By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
Morality can generally be defined as any behavior motivated by the aim of improving well-being. However, objective morality is virtually unattainable because of the many variations in circumstances and in the ways people think about morality.
Insofar as morality is concerned, the concept of well-being is as applicable to animals as it is to humans. In the context of morality regarding animals, we find striking evidence of irreconcilable moral differences. For example, would you be comfortable clubbing baby seals to death in the Arctic? What about slaughtering dolphins in Japan? How about poisoning someone’s dog on the next street? Or shooting an endangered rhino?
The Extraneous Information Will Likely Provoke a Strong Emotional Response
Before you answer, it is important to notice that I have primed these examples with some extraneous information that will likely provoke a strong emotional response in you. In the first example, I intentionally used notoriously cute animals, baby seals. In the second, I referenced one of the smartest animals on the planet. Dolphins’ intelligence is thought to rival that of humans in some ways.
In the third example, I drew on the connection people have with their dogs as household pets; this may have had less of an effect on you if you are not a “dog person.” In the final example, the endangered animal in question is struggling to survive in the wild. Although I said nothing about the causes of the rhino’s endangerment, your mind might have conjured visions of rhinos being shot by unscrupulous poachers for their ivory horns; if so, then this was part of your involuntary, emotional so-called knee-jerk reaction.
However, these are all acts committed by humans with some degree of regularity. The incidental context information isn’t strictly necessary to understand the valid application of a well-being assessment of animals.
But imagine if I provided no such context. Perhaps if instead, I asked you how you would feel about killing a cow that is destined for slaughter anyway. Cows are not particularly intelligent, not extraordinarily cute (by most peoples’ standards), not commonly kept as pets and nowhere near endangerment. Yet, if you’re like most people, even the proposition of slaughtering an animal yourself would evoke a strong negative response in you.
As the old adage goes, “people are OK with ‘eating the burger’ as long as they don’t have to “meet the cow.’” We’re happy to consume animals that we don’t have to look at, but most of us find the thought of having to personally kill the animal untenable. However, if we truly seek answers and are willing to approach these questions introspectively, we have to ask ourselves why.
You Probably Don’t Lose Sleep Thinking about the Scores of Insects You Might Kill Daily
Reflecting on your feelings toward the cow in our last hypothetical example, ask yourself: Why don’t you feel the same sense of shock at the notion of killing an ant or a fly? Unless you are the Dalai Lama, you probably don’t lose sleep thinking about the scores of insects that you might kill on a daily basis, intentionally or not. As it turns out, even the Dalai Lama can get over this.
Why do we perceive such a difference though? What we find at the end of this line of introspective thinking is that our predispositions toward the value of life are based on our presumptions concerning the degree to which we believe such life can experience suffering or happiness, or the potential to experience different degrees of well-being.
We Don’t Ascribe the Same Range of Emotions to an Ant That We Do to a Cow
We simply don’t ascribe the same range of potential good and bad emotions to an ant that we do to a cow. Therefore, we rationalize our moral positions about stepping on ants and slaughtering cows accordingly. Interestingly, our presumptions about the potential experiences of animals are largely based upon sensory intuition. For example, our built-in wiring for empathy can detect emotions in the faces and eyes of cows, and from the sounds that cows might make.
But we generally have a far less intuitive sense of the emotions of ants, which make no sound and lack eyes and faces that would reveal familiar or recognizable emotional states. Indeed, our scientific understanding of the relationship between biological complexity and exposure to emotions would also support the proposition that cows can feel more than ants can.
For example, we know that insects lack pain receptors. So while they can probably sense when they’ve been injured (e.g., from being squished), they don’t feel pain the same way mammals do.
Yet we’re happy to eat the cheeseburger even when we are aware that the cow it came from did not want to die, and probably experienced a fair level of pain and suffering due to slaughtering methods that often result in agonizing torture for the animals.
Choices Labeled ‘Moral’ Are Generally Those That Are Expected to Increase the Well-Being of Those Involved
We know from analysis of our own emotions and behaviors that those choices that are labelled “moral” are generally those which are expected to increase the well-being of those involved. But we can clearly recognize conscious decisions toward animals that could not be remotely tied to improved well-being. So why the hypocrisy?
Much of the apparent incongruity in moral decisions toward animals is explained by the fact that the views of individuals are dependent on their experiences and the values that they learn from their respective cultures. For example, we enjoy cheeseburgers in the United States. But Hindus in India believe cows are sacred and harming one is a severe moral failing, as well as a punishable offense.
Inversely, we Americans love to keep dogs as pets, but in China dogs are often harvested for food, just as cows are here. Pigs are a curious example of dissonance within a single society. A lot of Americans love bacon and ham, but a fair number of us also keep potbelly or teacup pigs as pets. We might call these phenomena learned moral principles as opposed to innate feelings about well-being.
This does not necessarily mean that a moral consensus can never be reached. It is possible to reach moral agreement on a given issue despite a variety of opinions in other areas. For example, notwithstanding differing views toward animals, most people the world over agree that it is wrong to eat other humans. However, the disunity on so many other points means that overcoming moral subjectivity is often an uphill battle.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes at American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.