by Madeleine Kando
As an argument in his discussion on: Abortion, Animal Rights, and Levels of Consciousness, Tom says that: ‘The criterion for destroying life should be: The higher the level of consciousness and sentience of an organism is, the more evil it is to kill it.’
Does that mean that it is less evil to kill the mentally disabled? Don’t they have a lower level of sentience than someone without a mental handicap?
The fundamental question is, should moral equality be based on characteristics such as ‘sentience’ and ‘rationality’? When more weight is given to mental capacity over other abilities in deciding who to give equal rights to, we are entering a slippery slope.
Thomas Jefferson for example, even though he himself thought Blacks were intellectually inferior, objected to slavery on the grounds that: ‘Whatever their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights’, and the black feminist Sojourner Truth made her point about mental capacity when she said: ‘If my cup won’t hold more than a pint and yours hold a quart, wouldn’t you be mean to let me have my little half-measure full?’ (Just because I am not as smart as you, does that mean I am entitled to less rights?')
Aristotle said that equality was to be applied to things that are 'alike', that you cannot proclaim that a slave and a king are 'equal' because they are not 'alike'. Nor are women and men for that matter. They just don't belong in the same category. Thank God we have come a long way from those incomplete ideas about equality.
Now, some philosophers have recognized that the moral principle of equality should also apply to members of other species. Martha Nussbaum, for example, has extended her ‘capabilities’ approach to the disabled as well as nonhuman species.
I like Jeremy Bentham’s approach the best. He is the father of Utilitarianism, which says that ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think …’ Thus, morality is about maximizing happiness, but mostly about preventing pain. I believe it is a superior approach to moral equality because it is based on ‘sensation’ rather than uniquely human characteristics, such as rationality.
Bentham was a proponent of animal rights. When asked why, he said: ’The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’ The capacity to suffer gives a being the right to equal consideration because it is a prerequisite for any other ‘interest'. A stone that is being kicked down the road does not have any interests because it can not suffer. Thus, the capacity for suffering and enjoyment is therefore not only necessary, but also sufficient for us to say that a being has interests, at the very least an interest in NOT suffering. The difference between a rock and a mouse being kicked down the road is that the mouse will suffer and the rock won’t.
Bentham also said: ‘The interests of every being should be given the same weight as the like interests of another being.’ In other words, concern for the well-being of a child growing up in the US requires that we teach him how to read, condern for the well-being of a pig requires that we let him be with other pigs in a place where there is adequate food and space, not to send him to school.
The next step in our moral evolution is to expand our circle of moral inclusion to include other species. Once you muster the courage, (yes, in this context, the definition of courage is to face the reality of animal suffering caused by humans), there is no turning back. How can we justifiably turn back to a time when women didn't have equal rights, when kings had the power to chop off anyone’s head? There IS no turning back for humanity.
The capacity to suffer is so essential in animal rights that, if we do not grant them rights (the right not to suffer), we can only do so by blinding ourselves to the truth about what we do to them. Denying animals their status as sentient beings is our justification for their mistreatment. Animals are sentient beings that have the capacity to live healthy, happy lives, but most important, they have the capacity to suffer. If you suffer at the hands of someone else, your rights have been violated. leave comment here
** Much of what I wrote can be found in this exerpt from the Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s book: ‘Animal Liberation’
Saturday, March 16, 2013
by Madeleine Kando