Respect (guest post)

Jean Kazez’s Animalkind is a pleasure to read: it engages seriously with a range of animal-ethics issues, yet the writing is also engaging in the sense of making the reader comfortable and eager to hear out the author’s arguments, even – especially – when one may question them.

Kazez argues for animal liberation, but against the idea that humans and sentient non-humans have equal moral value. Animals count, and many of them count a lot, but humans count more. We ought to give animals due respect, and if we do, this will mean enormous changes in human behaviour – but, still, humans are due more respect than animals. How does Kazez’s position differ from that of Tom Regan, the most influential exponent of animal-rights philosophy?

Regan argues that all subjects-of-a-life (nearly all humans and many non-humans) have equal inherent value. This would seem to put him at odds with Kazez. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, he insists that, if it comes down to an unavoidable choice, a million dogs ought to be sacrificed rather than a single normal human. That is because, although all who have inherent value have it equally (all being equally entitled to be treated with respect), a dog loses less by death than a normal human does. That is, death forecloses fewer opportunities for satisfaction in the dog’s case than in the human’s case. To give the death of a dog the same moral weight as the death of a normal human would be to treat the human without due respect, because it would be to give the lesser loss suffered by the dog the same weight as the greater loss suffered by the human. And in rejecting utilitarianism, Regan also rejects the idea that we ought to aggregate the lesser losses suffered by numerous dogs and weigh them against the loss suffered by a single human.

Isn’t Regan being anthropocentric in his assessment of how much each kind of loss is to count? As Lori Gruen has asked, how do we know that a human thrown from Regan’s overloaded lifeboat would lose more by not getting the chance to write the play she’s been anticipating writing than the dog would lose by not getting to go for another run by the river? We might ask the same of John Stuart Mill: How does he know that it’s better to be a human dissatisfied than to be a pig satisfied? Mill says that in order to judge which of two pleasures is qualitatively superior, we must consult those who are competently acquainted with both. Now, you and I might prefer reading a philosophy blog or watching the World Cup to rolling around in the mud or sniffing out truffles, but are we competently acquainted with the joys of mud and truffle-sniffing?

Kazez recognizes this problem and takes a practical line:

We can study the lives of animals with an open mind. We can try to be less arrogant and proud. But then we must make judgments, because real-world choices depend on doing so. The judgment most of us arrive at is that there is something special about our capacities and thus about us. The worry about latent speciesism ought to make us more humble, more open to new evidence, more tentative. But we have to move on with our understanding of the way things are, imperfect though it may be.

Some will be uncomfortable with what Kazez calls her “sliding scale” of moral value, which places humans above members of other species. The sliding scale has also been championed by Mary Anne Warren, who argues that while it makes sense to ascribe moral rights to all sentient creatures, humans ought to be recognized as having stronger rights than animals, less easily overridden. Warren criticizes Regan’s notion of equal inherent value – and yet, as noted, Regan does not claim that everyone’s vital interests are equally protected from being overridden. He advocates equality in the matter of respect, but affirms that differences in capacities will, in some circumstances, properly give rise to differences in treatment. Kazez, by contrast, talks of different degrees of respect being merited on the basis of different capacities. This leads me to wonder how much of the disagreement here has to do with substance, and how much turns on different conceptions of “respect”.

The devil may be in the details, and constructing a coherent philosophical justification for one’s position may be tricky. Nevertheless, animal advocates generally agree that sentient non-humans deserve to be treated with respect, and that this at least means not inflicting unnecessary harm. The key difference between Kazez and Regan may be that she is more open to uncovering reasons why species membership can give extra weight – that is, weight in addition to that resulting from capacities of isolated individuals – to sometimes favouring humans over non-humans. (When she returns to blogging in a few days, perhaps she’ll say something about this, and correct any misrepresentations I may be guilty of.)

I like the fact that Kazez’s argument is sensitive to the changing historical contexts of human needs. I try to do something similar, and try to avoid getting bogged down in the question of the relative values of different kinds of lives, in “Animal Rights, Human Needs”. That essay, which attempts to articulate what I call a "vital-needs rights view", is far from perfect, and with regard to its idea of human and animal flourishing, I point readers to the somewhat related "capabilities approach" being developed by Martha Nussbaum. But before you tackle Nussbaum, Animalkind is a good place to go if you want to think about what it means to respect both humans and animals.


Faust said...

I think the most pressing problem is the question of what happens when you adopt a capacities approach and then realize that humans have a vast array of capacities. Kazez does indeed attempt to deal with this (I believe this is what you nod in the direction of when you not that she is "more open to uncovering reasons why species membership can give extra weight"), but in my view this is an issue that is very much up in the air, by which I mean simply: I've not see a particularly satisfactory treatment of it (I think
Animalkind is weak on this point). I suppose John Rawls "veil of ignorance" is as good a place to start as any. Anyone done that? Applied the "veil of ignorance" to animal rights?

Aeolus said...

Yes. In particular, Mark Rowlands makes a modified-Rawlsian case in his Animal Rights (1998, rev. 2009).

Faust said...

Interesting. I will take note and check that out.