Do Animals Have Moral Standing?

A utilitarian approach to animal welfare.

Lucero Cantu
Mar 11, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In discussing whether or not there is a utilitarian justification for the use of animals for human pleasures — such as consumption, entertainment, or even research — it is first important to determine the standing of animals in these situations and if we have an obligation to consider it in the first place. This will also lead us down the road to discuss whether or not animal considerations trump human welfare and if human pleasure is considered to be more important than animal suffering.

In order to fully assess whether or not animals have moral standing through a utilitarianistic framework, we must first break apart the question and define its components. We need to know what it means to have “moral standing” and if animals meet the criteria to have it. We will begin by defining the former as it is the least contentious of the two. Generally, when we say an animal has moral standing we’re asking individuals to take the welfare of an animal into account when making decisions. This is easier said than done. Establishing agreed-upon criteria to determine whether or not animals are deserving of these considerations can be tricky.

For early utilitarians such as Bentham, the argument for animal moral consideration was quite simple. In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, he is quoted as saying, “…animals, like humans, have the capacity to feel pain and therefore deserve moral protections.” The capacity to feel pain, or sentience, is the most common criterion for moral consideration. While it is true that animals differ from humans in many ways, they both share the ability to feel pain and suffer. While sentience is a commonly accepted criterion for moral standing, other utilitarians have argued against the sentience criteria as it can still be used to categorize animals as lesser than humans. For example, because humans are capable of foresight their suffering could be greater than that of a guinea pig.

A more nuanced explanation of moral standing in animals comes from R.G. Frey’s assessment of utilitarianism and animals. Frey begins his critique by pointing out that in all instances where the life of an animal is weighed, it is pitted against the general welfare of all humans. Because of this, the animal will lose every time. Raising mice specifically for a life in the lab is justified by utilitarian ethics because research using mice is a benefit to all humans. Factory farming is justifiable because the suffering of a chicken provides a cost-effective slab of meat for humans to eat. Frey prompts us to question this norm and ask ourselves whether the commonly accepted idea of human pleasure being greater than animal suffering is not as morally justifiable or ethically consistent as we have been lead to believe.

If sentience alone is the criteria for moral consideration, then the suffering of animals in research labs would be considered as unfavorable as the suffering of humans in similar conditions. The fact that we’re okay with animal research, but are uneasy with scientific research on humans proves that sentience is not an equally applied paradigm to moral standing in non-human animals. This prompts us to consider what, if anything, gives human life a higher value than animals.

As Frey mentioned, comparing an animal to the welfare of a human is setting the animal up for loss. What if instead, we think of animals as in need of moral consideration not because they’re like humans, but because they’re living beings?

For example, it might sound crazy to consider a dog as more valuable than a human. Most would automatically value the human over the dog because they assume a human is capable of having a higher quality of life than a dog. For the most part, I’d argue that’s true. Our assumption of human over dog comes from human capabilities of autonomy and foresight. Something that many animals do not possess. The problem with these assumptions, as argued by Frey, is that they uphold an unfair burden for animals. Focusing on what makes other animals different from a human leads us down the road of speciesism and grossly underscores the moral consideration of animals just because they do not act like us.

A dog that is trained to take care of and comfort a veteran with PTSD may not be able to plan for the future or make autonomous decisions, but it is hard to argue that the dog isn’t a net positive member of our moral community. Just like toddlers are considered to have moral standing, a quality of life view of animals allows them to rise up into this group of society, where they do not fully participate in the moral community but are still members.

The proposal here isn’t to consider animals as entirely equal to all human life but to recognize that they are deserving of moral considerations in their own right. If placed in a situation where we are able to maximize the quality of life for an animal at no cost to us, we ought to do it.

Photo by Suzanne Tucker on Unsplash

If we as a society truly believe that an animal does not have moral standing, why is the mistreatment of them even considered? Animal testing is allowed, but there are legal repercussions if a lab doesn’t adhere to animal welfare guidelines. Factory farming is allowed, but people that abuse animals outside of the factories are subjected to legal penalties. While humans largely recognize that the unnecessary suffering of animals is wrong, there is still a gap between “necessary suffering” and no suffering at all. Some utilitarians when exploring topics such as factory farming would go as far as to say that suffering caused in these slaughterhouses is not worth the pleasure someone receives from consuming meat. This is primarily because vegetarianism is seen as a viable alternative, therefore the suffering of these animals is not considered to be necessary.

Now, I’m not saying we should all stop consuming animals and animal products but it is an interesting perspective to consider. While there is disagreement amongst utilitarians as to what constitutes moral standing, either sentience or quality of life, what is most important is that standing is still given. If a person does not consider an animal life as valuable as human life but still realizes that the mass suffering of animals for human consumption is not necessary, they have just given the animal a form of moral standing.

The bottom line here is that a utilitarian approach to animal welfare assumes that animals do have moral standing. The ability to suffer and the sentience derived from this ability seems to be a ubiquitous concept. If something can suffer, under the utilitarian perspective, we have an obligation to minimize that suffering. While the argument becomes much more nuanced, when humans are considered against non-human animals, there still seems to be a consensus that animals do have moral standing.

Obviously, we’re still left with a lot of questions. Which paradigm is best for determining standing? How are different animal species affected by moral standing? How often do tradeoffs between humans and animals really exist? How far should we take moral standing? Is the idea of moral standing in animals advocating for equality or just better treatment?

After reading about moral standing in animals, I would ultimately say that I agree with the idea that animals do have some sort of moral standing. We care about maximizing the pleasure of animals in the same way that we care about maximizing pleasure for humans, but we fail to treat animals the same as humans. It is ethically unsavory to subject humans to the brutal conditions found in factory farms and yet we are okay with doing the same thing to cows, pigs, chickens, etc. There seems to be a disconnect between our considerations of an animal's moral standing in society and the way the respect of that moral standing is manifested.

Humans still largely consider human welfare to take precedence to animal welfare and rarely consider that they are the same thing. At this point in time, I think that’s a fair thing for us to do. I understand why humans are more worried about human welfare as human trafficking, starvation, and dire lack of medical care is still prevalent throughout the world. Although, I think it is not unreasonable to ask humans that are in more privileged situations that can raise their consciousness of animals to do so.

I try to buy cage-free eggs when I can afford them, opt for makeup brands that don’t test on animals and do my part to keep our public lands clean. I’m not exactly Mother Nature, but there are ways to treat other beings with respect that don’t devolve into radical campaigns like the people at PETA are fond of.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t consume animals and that raising them on farms to consume is inherently unethical. Ultimately, I believe that to adopt a consistent utilitarian standard of achieving the greatest good for the greatest amount of people should extend to all living beings.

If a situation arises in which we can maximize the pleasure of a living being on this earth, why not take it?

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Lucero Cantu

Written by

A self-proclaimed conceptualizer with a penchant for hyperbole & abstract thinking. I work at the intersection of digital, politics, and unapologetic buffoonery

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Lucero Cantu

Written by

A self-proclaimed conceptualizer with a penchant for hyperbole & abstract thinking. I work at the intersection of digital, politics, and unapologetic buffoonery

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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