Do nonsentient humans, such as those who are irreversibly brain dead, have a right not to be treated as things?

If a human is really nonsentient–not conscious or aware of anything at all and will not regain consciousness or awareness of anything–then, by definition, the human cannot have an interest in not suffering (or in anything else). In such a situation, a compelling argument could be made that it is morally acceptable to use the organs of such a human to save others–and it is common practice to do so if the human has previously agreed to donate her organs or if the family consents.

We should, of course, be concerned about whether an ostensibly brain-dead human really does lack all cognitive activity. We ought also to be sensitive to the concerns of those related to the comatose human; they may oppose the instrumental use of the human for various reasons, such as religious opposition to organ transplantation. But humans who are really irreversibly brain dead are really no different from plants; they are alive but they are not conscious and have no interests to protect. According such humans a basic right not to be treated as the resources of others makes no sense.

Where do you draw the line on who can have rights? Do insects have rights?

I draw the line at sentience because, as I have argued, sentient beings have interests and the possession of interests is the necessary and sufficient condition for membership in the moral community. Are insects sentient? Are they conscious beings with minds that experience pain and pleasure? I do not know. But the fact that I do not know exactly where to draw the line, or perhaps find drawing the line difficult, does not relieve me of the obligation to draw the line somewhere or allow me to use animals as I please. Although I may not know whether insects are sentient, I do know that cows, pigs, chickens, chimpanzees, horses, deer, dogs, cats, and mice are sentient. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that fish are sentient. So the fact that I do not know on what side of the line to place insects does not relieve me of my moral obligation to the animals whom I do know are sentient.

As a general matter, this question is intended to demonstrate that if we do not know where to draw the line in a matter of morality, or if line drawing is difficult, then we ought not to draw the line anywhere. This form of reasoning is invalid. Consider the following example. There is a great deal of disagreement about the scope and extent of human rights. Some people argue that health care and education are fundamental rights that a civilized government should provide to everyone; some people argue that health care and education are commodities like any other, not the subject of rights, and that people ought to pay for them. But we would, I suspect, all agree that whatever our disagreements about human rights–however unsure we are of where to draw the line–we most certainly agree, for instance, that genocide is morally wrong. We do not say that it is morally acceptable to kill off entire populations because we may disagree over whether humans are entitled to health care. Similarly, our uncertainty or disagreement regarding the sentience of ants is no license to ignore the interests of chimpanzees, cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals whom we do know are sentient.

Hitler was a vegetarian; what does that say about vegetarians?

It says nothing more than that some evil people may also be vegetarians. The question itself is based on an invalid syllogism: Hitler was a vegetarian; Hitler was evil; therefore vegetarians are evil. Stalin ate meat and was himself no angel. He was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. What does that say about meat eaters? Just as we cannot conclude that all meat eaters have anything in common with Stalin beyond meat eating, we cannot conclude that all vegetarians have anything in common with Hitler beyond vegetarianism. Furthermore, it is not certain that Hitler actually was a vegetarian. And in any event, the Nazi interest in reducing meat consumption was not a matter of the moral status of animals but reflected a concern with organic health and healing and avoidance of artificial ingredients in food and pharmaceutical products that was linked to the broader Nazi goals of “racial hygiene.”

Another version of this question is that since the Nazis also favored animal rights, does this mean that animal rights as a moral theory is bankrupt and attempts to devalue humans? Once again, the question is absurd. In the first place, the question is based on a factual error. The Nazis were not in favor of animal rights. Animal welfare laws in Germany restricted vivisection to some degree, but they hardly reflected any societal preference for abolishing the property status of animals. After all, the Nazis casually murdered millions of humans and animals in the course of the Second World War, behavior not compatible with a rights position, human or otherwise. It is no more accurate to say that the Nazis supported animal rights than it is to say that Americans support animal rights because we have a federal Animal Welfare Act.

But what if, contrary to fact, the Nazis did advocate the abolition of all animal exploitation? What would that say about the idea of animal rights? The answer is absolutely clear: it would say nothing about whether the animal rights position is right or wrong. That question can be settled only by whether the moral arguments in favor of animal rights are valid or not. The Nazis also strongly favored marriage. Does that mean marriage is an inherently immoral institution? The Nazis also believed that sports were essential to the development of strong character. Does this mean that competitive sports are inherently immoral? Jesus Christ preached a gospel of sharing resources on an equitable basis. Gandhi promoted a similar message, as did Stalin. But Stalin also devalued human beings. Can we conclude that the idea of more equitable resource distribution has some inherent moral flaw that taints Jesus or Gandhi? No, of course not. We no more devalue human life if we accord moral significance to animal interests than we devalue the lives of “normal” humans when we accord value to certain humans, such as the severely retarded, and prohibit their use in experiments.

By equating speciesism with racism and sexism, don’t you equate animals, people of color, and women?

No. Racism, sexism, speciesism, and other forms of discrimination are all analogous in that all share the faulty notion that some morally irrelevant characteristic (race, sex, species) may be used to exclude beings with interests from the moral community or to undervalue interests in explicit violation of the principle of equal consideration. For example, speciesism and human slavery are similar in that in all cases animals and enslaved humans have a basic interest in not being treated as things and yet are treated as things on the basis of morally irrelevant criteria. To deny animals this basic right simply because they are animals is like saying that we should not abolish race-based slavery because of the perceived inferiority of the slaves’ race. The argument used to support slavery and the argument used to support animal exploitation are structurally similar: we exclude beings with interests from the moral community because there is some supposed difference between “them” and “us” that has nothing to do with the inclusion of these beings in the moral community. The animals rights position maintains that if we believe that animals have moral significance, the principle of equal consideration requires that we stop treating them as things.

A related question that often arises in this context is whether speciesism is “as bad” as racism or sexism or other forms of discrimination. As a general matter, it is not useful to rank evils. Was it “worse” that Hitler killed Jews than that he killed Catholics or Romanies? Is slavery “worse” than genocide? Is non-race-based slavery “worse” than race-based slavery? Is sexism “worse” than slavery and genocide, or is it “worse” than slavery but not worse than genocide? Frankly, I am not even sure what these questions mean, but I suspect that persons considering them assume implicitly that one group is “better” than another. In any event, these forms of discrimination are all terrible, and they are terrible in different ways. But they all share one thing in common: they all treat humans as things without protectable interests. In this sense, all of these forms of discrimination–as different as they are–are similar to speciesism, which results in our treating animals as things.

Finally, there are some who argue that in saying that some animals have greater cognitive ability than some humans, such as the severely retarded or the extremely senile, we are equating those humans with animals and characterizing them in a disrespectful way. Again, this misses the point of the argument for animal rights. For centuries, we have justified our treatment of animals as resources because they supposedly lack some characteristic that we have. But some animals have such a “special” characteristic to a greater degree than do some of us and some humans do not have that characteristic at all. The point is that although a particular characteristic may be useful for some purposes, the only characteristic that is required for moral significance is sentience. We do not and should not treat those humans who are impaired as resources for other humans. And if we really believe that animals have morally significant interests, then we ought to apply the principle of equal consideration and not treat them as resources as well. The argument for animal rights does not decrease respect for human life; it increases respect for all life.

If we did not exploit animals, we would not have society as we now know it. Does this fact not prove that animal use by humans is morally justified?

No. In the first place, the question assumes that we would not have devised alternatives to animal use if that were necessary either because nonhuman animals were not available or because we made a moral decision not to exploit them as resources. Second, even if animal use were necessary for society as we presently know it, the same argument could be made with respect to any human activity. For example, without wars, patriarchy, and other forms of violence and exploitation, we would not have society as we now know it. The fact that a given activity was a necessary means to what some of us regard as a desirable end does not prove that the means were morally justified. Present-day Americans would not enjoy the level of prosperity that they now enjoy were it not for human slavery; that does not mean that slavery was a morally acceptable practice. Third, there is at least an argument that our present-day society, with its violence, pollution, inequitable distribution of resources, and various forms of injustice is less desirable an end than some think, and that we ought not be so eager to endorse the means that got us where we are today.

Isn’t human use of animals a “tradition,” or “natural,” and therefore morally justified?

Every form of discrimination in the history of humankind has been defended as “traditional.” Sexism is routinely justified on the ground that it is traditional for women to be subservient to men: “A woman’s place is in the home.” Human slavery has been a tradition in most cultures at some times. The fact that some behavior can be described as traditional has nothing to do with whether the behavior is or is not morally acceptable.

In addition to relying on tradition, some characterize our use of animals as “natural” and then declare it to be morally acceptable. Again, to describe something as natural does not in itself say anything about the morality of the practice. In the first place, just about every form of discrimination ever practiced has been described as natural as well as traditional. The two notions are often used interchangeably. We have justified human slavery as representing a natural hierarchy of slave owners and slaves. We have justified sexism as representing the natural superiority of men over women. Moreover, it is a bit strange to describe our modern commodification of animals as natural in any sense of the word. We have created completely unnatural environments and agricultural procedures in order to maximize profits. We do bizarre experiments in which we transplant genes and organs from animals into humans and vice versa. We are now cloning animals. None of this can be described as natural. Labels such as “natural” and “traditional” are just that: labels. They are not reasons. If people defend the imposition of pain and suffering on an animal based on what is natural or traditional, it usually means that they cannot otherwise justify their conduct.

A variant of this question focuses on the traditions of particular groups. For example, in May 1999 the Makah tribe from Washington State killed its first gray whale in over seventy years. The killing, which was done with steel harpoons, antitank guns, armor-piercing ammunition, motorized chase boats, and a $310,000 grant from the federal government, was defended on the grounds that whaling was a Makah tradition. But the same argument could (and is) made to defend clitoral mutilations in Africa and bride-burning in India. The issue is not whether conduct is part of a culture; all conduct is part of some culture. The issue is whether the conduct can be morally justified.

Finally, some argue that since nonhuman animals eat other nonhumans in the wild, our use of animals is natural. There are four responses to this position. First, although some animals eat each other in the wild, many do not. Many animals are vegetarians. Moreover, there is far more cooperation in nature than our imagined “cruelty of nature” would have us believe. Second, whether animals eat other animals is beside the point. How is it relevant whether animals eat other animals? Some animals are carnivorous and cannot exist without eating meat. We do not fall into that category; we can get along fine without eating meat, and more and more people are taking the position that our health and environment would both benefit from a shift away from a diet of animals products. Third, animals do all sorts of things that humans do not regard as morally appropriate. For example, dogs copulate and defecate in the street. Does that mean that we should follow their example? Fourth, it is interesting that when it is convenient for us to do so, we attempt to justify our exploitation of animals by resting on our supposed “superiority.” And when our supposed “superiority” gets in the way of what we want to do, we suddenly portray ourselves as nothing more than another species of wild animal, as entitled as foxes to eat chickens.

If you are in favor of abolishing the use of animals as human resources, don’t you care more about animals than you do about those humans with illnesses who might possibly be cured through animal research?

No, of course not. This question is logically and morally indistinguishable from that which asks whether those who advocated the abolition of human slavery cared less about the well-being of southerners who faced economic ruin if slavery were abolished than they did about the slaves.

The issue is not whom we care about or value most; the question is whether it is morally justifiable to treat sentient beings–human or non-human–as commodities or exclusively as means to the ends of others. For example, we generally do not think that we should use any humans as unconsenting subjects in biomedical experiments, even though we would get much better data about human illness if we used humans rather than animals in experiments. After all, the application to the human context of data from animal experiments–assuming that the animal data are relevant at all–requires often difficult and always imprecise extrapolation. We could avoid these difficulties by using humans, which would eliminate the need for extrapolation. But we do not do so because even though we may disagree about many moral issues, most of us are in agreement that the use of humans as unwilling experimental subjects is ruled out as an option from the beginning. No one suggests that we care more about those we are unwilling to use as experimental subjects than we do about the others who would benefit from that use.

Does the institution of pet ownership violate animals’ basic right not to be regarded as things?

Yes. Pets are our property. Dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, and other animals are mass produced like bolts in a factory or, in the case of birds and exotic animals, are captured in the wild and transported long distances, during which journey many of them die. Pets are marketed in exactly the same way as other commodities. Although some of us may treat our companion animals well, more of us treat them poorly. In America, most dogs spend less than two years in a home before they are dumped at a pound or otherwise transferred to a new owner; more than 70 percent of people who adopt animals give them away, take them to shelters, or abandon them. We are all aware of horror stories about neighborhood dogs on short chains who spend most of their lives alone. Our cities are full of stray cats and dogs who live miserable lives and starve or freeze, succumb to disease, or are tormented by humans. Some people who claim to love their companion animals mutilate them senselessly by having their ears cropped, their tails docked, or their claws ripped out so that they will not scratch the furniture.

You may treat your animal companion as a member of your family and effectively accord her or him inherent value or the basic right not to be treated as your resource. But your treatment of your animal really means that you regard your animal property as having higher than market value; should you change your mind and administer daily and severe beatings to your dog for disciplinary purposes, or not feed your cat so that she will be more motivated to catch the mice in the basement of your store, or kill your animal because you no longer want the financial expense, your decision will be protected by the law. You are free to value your property as you see fit. You may decide to polish your car often or you may let the finish erode. The choice is yours. As long as you provide the minimal maintenance for your car so that it can pass inspection, any other decision you make with respect to the vehicle, including your decision to give it to a scrap dealer, is your business. As long as you provide minimal food, water, and shelter to your pet, any other decision you make, apart from torturing the animal for no purpose whatsoever, is your business, including your decision to dump your pet at the local shelter (where many animals are either killed or sold into research, or have your pet killed by a willing veterinarian.

Rights were devised by humans. How can they even be applicable to animals?

Just as the moral status of a human or animal is not determined by who caused the human or the animal to come into existence, the application of a moral concept is not determined by who devised it. If moral benefits went only to the devisers of moral concepts, then most of humankind would still be outside the moral community. Rights concepts as we currently understand them were actually devised as a way of protecting the interests of wealthy white male landowners; indeed, most moral concepts were historically devised by privileged males to benefit other privileged males. As time went on, we recognized that the principle of equal consideration required that we treat similar cases in a similar way and we subsequently extended rights (and other moral benefits) to other humans. In particular, the principle of equal consideration required that we regard as morally odious the ownership of some humans by other humans. If we are going to apply the principle of equal consideration to animals, then we must extend to animals the right not to be treated as a resource.

It is irrelevant whether animals devised rights or can even understand the concept of rights. We do not require that humans be potential devisers of rights or understand the concept of rights in order to be beneficiaries of rights. For example, a severely retarded human being might not have the ability to understand what a right is, but that does not mean that we should not accord her the protection of at least the basic right not to be treated as a resource of others.

Domestic animals, such as cows and pigs, and laboratory rats would not exist were it not for our bringing them into existence in the first place for our purposes. So is it not the case that we are free to treat them as our resources?

No. The fact that we are in some sense responsible for the existence of a being does not give us the right to treat that being as our resource. Were that so, then we could treat our children as resources. After all, they would not exist were it not for our actions–from decisions to conceive to decisions not to abort. And although we are granted a certain amount of discretion as to how we treat our children, there are limits: we cannot treat them as we do animals. We cannot enslave them, sell them into prostitution, or sell their organs. We cannot kill them. Indeed, it is a cultural norm that bringing a child into existence creates moral obligations on the part of the parents to care for the child and not exploit her.

It should be noted that one of the purported justifications for human slavery in the United States was that many of those who were enslaved would not have existed in the first place had it not been for the institution of slavery. The original slaves who were brought to the United States were forced to procreate and their children were considered property. Although such an argument appears ludicrous to us now, it demonstrates that we cannot assume the legitimacy of the institution of property–of humans or animals–and then ask whether it is acceptable to treat property as property. The answer will be predetermined. Rather, we must first ask whether the institution of animal (or human) property can be morally justified.