Bioethics Blogs

Animal suffering and the pointlessness of moral philosophy

Consider the infamous Chinese dog market. Dogs are rounded up, sometimes beaten while still alive (ostensibly to improve the flavour of their meat), killed, and eaten.

Everyone I know thinks it’s obscene, and that the suffering of the dogs cannot possibly be outweighed by the sensual satisfaction of the diners, the desirability of not interfering, colonially, with practices acceptable in another culture, or by any other consideration. It’s just wrong.

‘It’s just wrong’ is the observation that moral philosophers exist to denounce. They draw their salaries for interrogating this observation, exploding its naivety, and showing that the unexamined observation is the observation not worth making.

But what can the moral philosophers bring to the discussion about the Chinese dogs? Alone, and unaided by science, not much. The philosophy turns out to be either (a) reheated science or (b) a description of our intuitions, together with more or less bare assertions that those intuitions are either good or bad. Why might it be ‘wrong’ to treat the dogs like that? There are, broadly, two possible categories of reasons: reasons to do with the dogs, and reasons to do with the humans who kill and eat them.

Reasons to do with the dogs

(a)        They are in pain

The statement ‘they are in pain’, is of course in danger of being anthropomorphic – of assuming that animal pain is akin to human pain. For it to be uncomplicatedly akin to human pain, animals would have to have consciousness. C.S. Lewis thought that animal pain was not as much of a challenge to the notion of a good, omnipotent God because animals have no sense of self.

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.