This video considers further arguments against speciesism. First, the argument from relevance considers that we should consider only criteria relevant to the question and the only criteria that seems relevant to moral consideration is sentience. The video then explains why sentience is the only thing that implies that organisms can be harmed or benefited and why it is therefore so important. It next explains why, because they have an interest in positive experiences, death is also a harm for animals.
Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues
So far, we have seen three arguments against anthropocentrism: begging the question, or assuming from the start what you are trying to prove; the argument from species overlap, which shows that there are no special capacities or relationships that all humans and only humans have; and the argument from impartiality, which questions all defenses of anthropocentrism on the basis of fairness. There is another argument that challenges the priority of human interests. This argument is about the reasons we should grant moral consideration to a being. The argument is called “the argument from relevance.” It can be divided into two parts. The first one concludes that what matters to be morally considerable is being able to be harmed and benefited. The second one concludes that those who are able to be harmed and benefited are sentient beings.
The argument starts with a couple of ideas that are very intuitive, and from which the argument gets its name. The first is that our decisions should be based on relevant factors. The second is that the relevant factors are about what is at stake in our decisions. For example, if we need to decide who will get a job as a medical doctor at a hospital, what is relevant is the candidates’ knowledge and their ability to make good judgements about patients’ health, because that is what the job is about. Suppose that we are deciding whether an orphan child should be seen by a doctor in that same hospital. What is relevant in this case is whether the child is unhealthy, because this is the reason for being seen by a doctor. Imagine if the doctor said to the child, “I can’t treat you because you don’t have a medical degree.” That would be absurd, because that’s not a relevant factor in this case.
So what about when it comes to granting moral consideration to someone? What’s at stake is whether they could be harmed or benefited as a result of what we do. So we can say that what’s relevant to granting moral consideration is simply this: being able to be harmed or benefited. To put it more simply, the argument is based on the following premises:
(1) We should make our decisions according to relevant factors
(2) The relevant factors in our decisions are about what is at stake in those decisions
From this, it follows that:
(3) We should make our decisions according to what is at stake in them
We now see what moral consideration is about:
(4) In our decisions about whether to give someone moral consideration, what is at stake is whether that individual can be benefited or harmed
So we can conclude:
(5) We should give moral consideration to those individuals who can be benefited or harmed
Of course, there are people who reject some or all of these premises. But the consequences of doing so are ones that most of us probably wouldn’t want to accept, because it would mean accepting that our decisions could be made based on factors we would recognize as irrelevant. This is why many people do agree with these premises. And the conclusion that follows from them is that sentience is what is relevant for moral consideration.1
Many defenders of speciesism claim that we should grant full moral consideration to those who have certain complex intellectual capacities, or those who have special relationships of solidarity with others. But neither of these conditions determines that one can be harmed or benefited by what we could do or refrain from doing to them. 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 or positively affected in the first place. Therefore, cognitive capacities or relationships are irrelevant when it comes to what moral consideration is about. Instead, sentience — the capacity to have positive and negative experiences — is what determines that we can be harmed or benefited by what happens to us. Accordingly, sentience should be what matters for moral consideration.
In some cases, it is argued that only those who can give moral consideration to others should receive moral consideration. But this is like claiming that only those who can practice medicine should be treated by doctors. As we saw in the example above, this is wrong because what is relevant for being a doctor is different from what is relevant to needing to see a doctor. Equally, whether or not one is able to give moral consideration to others is not what is relevant to being harmed or benefited.
Having seen this, the second part of the argument can be presented in a very simple way, starting with the last point made above:
(5) We should give moral consideration to those individuals who can be benefited or harmed
(6) What makes someone capable of being benefited or harmed is being sentient
(7) We should give moral consideration to those individuals who are sentient
The arguments we have just seen are used to challenge anthropocentrism. However, they can be used against any form of speciesist discrimination. Recall that speciesism is discriminating against members of a certain species for any reason. That includes discriminating against nonhuman animals compared to humans, and discriminating against some animals compared to other animals.
Suppose we held a view that, among nonhuman animals, only great apes were morally considerable. Or only mammals. Such views have a lot in common with anthropocentric views that favor humans over all other animals. This is just a case of redrawing the dividing line — where humans plus a few other species are favored, for reasons different from their being sentient. So we can reject these views on similar grounds.2 Sentience, not species membership, determines whether one can be harmed or benefited.
Given what we have just seen, we might wonder if it would be speciesist to make a distinction between animals of species that are sentient and animals of species that are not. There are two ways to respond to this. The first is that the distinction between sentient and nonsentient beings is not between species, but between the individuals. Species are not sentient; their individual members are. The second point is that, as the argument from relevance shows, there is a difference between sentience and the criteria that defenders of anthropocentrism use, such as species membership, complex cognitive capacities, and relationships. None of these criteria are relevant to whether or not someone can be harmed. Sentience, unlike the other criteria, is what makes it possible for an individual to be harmed, so it is a relevant distinction.
There is a response to the argument from relevance that claims that human suffering is the only significant kind, or at least that it’s more significant than the suffering of other animals, because it involves psychological suffering. This argument doesn’t question the idea that physical pain can be as bad in nonhuman animals as it is in human beings, but it claims that human psychological suffering is more important than the physical pain that nonhuman animals suffer.
So the question here is, does the psychological element of pain and suffering really make it more significant for humans than for other animals? Against such a claim, it can be argued that we don’t value our psychological experiences more than our physical experiences. Terrible physical torture isn’t necessarily more bearable than grief, distress, or fear.3 If our psychological suffering is not necessarily more significant than our physical suffering, and if our physical suffering is not more significant than nonhuman animals’ physical suffering, then we have to conclude that our psychological suffering is not necessarily worse than the physical suffering of nonhuman animals. This would lead us to reject the argument for the priority of human sufferings. Therefore, nonhuman animal suffering must be taken into account the same way we would like our own suffering to be taken into account.
There’s another claim based on complex psychology used to disregard the interests of animals. It is argued in some cases that although sentient nonhuman animals have an interest in not suffering, they do not have an interest in living. That is, the argument claims that nonhuman animals are not harmed by death, or only suffer a tiny harm by dying. This means that the death of nonhuman animals is objectionable only in a limited way, if at all. One way to argue for this claim is to say that only humans can understand the fact that they are alive and, therefore, have a desire to live. This view is based on the idea that what is positive or negative for us is that our desires are satisfied or thwarted.
One argument against this is that there are nonhuman animals who fight hard to stay alive, and that many of them appear to understand the fact that they are alive. But there is another response, one that doesn’t require animals to have this kind of understanding. Suppose that animals did not have minds complex enough to have a desire to live. They would still be harmed by death according to this view, because death would make it impossible for them to satisfy any more of the desires that they do have.
Another argument used to disregard the interests of nonhuman animals 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. Again, we could point out that at least some animals seem to have a sense of time. Also, if this argument were right, then death would not be a harm for human beings who don’t have complex cognitive capacities. This is very difficult for most people to accept.
There is another way this argument can be questioned. It can be argued that even if one isn’t able to see oneself in the future and have future wishes and desires, one would be harmed by death because depriving someone of life deprives them of any future positive things. One would miss out on these future experiences even if they were not planned or anticipated. That is, if nonhuman animals die, 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. Sentient animals not only have an interest in not suffering, but also have an interest in positive experiences, and this means they have an interest in remaining alive.
Of course, it can be argued that in some cases death can be beneficial to us. This happens in cases where there is more suffering than happiness in our lives. But the reason death can be a relief in these cases is the same: because if we die, we will no longer suffer all the negative things in the future.4 It often happens, especially with animals in the wild, that the same things that lead to an animal’s death lead to great suffering. An example is when an animal undergoes an agonizing, long death due to disease. In such cases, death is better than continuing to live in misery.
1 Sapontzis, S. F. (1987) Morals, reason, and animals, Philadelphia: Temple University Press; Singer, P. (1990) “The significance of animal suffering”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13, pp. 9-12; Robinson, W. S. (1997) “Some nonhuman animals can have pains in a morally relevant sense”, Biology and Philosophy, 12, pp. 51-71; Bernstein, M. H. (2015) The moral equality of humans and animals, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan; Horta, O. (2018a) “Moral considerability and the argument from relevance”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 31, pp. 369-388.
2 Dunayer, J. (2004) Speciesism, Derwood: Ryce.
3 Rollin, B. (1989) The unheeded cry: Animal consciousness, animal pain and science, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Horta, O. (2017) “Why the concept of moral status should be abandoned”, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20, pp. 899-910.
4 The view that nonhuman animals are not harmed by death is defended for instance in Cigman, R. (1981) “Death, misfortune and species inequality”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 10, pp. 47-54; Harman, E. (2011) “The moral significance of animal pain and animal death”, in Beauchamp, T. L. & Frey, R. G. (eds.) Handbook on ethics and animals, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 726-737. The view that animals are harmed by death is defended in McMahan, J. (2008) “Eating animals the nice way”, Daedalus, 137, pp. 66-76; (2002) The ethics of killing: Problems at the margins of life, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bradley, B. (2009) Well-being and death, New York: Oxford University Press. For general explanations of the view that death is a harm by deprivation, see for instance Nagel, T. (1970) “Death”, Noûs, 4, pp. 73-80; Scarre, G. (2007) Death, Stocksfield: Acumen.