Interest in living

Interest in living

Why nonhuman animals have an interest in life

It is sometimes claimed that although sentient nonhuman animals have an interest in not suffering, they do not have an interest in living. But the fact is that many nonhuman animals can have positive and negative experiences. The positive experiences nonhuman animals can have can be of different sorts. In some cases they are simple physical enjoyments, while in other cases they have to do with emotions and pleasant thoughts, which many nonhuman animals are capable of having. Animals who play and social animals who enjoy relating to each other have such experiences. The interest of animals in not suffering explains that the physical pain that nonhuman animals can experience is as significant to them as the pain we experience as humans is to us. It is the same with positive experiences.

However, if nonhuman animals die, they can no longer have any positive experiences. When someone dies, they can no longer enjoy all the good things that they could experience if they were to remain alive. Thus all sentient animals can be harmed by death, and actually are so harmed when they die. So sentient animals not only have an interest in not suffering, but also have an interest in remaining alive.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the lives of nonhuman animals usually consist of mainly positive experiences.  The suffering that animals experience, in most cases, is more prevalent than any well-being they have. This is true of both exploited animals and animals in the wild. Nonhuman animals often die when they are very young. Although it could be thought that dying young would be a relief, because they no longer suffer, we must also take into account the fact that dying so young eliminates the possibility that they might have had positive experiences that could counterbalance their negative experiences.

We clearly recognize that death is harmful in the case of human beings for reasons such as the ones presented above. If we consider the arguments against speciesism, we are presented with the question of how these reasons are to be considered when the interest in positive experiences of other animals is at stake.

There are several objections that have been presented against the argument that nonhuman animals are harmed by death. Those who make such objections conclude that the death of nonhuman animals is objectionable only in a limited way, if at all. Such views would not necessarily justify a lack of concern for the interests of nonhuman animals while they are alive. What they would lead to, though, is the conviction that nonhuman animals don’t have a significant interest in living, so killing them painlessly wouldn’t be a problem. However, there are good reasons to reject these objections. Both the specific objections and responses that can be given to them are presented below.

Are only those who have a desire to live harmed by death?

One way to defend the claim that only humans have an interest in living is to argue that only they can understand the fact that they are alive and, therefore, that only humans can desire to be alive. According to this perspective, the only individuals with an interest in living would be those who have a desire to remain alive.1 According to this argument, nonhuman animals cannot have an interest in living. This claim has two important consequences. First, it means that we have no reason not to kill nonhuman animals. Second, it means that if we are in a situation in which we could save their lives, we have no reason to do so, except to save them from the pain or terror of death.

However, this argument about the desire to remain alive doesn’t work. It could be noted, first, that there are many nonhuman animals who do understand the fact that they are alive and who do fight hard for their lives. Nonetheless, this is beside the point because the ability to experience life does not depend on a having a desire to remain alive, but it does depend on remaining alive.

The idea underlying the argument that having an interest in living requires having the desire to remain alive comes from the claim that what is valuable for us is not that we have positive or negative experiences, but, rather, that we can satisfy our preferences. According to preference satisfaction views, what matters is that we get what we want rather than what will be positive for us. However, the key issue here is that if one dies, one cannot satisfy any preferences at all. We have seen that we have reasons to conclude that all beings who can have positive experiences have an interest in not having those positive experiences taken away from them. It’s the same if instead of talking about positive experiences we consider preference satisfaction. Even if one’s preferences are not about being alive, but about something else, one cannot satisfy any preferences if one dies.

Moreover, we can also reject this entire viewpoint altogether and assume that satisfying preferences is not what matters, but that having positive and not negative experiences is what matters. In fact, it is evident that having a negative experience such as suffering pain is bad. This is so apparent that those who claim that preferences are what matters claim that whenever we suffer a pain, we just develop a preference against it. This implies that all the beings who can feel suffering and joy are capable of having preferences that can be satisfied or frustrated. Therefore, this argument fails to show that nonhuman animals don’t have an interest in living because, as stated above, the ability to experience suffering and joy does not depend on having a desire (or preference) to stay alive, but it does depend on staying alive.

Are only those who have complex interests harmed by death?

It has also been argued that nonhuman animals do not have an interest in living because only those who have complex interests can have a relevant interest in living.2 There are two ways this claim can be defended: (1) By arguing that satisfying a simple interest, such as enjoying a certain pleasure, is something trivial and unimportant, which wouldn’t be enough to imply an interest in living. (2) By arguing that satisfying a simple interest is not something that requires continuing to live, because being alive is only necessary to satisfy complex interests such as those having to do with life plans and the achievement of long term goals.

Regarding the first claim, it is true that those complex interests may be more significant than simple interests, because their satisfaction would be better for those who have them than the satisfaction of other, simpler interests. But this is not necessarily so. Complexity is something different from intensity. We can have a very basic interest that is very simple, but which it is far more important for us to satisfy than more complex interests.

For example, an interest in eating is simpler than an interest in enjoying a piece of fine art, but eating is the more important interest. Someone who had to choose between doing without the contemplation of fine art and starvation would be making a bad choice if they decided to starve. So even if humans have more complex interests, this doesn’t mean that those interests are necessarily more important to them than simpler ones.

Regarding the second claim, we must note that death deprives sentient beings of the possibility of having any experience. This includes the possibility of fulfilling long term plans, but it also includes other things such as enjoyments one does not need to plan in advance. Therefore, death also harms those who do not have the capacity to make long term plans.

Are only those who have a sense of themselves through time harmed by death?

Finally, another argument claims that only those who can see themselves as beings who persist through time, and thus can make plans for the future, can have an interest in living.3 This argument is stronger than the others we have seen, since it is at least plausible that if one has an interest in living then it is because one can make use of the fact that one will go on existing in the future, rather than merely in the present. This argument relies on the idea that to make use of the fact that one not only exists in the present, but will also exist in the future, one has to see oneself in the future, too. However, this argument can also be refuted. Even if one isn’t able to see oneself in the future, if one could continue existing into the future, then one would be harmed by not being allowed to go on living, since depriving someone of life deprives them of having their own experiences.

All the reasons discussed above show that any being who has the capacity to have positive experiences is harmed by death. This means that all sentient animals are harmed by death.

Further readings

Belshaw, C. (2009) Annihilation: The sense and significance of death, Dublin: Acumen.

Bradley, B. (2009) Well-being and death, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brueckner, A. L. & Fischer, J. M. (1986) “Why is death bad?”, Philosophical Studies, 50, pp. 213-221.

Feldman, F. (1992) Confrontations with the reaper: A philosophical study of the nature and value of death, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

French, P. A. & Wettstein, H. K. (eds.) (2000) Life and death: Metaphysics and ethics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 69-83.

Glover, J. (1977) Causing death and saving lives, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Kamm, F. M. (1993) Morality, mortality: Vol I: Death and whom to save from it, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McMahan, J. (1988) “Death and the value of life”, Ethics, 99, pp. 32-61.

McMahan, J. (2002) The ethics of killing: Problems at the margins of life, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nagel, T. (1970) “Death”, Noûs, 4, pp. 73-80.

Scarre, G. (2007) Death, Stocksfield: Acumen.

Simmons, A. (2009) “Do animals have an interest in continued life? In defense of a desire-based approach”, Environmental Ethics, 31, pp. 375-392.


1  This is defended in Cigman, R. (1981) “Death, misfortune & species inequality”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 10, pp. 47-54.

2  See Frey, R. G. (1980) Interests and rights: The case against animals, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3  See Singer, P. (2011 [1979]) Practical ethics, 3rd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.