The Moral Significance of Animal Suffering

Recently I attended a fascinating Society for Applied Philosophy lecture by Shelly Kagan, entitled ‘What’s Wrong with Speciesism?’. Kagan began the lecture by explaining how, while teaching a course involving some of Peter Singer’s writings on non-human animals, he had begun to doubt the view, defended by Singer, that other things equal the suffering of animals matters no less than that of human beings.

Kagan ably criticized Singer’s suggestion that many of us are ‘speciesists’, who believe species-membership to be morally relevant. Consider Superman. No one thinks he matters less because he’s of another species. Rather, we are ‘personists’, and attach greater moral status to persons rather than non-persons.

In the philosophical literature on rights in the second half of the twentieth century, there was much discussion about what should be the criterion for ascribing rights: rationality, language use, willingness to co-operate, sentience, humanity…? These debates seemed to me ill-founded. The correct criterion depends on the right in question: the right to vote, say, requires a certain level of rationality; that not to be tortured depends only on sentience.

The same sort of point seems to me to apply to discussion of moral status. It may be that persons require a certain kind of respect from us on grounds of their personhood (you can’t really be rude to your dog, for example). But one shouldn’t think that because some quality matters in one area of morality, it matters everywhere. (This general point was made brilliantly by Kagan himself in a 1988 article, ‘The Additive Fallacy’.)

The only thing that really matters about suffering is its unpleasantness, and how unpleasant it is.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.