Monday, July 20, 2009

Kriegel on Animal Rights, Part Two

(Note: part one of this post is here)

In section 5 of his paper, Uriah Kriegel outlines a proposal for a different, non-consequentialist, ethical framework for animal rights. He starts by saying he admires the part of Kantian (deontological) moral philosophy known as the “humanity formula”: one should treat another’s humanity (or one’s own) as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. To extend this approach, he suggests substituting “conscious creatures” for “humanity”.

With some alterations (including what he calls a “virtue-ethical” twist), the formula becomes:

“One should have the stable, dominating disposition to treat conscious creatures as ends in themselves and not merely as means to other ends.”

The “stable, dominating disposition” phraseology allows us to avoid absolutism in the formula. Including “merely” allows for cases where an animal might be treated in some fashion as a means as well as an end in itself. Kriegel notes that much more could be said about all of the nuances here, but he moves on to give examples of how this kind of formula would result in different results compared to a consequentialist formula. Importantly, they differ on whether it is right to kill or exploit an animal if could be done painlessly. By assigning conscious animals intrinsic moral worth, one expands the animal rights case (for those animals considered conscious).

I liked this proposal very much, since I have long been attracted to the idea of assigning intrinsic moral status on the basis of consciousness (although I came to the idea from a different direction – see an old post on this here and other posts with the Morals tag). And while I certainly don’t read a lot of philosophical papers on this topic, I hadn’t seen this proposed before in the literature.

In the last section of the paper, Kriegel returns to the risk that we err in our empirical assessment of the presence of consciousness in various animals. Here he proposes that, given the uncertainty involved, we should assign probabilities to the presence of consciousness. Further we should use a function which maps this probability to an even more generous probability that a given animal should be afforded rights. While all of the numbers we might assign are going to be imprecise, by being cautious about what we know and building in a cushion in our formulas, we can reduce mistakes while pressing the circle of moral generosity outward.

My own view is that in our judgments we should explicitly consider that consciousness comes in degrees, rather than being an all-or-nothing phenomenon. But working with Kriegel’s probabilistic formulas, one could easily get to the same answers in most cases.

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