“Discrimination against animals is a moral delusion”

Our senses cannot always be trusted. But what about our intuitions and moral judgments about right and wrong? asks moral philosopher Stijn Bruers, who argues that the latter cannot always be trusted either.

We are all familiar with optical illusions. You see two horizontal line segments with arrowheads at the ends. A segment with arrowheads pointing outward appears shorter, but in reality the two segments are of equal length. Our senses cannot always be trusted. But what about our intuitions and moral judgments about right and wrong? Can we always trust them? No, we are prone to moral delusions. These are automatic, intuitive, and very persistent moral judgments, yet they violate our deepest moral values. They distract us from genuinely rational morality, from what really matters to us.

A dangerous moral delusion is speciesism, the discrimination against non-human animals. We have a spontaneous judgment that people are more important than animals. The optical illusion of line segments can also serve as a metaphor. The two horizontal lines symbolically correspond to the moral values ​​of, for example, a pig and a young child. The longer the line, the higher the value of the part. Arrowheads correspond to morally irrelevant traits, such as body characteristics, intelligence, or genetic relatedness. It seems that a person is worth more than a pig, but this is an illusion. How do we know this?

First, we can erase the arrowheads, the morally inappropriate traits. Then you see that both line segments are the same length. And what is left of the pig and the baby? Their related moral qualities: their feelings, their well-being. In this respect, both individuals are equal.

Or we can use another tool: we can move a scale from one line to another. In ethics we have a similar tool: sympathy or sympathy. This allows us to switch positions, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We can sympathize with a pig and a young child, and then find that the feeling or preference for the pig is just as important as the feeling or preference for the young child.

This brings us to an important guide on how to avoid moral delusions: We must avoid all gratuitous or unwanted arbitrariness. In discrimination, individuals are arbitrarily excluded and treated less well. Victims of discrimination do not wish to be treated badly. Therefore, discrimination is undesirable arbitrariness. The idea of ​​avoiding unwanted arbitrariness is the perfect antidote to moral deception.

(Read more at the bottom of the article.)

Why is discrimination against animals arbitrary? Look at the biological classification. You can imagine this classification as a chest of dozens of drawers. The bottom drawer contains the ethnic groups, subspecies, or races. The racialist slides open this bottom drawer and assigns a distinct racial group to it. One stair up is of sorts. A speciologist opens that drawer, selects the human species in it, and says that only beings belonging to that species are entitled to rights. But the dresser has higher drawers. We belong to the human species, but also to the family of apes, the order of primates, the class of mammals, the phylum of vertebrates, and so on.

We are mammals as much as we are humans. So why do we open the ninth staircase, point to the types of people, and declare that only these individuals are granted basic rights? Why not point out the other species in this drawer? Why not open another drawer, another biological like categories? When choosing the drawer and the combination in this drawer, we don’t follow any rules, so these choices are random. This arbitrariness is undesirable for the excluded whom we discriminate against.

But it’s even worse: the type is not well defined. Let’s say we brought all of your ancestors to the present using a time travel machine. You stand next to each other in a long line. You are on the far left, next to you are your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, etc. Moreover, we see your ancestors who lived millions of years ago. This brings us to our great-grandmother, who lived nearly 400 million years ago. The first vertebrate to crawl ashore. It is the common ancestor of all terrestrial vertebrates, including chickens, for example. We can then extend this line by going down the family tree from that common ancestor to the modern-day chicken. This chicken is all the way to the right in the row.

Now we can play a fun game: you are a complete human being and therefore you get human rights, okay? Just like your mother and grandmother, okay? They all belong to the moral community, individuals who have been given rights. But if we move to the right, where does moral society end? Where is our great-grandmother who was human but her mother was not human? We’re going further, we’re getting closer to the chicken, so say stop in time! But no, there is no sharp line between people on the left and non-people on the right. Just like in a rainbow, there are no sharp boundaries between red and blue. All forms intermediate between you and the hen have already lived on this planet, just as all colors between red and blue are visible in the rainbow. Our idea of ​​human rights and our choice to eat chicken is based on the arbitrary fact that those intermediaries between us and the chicken no longer exist.

(Read more at the bottom of the article.)

Traditionally, in the ethics of rights, one begins by listing all the important rights, and then asks who gets those rights. One starts from collecting rights and seeks to collect entitled beings. Then we see an expanding moral community throughout history. We are expanding our ethical radar. First the tribesmen become visible, then all the whites and then all the people get rights. But we cannot arbitrarily stop at the group of people. We must further expand the moral community if we are to avoid unwanted arbitrariness. Everyone and everything must be included in it, without arbitrary exceptions. So are plants, rocks, computers, etc. So I propose to go in the opposite direction: we start with the condition that everything and everyone is important and are included in the moral community, and then we think about what rights we want to give everyone and everyone. These rights are basic rights.

An interesting basic right is the right not to be used against your will as a means to achieve someone else’s goals. Your body is yours and no one else can use your body if you don’t want it to. This is your right to physical self-determination. And everyone and everything should do it right. Yes, including factories and computers. There is no arbitrary exclusion or discrimination. But we cannot violate the right of the plant, whatever we do, because the plant has no will and therefore cannot be used against its will. The plant also has no awareness of its own body. For a factory or a computer, this basic right is always automatically respected. This is useful. Right becomes significant only for a conscious being who has a will of his own and a feeling of his own body. Because it is possible for a sensitive being to violate this fundamental right. Organisms, from which our first ancestor appeared suddenly, perhaps about 500 million years ago, are thus special.

What follows this new approach to legal ethics? That we not wantonly use the bodies of other living beings in ways they do not want. Concretely, it would lead to the abolition of slavery and, consequently, the abolition of cattle breeding, hunting and fishing. To do this, the bodies of living beings are used against their will.

Stijn Bruers is a moral philosopher and author of the book moral delusions.

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