the hunting experience itself or with the procurement of trophies. Eating hunted meat may be especially pleasurable, but it does not provide a well-off Westerner with any more sustenance than could be obtained by eating beans and a B12 supplement. Thus, when trying to determine if the suffering and death of a hunted animal is compensated for by the good that comes of it, we shouldn’t count the fact that the hunter will obtain sustenance by hunting, since the hunter will obtain sustenance either way. All the value gained by eating a hunted animal as opposed to letting the animal live and eating beans comes from the special pleasure obtained by eating the hunted animal.

An analogy may help make this last point clearer. Suppose you are trying to decide between eating dinner at two equally nutritious but differently priced restaurants. The fact that you will eat something nutritious if you go to the more expensive restaurant cannot play a part in justifying the extra money you would spend in going there, because you will eat something nutritious in either case. Spending the extra money is worth it only if the more expensive restaurant will provide you with a sufficiently more pleasurable gustatory experience.

And here’s the thing.

In principle, a trophy hunter can get the same amount of pleasure out of admiring a stuffed lion’s head or telling a great story as the meat hunter can get from eating hunted meat.

In fact, the trophy hunter’s pleasure is likely to be longer lasting, since trophies, unlike meat, needn’t be consumed to be enjoyed. So, if trophy hunting is universally morally problematic because the suffering and death of the animal can never be outweighed by the benefits of the practice, then recreational meat hunting is universally problematic, too, since both produce basically the same types of benefits. It looks as if there is no inherent morally important difference between recreational meat hunting and trophy hunting.

Let me consider two objections.

An objector might point out that trophy hunting is more likely than meat hunting to produce negative environmental and social effects since trophy hunters are more often interested in targeting endangered species, megafauna, and so on. If so, then trophy hunters need to be more careful than meat hunters when selecting their targets so as to avoid producing these effects. But the issue at hand is not whether it is morally acceptable to hunt this or that animal (in this or that context). The issue is whether eating the meat of a hunted animal makes any deep moral difference. And trophy hunting (as I’ve defined it) needn’t produce any special environmental or social effects. For example, someone who hunts deer in Putnam County and secretly throws the meat away is going to produce the same basic environmental and social impact as someone in Putnam County who consumes the deer they hunt.

An objector might argue that eating a hunted animal’s meat is the only way to properly respect its dignity. I find this hard to accept. First, it’s likely all the same to the dead animal; unlike humans, most animals do not have wishes or customs concerning the handling of their corpses. Second, a carcass left in the field by a hunter undergoes the same fate as a carcass of an animal that died naturally. How, then, can this fate constitute an indignity?

My argument, if successful, shows that from a moral perspective there is nothing special about trophy hunting. When an incident like the one involving Palmer and Cecil next captures the world’s attention, I think it would be a mistake for us to focus on the trophy hunting aspect. The relevant questions concern the morality of hunting the type of animal killed and of hunting (by well-to-do Westerners and others who don’t need the meat) generally.

Meat Replacements and the Logic of the Larder

photograph of vegetable larder

Every year, tens of billions of animals are killed for food. This is morally objectionable for all sorts of reasons directly related to the experiences of the individual animals involved: the process of food production causes them pain and suffering; they are prevented from flourishing in the ways that are appropriate for members of their species; they live shorter lives full of more suffering and less pleasure than they would have if those lives were not cut short; and so on. In response, entrepreneurs have worked hard to bring alternatives to the market in the form of plant-based and cell-cultured products, neither of which involve killing animals. Humans do not need to eat animals or animal products in order to enjoy nutritious diets and live long, healthy lives. If a person can give up animal products, many argue that they should.

In response, some have raised an objection that has come to be known as “the Logic of the Larder.” A larder is a storage space for food, traditionally a place for preparing and containing meat. This line of reasoning is also sometimes referred to as the “Replaceability Argument.” In his 1914 book The Humanities of Diet, famous vegetarian thinker Henry S. Salt presents and responds to the objection at length, introducing it with a common idiom at the time: “Blessed is the Pig, for the Philosopher is fond of bacon.” The idea is that farm animals are made better off by the fact that humans breed them for food. The contention is that farm animals, on average, have lives that are worth living.

Generally speaking, it is better to exist than not to exist. If human beings did not raise farm animals for food, those animals would not exist at all. Therefore, human beings do something good for farm animals by bringing them into existence to be used for food.

If this argument is sound — if humans do a good thing when they bring billions of animals into existence for use as food — then human beings would be doing a very bad thing by replacing that source of food; the animals involved would never have had the chance to live.

In responding to this argument, Salt and others point out that the Logic of the Larder seems more like a bit of sophistry — an ad hoc rationalization or, as Socrates puts it, an attempt to “make the weaker argument the stronger” — than an actual argument that is ever used as part of a decision to raise animals for food. When someone decides to get involved in raising animals for slaughter, they rarely say, “boy, what I’d really like to do is bring a bunch of new animals into existence and give them a shot at life.” Instead, animals are treated as objects to be mass produced in the most efficient and profitable way possible. If the lives of animals were valued, they would be allowed to age and grow at the appropriate speed and rate; instead, they are given growth hormones to shorten the period from birth to slaughter. Salt powerfully provides this argument from the pig’s perspective,

What shall be the reply of the Pig to the Philosopher? “Revered moralist” he might plead, “if it were unseemly for me, who am today a pig, and tomorrow but ham and sausages, to dispute with a master of ethics, yet to my porcine intellect it appeareth that having first determined to kill and devour me, thou hast afterwards bestirred thee to find a moral reason. For mark, I pray thee, that in my entry into the world my own predilection was in no wise considered, nor did I purchase life on the condition of my own butchery. If, then, thou art firm set on pork, so be it, for pork I am: but though thou hast not spared my life, at least spare me thy sophistry. It is not for his sake, but for thine, that in his life the Pig is filthily housed and fed, and at the end barbarously butchered.

This colorful response also draws out the idea that the “better to exist than not to exist” justification condones breeding sentient creatures for any purposes whatsoever. If we follow this line of argument, it is better to bring a being into existence, horribly mistreat it, and show no mercy or respect for its dignity, than it is to simply not bring a being into existence at all. And this seems to justify bringing humans into existence for the purposes of selling them into slavery — after all, it’s better to exist than not!

The proponent of the Logic of the Larder, however, might respond by emphasizing that humans are cognitively very different from non-human animals, and this is why raising animals for slaughter is defensible, while breeding humans for slavery is not. Human beings develop identities, have a sense of their past and their future, understand concepts like death and dignity, and are capable of applying those concepts to themselves and of integrating them into their own desires concerning the future. Many, including Peter Singer in his book Practical Ethics, have argued that this makes a difference when it comes to whether it is a bad thing to kill an animal.

But some humility is likely warranted when it comes to drawing conclusions regarding which mental capacities farm animals have and which they don’t.

Animals can’t express themselves in human language and their beliefs likely do not have propositional content in the ways that the beliefs of human beings sometimes do. Nevertheless, animals are clearly capable of making plans that have temporal components.

They understand that things take place in sequence, and they rely on this understanding to get what they want. They exhibit personality and those traits are enduring. They avoid death and members of many species grieve in response to the death of loved ones. Instead of judging whether raising animals only to kill them by the standards of anthropocentric metaphysics and moral psychology, we might want to at least entertain the possibility that we’ve been thinking about identity, autonomy, and future-related cognition in idealized ways that are unlikely to correctly characterize human moral psychology, let alone set humans apart as uniquely entitled to continued existence.

Moreover, to suggest that it is better for a farm animal to exist than not to exist presupposes that these animals have a welfare that can be measured relative to their welfare in other possible worlds (for example, worlds in which they do not exist). This is to concede the most important point when it comes to discussion of the ethics of using animals for food — animals are the kinds of beings that can experience pain and pleasure. If we think it can be good for them to come into existence, then it can also be quite bad for them to exist under conditions of deprivation, slavery, and slaughter. We can’t defensibly bring them into existence and then force them to live lives full of more suffering than joy.

Why Speciesism Is Not a Prejudice

color photograph of tiger at zoo with family posing in black and white

Despite some notable dissenters, it has become a near-article of faith in applied ethics that “speciesism” — giving greater moral consideration to one individual or group than to another based merely on their membership in a certain species — is a prejudice indistinguishable from racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. Daniel Burkett succinctly states the dominant view when he writes that the argument that the suffering of animals counts for less “simply because they are animals” is “the same (very bad) rationale that justifies” these discredited prejudices.

But the rationale for speciesism is different in key respects from that for racism or other forms of bigotry.

The typical justification for racism consists of two claims. First, it is claimed that some phenotypic trait — in this case, skin color — maps onto, or is at least a reliable indicator of, some other characteristic. Second, it is held that the latter characteristic determines, or is at least relevant to, the degree of moral consideration to which an individual is entitled. The first is an empirical claim, while the second is a moral claim. Both claims may be false, but need not be for racism to count as a prejudice. For example, in the nineteenth century there was widespread agreement among white scientists that African-Americans were impervious to pain — in effect, that they were less sentient than whites. Today, almost all moral philosophers agree that sentience is, if not the sole basis for moral consideration, then at least one of the main ones. Thus, those who used racist science to justify differential treatment of African-Americans were not mistaken in focusing on sentience as a characteristic relevant to moral consideration. Rather, their racism was a prejudice because it rested on a false and unjustified empirical belief that African-Americans have “duller sensibilities” than whites.

This analysis of racism suggests that there are actually two kinds of justification for speciesism.

The first, mirroring the typical rationale for racism in its basic structure, is that species membership maps onto or is a reliable indicator of some other characteristic, and this characteristic is relevant to moral consideration. Call this justification “Empirical Speciesism.” The second is that species membership itself is relevant to moral consideration. Call this justification “Categorical Speciesism.” Either justification differs from the typical rationale for racism in key respects. First, the empirical claim in Empirical Speciesism need not be false or unjustified. For example, the Empirical Speciesist might claim that membership in the species homo sapiens maps onto enhanced sentience. That may very well be true, and even if it is false we may be justified in believing it. Second, Categorical Speciesism does not rest on any empirical claim. Thus, neither Empirical Speciesism nor Categorical Speciesism makes speciesism a prejudice on a par with racism. Philosophers who use that analogy as a way to dismiss speciesism out of hand are simply mistaken.

But perhaps what philosophers have in mind when they compare speciesism to racism is racism justified in a manner analogous to Categorical Speciesism. Instead of partially relying on an empirical claim, this justification for racism simply asserts that skin color is the morally relevant characteristic. The anti-speciesist argument would then be that both justifications are erroneous for similar reasons: neither species membership nor skin color is a morally relevant characteristic.

What justifies our confident conclusion that skin color itself is not a morally relevant characteristic? It can only be that this claim does not cohere with our other settled moral judgments. For example, everyone, including racists, believes that very similar phenotypic traits — for example, eye color or hair color — are morally irrelevant. Skin color, a superficial phenotypic trait, differs markedly from other characteristics everyone agrees are morally relevant, such as sentience. In light of these judgments, it seems arbitrary to hold that skin color is morally relevant.

If a white racist’s friends and family woke up one morning with brown skin, it is doubtful that the racist would consider this sufficient reason to treat them differently. This tends to show that the racist is either an Empirical Racist, or his beliefs are simply incoherent. And so on.

But unlike Categorical Racism, Categorical Speciesism coheres fairly well with our other settled moral judgments. There are no other characteristics that are suitably similar to species membership and that we generally hold to be morally irrelevant. Species membership is not a superficial phenotypic trait: it is part of an individual’s biological essence. For most people, if their friends and family woke up one morning transformed into cockroaches — not cockroaches with human minds, just cockroaches — that would give them sufficient reason to treat them differently. Granted, we seem to have strong intuitions that membership in the species homo sapiens is not necessary for moral consideration — even the strong moral consideration to which humans are thought to be entitled. Any given episode of Star Trek suggests as much. But it does not follow that membership in that species is not relevant to moral consideration: for example, it may still be sufficient for it. In other words, while the argument that insects are not entitled to consideration because they are not human may fail, the argument that humans are entitled to consideration because they are human may still succeed. In addition, species membership may justify differential treatment of two individuals alike in all respects except their species — for example, Vulcans and humans.

The upshot of my argument is not that speciesism is justified. Rather, it is that it cannot be easily dismissed as belonging to the same category as racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. When Peter Singer popularized this argument in Animal Liberation, he may have done a tremendous amount of good by calling attention to the morally relevant characteristics that animals and humans share. But as the sometimes slipshod reasoning in certain seminal Supreme Court civil rights opinions demonstrates, there is no guarantee that moral progress will be grounded in sound arguments.

Wanted Dead: Should We Place Bounties on Invasive Species?

photograph of a pair of green iguanas

Iguanas in South Florida have become a problem. Green iguanas, a species native to Central and South America have made their way to Miami Beach. They may have started as exotic pets that were released after growing too large (adult green iguanas may be as long as 5 feet), or perhaps arrived as stowaways on ships importing fruit. Regardless, their numbers have exploded in recent years.

Officials are trying to address the iguana population. Dan Gelber, the Mayor of Miami Beach, says the city is quadrupling its budget for iguana removal – up to $200,000 annually from $50,000. In addition, the city commissioner, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, has suggested implementing a “bounty” program. The plan would be to pay hunters to kill iguanas, with pay coming at a per iguana rate.

There are some concerns about implementing a bounty program. Some worry about potential cruelty towards the iguanas. In 2019, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission “encourage[d] homeowners to kill green iguanas on their own property whenever possible.” The commissioner at the time, Rodney Baretto, later noted that people should not shoot iguanas, but offered no description of what methods of extermination would be humane. Further, the policy could threaten human safety – a worker servicing a pool in Boca Raton was shot by an errant pellet from the gun of someone hunting iguanas.

Yet most troubling is that the bounty program could simply fail. It stands to create what economists call a perverse incentive structure.

Perverse incentives occur when a policy or intervention aimed to address a particular problem instead rewards acting in ways that do not contribute to solving, and may even worsen, the problem.

Bounties on pest animals are literal textbook examples of perverse incentive structures. In 1902, the French placed a bounty on rats in Hanoi. Anecdotes describe British governors in Delhi putting bounties on cobras. Both had similar results – after initial success in reducing populations, the policies eventually led to citizens breeding the bountied animals, to continually collect rewards. After the bounties were ended, breeders released their captive animals into the wild. Something similar could occur with iguanas.

The bounties, after all, do not incentivize reducing the wild population. They simply incentivize killing iguanas.

Suppose we could guarantee the bounty program would succeed. Would that make it desirable? First, we should consider why some call for the program. It’s because iguanas are a nuisance. The iguanas burrow underground, potentially causing damage to buildings and structures like sidewalks and seawalls. They destroy landscaping, eat plants on people’s property, and leave droppings wherever they walk. One woman found an iguana sitting in her toilet, it having apparently climbed through the pumping or other pipes connected to her home.

This way of justifying the policy does so by claiming it resolves a conflict of interest. The iguanas, by posing a destructive nuisance, threaten human interests in South Florida. However, it is not immediately obvious that the solution to this conflict is to declare open season on the iguanas. We are, if we endorse this reasoning, saying that the human interest in avoiding nuisance counts for more than the interests these iguanas have in their lives.

If we think the interests of the iguanas count for something – which is suggested by the fact that officials want to ensure iguanas are killed humanely – then it is not immediately obvious that our interests in avoiding a nuisance are sufficiently weighty to justify large scale elimination of the iguanas.

Perhaps an appeal to human interests would be more powerful if iguanas posed a risk to public health or safety. Though as of now they seem to merely be an annoyance.

A more compelling argument might come from the fact that these iguanas are an invasive species. Invasive species are both non-native to a region, and well-suited to live in that environment. As a result, their populations expand rapidly, and crowd out the native species in the area due to a lack of natural checks on their population like predators. The idea here is that the iguanas pose a risk to plant and animal life as well as the local ecosystem. Within any ecosystem, beings compete for finite resources like food, territory, and nests. Because invasive species have no predators, and their food sources lack defenses against them, they outcompete and overconsume local flora and fauna.

Notice that this rationale for the program shifts what’s doing the work in its justification. Instead of depending on human nuisance, viewing the program through this lens sees it pitting non-human interests against non-human interests. Since we may have good reason to reduce even wild animal suffering, this justification may go some ways.

The interests at stake are all vital interests, namely, the interests that both the iguanas and native species have in an environment capable of supporting them, ensuring their continued survival.

So, the idea may simply be that, on the balance of animal interests alone, it is better to remove the iguanas from the South Florida ecosystem. When invasive species experience population booms, it can cause native species to die through slower, more painful processes like starvation as they are outcompeted for resources. Indeed, continued explosive population growth may also result in harm for the iguanas themselves in the long run. For instance, deer populations in the U.S. are overabundant, leading to greater rates of disease and parasites among deer, in addition to poorer general health due to lesser access to food. So, it may be better for all animal parties involved to reduce the number of iguanas in South Florida through humane killing.

However, this view of the situation may suffer from a lack of imagination. In some cases, population booms of invasive species have led to the rebounding of predator species – saltwater crocodiles in Australia, and Florida panthers have experienced population resurgences, as a result of feeding on invasive feral pigs. Given the ecological role of predators, there is at least some potential that, on a long enough time horizon, the presence of green iguanas could ultimately help rebalance the local ecosystem. There may also be other methods of reducing iguana populations that do not require killing. For instance, despite the ecological damage they cause, feral cats are often trapped, neutered, and returned to the wild in order to reduce their numbers. Showing that we ought to reduce the iguana population does not demonstrate that we should kill them.

Overall, there are several questions we must answer before endorsing a policy like the bounty program. First, we should ask whether it would be effective, or if it may lead to unintentional consequences. Second, even with a well-designed policy, we must determine why we believe the policy is necessary. But before committing to a single course of action, we should carefully consider the options available to us rather than settling on what seems to be the simplest or easiest idea.

The Painful Truth About Insects

closeup photograph of mosquito

In a recent study, scientists from the Queen Mary University of London argue that insects possess central nervous control of ‘noiception’ – that is, the ability to detect painful stimuli. Put simply, this discovery makes it plausible that insects are capable of feeling pain in much the same way as humans and other animals. It’s worth considering, then, how this finding might be relevant to our moral considerations of insects.

Generally, we tend to think of humans as being equal. But what do we mean by this? Clearly it’s not that all humans are, in fact, equal. Humans differ enormously in their interests and capabilities. Some students want to become rock stars, others want to be mathematicians, while others might suffer from disabilities that make both of those options more difficult to pursue. Nor do we mean that all humans should receive equal treatment – since different humans have vastly different needs. The aspiring rock star needs a guitar, while the math-whiz needs access to quality education. The person suffering from a disability, on the other hand, might need extra assistance that would be unnecessary for their more able-bodied classmates.

It seems, then, that when we say that all humans are equal, we mean to say that the interests of all humans should be given equal consideration.

Put another way: we should care equally about all people – no person is of greater value than another. It’s this very notion that grounds the case against various types of bigotry like racism and sexism. To prioritize the interests of one person over another based purely on their ethnicity or gender is to deny the principle of equality.

In his seminal book, Animal Liberation, Peter Singer considers how the principle of equality might be extended beyond humans. If it’s wrong to prioritize the interests of certain beings based on their ethnicity or gender, then shouldn’t it also be wrong to prioritize them based on their species?

If animals have interests, how can we justify prioritizing our interests above theirs without, essentially, being speciest?

But this raises a very important question: do animals even have interests? It’s certainly clear that humans do. As noted above, some humans have an interest in becoming rock stars, while others have an interest in becoming mathematicians. And then there are those interests that are almost universally held by humans, such as interests in being healthy, safe, financially secure, and loved. But what about animals? It’s not obvious that there are goats who aspire to be rock stars, nor pigs that aspire to be mathematicians. Nor do any animals seem to show concern for things like financial security or love.

According to Singer, however, the only prerequisite for having interests is the capacity to experience pleasure and pain – or what we might call “sentience.” Why? Well, if something can experience pleasure, then it has an interest in pursuing pleasure. Likewise, if something can experience pain, then it has an interest in avoiding pain.

If some living being experiences suffering, then there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into account. And, if we adopt the principle of equality, then that suffering must be counted equally with the same amount of suffering when experienced by any other being.

So if kicking a person and causing them X amount of pain is morally wrong, then kicking a dog and causing that same amount of pain is just as wrong. Likewise, if it would be morally wrong to inflict Y amount of pain on a human in order to test the safety of a new cosmetic, then it will be just as morally wrong to inflict this same amount of pain on an animal for the same purpose.

Singer’s argument has huge ramifications for many of the ways in which we treat animals. Consider the animal suffering that goes into the production of a single cheeseburger – and how terrible we would consider that same suffering if it was experienced by a human. What’s more, this suffering is offset by only a small benefit to the human who eats the burger – a benefit that could just as easily be achieved via non-meat and non-dairy alternatives. In fact, much – if not all – of the animal products and by-products we consume start to become morally questionable when seen in this light.

Of course, one simple solution would be to discount – or disqualify entirely – the suffering of animals on the basis that they aren’t as intelligent as humans. But this is to go against the very principle of equality that many of us hold dear. When thinking about humans, we would consider it reprehensible to say that someone’s pain and suffering is less important simply because they are less intelligent than someone else. So we must take the same approach to animals.

The only consistent way to justify the suffering we inflict on animals is to say that their suffering counts for less simply because they are animals. But that’s speciesism – and it shares precisely the same (very bad) rationale that justifies racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.

Indeed, Singer’s observations have motivated many people to adopt vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. But what are we to make of this new research that suggests insects might also be sentient? If an ant can feel pleasure and pain, then an ant has interests. And if an ant has interests, then the principle of equality demands that that suffering be counted equally with the same amount of suffering when experienced by any other being. Suppose, for example, that swatting a mosquito causes that mosquito to feel Z amount of pain. Suppose, then, that – for a human – that same amount of pain would be the equivalent of a hard slap to the face. If we believe that slapping a human is morally wrong, then the principle of equality would require us to reach the same moral judgement about inflicting the same amount of pain on a mosquito. This would mean, then, that swatting a mosquito was morally wrong.

It’s a strange conclusion, and one that is still very much open to debate. For one, we would need to establish that insects do in fact experience pain in the same morally relevant way as humans and other non-human animals. We would then need some way of measuring this pain in order to form reasonable moral judgements. It might, for example, turn out that the suffering experienced by a swatted mosquito is minuscule – much less, in fact, than the bite it gives to the next human it encounters. In such a case, we could possibly make a case for the moral permissibility of swatting that mosquito.

But in the absence of better information about whether – and to what extent – insects experience pain, what should we do? There’s a chance that there’s nothing problematic about causing insects to suffer. But there’s also a chance that we’ve been horribly wrong. Until only recently we were still unsure about whether non-human animals experienced pain, with veterinarians trained before 1989 taught to ignore animal suffering. In fact, doctors up until that decade were still skeptical that human babies experienced pain, with many infant surgeries routinely carried out without anesthesia. Given our poor track record of understanding pain in other living beings, the mere possibility that insects suffer should give us reason to pause and reconsider how we treat them.

Fantastic Beasts and How to Categorize Them

photograph of Niffler statue for movie display

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is both a film franchise and a book. But the book doesn’t have a narrative; it is formatted like a textbook assigned in the Care of Magical Creatures course at Hogwarts. It’s ‘written’ by Newt Scamander and comes with scribbles from Harry and Ron commenting on its contents.

Before the creature entries begin there is a multipart introduction. One part, entitled “What is a Beast?” seeks to articulate a distinction between creatures who are ‘beasts’ and those that are ‘beings.’ The text notes that a being is “a creature worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance of magical world.” But how do we distinguish between beasts and beings? This is one of the main questions central to the topic of moral status.

So, the intro asks two questions: who is worthy and how do we know? The first question seeks to determine who is in the moral community and thus deserving of rights and a voice. This is a question concerning whether an entity has the property of ‘moral standing’ or ‘moral considerability.’ The second question seeks to identify what properties an entity must have to be a member of the moral community. In other words, how does one ground a claim that a particular entity is morally considerable? We can call this a question about the grounds of moral considerability. It is the main question of the short introduction to Fantastic Beasts:

What are the properties that a creature has to have in order to be in the category ’beast’ (outside the moral community) or ‘being’ (inside the moral community)?

Attempts to resolve a question of moral considerability confront a particular problem. Call it the Goldilocks Problem. Goldilocks wants porridge that is just right, neither too hot nor too cold. We want definitions of the moral community to be just right and avoid leaving out entities that should be in (under-inclusion) and avoid including entities that should be left out (over-inclusion). When it comes to porridge it is hard to imagine one bowl being both too hot and too cold at the same time. But in the case of definitions of the grounds of moral considerability, this happens often. We can see this in the attempts to define ‘being’ in the text of Fantastic Beasts.

Fantastic Beasts looks at three definitions of the grounds of being a ‘being.’ According to the text, “Burdock Muldoon, Chief of the Wizard Council in the fourteenth century, decreed that any member of the magical community that walked on two legs would henceforth be granted the status of ‘being,’ all others to remain ‘beasts.’” This resulted in a clear case of over-inclusion. Diriclaws, Augureys, Pixies and other creatures were included in the moral community of beings, but should not have been. The text states that “the mere possession of two legs was no guarantee that a magical creature could or would take an interest in the affairs of wizard government.”

What really mattered was not the physical characteristic of being bipedal but the psychological characteristic of having interests. By focusing on the wrong property this definition accidentally included entities that did not belong.

This of course is related to a humorous story that Plato once lectured about Aristotle’s definition of a human as a featherless biped only to have Diogenes show up the next day with a plucked chicken stating “Behold! A man.”

At the same time, however, this definition is under-inclusive. Centaurs are entities that could take an interest in the affairs of wizards, but they have four legs and thus are left out. Merpeople also could take an interest in the affairs of wizards, but have no legs and thus are left out. Clearly, this definition will not do.

And it is not surprising that the definition fails. Using a physical characteristic to determine whether an entity will have the right psychological characteristics is not likely to work.

So what is a wizard to do but try to find a property more closely linked to the relevant psychological characteristic. Interests — for example, wants and needs — are often expressed linguistically: “I want chocolate chip cookies”; “I need more vegetables.” This apparently led Madame Elfrida Clagg to define a being as “those who could speak with the human tongue.” But, again, we have an example where the definition is over- and under-inclusive. Trolls could be taught to say, but not understand, a few human sentences and were included in the community but should have been excluded. Once again, the merpeople, who could only speak Mermish, a non-human language, were left out when they should have been included.

In our own world, the focus on language and other activities as proxies for cognitive traits have been used to discuss the moral status of animals (also, here). Attempts to exclude animals from the moral community did, in fact, use speech-use and tool-use as reasons to exclude animals. Descartes famously claimed in part V of the Discourse on Methods that animals did not use language but were mere automatons. But apes can use sign language, and crows, elephants, otters and other animals can use tools. So, for many who want to only include humans as in the category of ‘being,’ these activity-based definitions turn out to be over-inclusive. But again, given the incapacity of new born humans to use language or tools, they would also leave out some humans and be under-inclusive. So, using a non-psychological property (an activity) to identify a psychological property is unsurprisingly problematic.

Apparently, the wizarding world got the memo regarding the problem of these definitions by the 19th century. In 1811, Minister of Magic Grogan Stump defined a being as “any creature that has sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community and to bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws.” The philosophical term for this set of capabilities is autonomy, at least in the way Immanuel Kant defined the term.

One way to express Kant’s’ view is that the morally considerable beings, the beings that could be called ‘persons,’ were those that had the capacity to rationally identify their interests and then have the will to execute plans to see those interests realized.

Persons are also capable of seeing that others have this capacity and thus rationally adopt rules that limit what we can do to other persons. These are the moral rules that guide our interactions that ground our rights, legal and moral, as well as give us a voice in self- and communal-governance. In other words, the term ‘being’ in Fantastic Beasts is just the text’s term for ‘moral person.’ Furthermore, the relevant psychological characteristic of persons is autonomy as defined by Kant.

There is something questionable about this Kantian view of being-hood or person-hood. On this view, persons need sophisticated cognitive abilities to be identified as persons. Any entity that lacks these cognitive abilities needed for moral judgment are non-persons and thus wholly outside the moral community. In other words, non-persons are things, have only instrumental value, and can be equated with tools: you can own them and dispose of them without morally harming them. But, this definition also excludes human infants and humans with diminished cognitive abilities, but we do not think of them as outside the moral community.

Surely these implications for humans are unacceptable. They would probably be unacceptable to the fictional Newt Scamander as well as to people who fight for animal rights. But the Kantian view is binary: you are a person/being or a beast/thing. Those who find such a stark choice unappealing can and do recognize another category between person and things. This would be something that has interests, but not interests in having a voice in governance. These entities often are vulnerable to damaging impacts of the behavior of persons and have an interest in not suffering those impacts, even if they cannot directly communicate them.

So, we need a new set of terms to describe the new possible categories of moral considerability. Instead of just the categories being/person and beast/thing, we can discuss the categories of moral agent, moral patient, and thing.

A moral agent is an entity that meets the Kantian definition of person. It is an entity who is in the moral community and also shapes it. A thing is something that does not have interests and thus is outside the moral community. But a moral patient is an entity that has interests, specifically interests against harm and for beneficence that should be morally protected. Thus, they are members of the moral community, just not governing members. So, Centaurs and Merpeople and Muggles can all be considered moral agents and thus can, if they so desire, contribute to the governance of the magical community. But even if they don’t want to participate in governance, the magical community should still recognize them as being moral patients, as beings who can be impacted by and thus whose interests should be included in the discussion of governance. The giants, trolls, werewolves in werewolf form, and pixies should at least fall into this category of patient as well. In the human world, infants, young children, and those with cognitive impairment would also fall into this category.

To sum up, then, the text of Fantastic Beasts presents a view similar to Kant’s of the grounds of moral status, but it can be improved upon by recognizing the category of moral patients. Furthermore, Fantastic Beasts clearly supports psychological accounts of the grounds of moral status over physical accounts. In other words, what matters to many questions of identity and morality are psychological properties and not physical properties or behavioral capacities. This is consistent with a theme of the Harry Potter novels where the main villains focus on the physical characteristic of whether an entity has the right blood-status to be part of the wizarding community. In other words, only a villain would solely focus on physical characteristics as a source of moral value.

The Animal Ethics of OrganEx

photograph of pig head poking around barn door

As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in his 1789 letter to physicist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While it seems nothing can be done about the latter, science has been progressively fighting the former for centuries. Or, at least, challenging when death’s inevitability befalls us.

In a recent paper published in Nature, a team from Yale University claim to have developed a system – dubbed OrganEx – capable of reversing some of death’s effects over an hour after cardiac arrest. If we’re to believe the findings (and there seems to be a good reason to do so), then this team has pushed the boundary separating life from death. Before going further, however, it should be pointed out that the experiment was carried out on pigs and the restored features of life were nothing as grand as consciousness and the capacity for independent living; they were cellular.

Nevertheless, the study’s results may have profound implications for medical practice, especially in end-of-life matters like organ transplantation and donation, palliative care, and assisted dying.

In short, OrganEx was developed from an already existing experimental system called BrainEx. Developed in 2019, BrainEx showed the capacity to preserve the structure and function of cells within a pig’s brain hours after decapitation. OrganEx takes the same principles and applies them to the entire body. It consists of two essential parts. The first is an infusion device attached to the body via the femoral artery and vein. The second part is a complex chemical cocktail that the infusion device circulates through the body, mixed with the recipient’s blood. This concoction consists of amino acids, vitamins, an artificial oxygen carrier, and neurological inhibiting compounds, among other things. An hour after researchers stopped the pig’s heart and withheld medical assistance, the OrganEx system started pumping the perfusate around the pig’s body. After six hours of circulation, tests showed that oxygen had begun reaching multiple bodily tissues and that the pig’s heart had demonstrated limited electricity activity. Additionally, some expected cellular degradation appeared absent. In fact, some cells were metabolizing glucose and building proteins.

In other words, compared to the experiment’s control groups, OrganEx began repairing damaged organs hours after death.

The study’s results are remarkable, and the paper has received significant media attention (many making references to the idea of Zombie Pigs). However, an unease sits at this study’s core and, unfortunately, at the core of many biomedical studies – the use of animals in experiments.

Unlike the BrainEx study, in which researchers acquired the pig’s head from a slaughterhouse, the pigs used in the OrganEx study were slaughtered deliberately for the study’s purposes. Is this ethical? Can we justify the use of these pigs in the OrganEx experiment? I believe a perfectly suitable alternative was overlooked, an alternative that would have meant that the pigs used in the experiment could have continued their lives without being slaughtered – human cadavers.

Within research ethics, there is a widely employed framework known as the 3Rs. Proposed by Russel and Burch in their 1959 book, The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, these Rs stand for Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement, and researchers should consider each of these principles in order. Replacement refers to substituting animals in research with technological alternatives or simply nothing at all. If it isn’t possible to replace animals, researchers move on to the reduction principle, using as few animals as possible to minimize potential suffering. Finally, if replacement and reduction aren’t possible, researchers should seek to refine their husbandry and experimental methods to reduce suffering and improve welfare. The OrganEx’s study designers seemed to consider such principles, and Yale’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee gave comparable advice: “we sought to minimize the animal number and any potential discomfort and suffering.”

I believe, however, that the use of pigs in this experiment breached the first of these principles. The appropriate number of pigs would have been zero, as freshly deceased people would have provided equally effective test subjects.

This might strike some as an odd claim to make. After all, researchers use non-human animals in the preclinical research phase as a buffer before human testing. Bypassing such a precaution and going straight to human research goes against the typical wisdom of research ethics and protocol. However, it is essential to remember that the subject needs to be dead for the OrganEx experiment’s purposes (or at least “dead” according to our current conception of death). That is the experiment’s point, to explore the technology’s posthumous application. As such, research participants cannot be harmed as we typically envision (i.e., allergic reactions, unforeseen side effects, etc.) because they’re already dead.

Death is not an unusual event. It happens to countless people every day. My proposal is that the researchers could have taken advantage of this naturally occurring, potentially suitable research populace but chose to use pigs instead; pigs that they slaughtered deliberately.

So, the question becomes which potential subject is more ethically justifiable: live pigs needing slaughtering to satisfy the experiment’s participation requirements or the bodies of humans who had recently died from natural causes?

All other things being equal, this seems to be a fairly straightforward choice. Living beings deserve more moral consideration than dead ones because the living can experience harm, have a greater claim to dignity, and possess complex internal worlds (pigs especially). The dead lack these things, and while we may attach morally valuable attributes to the deceased, such qualities pale compared to the living. This is true for comparing intra-species (dead human vs. live human) and inter-species (dead human vs. live pig). In short, living pigs deserve more moral consideration than dead humans, and in a research context, if you can use an already dead human instead of slaughtering a live pig, and you subscribe to the principle of reduction, then you should use the human cadaver.

That said, there might be good reasons why the researchers chose to use pigs instead of humans. They do indicate that the BrainEx study focused on a pig brain, and some consistency with that existing work would make sense. I’m unconvinced, however, that this is a compelling enough reason to decide to use pigs in this subsequent study. This is certainly true given that, presumably, the OrganEx’s anticipated application isn’t on pigs but on humans. It would seemingly make sense to align the experiment closely to the anticipated application as early as possible and skip unnecessary research steps.

Ultimately, there are good arguments to use animals for research if doing so helps prevent downstream harmful outcomes (although I don’t necessarily buy them). Nevertheless, if those outcomes can be avoided without using animals, then there is an ethical duty to do so. Preventable harm, including death, should be avoided where possible, which applies to animals as much as it does to humans.

Is “Personhood” a Normative or Descriptive Concept?

photograph of young child watching elephant at zoo

Many ethical debates are about “getting the facts right” or “trusting the science,” and this sentiment is driven by a presumed difference between political and ethical values and facts. This can be problematic because it naively assumes that facts are never a product of values or that values can’t be a product of fact. This can lead to mistakes like thinking that evidence alone can be sufficient to change our thinking or that the way we value things shouldn’t be affected by the way the world is. Ethical inquiry requires us to consider many questions of both fact and worth to draw conclusions. To demonstrate, we will consider the recent case of Happy the elephant and whether it makes sense to call her a person.

While it is tempting to think of values as being something entirely personal or subjective, in reality most discussion and debate about values is far more nuanced and complex than that. Determining the value of something, whether it’s going for a walk or eating a candy bar, involves considerations of function, worth, and means.

Eating a candy bar has the function of providing sustenance and a pleasant taste. The worth of the bar will be determined by considering the means required to attain it compared to the worth of other things I could eat. If the cost of the candy bar goes up, the means required to attain it becomes dearer. While the candy bar provides necessary energy, it is also harmful to my health, and so I re-evaluate the worth of the bar.

People may differ over the value of the candy bar, but the disagreement will likely hinge on the different functions the candy bar has in life. But notice that function and means – two essential considerations for valuation – are factual in nature. To ask what the candy bar will do is to ask what it is good for. In other words, any thought about worth inevitably involves factual considerations. Often, the reason we want people to avoid misinformation or to trust expertise has to do with the ethical concerns rather than the factual concerns; we expect facts to moderate the way things are valued and thus the way we act.

But what about facts? Aren’t the facts just the facts? Well, no. There is no such thing in science as the “view from nowhere.”

We don’t study every part of the natural world; we study things we are interested in. Our investigations are always partial, infused with what we want to know, why we want to know it, and what means we have available to try to find an acceptable answer.

The risk that we over-generalize our findings – start making pronouncements about the world and forget about our practical aims in research – suggests that facts alone cannot settle ethical debates. Just like values, a fact is defined by function, worth, and means. Indeed, many concepts are “thick” in that they perform a dual function of both describing something while also offering normative content. “Cruel,” for example, is often used both normatively and descriptively. But what about “person?”

Recently a New York court ruled that an Asian elephant named Happy is not a person. The case began after the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition against the zoo holding Happy, arguing that Happy’s confinement was a violation of habeas corpus because Happy resides in a solitary enclosure. They demanded recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and her release from the zoo.

Habeas corpus – a person’s legal protection from unlawful detention – has historically been used to push legal boundaries. One of the most famous cases is Somerset v. Stewart, which found that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England and so was ordered to be freed. This suggests that “person” is often a “thick” concept that not only describes something, but also inherently (especially legally) contains normative elements as well. In the end, the court, found that Happy was not a person in the legal sense and was thus not entitled to invoke those rights.

Those who supported Happy’s case emphasized that elephants are intelligent, cognitively complex animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project argued that elephants share numerous cognitive abilities with humans such as self-awareness, empathy, awareness of death, and learning. Happy was the first elephant to pass a self-awareness indicator test. In addition, several nations such as Hungary, Costa Rica, Argentina, Pakistan have taken steps to recognize the legal rights of “non-human persons.” The argument is that because these animals are intelligent enough to have a sense of their own selves, they are entitled to the robust liberties and protections afforded by the law.

But the question is not whether Happy meets some cosmic notion of personhood, but an instrumental question of what function we want the concept of “person” to perform.

The question for the court was to determine the worth of competing conceptions of “personhood” which would perform different social functions (one which extends to animals and one which doesn’t), and which involve very different means in operation. For example, a legal person is usually someone who can be held legally accountable. A previous ruling in a similar case held that “the asserted cognitive linguistic capabilities of a chimpanzee do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions.”

The issue of cognitive complexity in relationship to personhood is not static – simply meeting a given threshold of intelligence is not enough to warrant designation as a “person.” There are practical considerations that bear on the matter. Changing our conception of personhood would, as one justice noted, “have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.” It’s difficult to know what legal obligations this might create or how far they could extend. What would happen, for example, if there was a conflict of legal rights between a human and non-human person? The issue is thus not whether Happy should be treated well, but whether the concept of personhood is the right tool for sorting out these difficult ethical problems. Similar controversies crop up in the debate about extending rights to nature.

In other words, when we consider cases like this it will never simply be as simple as saying a fact that “elephants are cognitively intelligent” or proclaiming that “elephants should be protected.” As a “thick” concept, the definition of “personhood” is always going to depend on the practicality of the concept’s use in our particular social world. But if the problem with extending certain rights to elephants is problematic because of the stress it places on the function of the concept, then perhaps seeking to label elephants as “persons” is unhelpful. It simply isn’t going to be enough to point to evidence of cognitive awareness alone. When we consider what we want the concept “person” to do for us, we may find that by paying attention to the intended function we can achieve it more effectively with another ethical notion, such as the UK potentially granting rights to animals on the basis of “sentience.”

Monkeypox’s Biggest Threat Might Be to Wild Animals

photograph of two Cape ground squirrels in South Africa

On May 18, a U.S. resident (who had recently traveled to Canada) tested positive for monkeypox, adding the United States to a growing list of countries that have detected cases of a virus normally found primarily in Central and West Africa. Over the following week, suspected cases have arisen in four additional U.S. states, leading President Biden to comment that “it is something that everybody should be concerned about.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (which, to be clear, is “most certainly not over,” according to the head of the World Health Organization), it is understandable that reports of another ominous-sounding virus can be unsettling. But, as numerous outlets have shared, there are considerable reasons to be confident about our collective ability to face the unlikely possibility of a monkeypox outbreak: not only does the disease appear to have a generally low mortality rate (of less than 1%), but we already have an effective vaccine and other means to treat monkeypox patients. Also, transmission of the monkeypox virus (which is of a type that evolves comparatively slowly) is importantly more difficult than the coronavirus, requiring close contact with an infected carrier (for example, the CDC has recently warned that monkeypox rashes could be mistaken for symptoms of more common sexually-transmitted diseases). Altogether, the consensus of medical experts is that, though it is a serious disease that should be monitored, the threat posed by monkeypox is not nearly as significant as that posed by COVID-19: at present, we should not worry about a monkeypox pandemic.

However, this might not hold entirely true for one portion of the American population: nonhuman animals.

While the monkeypox virus is relatively rare in human patients, it is endemic in several African environments among a variety of nonhuman animal species: squirrels, rats, mice, and (unsurprisingly) monkeys have all tested positive for monkeypox at different times (its name, in fact, comes from the laboratory creatures in which it was first detected in the late 1950s). Typically, human monkeypox patients contract the disease from close contact with infected nonhumans, such as through a scratch or bite from an animal or from eating undercooked meat from a carrier. While the natural reservoir — the actual animal population that originally sources the virus — is not presently known, experts believe that multiple species could easily serve as regular carriers, potentially placing monkeypox at risk of becoming endemic in new environments (although, again, this is not to say that the virus would automatically therefore be a greater cause for concern, given the state of medical knowledge about it).

But this means that certain nonhuman animals might face a growing risk, if not from monkeypox itself, then from humans intending to prevent the spread of the disease by sacrificing the lives of nonhumans.

Here, we can indeed draw lessons from recent elements of the fight against COVID-19, such as how slaughterhouses “depopulated” during COVID lockdowns via the mass-killings of their stock (sometimes by simply shutting off ventilation systems to suffocate the animals). In a similar way, when a new variant of COVID-19 was detected among the mink population in Denmark, officials ordered that more than 17 million animals be “culled” (killed) to prevent further spread — a tactic mirrored on a more personal level by health workers in China who were killing the pets of people in quarantine. In a different way, the race to find a COVID-19 vaccine resulted in a shortage of animals used in medical laboratory tests (that require a stock of primates to intentionally infect and treat); this was one of several reasons why human vaccine trials were unusually accelerated. And this all is without considering the effects of contracting COVID-19 itself.

Granted, you might argue that at least some of these measures were necessary to stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic; furthermore, you might think that, if forced to choose between killing a deer infected with a disease and watching a human potentially die from that same disease, that we have a moral imperative to prefer members of our own species over other creatures. But what is important to note here is that neither of these points seem to properly apply to the present situation we face with monkeypox. By all accounts, although current case reports are unusually high in many places, it is nowhere near the same level of risk (of either morbidity or mortality rates) as the threat that COVID-19 has posed for the last two years:

if people were to start killing animals to prevent the spread of monkeypox, those killings would be far less clearly justified.

So, while the international medical community continues to track the present spread of monkeypox, the rest of us should each do our part to avoid a panic about the currently-unlikely threat of a monkeypox pandemic. Moreover, even though it is true that rodents and other wild creatures are the most common vectors for spreading the monkeypox virus, we should take care to avoid unduly threatening those innocent populations of creatures.

Is the Pain of Wild Animals Always Bad?

Close-up color photograph of a screwworm fly on a green leaf.

Should humans intervene to prevent wild animals from suffering? This question has received some attention as of late. Consider, for example, Dustin Crummett’s recent article here at the Post.

In response to this question, I suggest that it is not clear what types of animal suffering are bad. Consequently, it is not clear that human beings ought to intervene on their behalf. I will outline what I think are several types of pain, but I still suggest it is unclear whether human beings should intervene.

Before we hit it off, notice what this question is not. It is not a question of negative obligation: “should humans act in such a way that causes animal suffering?” This question, when we answer “no,” means human beings have a negative obligation to not cause harm. For instance, this question of negative obligation arises in the recent prohibition of a geothermal project in Nevada, a project which could threaten an endangered species of toad.

Instead, the present question is a positive one. When, if ever, should humans intervene to prevent wild animals from suffering? Crummett’s example of the New World screwworm is poignant and motivates us to intervene on behalf of suffering animals. The New World screwworm causes excruciating pain for the prey, and its elimination would not apparently result in ecological harm. In other words, its elimination would only seem to benefit the would-be-prey.

As Crummett argued, human beings ought to reduce wild-animal suffering. To make this point, Crummett entertains an example about a dog that lives in a poor state of experiencing cold, disease, and hunger before dying at an early age. He then uses this example to discern what is bad about the situation, and what is good about helping such an animal. He writes,

Why is what happens to the dog bad? Surely the answer is something like: because the dog has a mind, and feelings, and these events cause the dog to experience suffering, and prevent the dog from experiencing happiness. Why would the person’s helping the dog be good? Surely the answer is something like: because helping the dog helps it avoid suffering and premature death, and allows it to flourish and enjoy life.

Though this all seems intuitively plausible to me, I remain unconvinced. Even if I assume (for the sake of argument) that humans should prevent animal suffering, it is not clear what counts as suffering.

When I reflect upon pain more generally, it is not apparent to me that all kinds of pain are bad. Sure, I don’t like experiencing pain (except for going to the gym, perhaps). But we are talking about morals and value theory, not experience — when something is morally bad, it is not necessarily reducible to my experiential preference.

So, are all pains bad? Consider some different types of pain. In his recent monograph, philosopher David S. Oderberg distinguishes between three types of pain (distinctions not unlike the ones which St. Augustine posits in his little book, On the Nature of Good):

    1. Useful pain;
    2. Pain achieving;
    3. Useless pain.

A useful pain alerts you to something for a good reason. For example, it is useful to experience pain when you burn your hand on a hot stovetop; it is also useful to experience the pain that accompanies going to the gym.

“Pain achieving” is the pain that can accompany the successful operation of an organism’s natural operation or function. For example, pain achieving is the pain a child experiences with growing pains or when growing teeth.

Useless pain, in contrast, is pain that may alert you to an issue but serves no purpose. For example, a useless pain is the pain of chronic nerve damage or that of a phantom limb. This useless pain is useless because the alert it gives cannot successfully motivate the individual to react, or because there are no underlying issues or malfunction of the body to account for this.

According to Oderberg, only useless pain is bad. While the former pains might be unpleasant for the individuals in question, they are not always bad. Indeed, it is good that we experience a high degree of pain when we burn our hands on stovetops — why else would we move them? Surely, if we as human beings only had red lights go off in our peripheries whenever we were burned, it would not be as motivating.

Of the three options, Oderberg’s position that only useless pains are bad seems correct.

But notice a further complication. Even when the pain serves a further good, it can be bad in itself. As philosopher Todd Calder points out, while money can have a good of utility, it is intrinsically neutral. So too with pain. It might be a good of utility, but it could still be bad in itself.

This distinction between types of value explains why pains of utility can still be bad in themselves. While the pain of a sprained ankle is bad because it causes me to be irritable, it still can be bad in itself as a painful experience.

With these distinctions in mind, we come back to the original question: Should humans intervene in wild animal suffering?

It seems that the second distinction between intrinsic value and utility does not help us here. For, if all pain is intrinsically bad, and human beings ought to prevent all pain, we experience a moral overload. This is unrealistic, too onerous. Moreover, this conclusion would require us to intervene in all instances of pain, without discrimination regarding the kinds of pain and the degree of pain. Are we really to consider cases of an animal with a thorn in its side as serious as the case of an animal with a New World screwworm? Certainly not.

The first distinction instead offers a clear answer to the original question: Should humans intervene in wild animal suffering? Only if it is bad. And is the suffering of wild animals bad? If the suffering in question is an instance of useless pain, then yes.

To achieve a resounding “yes” to the original question, we need two things. First, we need a good reason for the assumption we started off with: that human beings are obliged to prevent animal suffering because it is bad (and such prevention amounts to a good act). Is this the case? I have not yet seen a good reason to believe it. Second, we need to see that there are instances of useless pain in wild animal suffering. Could the case of the New World screwworm count as an instance of useless pain? Perhaps. But it looks like it can count as an instance of ‘pain achieving’ as well. Because of this, it is not clear that human beings ought to intervene on behalf of wild animals.

Rise of the Human-Animal Hybrids: The Ethics of Xenotransplantation

black-and-white photograph of pig in a cage

On January 7th, 2022 David Bennett was implanted with a pig heart. His doctor was not Moreau, but rather Muhammad Mohiuddin, a surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center and expert in xenotransplantation – the implantation of animal organs into humans.

While pig parts have been used medically for decades, such as the use of pig heart valves as replacement valves, the implantation of a whole organ is an incredible clinical achievement. The donor animal is genetically modified and raised in careful conditions to minimize the chance of pathogen transmission and rejection, that is, the human immune system attacking the heart as foreign tissue. Whole organ xenotransplants been performed before, but without effective technology to prevent rejection, results have been bleak.

The life-saving surgery was done under special FDA authorization given the lack of other options. How Bennett will fare long-term remains unclear, and like most transplant patients he will need to take immunosuppressant drugs even with the genetic modifications done to the pig. Transplant patients are followed for both physical and psychological concerns, as the feeling of becoming hybrid or chimera, or taking up aspects of the donor, is well established, and may be especially acute in xenotransplantation. (Regardless of the physiological legitimacy of this feeling.)

The organ donor list is long in America, and the supply of organs short. Xenotransplantation represents a potential lifeline for thousands of patients in need. Nonetheless, as amazing as new xenotransplantation technology is, it comes with longstanding ethical concerns.

Modern medicine heavily instrumentalizes animals, their bodies becoming objects of research and testing, and now harvested for organs. From an animal welfare perspective, xenotransplantation is clearly not good for the pigs – although perhaps not any worse than factory farming. Xenotransplantation research also involves extensive use of non-human primates, especially baboons, as they are considered the best animal model to test the viability of cross-species transplants for humans.

Beyond animals, xenotransplantation research makes use of brain-dead humans as test subjects. Death is a tricky designation, and some people, while deemed dead from the perspective of brain death, are nonetheless biologically stable enough to support a transplant for some period of time. In September of 2021, for example, a genetically modified pig kidney was attached to a brain-dead woman and supported for 54 hours. The idea is that data like this is of more relevance to human recipients than that from baboon trials, although the condition of the test subjects renders it all but impossible to do longer term studies. Such research practices invoke complex questions about human subjects, and the status of brain death. The very idea that the body is declared dead, yet somehow alive enough to test organ transplantation, challenges our intuitions. And for communities for whom the body or the breath are more important in the designation of life and death, brain death is a thin justification for such research.

These research practices may be defensible, but they should be done carefully, with attention to the animal welfare implications, the alternatives, and the expected benefits of xenotransplantation. This ethical question is made more complicated by the empirical fuzziness, for we do not yet know what the clinical payoff might be.

The more sensational ethical concerns of xenotransplantation research come from the ick factor. One can all too easily imagine Jeff Goldblum informing Dr. Mohiuddin that he is playing God, and that humans should stay well away from the creation of chimeras.

From a scientific perspective, this is tricky. Humans are never pure. Not only are humans, like all organisms, a cobbled together pile of old parts assembled by evolution, but even during the course of our life we are a blend of different species. Just ask the 100 trillion bacteria living inside your gut.

Nonetheless, this is all at least “natural,” whereas xenotransplantation most certainly involves some kind of additional level of “unnatural” intervention. There are two ways, I believe, we can make this concern more precise.

The first involves an express embrace of the sacred or the natural. For example, a Christian theological perspective in which the body is explicitly treated as sacred, may provide clear grounds for ethical objection to xenotransplantation. This may be an even greater concern in Jewish and Muslim communities with their specific injunctions against the eating of pork, although some Jewish and Muslim religious authorities have been open to uses of porcine parts when clinically necessary.

The limitation of this approach is that it argues against xenotransplantation based on the acceptance of specific religious or spiritual premises, or ontological claims, about what is natural, as opposed to general ethical principles.

The second characterization of the concern is about the implied values. Xenotransplantation embraces a conception of medicine such that all research and interventions are okay as long as they are ultimately in service of prolonging life. A more humble ethical framework, one that is more accepting of death, may not value xenotransplantation to the same extent. The Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel has developed a perspective of giftedness regarding intervention. His idea is that we should not strive for mastery of every aspect of our biology, but should be open to the arbitrariness of life as something which makes it worth valuing. Sandel, to be clear, is not against healing, and believes that healing disease helps our natural capacities flourish. But where we draw the line is fuzzy, and one possible objection to xenotransplantation is that it fails to appropriately acknowledge the messiness of life and the ways to cope with that, and instead is highly technocratic, seeking mastery and intervention. (At the expense of animal life.)

Finally, xenotransplantation is new, expensive, and technologically demanding, and ethical issues will no doubt arise in the specifics of implementation. How should it be handled with insurance? How should patenting work? Who deserves access to these organs? For instance, concerns have been raised about Bennett who was guilty of a 1988 stabbing. Organ donation in the United States is administered by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and policies are in place to facilitate the equitable distribution of organs. Although even these are imperfect, and wealthier, better-connected patients can use strategies like signing up at multiple transplant centers to receive organs faster. How whole organ xenotransplantation will fit into the existing scheme is not yet clear, but should be done in a way that preserves as far as possible equity of organ donation.

Personally, I worry an overly restrictive ethical response would be premature, as we are still in the research stage with xenotransplantation and therefore have an unclear decision to make from an outcome perspective. David Bennett’s case may be important for public perception, but as a single instance, it is limited in how scientifically informative it can be. Nonetheless, we should continue a parallel conversation about animal welfare, research ethics, and highly interventionist medicine. And above all, we should avoid celebrating a medical marvel as an ethical one without careful reflection.

 

Note: David Bennett died March 8th, 2022, two months after the procedure.

Curfews and the Liberty of Cats

photograph of cat silhoette at night

Starting in April 2022, the city of Knox, Australia, will impose a ‘cat curfew’ requiring pet cats to be kept on their owners’ premises at all times. The curfew has sparked a great deal of controversy, with many cat owners not only arguing that it’s perfectly acceptable to let their cats roam freely, but that it’s morally wrong to force them to remain indoors.

In order to properly analyze this issue, it’s important to understand why the Knox City Council has resorted to such extreme measures. On average, a well-fed free-roaming domestic cat will kill around 75 animals per year. As a result, pet cats are responsible for the deaths of around 200 million native Australian animals annually. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The refusal of negligent cat owners to spay or neuter their pets has led to an explosion of the feral cat population (currently estimated to be somewhere between 2.1 million and 6.3 million) in Australia. A feral cat predates at a much higher rate than a domestic cat, killing around 740 animals per year. Because of this, feral cats are responsible for the deaths of an additional 1.4 billion native Australian animals annually.

Many may look at these numbers and see little to complain about. Animals kill other animals – it’s the circle of life. But it’s not that straight-forward. Despite their enormous importance as companions and family members, the sad truth is that in Australia – as in many countries – cats are a major invasive species. As a result, cats have already been directly responsible for the extinction of 25 species of mammal found only in Australia. This accounts for more than two-thirds of all Australian mammal extinctions over the past 200 years. Cats are currently identified as a further threat to an additional 74 species of mammals, 40 birds, 21 reptiles and four amphibians.

Australia is currently pursuing a number of strategies to control the feral cat population. But this will largely be for naught if the contributions of domestic cats are not also addressed. And this is precisely what Knox’s curfew seeks to do. But is it morally wrong to keep our cats indoors? One way to answer this question is through a simple cost/benefit analysis – what is often referred to as ‘consequentialism’ by philosophers.

So how does a cat curfew stack up on a consequentialist analysis? At bottom, the point of this policy is to (1) reduce the number of native animals being killed by domestic cats, and (2) stem the flow of feral cats resulting from the free-roaming recreational activities of unspayed and unneutered domestic cats. The results of doing this include not only the protection of individual native animals, but the preservation of entire species. And there are further benefits outside conservation. The curfew will also curb other undesirable behaviors like spraying, fighting, and property damage, and limit the spread of a number of parasites that can infect many mammals (including humans) but that are only spread by cats.

A consequentialist argument for the curfew would need to show that these benefits outweigh the costs to those cats that are now forced to stay indoors. Given the above considerations, there are compelling reasons to think that this might be the case. But these reasons can be made even stronger when we realize that the costs to cats are nowhere near as great as we think.

Free-roaming cats are vulnerable to all kinds of risks, including everything from getting hit by a car, to feline leukemia, to wild animal attacks. As a result, the life expectancy of an outdoor cat is only 2-5 years, while indoor cats live for an average of 10-15 years. Given this, we might argue that even if forcing a cat to stay indoors does reduce its quality of life, this may be made up for by the fact that it gets to experience far more of it. But there’s little evidence to even suggest that such a reduction in quality-of-life does occur. While it might be easier for an owner to keep a cat enriched by allowing it outside, experts state that it’s still possible for a cat to be just as happy indoors without all of the associated risks of a free-roaming life. What is required is careful, attentive pet-ownership with a focus on providing indoor enrichment. If this is done, then the benefits of a cat curfew can be achieved at no cost whatsoever to the cats being forced to stay home.

Nevertheless, the consequentialist analysis isn’t the only approach we might take. There are, in fact, a number of scenarios in which it might lead us to unsavory conclusions – like justifying animal testing where doing so would lead to the development of a drug that would save millions of lives. An alternative approach can be found by focusing on the rights of the animals in question, and refusing to violate those rights regardless of what kinds of benefits might be achieved by doing so. What, then, might a rights-based approach make of the cat curfew?

Clearly, the biggest concerns arise around a cat’s right to liberty. Cats should be free to roam, and any restriction on that ability is an infringement of their right to liberty. But let’s unpack that a little bit. Firstly, we need to figure out the content of this right. Put another way, we need to know what a cat requires in order to have this right respected. Clearly it would be wrong to keep a cat in a two-square-foot cage. How much space does it need, then? Is a reasonable-sized apartment sufficient? How about a two-story townhouse? Or must it have access to at least a football-field sized territory to roam? One simple answer might be to say that respecting a cat’s right to liberty involves allowing it to go wherever it wants to. But this seems to overstate the right considerably. When a cat wanders down to the river bank, we are not obliged to fetch a boat and ferry it to the other side so that it might continue to roam unhampered.

Even if we are able to explain the content of a cat’s right to liberty, we must then consider in what circumstances it might be overridden by competing rights. Among the other rights possessed by a cat is, presumably, the right to life. And the cat curfew does a lot to ensure the preservation of this right – extending a cat’s life-expectancy by 2 to 5 times. Seen in this way, the curfew no longer becomes a case of violating a cat’s right to liberty, but balancing that right against the cat’s more fundamental right to life.

Cat curfews, then, appear to be morally acceptable on both a consequentialist approach (saving the lives of native animals and preserving endangered species at no cost to the wellbeing of cats), and a rights-based approach (maximizing respect for a cat’s right to life at a small cost to their right to liberty). As such, it seems that – even in the absence of such laws – we all have strong reasons to rein in the murderous urges of our cuddly companions by keeping our cats indoors.

In Defense of Eating Dogs

photograph of strays dog on street

In Western societies, dogs are regarded as our companions. As such, the idea that one might ever eat a dog would strike us as abhorrent. This view stands in stark contrast to that of many Asian countries, in which the consumption of dog meat is a regular part of their culture. However, attitudes appear to be shifting. As younger generations increasingly regard the practice as taboo, the president of South Korea has recently suggested that the time has come for the practice to be prohibited.

But should it be? I suspect that many people would regard the consumption of dogs as not only taboo, but morally wrong. However, this attitude seems to be inconsistent with our attitudes towards other animals.

I want to suggest that if there is nothing wrong with eating cows, chickens, and pigs, then there is nothing wrong with eating dogs. Conversely, if it is wrong to eat dogs, then it is also wrong to eat cows, chickens, and pigs. Regardless of what direction one goes with the reasoning, my point is that there is an inconsistency in how most people view dogs, cows, chickens, and pigs.

Can We Draw a Line?

Why might it be wrong to eat a dog? One answer is that dogs are companion animals. They are honorary members of our family, so to speak. Indeed, some dog owners refer to themselves as “dog moms” or “dog dads.” As such, it would be wrong to eat a dog because of the special status that we have given them.

The problem is that this association is contingent. Perhaps you might view your dog as part of your family, but that doesn’t mean everyone else views dogs in that way. Indeed, that is not how they are viewed by people who consume them as food and in societies where this practice is prevalent. If dogs only have significant value because we give it to them, then they don’t have it inherently. If that’s the case, then while eating dogs might be revolting or disgusting, it isn’t wrong. And just because something is offensive to one’s own tastes doesn’t mean it should be legally banned for everyone.

Another answer might be that dogs are what animal rights philosopher Tom Regan called “subjects of a life.” Dogs are conscious: they can experience pain, pleasure, and other aspects of consciousness. These qualities generate moral value which makes it wrong to kill them purely for the sake of consumption. While this argument shows that dogs have inherent value, it also applies equally to cows, chickens, and pigs — animals that we commonly consume. After all, all of these animals can feel pain and other aspects of consciousness. So why wouldn’t it be wrong to eat them? It seems that any property we think of is going to be a property that these other animals have.

As such, someone who accepts this line of reasoning must also be committed to stopping the consumption of these other animals. But that’s a tough bullet to bite, as many people who are opposed to dog consumption engage in other forms of meat consumption.

The point is that it’s arbitrary to draw a moral line at dogs but not for, say, cows. Consistency demands that we either embrace the permissibility of eating cows, chickens, and pigs — and therefore the permissibility of eating dogs, or we embrace the wrongness of eating dogs — and therefore the wrongness of eating other animals.

Which Direction Should Consistency Take Us?

There are arguments to be made for either.  I have argued that since it is not wrong to eat cows, chickens, and the like, that it is not wrong to eat dogs. On the other side, Alastair Norcross has argued that since it’s wrong to eat dogs, most other kinds of meat consumption are therefore also wrong.

It’s worth taking a deep dive into the literature to build an informed view, but let’s table these arguments for a second. Most people lack the expertise, time, or willpower to confidently explore the academic literature. Indeed, unless you’re a professional philosopher you likely haven’t taken deep dives on many of the beliefs you have. In the absence of that, the next best thing is to work from our background knowledge and engage in critical and reflective deliberation on our beliefs. How might we do that in this case?

Suppose that you’re opposed to eating dogs. Ask yourself this: which is stronger – your intuition that it’s morally permissible to eat chicken, cows, and pigs, or your intuition that there is something wrong with eating dogs? I suspect that most people would answer the former — after all, even those who are opposed to eating dogs are generally OK with eating other kinds of meat. So if that intuition is stronger, perhaps consistency should weigh in favor of that intuition.

That is to say, if we are faced with a dilemma where both horns are counterintuitive (in this case, either we say that eating dogs is morally permissible, or we say that most meat consumption is morally impermissible), then we should go with the horn that preserves our strongest intuition. Our moral common sense is generally reliable, so if we are going to deviate from it, the smaller the deviation the better. In other words, if we are going to bite a bullet, we should bite the smaller bullet. Based on that rule of thumb, we should go with the view that it is morally permissible to eat dogs.

Of course, this isn’t the final say. We are just weighing intuitions, and intuitions and heuristics are defeasible. There are other factors we might need to consider. One might give an independent argument against meat consumption that is strong enough to override intuitions in favor of meat-eating that were not formed reflectively. On the other hand, one might enhance these intuitions by giving independent arguments to shore them up.

Note that I am not saying that someone who thinks it is OK to eat cows, chickens, and pigs must also be OK with personally eating a dog. There is no inconsistency in being willing to eat a cow but refusing to eat a dog, so long as the different attitude is not justified by an appeal to different moral status. The point is one about intellectual consistency.

Do Insects Matter?

close-up photograph of grasshopper

A few years ago I told my mom about a paper I’d written about insect suffering. She said: “Insect suffering? Like if I step on an ant?” I said: “Yes.” She said: “People talk about that?” I changed the subject because I was too embarrassed to explain that, no, they usually don’t, but I think they should.

But whether insects suffer, and whether this matters morally, is increasingly important. Many people now promote replacing meat from cows, pigs, chickens, etc. with protein from farmed insects. They think eating insects, and insect products, would be environmentally friendlier. Others, such as Brian Tomasik and Jeff Sebo and Jason Schukraft, are not convinced. Some are not convinced by the environmental claims, but they mostly worry about the implications for animal welfare. The animals that produce your meat, eggs, and dairy are almost always raised on factory farms where they are treated extremely inhumanely. Many philosophers, including me, think this is a good argument for getting your protein from vegan sources, like beans, lentils, nuts, seitan, and Beyond Burgers. (If that sounds too hard, you might start by cutting out chicken and eggs, since chickens are treated the worst.) Unfortunately, as Sebo and Schukraft describe, insect farms aren’t exceptions on the inhumane treatment front. If insects matter morally, this could be extremely bad: farming insects for human or animal consumption is increasingly popular, and we may soon be farming tens of trillions of insects every year.

I think that whether insects matter morally depends on at least two questions: (1) are insects sentient?, and (2) is being sentient enough for insects to matter morally? I answer these questions: (1) maybe, and (2) yes. Since insects might matter morally, it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt when we can do so without sacrificing anything too important. After saying more about all this, at the end, I’ll say some things about what it means to care morally about insects.

Are insects sentient?

Being sentient means that you are capable of having conscious experiences. Something is a conscious experience if there is something it is like to have it. Think about what you experience when you look at the black letters on this page. There is something it is like for you to see the color black, just as there is something it is like for you when you feel sad, or hear a song on the radio, or think about your plans for the future. There is also something it is like when a bat uses echolocation, even though we humans, who can’t echolocate, can’t imagine what it’s like. The experiences of seeing black, being sad, echolocating, etc. are all conscious experiences.

Can insects have conscious experiences? Is there something it’s like to be a fly or an ant, or are they “dark inside”? The short answer is that we’re not completely sure either way. I won’t try to review the evidence here; it’s reviewed in some of the pieces I linked above. What matters now is this: if it’s realistically possible that insects are sentient, and if sentience is enough for them to matter morally (as I argue next), then it makes sense to give them the benefit of the doubt when possible. If they matter morally and we unnecessarily harm them, we’ve done something bad.

Do all sentient beings matter morally?

Some individuals matter morally for their own sake. Others don’t. It’s wrong to hurt you, or a dog, without a good reason. It might be wrong for me to destroy a chair for no reason: maybe it’s your favorite chair. But that would be different. I would wrong you if I destroyed the chair. But I wouldn’t wrong the chair. The chair doesn’t matter for its own sake; only how it affects others matters. If I were on a distant planet with a chair no one cared about, it wouldn’t be wrong to destroy the chair. But if I were on a distant planet with a person or a dog no one cared about, it would still be wrong to hurt the person or the dog. They matter for their own sakes, not just because others care about them.

The question is whether insects matter for their own sakes. I think that if they are sentient, they do matter for their own sakes. Think about dogs. It is extremely wrong to light a dog on fire. It is usually okay to light a picture of a dog on fire. Why is that? Surely the answer has to be something like: the dog has a mind, feelings, an inner life, the dog is someone and not just something, and doing this terrible thing means the dog will feel horrible pain and lose out on valuable future experiences. In other words, the reasons not to hurt a dog have to do with the fact that dogs are sentient. But none of this is true of the picture of the dog; it really is just a thing that you can treat however you want.

So it seems to me that sentience is enough for an individual to matter morally: nothing with a mind, with the capacity for consciousness, is a mere thing. There is a further question about whether it might be possible for an individual that isn’t sentient to matter morally. But we don’t need to answer that here. What matters is that, if insects are sentient, they do matter morally.

What does this mean?

Suppose you and a fly are both drowning. I can only save one. Obviously, I should save you. That’s true even if you both matter morally. For one thing, I know you matter morally whereas I only know the fly might matter morally. But also: you have many desires and hopes about the future which will be foiled by death; you have relationships which will be cut short and loved ones who will miss you; death would make you miss out on a long life full of rich experiences as opposed to, for the fly, a much shorter life full of simpler experiences; the terror and pain you feel while drowning would be much worse than that felt by the fly; etc. These and other reasons mean your death would be much worse than the death of the fly. Some philosophers also think the mere fact that you are human also matters, whereas others think that belief is mere prejudice. But we can ignore that for now. After all, some of the factors I mentioned also apply to dogs, and so mean you should also save a dog over an insect. So I do kill insects sometimes, both by accident (which is unavoidable) and intentionally. For instance, when my cats got fleas, I gave them flea treatment.

But in that case, you might wonder, why worry about insects at all? If the suffering of humans (and dogs, and all those factory-farmed mammals and birds and fish) is so much worse, why not focus on that, and ignore the insects? Well, you should care about all that other stuff, too. But, first, it’s not always a competition. You can take various small steps that won’t detract from addressing these other things. By attuning us to the moral importance of sentience, concern for insects might even make us more concerned about other, more sophisticated beings. And, second, humans have the ability to affect very many insects, and the death and suffering of tens of trillions of farmed insects may be extremely bad when added up, even if each insect’s treatment is only a little bit bad. (In the future, it may even be possible for us to intervene in nature to improve the condition of the quintillions of insects that live in the wild.)

So: live your life and be concerned about everyone, but be concerned about insects, too, and try to avoid hurting them when you can. And let others know you’re doing this. Whether moral concern for insects spreads will affect whether we make the right decisions on big-picture issues, like whether to farm them. And it will also affect how embarrassed I get when I talk to my mom.

The Ethics of Animal Dis-Enhancement

photograph of chickens packed into pens at poultry farm

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.


Human beings have long treated animals not as sentient beings, but as objects or products to be used and consumed. We do this in spite of the fact that animals demonstrate every sign of having mental lives. We have the same reasons to believe that animals have mental lives that we do to believe that other human beings have mental lives; the best evidence we have is behavior. Humans report having affection for animals. Nevertheless, we intensively farm them for food and use them for medical experiments, activities which are quite painful and lead to suffering, permanent disability, and/or death. Engaging in these activities requires compartmentalization and moral disengagement.

The tension arises because humans want to use animals for all of the purposes that they typically use them for, but they also don’t want the animals to feel pain or to suffer if it can be prevented. Under ordinary conditions, when faced with this choice, humans use animals rather than exhibit care for their suffering. Recently, some scientists and philosophers have suggested an alternative solution: genetically engineering farm and research animals to experience little to no suffering. Recent research on pain suggests that it is registered in the brain in two places. The first is in the primary or somatosensory cortex, which establishes the nature of the pain (burning, throbbing, etc.). The second involves the affective dimension which happens in the anterior cingulate cortex. This area controls not the pain itself, but how much the sentient creature minds the pain. Either area could be genetically engineered to reduce the discomfort experienced by the animal.

Advocates of this approach care about animal pain and suffering; if they didn’t, they would remain satisfied with the status quo. They are advocating what philosophers frequently refer to as an approach in line with non-ideal theory. The distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory is a meta-ethical distinction, that is, it is a distinction between different theories of what ethics is and how we ought to approach it. Ideal theorists argue that ethics should be concerned with identifying the correct moral theory and then directing behavior so that it conforms to that standard. The non-ideal theorist, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone would follow the ideal theory in a perfect world, but emphasizes that we don’t live in such a world. As such, our ethical theorizing should situate itself in the world that we actually inhabit, with all of its flaws and imperfections — a world where we perhaps can’t or shouldn’t expect everyone’s compliance or agreement on all things at all times.

When it comes to dis-enhancement, these non-ideal theorists often acknowledge that it would be best if we simply stopped exploiting animals and using them as objects for human purposes. They also recognize, however, that animal advocates have been shouting their messages from the rooftops for decades, even centuries in some parts of the world. To the extent that these messages are being heard, they are also largely being dismissed. If we are going to continue to use animals for food and research, at least we could do so in a way that minimizes pain. This may not realize what true justice demands, but it may represent incremental change toward that ideal state of affairs.

Opponents of dis-enhancement make several different kinds of arguments. First, they argue that dis-enhancement leaves animals vulnerable. The ability to experience and to care about pain is an evolutionary mechanism that helps creatures to avoid danger. If there is no longer any fear of pain because dis-enhanced animals do not feel it, then animals could die from otherwise avoidable risk. In response to these claims, the non-ideal theorist might argue that the unfortunate truth is that these animals aren’t going to be venturing out into the wide world in which they might make bad decisions. Their fate is certain — they are destined to live lives during which they are imprisoned and used and then discarded. If this is the case, why not do what we can to make their existences less unpleasant?

Opponents argue further that our willingness to do this to non-human animals highlights the extent of our speciesism — our tendency to direct our moral concern only to members of certain species on the basis of species membership alone. Imagine that a scientist wanted to create a group of people to enslave and abuse. The scientist doesn’t want to cause the resultant humans any pain, so he creates them without the ability to experience it. It is reasonable to suppose that many people would object to this experiment. Would their objections be justified? How is this different from creating a horde of robotic slaves? If we react negatively to this thought experiment, but not to dis-enhancing animals, what could explain our reaction other than speciesism?

Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake takes place in a futuristic universe that is increasingly bioengineered. At one point, Crake, who is working in the “Neo-agricultural Department” at a research university takes the main character, Jimmy, to observe a new method of food production. They are growing parts of chickens — only the breasts — for the purposes of food. Crake says,

“You get chicken breasts in two weeks – that’s a three-week improvement on the most efficient low-light, high-density chicken farming operation so far devised. And the animal-welfare freaks won’t be able to say a word, because this thing feels no pain.”

Crake’s laboratory is experimenting with animal parts, but, at least at this point in the story, they are not creating sentient beings. They are just chicken breasts, they aren’t having lived experiences of the world, they don’t have preferences or a dignity to contend with. (Consider in vitro meat, which allows scientists to create meat and organs to eat or to test on without changing the genetic structure of future sentient animals.)

When it comes to farm and research animals who have been “dis-enhanced,” we are still dealing with sentient creatures that have experiences of their world. They may lack the ability to feel or to care about feeling their own pain, but they still have a set of dispositions to behave in certain ways and have the ability to develop preferences. This makes them different from robots or disembodied chicken breasts. They are aware of their own experiences. Some opponents argue that respect for the lived experiences of sentient creatures demands that researchers refrain from playing Frankenstein with their bodies in ways that have serious consequences.

In response, advocates of dis-enhancement might appeal again to the non-ideal nature of the theory under which they are operating. They might agree that it would be wonderful if everyone respected the dignity of sentient creatures. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen. Given this, dis-enhancement might be our best chance at reducing or eliminating the massive amounts of suffering that these processes entail.

Another objection to dis-enhancement comes from the perspective of environmental virtue ethics. Are we oriented virtuously toward the natural world and the living creatures on it if we respond to the crises that we face with dis-enhancement? Consider the following parallel case. One way of responding to climate change is to engage in geoengineering. One form that this can take is changing the chemical constitution of our atmosphere in such a way as to roll back or lessen the effects of global warming. Opponents of geoengineering point out that when a child messes up their room, the right thing to do is get them to clean it and teach them how to keep it clean rather than searching for ways to mess it up ever further without consequences. By analogy, we should limit our greenhouse gas emissions and try to clean up the mess we’ve made rather than pursuing geoengineering strategies that threaten to produce ever more mess.

Critics of dis-enhancement argue that we should adopt the same standard of responsibility when it comes to cruelty to animals. Instead of finding ways to engage in cruel behavior without causing pain, we should simply stop engaging in cruel behavior. Treating animals in the way that we do is an exhibition of vicious character. Even if it has little effect on the animals because they have been dis-enhanced and don’t feel pain, the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s observations may be useful here. He says that we “must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If we behave callously toward dis-enhanced sentient animals because they don’t experience pain, the consequence may be that we are increasingly callous and cruel toward the beings that do.

The question of dis-enhancement is ultimately a question of how we should view the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Should it be a conqueror’s relationship to the conquered? Are we so depraved as a species that it would be naïve for us ever to expect broad scale changes? Or is there hope that we can someday view ourselves as empathetic fellow participants in biotic communities?

Under Discussion: Aristotelian Temperance and Cultured Meat

photograph of raw steak arranged on butcher block with cleaver and greenery

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

On the 19th of December, so-called “cultured meat” was listed for the first time on a restaurant menu when the Singaporean eatery 1880 began offering lab-grown chicken from the American company Eat Just. Unlike its standard counterpart, an ingredient like cultured meat (also sometimes called “in vitro” meat) is not harvested from the dead body of an animal raised for slaughter, but is literally grown in a cultured solution much like a petri dish (hence the name “cultured”). While meat-substitutes of various types have become increasingly popular in recent years, this newly-approved product goes one step further: rather than simply aiming to mimic the flavor and texture of meat with plant-based ingredients, cultured meat is biologically (and, by most reports, experientially) identical to “meat” as typically conceived — it is simply not meat grown in the normal way.

For many, cultured meat offers one of the most economical and practical methods for potentially dismantling the ethical scourge that is the industrial factory farming system (responsible as it is for the annual torture and death of billions of chickens, cows, pigs, and more). If cultured meat can be produced economically at a scale sufficient to satisfy popular demands for meat products, then consumers might well be able to stubbornly maintain their meat-eating habits without requiring the suffering and death of so many creatures each year. From a utilitarian perspective, the moral calculation is clear: to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, we seemingly must pull the switch and convert our societal habits from eating meat to eating cultured meat.

But, this leaves open alternative questions about the ethics of eating cultured meat. For example, even if it’s true that cultured meat could offer a viable method for satisfying culinary desires for meat in a way that requires comparably little animal death, that does little to address the problem of having those desires in the first place.

In a recent article, Raja Halwani argues that the Aristotelian virtue of temperance gives us two ways of thinking about how to consider our meat-eating desires: as a matter of desiring the wrong object or as a matter of desiring the right object in the wrong way. As Aristotle himself explains in the Nicomachean Ethics, the temperate person:

“neither enjoys the things that the self-indulgent man enjoys most—but rather dislikes them—nor in general the things that he should not, nor anything of this sort to excess, nor does he feel pain or craving when they are absent, or does so only to a moderate degree, and not more than he should, nor when he should not, and so on” (emphasis added).

While temperance is often considered primarily as a matter of the latter practice — that is, as a restraint on the uncontrolled pursuit of our desires of taste (as exemplified perhaps most infamously in the American Temperance movement) — Aristotle also points out that the temperate person will lack a taste for things that should not be desired.

That is to say, it is one thing to desire something inappropriate while consciously restraining yourself from acting on that desire, while it is quite another to simply not desire the inappropriate thing at all. Imagine, for example, that Moe is a person who (for some reason) desires to murder a series of innocent people in some horrifically gruesome manner. Although he imagines that he would feel great pleasure at committing murder (and, indeed, takes pleasure simply in his imagination of doing so), Moe knows that acting on those murderous desires would be wrong, so he works hard to suppress them and (thankfully) never actually kills anyone. Calvin, in contrast, lacks the desire to murder anyone and, therefore, never commits murder. While it is true that, on one level, Moe and Calvin are the same — neither of them is a murderer — it is also the case that we could say that Calvin is better than Moe in at least some way.

To Aristotle, Moe’s case evidences a kind of continence insofar as Moe has mastered control of his improper desires (because he desires the wrong thing — namely, murder); as Aristotle says, the continent person “knowing that his appetites are bad, refuses on account of his rational principle to follow them.” This means that Moe also demonstrates a lack of what Nicolas Bommarito has described as a kind of “inner virtue” insofar as Moe’s tendency to feel pleasure at even just imaginary murder manifests “morally important cares or concerns” — in this case, they are “morally important” precisely because they are unethical. So, while it is true that we should also recognize Moe’s conscious restraint as proof of separate moral virtues (assuming that his restraint is borne from more than simple self-preservation or a desire to avoid punishment), it is still the case that Moe’s murderous desires are vicious.

What, then, do we make of cultured meat?

Although Halwani does not specifically discuss in vitro meat, he mentions briefly that it “might even be that the temperate person would not desire fake meat processed to look and taste like common forms of meat, such as the Impossible Burger, given that they imitate the kind of meat produced through a cruel history of suffering and death.” Or, like Rossi argued here at the Prindle Post, if cultured meat continues to encourage popular attitudes or perspectives of animals as “edible,” then it might well be serving to perpetuate a less-than-ideal set of desires, even if there are few direct problems with a tasty meal of ethically-produced in vitro meat. Like Halwani points out, temperate individuals might well be morally required to forego various aesthetic pleasures “when they come at the expense of immoral actions,” but the point is that the truly temperate person would not suffer from desires for immoral objects in the first place.

In effect, cultured meat could be promoting a structural sort of continence for our diets that recognizes the moral harms of our current food production methods and so acts to restrain them without doing anything to dissipate the original problematic desires themselves.

Admittedly, I’m taking for granted here that the currently standard system of raising creatures in captivity and subjecting them to immense pain simply for the purpose of consuming their flesh is a moral abomination, regardless of how tasty that flesh might be. If cultured meat offers the most realistic opportunity to prevent widespread nonhuman animal suffering, then that alone is sufficient reason to explore its viability. But the implications of our diet for our character (and what we care about) is also important to consider, even once creaturely suffering is diminished.

In short: cultured meat might indeed do well to prevent future bloodshed, but it cannot, on its own, establish a robustly virtuous culture that lacks the desire for the products of bloodshed.

Elephants Are People Too

close-up photograph of elephant in the wild

37 years ago, the daughter of a Pakistani dictator was gifted a 1-year-old Asian Elephant calf named Kaavan. Kaavan ended up in Marghazar Zoo, a run-down facility in Islamabad. He had one elephant companion; a female named Saheli. When Saheli died in 2012, Kavaan spent days in his enclosure with her dead body before she was finally removed. Elephants are known to experience grief in response to the death of their companions. Since then, Kaavan has spent all of his time apart from other elephants, earning him the nickname “the loneliest elephant.” He has spent much of his existence in chains. With the help of animal rescue organization Four Paws International and Free the Wild, the animal welfare organization started by pop legend Cher, Kaavan has been freed from the zoo at which he was held captive and is now in an elephant sanctuary.

Kaavan was granted freedom from Marghazar Zoo as a result of a decision made by a high court in Pakistan. Chief Justice Athar Minallah began his opinion with a reflection about COVID-19. He notes that for the first time in memorable human history, human beings are confined to small spaces, restricted from interacting with friends and family, and limited in their range of autonomous choices. He argues that perhaps our own confinement provides us with an ideal opportunity to reflect on the ways in which we treat non-human animals, creatures who also enjoy social relationships, space to move freely, and a range of options when it comes to how, where, and with whom they will spend their time. In his ruling, Chief Justice Minallah poses the following question,

“Has nature forced the human race to go into ‘captivity’ so as make it realize its dependence for survival on other beings possessed with a similar gift, i.e., life? Is it an opportunity for humans to introspect and relate to the pain and distress suffered by other living beings, animal species, when they are subjugated and kept in captivity and denied the conditions and habitats created for their survival by the Creator, merely for momentary entertainment?”

Elephants are complex creatures who live rich social lives. They are highly intelligent and have excellent capacities for memory. Like all social beings, elephants thrive when they are in one another’s company. They flourish when they are able to do the things that elephants do when left unmolested. Humans have long benefitted from treating non-human animals as things, as instruments for human pleasure. We eat them, we conduct research on them, we hunt them for fun, and we force them to entertain us even when doing so is contrary to their own interests. Justice Minallah suggests that now is a moment, long overdue, at which we can start to view non-human animals with empathy and compassion, especially in cases in which their cognitive architecture is so similar to our own.

The court’s ruling on Kaavan’s case provided the conditions under which he was freed, but the question remained: to where and how does one transport a 5-ton pachyderm? Stunningly, the answer turned out to be: 4,000 miles away, to Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia — by plane. The Sanctuary is over 30,000 acres — space that Kaavan will get to explore with many other elephants.

Meanwhile, at the Bronx Zoo in the United States, a 49-year-old Asian Elephant named Happy is confined under similar conditions. Happy has been at the Bronx Zoo for 42 years. For the last decade, he has been held apart from other elephants in a one-acre enclosure. The Zoo insists that Happy is treated humanely. The Non-Human Rights Project, an animal advocacy group led by attorney Steven Wise that is dedicated to securing legal rights for non-human animals, disagrees. In recent years, the NhRP has also secured habeas corpus hearings for Hercules and Leo, the first non-human animals to be granted such a hearing. Though the judge in that case did not grant that the chimpanzees were legal persons, he affirmed the basic moral idea behind the movement. Judge Fahey wrote,

“The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a “person,” there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

The NhRP has argued that Happy is being unlawfully imprisoned at the zoo. The central issue at play in the case for freeing Happy is whether he is a person with rights to habeas corpus protection. A person has a right to bodily autonomy which carries with it a right not to be unfairly imprisoned or held against their will. So, for example, if a person has been detained or imprisoned and they believe that they have been put in that position unlawfully, they have a right to file a habeas corpus brief with the court in an attempt to be released from confinement. The argument is that, like people, non-human animals, or, at least, some non-human animals, have the same right to bodily autonomy and the same entitlement to protection against unlawful imprisonment as human beings do.

A common objection and, indeed, one of the objections that was raised by one of the justices at the most recent hearing on Happy’s case in front of the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department is that if we grant that elephants and chimpanzees are legal persons, we’ll have to recognize that they have the other rights of persons — the right to vote, the right to bear arms, etc. This strikes many as both absurd and dangerous. In response to this concern Wise points out that there are many entities to which the courts have granted limited personhood status, including corporations. When the NhRP insists that Happy is a person in the limited sense that he has the right to bodily autonomy and should not be imprisoned unlawfully, they are not also insisting that elephants have the right to free speech or to the free exercise of religion, or any other such absurdities.

Another concern that was raised by more than one of the justices in Happy’s most recent hearing is that the question of elephant personhood shouldn’t be an issue for the courts to decide. The appropriate body to make that decision is the legislature. If that body wants to declare by statute that certain animals should be treated as persons, they are free to do so, but barring that, such dramatic action that has consequences that are so wide in scope would be judicial overreach. In response, Wise points out that a writ of habeas corpus is a measure of common law. The common law is established by judicial decisions and precedent rather than by statute. As such, the courts don’t need to, and indeed shouldn’t, keep Happy imprisoned until such time as Congress decides to pass legislation protecting these animals, which it is unlikely ever to do. For good reason, habeas corpus writs provide courts with the ability to quickly remove persons from unlawful detainment. Wise argues that they should take the opportunity to do so in Happy’s case.

These legal questions are intimately connected to critical moral questions. Do non-human animals have rights? The concerns posed by the court suggest a way of answering this question that is supported by various social contract theories. According to a basic version of this kind of theory, fully free humans come together to form a society with the understanding that it will be in everyone’s self-interest to give up some of their liberties in exchange for certain protections. The social structure of society is granted legitimacy by the fact that the rational people involved in the decision-making consented to it. The trouble is, not all sentient beings participated in constructing the contract. Non-human animals are entitled to rights and protections only if the decision-makers have agreed to such protections. According to this view, in our modern time, elephants and chimpanzees only have rights if legislatures pass statues granting them those rights.

One shortcoming of social contract theories is that they have no mechanism for ensuring protection of the vulnerable. If decision-makers don’t want to provide protections, at-risk populations are out of luck. This means that elephants and chimpanzees might remain unprotected, and it also might mean that oppressed groups like women and minorities who weren’t permitted to be involved in the original decision-making aren’t guaranteed protections either.

An alternative approach, and an approach consistent with the strategy of the Non-Human Rights project, is to insist that all sentient beings have ownership over their own bodies and, to the extent that they can exercise autonomy without harming others, should be allowed to do so. This approach respects the inherent dignity of all life. It recognizes that Happy should be released from captivity, not because it is the will of the people, but because Happy is not the kind of entity that ever should have been “kept”; Happy is a “who,” not an “it.”