The Argument from Marginal Cases

In an otherwise very positive review of Animalkind (thank you!), Elisa Aaltola chides me for not accepting the argument from marginal cases.  So...let's talk about it!

The argument from marginal cases is really a family of arguments.  You start with a spectrum of cases, perhaps thinking of every creature as standing in a line according to ability.  

Cog and Chimp are just alike, as far as capacities go.  From the fact that we feel equal concern for Norm and Cog, the argument tries to leverage equal concern for Norm, Cog, Chimp, and Mouse.  Here's an example of this sort of argument (this is inspired by Tom Regan, but not directly from his writing).
(1)  Norm and Cog have the same inherent value and thus the same basic rights, despite their huge differences.
(2)  That must be because they share sentience (Regan actually talks about a slightly more advanced but ill-defined attribute--being a "subject of a life").
(3)  But Chimp has sentience too.

(4)  So Chimp has the same inherent value and basic rights as Norm and Cog.

(5)  Mouse has sentience too.

(C)  So Mouse has the same inherent value and basic rights as Norm, Cog, and Chimp.

If this were a good argument it would be prove a lot.  If you thought Norm had a basic right to life, it would prove that Cog, Chimp, and Mouse do too.  That would foreclose many things we normally consider permissible, like experimenting on Chimp or Mouse or eating them, if human survival were at stake. 

Is it a good argument?  We're to affirm (1), which is fine, but I think that affirmation is not simple.  There's a lot going on in our heads when we think Cog has all the same basic rights as Norm.  A lot of this is pretty recent stuff.   If you go far enough back, disabled people actually were seen somewhat as animals are today.  They were used in medical experiments for the benefit of the rest of us (not incessantly, but occasionally), and some were even put on display at fairs.  Amazing, but true.

What we have now is a "championing" mentality.  How dare anyone not give Cog the same rights as Norm?  We identify with Cog, becuase we've been taught to stop thinking of people with disabilities as "other".  We now realize that there are no immutable lines between "us" and "them." If I wind up in an accident or suffering from Alzheimer's disease, I will be disabled. 'That could be me" opens the door to all sorts of caring moral emotions.  So--there's  a lot going on in our heads when we accept (1).

But that stuff is thrown out at the next step.  We are told that Cog's sharing Norm's basic rights rests on nothing but his being sentient like Norm. We are not allowed to see any complexity in our reaction--like its being partly a matter of seeing the capacities Cog does have, and partly a matter of sympathy, and partly a matter of wanting protection for our own relatives some day, and partly a matter of knowing that could be us some day.  We are to abandon all of that and just settle for the idea that Norm and Cog have the same basic rights because they are both sentient.

But how plausible is that? Those who make arguments like this never explain how you get from simple sentience to immensely powerful rights. On the face of it, there's a huge gap to be bridged.  Having basic rights is a hugely significant thing.  Rights are like a magnetic charge that attracts and repels.  If you have rights, that forces all sorts of adjustments on everyone else.  At the very least, they have to "give you your space," however much that may inconvenience them or set back their serious interests.  Sheer sentience can do all that?

In my book I imagine some tiny little creatures called Pangfish. They have limited sentience, consisting in nothing but the ability to suffer headaches.  When the headaches go away, their consciousness fades out.  That's their whole conscious life. I find it utterly fantastic to suppose that on such a slim basis they could have the sort of inviolability that would force me to choose death rather than eating them. Or that would force a medical researcher to let thousands of people die, rather than extracting some life-saving chemical from them.

So I buy (1), but not (2), and that stops the argument from successfully supporting the conclusion.  I think we need a better explanation why Norm and Cog have the same rights, one that refers to things they have in common internally, but also to our emotions, "the social contract" we have as members of one community, self interest, and so on.  I grant that's a hodgepodge, but I think it's better than the obviously inadequate explanation offered by (2).

What I'm saying does not leave Cog out in the cold (obviously).  It also does not leave Chimp and Mouse out in the cold.  The details are discussed at length in my book, but based on what capacities they do have, we do owe them respect, and that does force us to make careful decisions about what we may and may not do to them.  Furthermore, sheer sentience does make some difference. We should not gratuitously cause pain.  If I'm going to eat Mouse because my life depends on it, I shouldn't cause him more pain than necessary.

In short, I don't buy the argument from marginal cases in my book because I think it's very weak. In fact, I'd go further. I find it rather offensive, and so do the students I teach.  The idea that some people are "marginal" offends them.  People with disabilities have only recently been raised in status--in fact, in earlier versions of Animal Liberation, they are referred to as "mental defectives"!  (Good heavens.) Most people in our society do think that animals are "just animals." So the "Cog= Chimp" equation is more likely to demote Cog than to elevate Chimp.  Finally, it's inane to think that animals are like humans, but just less capable. Chimpanzees have capacities and a way of life all their own.  My book champions animals without making any comparisons between them and people with disabilities, and I think that's all to the good.


Faust said...

I generally agree with your arguments here, except I just am not sure that "inherent" has anything to do with it. I don't think we extend protection to people (and creatures) because of their inherent value. I think we extend it because of our contingent circumstances. Lets take my relationship to my daughter for example: to me she enormous value, perhaps more than I value any other single thing. Now is that value INHERENT to her? Or is it a function of my particular relationship to her? Why doesn't my neighbor feel that way about her? Could I get them to feel that way if I could just open their eyes to her enormous intrinsic value? Is there a value category that is like the notion of superogation, where we are attributing to our children value that is above and beyond their intrinsic value? If not, are we not obligated to take care of each others children just as we would take care of our own?

I think in general the trend is that we want to be less tribal, less cruel, more expansive in our sense of sense of solidarity with our fellow creatures--whatever from they might take. Some people see no need to extend their sense of solidarity to animals, they don't even see the need to do this for other religions, other races, other people. It seems obvious to me that until we have quite a bit less of this, pushing for more solidarity with animals is going to be very much a side activity for a small subset of the left.

In fact, I think this is one thing that bothers me about AR talk in general: it seems so clear to me that we are so very very far from treating each other with minimal respect. How are we supposed to extend this down the line when our own house is in such disarray?

On the other hand, I can also see that having realizations about animals can work from the bottom up. In my case I had my thinking about animals change when I was a teenager, and it was connected to thinking about more general social justice issues. I would be very suprised if this were not the case across the board. Are there any instances of AR talk integrated into right wing ideologies?

Unknown said...

Faust, many years ago when I was a right wing Republican fairly fundamentalist Christian I read Dominion by Matthew Scully, who was a speechwriter for Sarah Palin. It's a Christian book exhorting us to be kind to animals.

Normal AR people don't like the book because well..obviously, animals being on the level of humans is kind of Unchristian. But I didn't understand the point of them attacking it because the book targeted at people who would probably never ever agree with or read Singer/Regan. But it opened these people's eyes to thinking about kindness to animals. It got advocacy for vegetarianism in magazines like National Review.

Taylor said...

The term is "marginal cases", not "marginal people". I take "marginal cases" to mean "atypical instances". As such, the term is not derogatory. With regard to intelligence, Einstein was also a marginal case, though on the other margin. As wielded by AR proponents, the AMC assumes that mentally handicapped humans are indeed worthy of being treated with the same basic respect as the non-handicapped, and are in no way "marginal people".

Jean Kazez said...

"many years ago when I was a right wing Republican fairly fundamentalist Christian"

Ha...it's not often I read a phrase like that. I am obviously not a "normal" AR person because I love the book Dominion. I don't think all the philosophy in the book is stellar, but he is one of my inspirations for pushing the idea that "animal liberation" doesn't have to be tied to human-animal equality. That's one of the themes of his book. I recommend it to students all the time mostly because the writing and journalism in the book is so extremely compelling.

Taylor, I think "marginal cases" means "at the margins," in just the way my diagram suggests. Cog is at the margin of the human spectrum. Chimp is at the margin of the animal spectrum. At the heart of the AMC is the comparability of individuals like Cog and Chimp.

I should add: what people think is implied by the comparability varies from case by case. What it means to Singer, for example, is very different from what it means to Regan.

Faust said...


I'll have to take a look at dominion at some point.

s. wallerstein said...

Actually, concern for animals has no political home. The Nazis were more concerned about animals than about people.

Unknown said...

But we don't have to make the Marginal cases argument with as such a strong statement as p2, nor with the same conclusion.

e.g. 1. Norm and Cog are have the same basic minimal rights. (clearly they're not the same in every value. We don't let Cogs vote or make autonomous decisions sometimes).

2. This is because they share certain basic mental abilities. (say capacities for pain or basic problem solving)

3. chimp does too.

4. So Chimp is at least as valuable as Cog.

If we stop there, and not worry about what sentience means for things like cockroaches, we have a pretty reasonable reflection of what many would consider a class of animals that should deserve special protections, and others that don't.

Faust said...

"Actually, concern for animals has no political home. The Nazis were more concerned about animals than about people."

That's new on me. Where can I find material to support this assertion.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, The more minimal version sounds better, but there's still the problem that we agree with (1) because of all sorts of factors, but then we're asked to ignore them all and accept (2). It doesn't have to be because of some shared inner abilities that Norm and Cog both have "basic minimal rights" if what you mean by that is anything strong and substantive. I will buy this--if X can feel pain, then X has a right for that pain to be taken into account. That's extremely loose and vague, but seems undeniable. But I didn't need to think about marginal cases to see the truth of that.

s. wallerstein said...

Faust: Here's a start:

The article doesn't mention that Hitler and most of the top Nazis were vegetarians. There was a joke in the 60's: who was the first hippie? Answer: Hitler.
He believed in astrology, had a moustache, drugged himself and was a vegetarian.

s. wallerstein said...

Faust: Wikipedia is maravellous.
Here's an article about the Fuhrer's diet.


Ed said...

Like Taylor, I do not find the word "marginal" to be offensive. When you have variability within a population some individuals are naturally going to be at an edge of the range.

Maybe the problem is that some marginal cases have limited capacity compared to the average, and this leads to the uncomfortable idea that a person of different capacity may have a different moral status.

And yet, Norm and Cog really don't have the same moral status. Cog may not be held to the same level of accountability, and he may be denied the degree of freedom Norm enjoys. The moral demands made upon us by Cog are not the same as those made by Norm.

I've always considered the AMC to be an argument about moral status, not inherent value (what does that mean really?). So I'd argue more like this:

(1) Norm and Cog should have a similar but not exactly the same moral status.
(2) That is because of their individual qualities. Norm has A,B,C and Cog has A,B, X
(3) Chimp has qualities A,B, Z
(4) So Chimp should be given a similar but not exactly the same moral status as Norm and Cog.
(5) If Chimp is denied any level of moral status just because he lacks C then Cog should also be denied.

Melissa said...

Re: Vegetarian Nazis

I highly recommend Tristram Stuart's "The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times." The historical evidence Stuart provides is astounding -- Hitler was in fact a vegetarian as Amos points out and vegetarianism was common among Fascists. Here's just one snippet from the book.

Stuart states, "But Fascists intent on cleansing the human race were particularly attracted to the vegetarian rhetoric of *purification* (* = italicized in the book). The Nazis aspired to lead humanity back to 'nature', and although their concept of 'nature' was abhorrent, it was one that was chillingly compatible with the language of vegetarianism. Their keeness for animal protection legislation also manifested their antipathy to Judaeo-Christian anthropocentrism, which they used as another front for persecuting the Jews..."

Vegan purity -- not a new idea.

Ed said...


Most of the biographers I've seen who address the subject of his diet claim that Hitler ate things like sausage, ham, liver and squab, among other animal products. Doesn't sound very vegetarian to me. I have heard that he tried on occasion to cut meat out of his diet to try and reduce his extreme flatulence. That's not really being a vegetarian though.

Melissa said...

Ed: Yes, however I consider the historian and freegan Tristram Stuart a reliable source. Hitler did eat meat, but practiced vegetarianism much of the time and espoused a vegetarian philosophy. Again, I highly recommend "Bloodless Revolution."

s. wallerstein said...

Melissa: The information I have agrees with what you say. Life is complicated. The good guys don't always wear white hats and ride white horses.

Taylor said...

Hitler loved his mother. Is it any wonder, then, that he referred to Germany as the "Motherland", despite most Germans calling it the "Fatherland"? I find the concept of Mother's Day chillingly compatible with fascism. And watch out for mothers who drive Volkswagens -- especially scary!

Yes, there was a strong back-to-nature element in Nazi ideology. But nature was a place of dog-eat-dog struggle, an eternal war in which the strong vanquished the weak. Re. Nazis and animals, check out the chapter "Boundary Work in Nazi Germany" in Arnold Arluke and Clinton Sanders, Regarding Animals. The Nazi view of the human/animal relationship was inconsistent, varying according to ideological imperatives. Nazis often decried cruelty toward animals. Some denounced hunting or praised vegetarianism. At the same time, Hitler could say, "I want violent, imperious, fearless, cruel young people.... The free, magnificent beast of prey must once against flash from their eyes. I want youth strong and beautiful,...and athletic youth.... In is way I shall blot out thousands of years of human domestication. I shall have the pure, noble stuff of nature." Sounds kind of like paleo-primitivism, doesn't it?

We should be careful about trying to win arguments by comparing opponents to Nazis. Still, what does strike me as having parallels with the fascist world-view is the kind of hunting ethic exemplified by Jose Ortega y Gasset. And there are echoes in what I call "the new argument from nature", which blurs, but does not erase, boundaries between human and animal in order to justify human exploitation of animals on grounds of predation and ecological balance.

Melissa said...

"We should be careful about trying to win arguments by comparing opponents to Nazis."

Taylor: Of course, that would be ridiculous. There is nothing Fascist about vegetarianism, however there is something disturbing about the vegan ideal.

Melissa said...

One more thing -- and to quote Tristram Stuart yet again,

"...that Hitler was a vegetarian need be no more relevant to a vegetarian than the fact that other Nazis were meat-eaters is relevant to meat-eaters."

But if one believes that vegetarianism/veganism = purity it WILL be relevant for such a person.

s. wallerstein said...

Ed: No one was attempting what is called the argumentum ad Hitler.
I was only pointing out that vegetarianism (and I am a vegetarian) has no political color.
That's all.

s. wallerstein said...

Taylor and Ed: My apologies for confusing you.

Mike Almeida said...

A little late to the party. Anyway, you make the MCA look like a sorites, and those are of course invalid (and certainly prove way too much). But MCA's are not sorites. The argument takes as a premise that some human beings have the properties allegedly subvening moral standing (rationality, self-awareness, language, or whatnot) to a lesser degree than some non-humans (dogs, say, or cats). So we are left with two possible conclusions. Maintain that rationality, etc., is a necessary condition on moral standing and exclude the marginal humans from direct moral consideration or reject rationality as necessary to moral standing and allow that non-rational beings might have moral standing. This argument can be run for any of the allegedly morally relevant properties (maybe not sentience) that have been proposed. The argument just exposes the fact that there is no morally relevant property possessed by all and only human beings and such that all and only those beings who instantiate that property have direct moral standing. Drombroski has a nicely formulated version of the argument, and it's pretty persuasive.

Jean Kazez said...

Mike, I have not set up the argument as a sorites--not at all. I'm not sure why you think so. Premise (1) boldly declares that Norm and Cog both have a certain moral property in common. I don't inch along from Norm having the property, to Cog having it, to Chimp having, it, etc., in a "one hair at a time" sorites fashion.

(2) is obtained from (1) by an inference to the best explanation. What else but (2) could explain why (1) is the case? Once you have (2), the rest is straightforward.

I'm getting this argument from Tom Regan, and I'm focusing on this version of the AMC in particular because it's the one the reviewer urges upon me. Here's the passage that I'm trying to represent--

But attempts to limit its scope to humans only can be shown to be rationally defective. Animals, it is true, lack many of the abilities humans possess. They can't read, do higher mathematics, build a bookcase or make baba ghanoush. Neither can many human beings, however, and yet we don't (and shouldn't) say that they (these humans) therefore have less inherent value, less of a right to be treated with respect, than do others. It is the similarities between those human beings who most clearly, most non-controversially have such value (the people reading this, for example), not our differences, that matter most. And the really crucial, the basic similarity is simply this: we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death - all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. As the same is true of those animals that concern us (the ones that are eaten and trapped, for example), they too must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life, with inherent value of their own.


Jean Kazez said...

Actually, the central passage is longer...start with that paragraph and continue for a few. Obviously, there's much more in there than I've packed into my "in a nutshell" version.

Mike Almeida said...

Right, I was reading the movement to lower animals as based on sufficient overlap, but that's not quite right. I don't think there's any reason to base the argument on an appeal to the best explanation. There really are just two options that can be reached by appeal to consistency alone. Either some human beings are going to excluded from direct moral consideration or some non-humans are going to be given direct moral consideration. The reason is that there is no property that is both relevant to establishing that something has direct moral standing and possessed by all and only human beings. There's 'being a human being', but that isn't morally relevant. There's 'being rational' which might be relevant, but isn't possessed by all and only humans. It's pretty counterintuitive to reach the conclusion that some human beings--say, the less rational ones--do not have direct moral standing.

For related reasons, I don't think there is any set of natural properties on which moral properties (including having direct moral standing) supervene. Moral properties are not vague. I don't indefinitely possess the right to life, for instance. I have it or not; similarly for other rights. But the candidates for relevant natural properties are vague. Something might be vaguely rational, for instance, or vaguely conscious. But then moral properties do not supervene on these vague properties.

Jean Kazez said...

It still seems like you'd have to have pretty definite ideas about what underlies moral considerability to make this argument work. You have to be able to rule out various properties (being human, eg) as irrelevant. You also have to decide whether it's more plausible that rationality underlies moral considerability, or that impaired humans and some animals are morally considerable. To make the argument yield specific conclusions about different species, you'll certainly have to have a theory about what moral considerability supervenes on. (But then there's your vaguesness point...hmm. Food for thought.)

Alex Melonas said...

It is important to note that Kazez doesn’t refute the argument from "marginal cases", so much as question the suggested least common (moral) denominator -- sentience, understood, generally, as being the kind of being who is capable of caring (because he/she feels and therefore has a welfare) about what happens to him/her.

Kazez suggests alternative premises: “things they have in common internally”; emotion; the “social contract”; and self-interest. But she doesn’t defend them; it is a mere assertion that sentience just doesn’t suffice for her.

She has problems though. Because of evolutionary continuity, those "internal things held in common" by myself and a mentally handicapped child will certainly not track along the species barrier. Nonhuman animals will have them, too. Resting moral obligations on “emotion” alone would certainly suggest a defense of racism because of our evolutionary inclination to “out-group”, or distrust the Other. Just because I feel "the same" or closest to humans doesn't matter anymore than my feelings of "sameness" with white men matters, morally. Appeals to all “social contract” traditions inevitably must confront the issue of “marginal cases” because they lack the requisite abilities to enter into such contracts. It would seem to follow, in the final analysis, that if the “social contract” is the basis of our obligations then we do not owe direct obligations to babies, the mentally handicapped, and so on. And as for self-interest, well, I am certain that I will not become a mentally handicapped baby, so I have no self-interested motivation to include these “marginal cases” in the moral community.

It seems to me that taking sentience as the dividing line, that is, beings who have interests, most importantly, in not suffering, seems the most plausible, tracking, as it does, with what I believe are our considered moral intuitions.

As a final note, Kazez straw mans the argument for “animal rights” in the following sentences, and I think this is why Kazez finds premise 2) inadequate:

“I find it utterly fantastic to suppose that on such a slim basis they could have the sort of inviolability that would force me to choose death rather than eating them. Or that would force a medical researcher to let thousands of people die, rather than extracting some life-saving chemical from them.”

And again,

“If I'm going to eat Mouse because my life depends on it, I shouldn't cause him more pain than necessary.”

I maintain that it would be supererogatory to choose death when confronted with the above scenarios. I believe in “human rights”, but I don’t believe I have a moral obligation to allow a human to harm me or kill me. Furthermore, I suspect that most would agree that in true “burning house” scenarios, we are on a deserted island or on a life boat, for example, different rules apply. Would you choose death or eat another human if you were starving in the desert? I suspect, however, that most don’t believe, then, that in every other situation those rules in the “burning house” apply. And finally, why isn’t it “utterly fantastic” to allow thousands to die when you could extract some life-saving chemical from a handful of humans?

Andy D said...

Jean Kazez: We are not allowed to see any complexity in our reaction--like its being partly a matter of seeing the capacities Cog does have, and partly a matter of sympathy, and partly a matter of wanting protection for our own relatives some day, and partly a matter of knowing that could be us some day.

It seems clear that all of these complexities do arise in practice when we make moral judgments. But are we really willing to accept all of them as considered bases for the way we organize society and exercise life-and-death power over others?

Consider the 'prawn' aliens from District 9. They were beings with capacities very much like ours, but we humans found them repulsive and creepy. So sympathy went out the window, along with our ability to recognize their inner lives and any desire to protect them based on a sense of our own vulnerability. Instead we imprisoned and abused them.

Of course that movie was fiction, but I think it illustrates that factors like sympathy, identification, and perceived vulnerability (along with their opposites--indifference, otherness, and impunity) are deeply problematic as sources for moral decision-making. (I think most people can agree to this whatever we believe about the moral relevance of various capacities beyond sentience.)

This doesn't prove we need to jettison these sources entirely, but we ought to be very critical of them, particularly when we are applying them to beings who are at our mercy. Isn't it suspicious that today we can never bring ourselves to justify sacrificing the interests of cognitively impaired humans, but we can *almost always* find reasons to sacrifice Chimp or Mouse? In the latter two cases, we are typically not conducting a serious moral inquiry--we are selectively looking for reasons to exploit. Some of these reasons are bound to be little better than excuses.

This isn't meant specifically to defend the AMC, by the way. I look forward to reading your book.