The argument from relevance

The argument from relevance

There are people who argue that in order to be fully respected, one must belong to the human species. In addition, those who reject the full moral consideration of nonhuman animals sometimes maintain an environmentalist viewpoint that values something different than the wellbeing of individuals, such as the preservation of particular ecosystems or species.

The argument from relevance shows that none of this can be right. In a nutshell, it claims that when it comes to respecting someone, what we should take into account is how that individual can be positively or negatively affected by our actions or omissions, rather than other conditions or circumstances; and that in order to be positively or negatively affected, one only needs to be sentient. Features and circumstances other than sentience do not actually matter. Let’s see now how the argument works in more detail. The argument has two parts.

We should consider how we might benefit and harm others

To morally consider some individuals, that is, to respect them, means taking the interests of those individuals into account when we are deciding how to act, and trying to do what is better for them. But what is it exactly that we take into account? It is simply the way in which our acts or omissions can affect them. For instance, we do not ask whether we should take into account the interests of someone living in a foreign country if we are trying to decide whether to read one book or another, because it will not affect that person at all. But we are taking some individuals into account if we are in a situation in which we may harm them if we do something, and we refrain from doing it precisely because doing it may harm them. This may happen, for instance, if we refuse to eat meat because we know an animal will be killed for it. We are also considering some individuals if we know they may be harmed if we don’t act, and we act to save them from being harmed. This happens when we help someone, such as if we save someone from drowning.

Actually, to be more accurate, what we do in these cases is consider how our acts and omissions may positively or negatively affect others. In other words, we consider how we can benefit others or harm them.

Defenders of speciesism often claim that we should defend only human beings, for the simple reason that they are human,1 or that humans should be privileged for some other reason not related to their susceptibility to being harmed or benefited, such as when it is claimed that those who have power are to be respected.2

However, the argument from relevance shows what happens if we believe that our moral decisions should be made based on relevant factors. Then, if what we are concerned about is how one can be benefited or harmed, those we take into account should be those who can be benefited or harmed. If we accept this idea, we have to reject the above-mentioned conditions such as species membership or possession of power as ones that must be met in order to be respected. Instead, we will defend the position that those who should be respected are those who can experience suffering and wellbeing.

The argument from relevance has two parts. This is the first part of the argument, which can be expressed as having the following four steps:

(1) We should make our decisions on the basis of what is relevant to the effects they will have.

(2) When we respect someone, we take into account how our decisions can harm or benefit them, and try to benefit and not harm them.

(3) What is relevant to someone being benefited or harmed is their capacity to be benefited or harmed.

(4) We should respect those who can be benefited or harmed.

In order to be benefited and harmed, one must be sentient

Once we accept that we should take into account those who can be harmed or benefited, the next step is apparent: we need to discover what the feature or circumstance is that makes it so that one can be harmed or benefited.

Many defenders of speciesism claim that we should respect those who have certain complex intellectual capacities,3 or those who have certain special relations of solidarity with others.4 But neither of these conditions determines that one can be harmed or benefited by others. They simply determine some of the ways in which one can be harmed or benefited. If one has certain intellectual capacities one can be harmed in certain ways. For instance, one can be made to feel fear in situations in which others without those capacities wouldn’t suffer because they wouldn’t understand the reason to feel fear. Or, if one has certain relationships, one can be harmed in other ways – for instance, if one’s friends are killed. But one can be harmed in other ways, too, even if one doesn’t have those capacities or relationships. And the same is true if we consider benefits instead of harms. Our particular circumstances or cognitive abilities may affect some of the particular ways in which we can be harmed and benefited, but they don’t determine whether we can be negatively and positively affected in the first place.

This shows that conditions based on cognitive capacities or relationships are irrelevant to whether or not we should respect someone. They aren’t relevant because they are not the conditions one needs to meet in order to be able to be benefited or harmed.

What, then, is the condition that must be met? To answer that we can think about what makes life good or bad for us. In our lives, positive or negative things can happen to us, such as moments of joy or of suffering. In order for us to experience them, we only have to have the capacity to experience suffering or enjoyment. Note that it is not that we are simply alive that makes us able to have these experiences. Suppose that we are irreversibly unconscious but still alive. Whatever happens to us will pass completely unnoticed by us. So it is irrelevant to us that we are still alive. If we don’t have the positive or negative experience of something, it’s as if it never happened to us. For anything good or bad to happen to us, we have to be sentient. That is, we have to have experiences, which can be positive or negative ones.

One can be sentient in many different ways. The kind of experiences that, say, dolphins, turtles, and humans have may be completely different. Yet what they have in common is that they can all be positive or negative for the individual who is having them. However, an object like a rock that is not conscious, and thus is not sentient, cannot have an existence with positive and negative things happening to it. It’s for this reason that in order to be able to be harmed or benefited one must be sentient.

So, the second part of the argument from relevance can be presented like this:

(4) We should respect those who can be benefited or harmed.

(5) Sentient beings are the entities that can be benefited or harmed.

(6) We should respect sentient beings.

This can all be summed up very simply: Respecting someone means taking their wellbeing into account, and in order to be taken into account, sentience is what matters. Any other condition would be irrelevant to the question of whether one’s wellbeing should be considered. Other conditions may be relevant for something else (for instance, having certain intellectual capacities certainly appears to be relevant for being admitted to a university). But they are not relevant for being taken into account when what is at stake is wellbeing.

Of course, we could reject the claim that we should take into account only what is relevant. That is, we could choose to make our decisions on the basis of irrelevant factors. But this hardly seems acceptable. Suppose, for instance, that driver licenses were given to those who are unemployed, and that unemployment benefits were given to those who can drive. That would be absurd, because we would be making those decisions on the basis of irrelevant factors. The same happens when, instead of accepting sentience as the criterion for respect, we accept other criteria, such as intellectual capacities or relations of solidarity.

Further readings

Bernstein, M. H. (1998) On moral considerability: An essay on who morally matters, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bernstein, M. H. (2002) “Marginal cases and moral relevance”, Journal of Social Philosophy, 33, pp. 523-539.

Bernstein, M. H. (2004) “Neo-speciesism”, Journal of Social Philosophy, 35, pp. 380-390.

Comstock, G. (1992) “The moral irrelevance of autonomy”, Between the Species, 8, pp. 15-27.

Cushing, S. (2003) “Against ‘humanism’: Speciesism, personhood and preference”, Journal of Social Philosophy, 34, pp. 556-571.

DeGrazia, D. (1996) Taking animals seriously: Mental life and moral status, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ehnert, J. (2002) The argument from species overlap, master’s thesis, Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University [accessed on 23 August 2018].

Hare, R. M. (1989) “Relevance”, in Hare, R. M. Essays in ethical theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 191-211.

Horta, O. (2010) “What is speciesism?”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 23, pp. 243-266 [accessed on 30 May 2013].

Horta, O. (2018) “Moral considerability and the argument from relevance”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 31, pp. 369-388 [accessed on 14 July 2018].

McMahan, J. (1996) “Cognitive disability, misfortune, and justice”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 25, pp. 3-35.

Pluhar, E. B. (1988) “Is there a morally relevant difference between human and animal nonpersons?”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 1, pp. 59-68.

Pluhar, E. B. (1995) Beyond prejudice: The moral significance of human and nonhuman animals, Durham: Duke University Press.

Robinson, W. S. (1997) “Some nonhuman animals can have pains in a morally relevant sense”, Biology and Philosophy, 12, pp. 51-71.

Ryder, R. D. (1975) Victims of science: The use of animals in research, London: Davis-Poynter.

Ryder, R. D. (1998) “Speciesism”, in Bekoff, M. & Meaney, C. A. (eds.) Encyclopaedia of animal rights and animal welfare, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, p. 320.

Sapontzis, S. F. (1987) Morals, reason, and animals, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Singer, P. (2009 [1975]) Animal liberation, reissue ed., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.


1 Diamond, C. (1991) “The importance of being human”, in Cockburn, D. (ed.) Human beings, Cambridge: Royal Institute of Philosophy, pp. 35-62. Gaita, R. (2003) The philosophers dog: Friendships with animals, London: Routledge. Posner, R. A. (2004) “Animal rights: Legal, philosophical and pragmatical perspectives”, in Sunstein, C. R. & Nussbaum, M. (eds.) Animal rights: Current debates and new directions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 51-77.

2 Narveson, J. (1999) Moral matters, Toronto: Broadview. Goldman, M. (2001) “A transcendental defense of speciesim”, Journal of Value Inquiry, 35, pp. 59-69.

3 Francis, L. P. & Norman, R. (1978) “Some animals are more equal than others”, Philosophy, 53, pp. 507-527. McCloskey, H. J. (1979) “Moral rights and animals”, Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, 22, pp. 23-54. Leahy, M. P. T. (1991) Against liberation: Putting animals in perspective, London: Routledge. Carruthers, P. (1992) The animals issue: Moral theory in practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

4 Becker, L. C. (1983) “The priority of human interests”, in Miller, H. B. & Williams, W. H. (eds.) Ethics and animals, Clifton: Humana Press, pp. 225-242. Midgley, M. (1983) Animals and why they matter, Athens: University of Georgia Press. Callicott, J. B. (1989) In defense of the land ethic: Essays in environmental philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press. Petrinovich, L. (1999) Darwinian dominion: Animal welfare and human interests, Cambridge: MIT Press.