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The task of this book is to consider whether animals have moral standing - that is, whether they have rights that we may infringe by killing them or causing them suffering, or whether there is some other way in which we have direct moral duties towards them. In this first chapter I shall lay the foundation for what follows, discussing the role of theoretical considerations within morality and the methods that may be appropriate in resolving moral disputes. I shall also argue against some kinds of moral theory that they are too implausible to be taken seriously.


The limits of morality

It needs to be emphasised that our question about the moral standing of animals is not the same as the question whether animals matter. There are many things that matter to us which do not give rise to moral rights or duties (or at least not directly - I shall return to this point shortly). Ancient buildings, oak trees, and works of art matter greatly to many of us without, I think, having moral standing. It is hardly sensible to say that a medieval castle, the oak on the village green, or the Mona Lisa have a moral right to be preserved. Nor is it plausible to claim that we have moral duties with respect to these things - though some people may have professional duties to care for them, through their roles as museum curators or foresters.

            Things that lack moral standing may nevertheless have indirect moral significance, giving rise to moral duties in a round-about way. Thus, while medieval castles are not the kinds of thing that can have rights, and while we have no moral duties towards them as such, it is plainly of moral significance that many people care deeply about them. This may be sufficient to give rise to duties to preserve and protect. Even the legitimate owner of a medieval castle may be under a moral obligation not to destroy it, since this would deprive present and future generations of a source of wonder, and of attachment to the past. So even if we were to agree that animals lack moral standing, it would not follow that we can, with impunity, treat animals as we please. For there may still be indirect duties towards animals arising out of the legitimate concerns of animal lovers. All the same, much may depend on the question whether our duties towards animals are direct or indirect, as we shall see in later chapters.

            If one claims - surely rightly - that works of art lack moral standing, then it is obvious that this should not be taken as an attack upon art lovers. It is perfectly consistent with such a claim that one should care deeply about some if not all works of art, and that one should strive as hard as one can in the cause of their preservation. In the same way, the claim that animals lack moral standing should not be regarded as an attack upon animal lovers. It is entirely consistent with it that one should continue to admire, be amused by, or be besotted with animals - even that one should prefer the company of one’s cat or dog to the company of human beings.

            The general point is that not all values are moral ones. Many of us have projects or interests that occupy our attention and enrich our existence without making any moral claims upon us. One test for whether a value is a moral one is whether ignoring it should invite blame. While I might be sorry if I were somehow to lose my love of classical music, I do not think that it would be wrong of me if I were, in consequence, to cease going to concerts. In contrast, even if I were somehow to lose my respect for other people’s property, it would still be blameworthy of me to steal. Another test is whether one should be prepared to generalise the claim in question to others. While I love to go walking in the wilderness, I recognize that this is not an interest that everyone shares, nor am I prepared to insist that they should share it. In contrast, if I value human liberty, to the extent of finding slavery abhorrent whatever the circumstances, I shall blame those who continue to traffic in human lives or who are otherwise indifferent to the value of freedom.

            Our main question, to repeat, is whether animals have moral standing. But it should be remembered that a negative reply need not entail that there are no moral constraints on our treatment of animals.


Theory and practice

The overall topic of this book is directly practical - how should we behave towards animals, and why? Yet although this question is indeed a practical one, it should be obvious that in answering it we shall need to engage in theoretical discussion, concerning the nature and source of moral judgements. If we are to discover how far moral considerations may reach (that is, the boundaries of those who have moral standing), we shall need to investigate the basis of morality itself.

            One theoretical issue arises immediately, since it threatens to render all further discussion pointless. This is the question whether moral judgements are merely subjective expressions of attitude. On such an account, some people just happen to have the attitude that animal suffering should be avoided, whereas some just happen to be indifferent. In which case, further discussion and argument are a waste of time. For example, if making the statement ‘Hurting animals is wrong’ is a bit like saying ‘I dislike cheese’, then there is really nothing more to be said. Or rather, if more is to be said it should be in the mode of mere rhetoric, rather than of rational argument. For it would obviously be foolish to try to argue someone out of their attitude to cheese. In the same way, it might be suggested, it would be foolish to try to argue someone out of their attitude towards animals. If such attitudes are to be changed, it will be by means other than rational persuasion.[1] In which case, if the business of philosophy is rational argument, as I believe it is, then on such matters philosophers should remain silent.

            This strong subjectivist thesis is plainly false, however. It is a matter of common experience that moral beliefs are amenable to argument, in a way that questions of taste are not. For example, people generally feel constrained to try to resolve contradictions amongst their moral beliefs, attempting to find general principles that will reconcile them; whereas they feel no such constraint in connection with matters of taste. Thus, someone who believes on the one hand that abortion is always wrong (even to save the life of the mother), and who believes on the other hand that the blanket-bombing of German cities in the Second World War was justified, can easily be made to feel uncomfortable. For these both appear to be examples of the killing of innocents in pursuit of some further purpose. Note, however, that I do not claim that the beliefs in question are contradictory. There are a number of possible ways in which they might be reconciled. My point is only that people generally feel rationally constrained to attempt such a reconciliation. In contrast, no one will feel uneasy at disliking cheese but liking yoghurt, even when it is pointed out to them that both are dairy products.

            While moral judgements are clearly amenable to reason, to a degree, this is not yet to say that they are objective. For we can distinguish between strong and weak versions of subjectivism. Strong subjectivism is the thesis we have just been considering, which holds that moral judgements are direct expressions of attitude or feeling. Weak subjectivism, on the other hand, would only claim that moral judgements depend ultimately upon the basic attitudes of the person making the judgement. While this may allow room for reason and argument within morality, it still remains possible for moral disagreements to be irreconcilable. In the end, different people may be committed to different basic principles, between which reason cannot adjudicate. Both of these varieties of subjectivism may be contrasted with an objectivist account of morality, which would maintain that in any moral dispute one or other of the disputants must be wrong, and that it must be possible, in principle at least, to establish who (if either) is right.

            For our purposes it may not matter very much whether morality is objective or weakly subjective. Each of these theories allows space for reason and argument within the moral sphere, and both can motivate a search for basic principles. Indeed, each of the two main moral theories to be considered in detail in the next chapter (namely, utilitarianism and contractualism) can be regarded in either of these lights. I do in fact believe, however, that most of those philosophers who have supported the weak subjectivist line have only done so because they have failed to distinguish between two different strengths of objectivism. Thinking, rightly, that strong objectivism is to be rejected, they have believed themselves thereby committed to some version of subjectivism. But this is a mistake. There remains the possibility of a weak objectivist interpretation of morality, as we shall see shortly.

            Another point is this. In practice it will be hard to tell whether or not we have reached a disagreement that is truly fundamental, in the weak subjectivist sense. Even though the existence of irreconcilable moral viewpoints may be a theoretical possibility, in practice a weak subjectivist should allow that we may never be able to tell whether or not further debate might make a difference. Our moral judgements and principles are sufficiently complex that they (like beliefs in philosophy) are subject to constant revisability. Although someone may think that they have articulated their fundamental moral principle, from commitment to which nothing could rationally move them, in fact it can never be ruled out that there may yet be some comparison, analogy, or argument that would force them to reconsider.

            On any defensible account of morality, then, general theoretical considerations may have a large part to play in determining our practical judgements. In morality, as in many other areas of our cognition (excepting matters of taste), we feel obliged, when we reflect on the matter, to try to make overall sense of our beliefs and attitudes. We should perhaps agree, indeed, that our moral beliefs can only really be acceptable if they form part of a coherent body of such beliefs, linked together by general principles having at least a powerful intuitive appeal. It follows that a considerable part of our task, when it comes to determining the appropriate moral treatment of animals, will consist in seeing how principles concerning such treatment might fit acceptably in to an overall moral theory.


Moral theory, common-sense belief, and animals

What relationship should obtain between our common-sense moral beliefs and our best moral theory? Will common-sense only be vindicated if it can be grounded in an independently plausible theory? Or, on the contrary, can we take common-sense for granted, so that any acceptable theory is constrained to account for it? The answer, in my view, is ‘neither’ (or, alternatively, ‘partly both’). The proper relationship between common-sense moral belief and moral theory is best understood in terms of the concept of reflective equilibrium. This was first expounded by John Rawls in connection with a version of theory often known as contractualism,[2] but it is in fact equally applicable to other theoretical approaches.

            The idea is that we should seek a position of equilibrium between theory and ordinary judgement that we can, on reflection, find rationally acceptable. We begin with our considered common-sense moral beliefs, having done our best to purge those beliefs of confusion, inconsistency, partiality, and prejudice. We then try to construct a plausible theory that will explain and give unity to those judgements. It may emerge, however, that the theory as proposed entails that some of those judgements are false. At this point we can either return to the theory and tinker with it until it delivers the right results, or we can give up an element of common-sense belief. Which option will be more reasonable will depend upon details. For example, if the theory is an attractive one and our best attempts to improve on it only produce modifications that appear to be entirely arbitrary, then we may opt to reject common-sense. This will be especially plausible if we can provide some independent explanation of how ordinary people can have come to be deluded on the issue. Alternatively, if the belief in question is very firmly held, then our only reasonable course may be to give up or modify our theory. The overall goal is to reach a position that we can, on balance, be satisfied with.

            On this view, while the business of constructing an acceptable moral theory must take its start from common-sense, in that our considered pre-theoretical judgements provide the data to be either accounted for or explained away, yet a particular moral belief, in its turn, will only be justified if it can be integrated into an acceptable moral theory. As we shall see later, there are a number of powerful constraints on the acceptability of moral theories, besides internal consistency. So it must be left open as a possibility at the out-set that a good deal of common-sense morality might have to be rejected, in the end, as a result of our theoretical reflections.

            What shows, however, that the process of seeking reflective equilibrium is a necessary one to go through? Why should it be supposed that this is the only way to justify a set of moral beliefs? The answer is that (in contrast with mathematics, for example) there is no such thing as proof in ethics. For in the moral domain there are no fixed points, no beliefs about which we may be completely certain, that we could use as a foundation on which to erect a system of moral knowledge. There are no theoretical principles or common-sense beliefs that can be known for certain to be true in advance of investigating their relationships with our best considered theories and beliefs. So any moral theory must be tested, in part, by its consequences for common-sense belief, and the justification for a common-sense belief, in turn, will partly depend upon its capacity to receive a theoretical explanation. The justification-relation is mutual and reciprocal.

            A comparison with our mode of knowledge of the physical world may be helpful at this point. Since Rene Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy were published in 1641, the theory of knowledge has been dominated, until recently, by the idea generally known as foundationalism. On this view, some of our knowledge (generally held to be reports of immediate experience, or sense data, together with simple truths of reason) must be completely certain, to provide the foundation on which all other knowledge is to be erected. But this conception has come under increasing pressure in recent decades, and rightly so - in part because of doubts about whether there really is anything that can be known for certain. Many philosophers have, in consequence, come to endorse an opposing coherentism about our knowledge. They have come to see the justification for our beliefs about the world in terms of overall explanatory coherence, in which the relations of support between our various beliefs are mutual and reciprocal.[3] The concept of reflective equilibrium is best seen as an application of the coherentist picture of knowledge to the moral domain. And it is, if anything, even more unavoidable here, since in this domain there are simply no candidates for beliefs that might serve as a foundation, carrying their justification in and of themselves.

            Since our task is to investigate the relationship between moral theory and the question of the moral standing of animals, seeking a position of reflective equilibrium on the issue, it will be useful to have a rough idea at the out-set of what our common-sense morality tell us about the status and appropriate treatment of animals. The general view seems to imply that animals have partial moral standing - their lives and experiences having direct moral significance, but much less than that of human beings. Most people hold that it is wrong to cause animals unnecessary suffering. Opinions will differ as to what counts as necessary. Some would say that the suffering caused by the testing of detergents is permissible. Others would allow suffering only in the course of genuine scientific experiments. Yet others would allow animals to suffer only in the course of important medical experiments. But all will agree that gratuitous suffering - suffering caused for no good reason - is wrong. To cause such suffering is generally recognized to be cruel. (I think all would also agree that the sufferings of animals cannot be weighed against the sufferings of human beings, though I shall defer developing this point to the final sections of chapter 3.)

            When it comes to killing, I think common-sense morality tells us that the killing of animals is not wrong, except for no good reason. Again, opinions will differ as to what counts as good reason. Some would allow that animals may be killed for sport (perhaps provided that the manner of the killing is not cruel). Others would allow them to be killed for the pleasure of eating their flesh. Yet others would allow them to be killed only to protect legitimate human interests, as when rabbits are shot to prevent crop damage. And others again will only allow animals to be killed where human lives are at stake, as when meat is the only available food. But all will agree that there is no question of weighing up animal lives against the lives of humans.

            To see this last point, imagine that you arrive at a fire in a dogs’ home to find Kenneth, the human owner, unconscious on the floor while the dogs are all locked in their cages. Your judgement is that you only have time to drag Kenneth to safety, or to unlock the cages to allow the dogs to escape, but not both. Here I think no one would maintain that you ought to place the lives of many dogs above the life of a single human. Whereas most would believe that, in an otherwise comparable situation in which only humans were involved, the best thing to do would be to save as many lives as possible. This is always supposing, of course, that all else is equal. If Kenneth is known to be a mass murderer or child molester then many might feel differently about the case. The common-sense view seems to be that human beings can, by their own actions, forfeit their right to life, or cease to be worth rescuing.

            It is worth stressing, since it will prove to be of some importance later, that our common-sense belief that human and animal lives cannot be weighed against one another appears to be particularly central to morality, or especially firmly held. For even those philosophers who have been most vociferous in promoting the rights of animals, such as Tom Regan and Peter Singer, go to considerable lengths to retain it.[4] If we are to be forced to give up this aspect of common-sense morality, it will require, at the least, a theoretical argument that is very powerful indeed.


An example, and some reactions

I shall now present and discuss a particular example, not directly related to the animals issue. It will serve, both to introduce a variety of theoretical approaches to morality, and also as a test of the reader’s own beliefs and attitudes. The example is based upon a real case (as are many of the examples to be used in this book). I have changed some of the details, however, as well as the names of the people involved.

            Some years ago a married couple committed joint suicide. Anthony was a famous author in his seventies, facing a painful terminal illness that would involve gradual loss of the mental faculties he valued so highly. His wife Susie, however, was in her forties and healthy. The couple had no children. They discussed their situation extensively before reaching a decision. Both were agreed that an early death would provide a merciful release for Anthony, and after careful consideration Susie decided that she did not wish to go on living without him. It should be plain to us that she made a disastrous mistake, nevertheless. Grief, no matter how debilitating, is not terminal. It is a cliche, but true, that time heals all. We can be confident that had Anthony alone committed suicide Susie would have been able to pick up the threads of her life again, though perhaps after an extensive period of mourning, and that she would probably have gone on to lead a fruitful and satisfying existence. Two questions then arise about Susie’s decision. First, was her suicide not just mistaken, but morally wrong or blameworthy? Second, supposing that we had known of the situation in advance, would we have been under a moral obligation to try to prevent her? Let us now canvass some of the possible avenues of response.

            Some people will be inclined to say that Susie’s suicide was definitely wrong because it involved the termination of a human life, and human life is sacred. In the same vein, they will say that had we known in advance of her decision we would have been obliged to act to prevent her death, so as to preserve something sacred. Such people have an approach to ethics that is at bottom theistic, believing, in one version, that moral goodness is to be identified with what God approves of, and that moral duties are to be identified with God’s commands. (Other versions may hold that it is essential to our notion of moral goodness that such goodness is exemplified in the person of God, and that our duties are revealed to us by example, as in the life of Jesus Christ. These differences of detail need not concern us.) The theistic theory of morality will be discussed in the section that follows.

            Others may agree that what Susie did was wrong, and that we ought to have intervened had we known what she was going to do, but hold these beliefs on somewhat different grounds. They may claim that human life is (at least normally) intrinsically valuable. So Susie’s suicide involved the destruction of something having intrinsic value, just as a murder would have done, quite apart from the question whether there is a God who disapproves of what she did. Such people maintain that it is a given fact about the world that some things, including human lives, are valuable in their own right, giving rise to obligations on our part to respect and preserve those values wherever possible. (Some versions of belief in the sacredness of human life really come down to this, if it is held that the reason why God disapproves of suicide or murder is because human life is intrinsically valuable.) This theory, too, will shortly receive a section to itself.

            Another way of responding to the example would be to maintain that we should look at the likely consequences of Susie’s act, for good or harm. This theory (or family of theories) goes under the name of utilitarianism. In its simplest version it holds that an action is right if and only if it causes a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness than would any alternative action. A utilitarian will almost certainly maintain that Susie acted wrongly. For her untimely death cut off a generally worthwhile future existence for herself, and also prevented her from contributing to the happiness of others, as she probably would have done had she lived. A utilitarian will also be likely to hold that we would have been obliged to prevent Susie’s suicide if we could, since this would have secured more happiness overall. But this judgement will depend, additionally, upon the likely costs to us of our intervention, as well as on the possible detrimental effects on Susie’s happiness of having had the decision taken out of her own hands. Utilitarianism comes in many shapes and guises, and has been defended in one version or another by many distinguished thinkers. It will receive extensive discussion in Chapter 2.

            A final way of responding to Susie’s suicide would be to maintain that her action cannot have been wrong, since it violated no one’s rights. She was in fact under no contract or obligation to continue her life (as, perhaps, she would have been had she had children in need of her care). On the contrary, she was a free agent, having the right to act in matters affecting only herself as she saw fit. Someone taking this line will probably also hold that we would have had no right to intervene to prevent Susie’s death, provided we were aware that her decision was taken after due consideration, by one who was of sound mind and under no duress. While we would have been morally permitted, perhaps obliged, to try to persuade her to reconsider, ultimately it was her own business. Morality is here viewed as a set of rules to govern interactions between agents, placing constraints on what they may legitimately do to one another, but otherwise leaving them free to pursue their own plans and projects. This theory, too, comes in many different versions, and has been defended by a variety of distinguished thinkers. In its most popular forms it may be known as contractualism, since moral rules are pictured as resulting from a certain kind of imaginary contract, as we shall see later. Contractualism, too, will receive extensive discussion in Chapter 2.

            I have outlined a variety of ethical theories, all of which can find a foothold, at least, in the reflections of ordinary people. It is now time to turn to the business of assessment. Part of our task will be to lay down some general constraints that any adequate theory of morality should meet, quite aside from its ability to explain our considered common-sense beliefs.


Theistic ethics

As we saw above, some thinkers claim that moral goodness is to be identified with what God approves of, and that moral duties are to be identified with God’s commands. Believing that God has forbidden us to kill, either ourselves or one another, they will then maintain that Susie, the suicide, acts wrongly. When considering the question of the moral standing of animals, such theorists may perhaps adduce evidence that God disapproves of people who cause suffering to animals, but less than he disapproves of those who cause suffering to human beings. So this theory at least stands some chance of being successful in accommodating common-sense beliefs about the moral standing of animals.

            Whatever one’s religious beliefs, this view should be rejected, for reasons I shall explain in a moment. But an initial strategic difficulty for the theist is that arguments from such a stand-point are unlikely to carry conviction in our increasingly secular age. It is no good trying to convince someone that something is morally wrong on the grounds that God has forbidden it, unless you are also prepared to try to convince them that God exists. But in fact the reasons for this latter belief are highly controversial.[5] So theists, now-a-days, are certainly well advised to look for secular arguments in support of their moral beliefs.

            In fact the thesis that moral goodness reduces to what God approves of (or exemplifies) was decisively refuted by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro (c.380 BC), many years before the birth of Christ. Plato sets this thesis a dilemma, asking whether what is good is approved of by God because it is good, or whether it is good because God approves of it. On the first alternative, God’s approval is mere evidence of moral goodness, and some independent account must be possible of what makes that thing good. If we take the second alternative, on the other hand, then we must be supposed to have no conception of moral goodness independent of God’s approval. In which case, if God had approved of the regular torture and sacrifice of little children, then that would have been morally good. But this conclusion is outrageous. It might be replied that God could not have approved of the torture of children, because God is good. But this is to concede the point. For it implies that we do, after all, have some conception of moral goodness that is independent of God’s approval. Otherwise we could not know that a wholly good God could not approve of such things.

            Either way, then, it follows that morality has a subject-matter that is independent of the question of God’s approval or commands. In which case, our considered moral views, arrived at on the best available secular grounds, should constrain our interpretations of the Bible and other religious texts, in the same way that our considered astronomical and geological views should constrain our interpretations of those texts. Since these texts are, at best, the word of God filtered through the minds of human beings, we should dismiss or reinterpret what is inconsistent with our considered non-theological beliefs. For example, if our best secular view is that there is no moral objection to homosexuality, then St Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality should be dismissed as Paul the man of his time speaking, rather than accepted as the word of God. On the animals issue, therefore, the primary question to be answered is whether or not our best secular theories of morality would accord moral standing to animals.


Strong objectivity and intuitionism

As we saw earlier, in connection with the example of Susie, the suicide, many people will be tempted by the idea that some things (including human lives) possess intrinsic value, making claims on us that are objective and inescapable. Such views have been gaining increasing currency recently. This is especially so amongst members of the ecology movement, some of whom have seized on the idea of intrinsic value as providing a basis on which to argue that we have direct duties towards the environment. Since, they claim, rain forests and rare species of animal possess intrinsic value, we are morally obliged not to collude in their destruction. As we shall see, however, it is ill-advised to try to vindicate the ecology movement in this manner, since the theory of intrinsic value turns out to be indefensible.

            In its purest forms this sort of theory is known as intuitionism. A version of it was defended by G. E. Moore in his book Principia Ethica,[6] though it has had many other adherents. The intuitionist maintains that moral values really exist, independently of us, and that we may know of them through acts of intellectual intuition - a kind of ‘seeing with the mind’s eye’. I shall do my best to explain this doctrine, setting it within a more general contrast between strong and weak objectivism. But I shall then go on to argue that intuitionism provides an unacceptable framework for moral theory. In the final section of the chapter I shall show how one famous defence of animal rights might best be classed as a kind of intuitionism, and, if so, that it should be rejected for that reason.

            Just as we earlier distinguished between strong and weak versions of subjectivism, so too we can distinguish between strong and weak versions of objectivism. Strong objectivism claims that morality deals with values that are given, that somehow form part of the fabric of the world. Weak objectivism, on the other hand, claims only that ethics employs concepts (ideas in our minds) with determinate conditions of application. In order to see clearly the nature of the contrast being drawn here, let us look at how the same distinction will apply to the difference between science, on the one hand, and common-sense beliefs about the physical world, on the other.

            One distinctive feature of scientific discourse is that in science we try to match our concepts to real divisions in nature. Thus we believe, for example, that early scientists were mistaken in classifying whales and porpoises as fish. Although whales, like sharks, live in the sea, it turns out that they have little in common with other sea creatures when it comes to explaining their behaviour, their evolution, and their natural life-cycle. In contrast with science, in ordinary life we often employ concepts for other (non-explanatory) purposes, that can yield objective truths without having to correspond to real divisions in nature. We employ concepts like ‘table’ and ‘spice’, for example, that collect together things that are, from a scientific point of view, really quite heterogeneous. But for all that, it is objectively true that I am sitting at a table as I write this, and that I ate spiced food last night.

            In terms of the distinctions explained earlier, science is strongly objective whereas many common-sense beliefs about the physical world are only weakly objective. Both consist of statements with determinate conditions of application. In both cases, whether or not a statement is true is independent of the beliefs and attitudes of those who make the statement - both assume that truth is to be discovered, not invented. But common-sense employs concepts that carve up the world to suit our purposes, in ways that may cut against the joints. While it is true that I am sitting at a table, and hence true that individual tables really exist, the difference between tables and other types of thing is not itself a part of the real world. It is rather something we impose on the world, in selecting the concepts we do. In science, on the other hand, the statement that sharks are fish is true only if the distinction we draw between fish and other types of thing corresponds to a real difference - that is, a difference that is already there in the world, helping to govern its operation and causal processes.

            Moral intuitionists believe that morality, like science, is strongly objective. Of course they do not think that moral concepts are scientific ones, or that moral properties will figure in causal explanations. But they think that moral facts and moral distinctions are somehow given, being already there in the world, placing a constraint upon any acceptable ethic. On this view, there is a real difference between those things that have value and those things that do not, which is entirely independent of us and our system of concepts (ideas). On the contrary, if we were to attempt to classify the value of things in any other manner than the way in which they are really distinguished, then we should be making a mistake, and all statements involving those concepts would be false.

            Scientists hope that we may come to know the real divisions in nature by observation and experiment, and by reasoning to the best explanation of the phenomena we observe. Plainly, however, our mode of knowledge of morality must be different. We cannot literally see the moral value of a thing, or know it by inference to the best explanation of what we see. Moral intuitionists maintain that we nevertheless have access to the real divisions of value in the world, by means of a special faculty of intellectual intuition. We may know whether or not something is really valuable by imagining it existing entirely on its own, and asking ourselves whether it is a good thing that it should exist. Intuitionists believe that the answers that intuitively come to us in such circumstances are generally reliable, providing us with knowledge of moral properties that is strongly objective.

            Intuitionists may then hope to provide an easy vindication of our common-sense attitude towards animals. They may say that when we imagine, entirely on its own, an animal in pain, we can see intuitively that this is an intrinsically bad state of affairs; but that when we imagine a situation in which the suffering of an animal is necessary to prevent some degree of dissatisfaction or injury to a human being, then we can see intuitively that it is no longer wrong. Similarly, they may say that when we imagine the death of an animal we can see that this is the loss of something intrinsically valuable; but that when we imagine the same death being necessary to prevent some human suffering, or to preserve some human life, then we can see that the situation is no longer a bad one. It follows, intuitionists may claim, that while animal experience and life is of some value, it is less valuable than the experiences and lives of human beings[7] - which is just what common-sense tells us.


Against intuitionism

While moral intuitionism might have provided a vindication of our common-sense attitudes towards animals, it seems to me to be plainly unacceptable. One argument for this conclusion is what Mackie calls ‘the argument from queerness’.[8] If moral values really exist in the objective world, then they must be very peculiar entities indeed. They are not actually present in physical objects, in the way that properties like mass and shape are. Nor, presumably, do they have any causal role. Unlike the sorts of properties in the natural world recognized by science, moral values do not serve to explain, in causal terms, the behaviour of physical objects and systems. They are rather, as Moore put it, non-natural properties. The very queerness of the idea of properties that have real existence, but that exist outside of the natural order, is an argument against accepting it.

            This queerness can be emphasised still further by noting that moral properties must somehow be such as to supervene on natural ones. For everyone agrees that there can be no differences in the values of things without some corresponding difference in their natural properties. There surely could not be two actions or agents exactly alike in all natural respects - for example, two acts done with the same intention and causing precisely the same degree of damage or pain - but differing in moral value. But if moral properties were genuinely objective, and existed outside of the natural order, then this supervenience would be extremely puzzling, to say the least. For if moral properties lie outside the natural world, then how does it come to be the case that they cannot apply to things independently of facts within the natural world?

            Even more of a problem is presented by the task of explaining the operation (or, indeed, the very existence) of our supposed faculty of intuition. Given that moral values do not form part of the natural world, then how are they supposed to have an effect upon our minds? How can something that is not in nature have an effect upon something that is? Indeed, it seems peculiar to think of moral values as being causes at all. How is the property of being valuable supposed to give rise to beliefs in us about it? How, for example, would the objective fact that humans are more valuable than dogs be supposed to cause in our minds the intuition that they are more valuable? The very idea seems barely intelligible.

            Even supposing that the hypothesis made sense, that an objective value might be able to cause beliefs in our minds, it would still remain inexplicable, in natural terms, how we could have come to possess a faculty of mind that would allow us to gain knowledge in such a manner. For in order to have been selected in evolution, a faculty of moral intuition would have to have conferred survival value on those first humans who happened to possess it, or a primitive version of it. But it seems unlikely that a faculty of moral intuition could have conferred any survival value. In contrast, the faculty of sight is easily explained, since there are all sorts of ways in which you will be better able to survive if you can see things accurately.

            It might be replied that moral beliefs have obvious survival value, since human beings who lacked them would not be able to function effectively together in co-operative societies. But this is not to the point. The problem is to explain how we could come to have a faculty of mind giving us reliable access to features of an objective moral realm, not to explain why we should have moral beliefs at all. From the point of view of evolution, it would not matter in the least if all of our moral beliefs were false of the moral realm, provided that they were nevertheless such as to enable us to co-operate together in society.

            Even supposing that the idea of a faculty for intuiting moral values made sense, and that we could somehow explain the fact that we possess it, there would remain good reasons for doubting its reliability. For it is obvious that people’s moral intuitions not only can, but do, conflict. Indeed, their intuitions seem, to a remarkable degree, to reflect the norms that are current in their surrounding society. (This is another reason why common-sense moral beliefs need the backing of moral theory, if they are to be rationally acceptable. Otherwise there can be no adjudicating between conflicting intuitions.) A country-dweller may intuit that there is nothing wrong with drowning a kitten, whereas to a town-dweller it may seem intuitively that this is inexcusable. Someone in a slave-owning society may claim to see intuitively that the lives of slaves are less valuable than the lives of free men, whereas we will intuit the opposite. Someone in a patriarchal society may intuit that the life of a woman is less valuable than that of her male child. And so it goes. If we really did possess a faculty of moral intuition, then its operation would seem to be determined, not so much by whatever objective values there may or may not be, but by the moral beliefs that are already current within our society.

            What follows, is that intuitionism seems inevitably to lead to moral scepticism. Since we have good reason to doubt the reliability of our faculty of moral intuition (supposing that we possess such a thing), we have reason to doubt our individual moral judgements. There would seem to be no particular reason, indeed, to think that our faculty of intuition is ever accurate. For those moral beliefs that are universal, such as injunctions against arbitrary killings, may be explained in terms of the requirements that are necessary for a human society to function and flourish, rather than as the result of the reliable operation of our faculty of intuition. If intuitionism is a correct moral theory, then for all we know all of our beliefs about moral value may be wrong. I take it that this conclusion is too extreme to be acceptable.

            For all of the above reasons, intuitionism is simply unbelievable as a theory of morality. If we are inclined to think that moral judgements are objective, then it would be far more acceptable to endorse some version of weak objectivism. We could maintain that we have developed moral concepts to suit our purposes, just as we have evolved concepts like ‘chair’ and ‘spice’. Given those concepts, it can be objectively true that certain actions are right, or wrong, despite the fact that the difference between right and wrong does not itself exist in the world, any more than the difference between spices and other foodstuffs itself exists in the world. On such an account, indeed, knowledge that someone has done something wrong can be just as much a matter of (ordinary, sensory) perception as is the knowledge that they are seated on a chair. To perceive a chair, is to perceive an item in the physical world as an instance of the concept ‘chair’. Then so, too, for a weak objectivist, in the case of perception of moral facts - to perceive that someone is doing something wrong, is to perceive an event in the physical world as an instance of the concept ‘wrong’. All of this is entirely unmysterious by comparison with intuitionism, although, of course, the main business of giving an account of the substantial content of moral concepts remains. What follows in Chapter 2 can be seen as a contribution to that task.


Regan on rights

One of the main philosophical champions of animal rights has been Tom Regan.[9] His writings contain many useful insights and challenging arguments, some of which will be considered in later chapters. But I shall argue here that his position is either, at bottom, a form of sophisticated intuitionism (and may thus be dismissed as such), or it fails to provide us with something that we have a right to demand of any moral theory, if it is to be acceptable - namely, a governing conception (as I shall call it) of the origins of morality and moral motivation. All this will take some explaining.

            Regan is explicit in employing the method of reflective equilibrium. He sees the business of moral theory to be the discovery of moral principles that can regularise and explain our considered moral judgements. (These are the judgements, remember, that we would make when we try as hard as we can to attain moral truth, but before introducing considerations of theory.) He argues that the most acceptable principles that we can find are, in fact, ones that ascribe certain basic rights, not only to all human beings, but also to animals as well. His position is thus partly a defence of common-sense, in that animals get accorded moral standing. But it is also a revision of common-sense, in that the rights assigned to animals go well beyond what most ordinary people would allow.

            At the heart of Regan’s position is the thesis that all creatures who are subjects-of-a-life (that is, who have beliefs and desires, and at least a rudimentary sense of their own past and future - Regan takes this to include all mammals aged one or more) possess equal intrinsic moral value.[10] This value is not to be analysed in terms of possession of moral rights, but rather forms the ground of the claim that all subjects-of-a-life possess an equal right to respect. (Such an equality of intrinsic value has to be postulated, Regan thinks, if we are to account for our belief that all human beings possess the same basic moral rights, irrespective of differences of intelligence and moral character. This argument will be challenged, and replied to, in Chapter 5.) Now, one natural reading of the thesis that creatures of a certain kind possess equal moral value intrinsically, is that it involves a commitment to strong objectivism. The idea would be that all subjects-of-a-life have a value that inheres in them independently of our knowledge or existence. This would make Regan a kind of sophisticated intuitionist.

            Admittedly, Regan does not use the language of ‘intuition’ or ‘seeing with the mind’s eye’. But it is hard to see how the method of reflective equilibrium could gain us access to the objective values that are supposed to exist in the world, unless we did possess some special faculty of intellectual intuition to underpin it. That Regan ducks out of grounding his moral theory in any developed theory of our knowledge of moral facts does not mean that we are not owed some such account. And it is hard to see how any story he could tell here would not be at least as implausible as the intuitionist one we rejected in the last section.

            It may be, on the other hand, that Regan’s theory can be regarded much more neutrally. If we take seriously the way in which he presents the method of reflective equilibrium, then we could see him as only intending to find moral principles that can explain and unify a maximal proportion of our considered common-sense beliefs. Read in this way, then the claim that all subjects-of-a-life possess equal intrinsic value may only amount to the claim that it would most reasonable for us to adopt the principle of valuing all subjects-of-a-life equally, irrespective of their other attributes and the differences between them. There is nothing in this to commit Regan to strong objectivism, or any form of intuitionism.

            I have no quarrel with the method of reflective equilibrium as such. As a method, indeed, it will loom large in the chapters that follow. But I do want to insist that it cannot be the whole story. Or, perhaps better, I want to insist that when properly understood, reflective equilibrium involves a good deal more than merely finding principles to explain and unify considered common-sense belief. A good moral theory must also give us a plausible picture of the sources of morality and moral knowledge, and of the source of moral motivation. Thus our rejection of intuitionism, above, is best understood as an application of the method of reflective equilibrium. The reason why intuitionism is unacceptable as a theory is because it cannot provide a plausible account of the subject-matter of morality, of our knowledge of it, or, indeed, of why we should care about the values that are supposed to exist independently of us.

            Once strong subjectivism and theistic theories of ethics have been rejected, it becomes pressing to know how there can be such a thing as morality at all. We need an explanation of how moral notions can arise, that will at the same time explain how these notions can make demands on us that are, in some sense, rational. For it is plain that morality is not just another special interest, like stamp-collecting, that people may or may not have. Another way to put the point, is that in morality we have a putative body of knowledge - people claim to know that child-abuse is wrong, for example - and a theory of morality needs to provide some account of what this knowledge is knowledge of. It also needs to explain why it is that we care so deeply about morality, thus characterised - we need to be told what is it about morality that enables it to claim such a central place in our lives.

            Regan’s attempt to ground a theory of rights, and to show that animals have rights, falls short in just these respects. For he gives no account of where rights are supposed to have come from, nor of why we should care about them once they have arrived. (Indeed, as we shall see in later chapters, many of his specific arguments for his views, and against the views of others, simply cannot be successful in the absence of such an account.) We can draw a general moral from his failure. It is this - that if a theory of morality is to stand any chance of being acceptable it should consist of two rather different, though related, aspects. First, an ethical theory should contain a governing conception of the nature of morality. This will provide a distinctive picture of the source of moral notions and moral knowledge, and of the basis of moral motivation. Second, and distinct from, though perhaps derived from the first, an ethical theory should contain some basic normative principle or principles that are to guide our judgements of right and wrong.

            We can say, then, that there are two main requirements that a moral theory must meet, if it is to be rationally acceptable. The first is that its governing conception must give us a plausible picture of the source of morality, and of the origins of moral motivation. This is where Regan fails altogether. The second is less deeply theoretical, but equally important. It is that the basic normative principle or principles of the theory should yield intuitively acceptable consequences. But it is important to stress that this is not a retreat towards intuitionism. There need be no commitment to special mental faculties for obtaining moral knowledge, or to the real existence of values in the world. It is simply that a good moral theory must entail at least a fair proportion of our considered moral beliefs, at the cost, otherwise, of becoming unbelievable. Any moral theory that could justify arbitrary killings of innocents, for example, is going to be unacceptable, no matter how satisfying it may seem in respect of its governing conception. The next chapter will be occupied with exploring the relative strengths and weaknesses of utilitarianism and contractualism along each of these two dimensions.



I have argued that both strong subjectivism and strong objectivism are unacceptable as accounts of morality - moral judgements are neither direct expressions of attitude or feeling, nor descriptive of values that exist independent of the human mind and human systems of classification. But both weak subjectivism and weak objectivism are left in play - it may be that moral disagreements express, at bottom, commitment to different basic principles, or it may be that they result from the complexities inherent in a common system of concepts. But either way, fully justifying a moral belief must involve showing how it may be integrated into a moral theory whose governing conception and basic normative principles are each acceptable after rational reflection.


On to Animals Issue chapter 2


[1] Stephen Clark seems to have taken this advice to heart in The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford University Press, 1977), though without necessarily endorsing strong subjectivism.

[2] A Theory of Justice (Oxford University Press, 1972).

[3] For further discussion see my Human Knowledge and Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 1992), chs. 1 & 11-12.  See also Laurence Bonjour, The Structure of Empirical Knowledge (Harvard University Press, 1985), and Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge (Routledge, 1990).

[4] See Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Routledge, 1984), pp. 324-5, and Peter Singer Practical Ethics, (Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 88-90.

[5] For a dispassionate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of arguments for the existence of God, see John Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1982).

[6] Cambridge University Press, 1903.

[7] For sophisticated defence of a view of this sort, see Vinit Haksar, Equality, Liberty, and Perfectionism (Oxford University Press, 1979).

[8] See John Mackie, Ethics (Penguin, 1977), ch. 1.9.

[9] See particularly The Case for Animal Rights.

[10] See The Case for Animal Rights, ch. 7.  I shall return in Chapter 5 to consider the way in which Regan attempts to extend moral standing to human babies aged less than one.