Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

A flow chart for harming animals


I’ve just spent a chunk of my afternoon turning an ethical argument for vegetarianism into a handy flow chart. The structure of the argument is pretty rough and ready, and there are lots of nuances and important discussions and disagreements missing. However, I think the chart captures the essence of what I call the consistency argument against harming animals. Hopefully, it clearly illustrates where our basic intuitions and assumptions about the treatment of non-human animals and humans are inconsistent. If you follow it, and agree with the premises and conclusions then you either end up thinking, a) that it’s permissible to harm both non-human animals and also non-rational humans, or b) that it’s impermissible to harm non-human animals. Faced with that, most people prefer option b); I know I do.

The chart is below, apologies for the size. I should probably turn it into a tick-box quiz at some stage, a la the rather excellent scenarios at:

Arguing about animals

Click to see full size.



Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

16 thoughts on “A flow chart for harming animals

  1. Hey. Two comments.

    1. One can believe that it is morally ok for a human to kick a dog for another reason than that it isn’t human or that it isn’t rational/intelligent/moral. If so one is stuck between those two questions in your chart.

    2. Even if one believes that it is ok to kick dogs because they are not humans, species-wise, there is a problem since there is no such thing, genetically, as a human species, unless one goes from a singular point of view (that any person who I cannot have a fertile baby with does not belong to my species and thus I can kick).

    • Thanks for the comment Johan.

      On your first point: could you give some examples of what might permit kicking the dog that don’t rely upon a justification based on the species membership or lack of personhood in the dog (assuming the person kicking isn’t acting in self- or other-defence)?

      On your second point: I’m not sure I follow? Are you saying there is no such thing as species? Or just that there is no such thing a human species? I’m no biologist, but I don’t think that’s correct, however one defines species. I’m not even sure we need to conduct the species debate at the genetic level; I don’t think anyone would have a problem identifying a fellow human by description or sight – we know a human when we see one. So, whilst I do think that species membership is morally irrelevant, I don’t think we can avoid the debate entirely by simply denying that species is a meaningful taxonomic rank.

  2. On point one.

    One could say that it is ok because ones holy book/deity says so. Or due to self defence (self defence isn’t removed from the chart, etc). I guess one could come up with other reasons perhaps.

    On point two.

    The problem is that the definition of species is the group that can ‘potentially’ have fertile offspring together. Since humans and chimps cannot have fertile offspring together we belong to different species. If a person then believes that it is ok to kick the chimp then he has the following problem to deal with:

    Every human has two parents. Both of those parents belong to that person’s species. Every chimp has two parents. Both of those parents belong to that chimp’s species. This is also true for every parent (that they have two parents of each species). Go back far enough and you get a parent who is a (great-great-great, etc) grandparent of both species and and unbroken link between the species. Hence a paradox, and a problem for any argument based on genetic code.

    • Thanks for clarifying. You’re right, someone could claim a book says it’s OK for them to kick the dog, but I don’t think that really counts as an ethical argument. How does one disagree with such an argument? There are no good reasons one can give – from the point of view of an ethicist there’s simply nothing I can say to anyone who claims a spiritual being gives them permission to act in a certain way. All I can do is disagree, but, no ethical reasons I can give will pursaude. Effectively, claiming a God says it’s OK looks like a way of avoiding an ethical argument altogether and moving into a doctrinal argument instead.

      If someone wants to say that it’s permissible to harm another in self defence, that’s fine. I’m not trying to say it’s never permissible to harm an animal, I’m trying to get the point across that to do so one needs a good reason, and ‘because it’s not human’ or ‘because it’s not rational’ don’t count as good reasons. The chart isn’t meant to cover every eventuality, merely to illustrate why I think the reasons commonly given for why it’s OK to harm animals are bad reasons, and why exposing those arguments for what they are leads to a vegetarianism.

      As for the second point – species membership isn’t defined, so far as I can see, by what a type of creature’s genetic code was like in the time of its distant ancestors, it’s defined by some present shared characteristics of a group of creatures. So, go back far enough and you don’t find that chimps and humans are the same species, you find that there is a separate species that chimps and humans have both evolved from.

      • On species.

        It’s true that it is defined by shared characteristics of a group, the problem is that there is no way to divide the group in any way that accounts for everyone who shares the characteristics and yet sepparates everyone who does not. If you count every single being that has lived and divide them into non-humans and humans, you’ll find some beings defined as non-humans that can have sex with some beings defined as humans and produce fertile offspring.

        Perhaps I’m better served quoting someone more knowledgable and eloquent than I am.

        “As long as we stay above the level of the species,and as long as we study only modern animals (or animals in any given time slice: see below) there are no awkward intermediates. If an animal appears to be an awkward intermediate, say it seems to be exactly intermediate between a mammal and a bird, an evolutionist can be confident that it must definitely be one or the other. The appearance of intermediacy must be an illusion. The unlucky librarian can take no such reassurance. It is perfectly possible for a book to belong simultaneously in both the history and the biology departments. Cladistically inclined biologists never indulge in any librarians’ arguments over wether it is ‘convenient’ to classify whales as mammals or as fish, or as intermediate between mammals and fish. The only argument we have is a factual one. In this case, as it happens, the facts lead all modern biologists to the same conclusion. Whales are mammals and not fish, and they are not, even to a tiny degree, intermediate.”

        “The neat and clear-cut discreteness of classification is liable to evaporate if we try to include all animals that have ever lived, rather than just modern animals. This is because, however distant from each other two modern animals may be – say they are a bird and a mammal – the did, once upon a time, have a common ancestor. If we ar faced with trying to fit that ancestor into our modern classification, we may have problems.”

        “If we consider all animals that have ever lived instead of just modern animals, such words as ‘human’ and ‘bird’ become just as blurred and unclear at the edges as words like ‘tall’ and ‘fat’. Zoologists can argue unresolvably over wethere a particular fossil is, or is not, a bird. Indeed they often argue this very question over the famous fossil Archaeopteryx. It turns out that if ‘bird/non-bird’ is a clearer distinction than ‘tall/short’, it is only because in the bird/non-bird case the awkward intermediates are all dead. If a curiously selective plague came along and killed all people of intermediate height, ‘tall’ and ‘short’ would come to have just as precise a meaning as ‘bird’ or ‘mammal’.

        It isn’t just zoological classification that is saved from awkward ambiguity only by the convenient fact that most intermediates are now extinct. The same is true of human ethics and law. Our legal adn moral systems are deeply species-bound. The director of a zoo is legally entitled to ‘put down’ a chimpanzee that is surplus to requirements, while any suggestion that he might ‘put down’ a redundant keeper or ticket-seller would be greeted with howls of incredulous outrage. The chimpanzee is the property of the zoo. Humans are nowadays not supposed to be anybody’s property, yet the rationale for discriminating against chimpanzees in this way is seldom spelled out, and I doubt if there is any defensible rationale at all. … The only reason we can be comfortable with such a double standard is that the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead.”

        “If, in various forgotten islands around the world, survivors of all intermediates back to the chimp/human common ancestor were discovered, who can doubt that our laws and our moral conventions would be profoundly affected, especially as there would presumably be some interbreeding along the spectrum? Either the whole spectrum would have to be granted full human rights (votes for chimps), or there would have to be an elaborate apartheid-like system of discriminatory laws, with courts deciding whether particular individuals are legally ‘chimps’ or ‘humans’; and people would fret about their daughter’s desire to marry one of ‘them’. I suppose that the world is already too well explored for us to hope that this chastening fantasy will ever come true. But anybody who thinks that there is something obvious or self-evident about human ‘rights’ should reflect that it is just sheer luck that these embarrasing intermediates happen not to have survived.”

        from Richard Dawkins “The Blind Watchmaker” (which I recommend highly) pages 260-263.

  3. The fact of the matter is that the ‘intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead’ and that we do define humanity in terms of our shared characteristics within a certain time spice though – so the argument is rather moot. It might be an argument for changing how biologists classify humans, but I think Dawkins is completely barking up the wrong tree if he thinks defining humanity in whichever way is more correct would in any way count as a good ethical argument. Rather, the point is that species membership, however one defines it, is a morally arbritary fact about a being. It’s not so much that the law should change because it relies upon a poor classification of humanity, but rather that it’s insistance that species membership is ethically significant is faulty.

  4. Don’t you think that since it is morally sound for a mother to prefer her own children, over the other, we should be morally justified to prefer our kind and not other species, as indeed all the other species do? This, in turn, would make the species-based moral criteria sound.

    • Thanks for the comment Simon. No, I don’t think the analogy is sound – species membership is not like family membership. Preferring your child to a stranger’s is warranted because it’s a special relationship – it’s special in ways that simply being member of a species is not. What makes familial relationship special lies in the fact that they is unlike other kinds of general non-associative relationships. In any case, preferring my children over those of another doesn’t permit me to use other people’s children in any way I see fit, so even if the analogy were sound it wouldn’t show that the way we treat non-human animals is permissible.

      • Thank you for your reply; I really appreciate the opportunity of discussing with you. I agree that “what makes familial relationship special lies in the fact that they is unlike other kinds of general non-associative relationships”, and I would add that this behavior is morally solid also because it is biologically sound: it is indeed in the offspring that parents pass-on their genetic fitness (feelings are quite biologically predictable). Since we are social animals this hold true for adoption and in general for relatives children, with which we share genetic information. I find your objection of “fit use of other children” non adequate for several reasons. Inter-specific exploitation is not a good biological strategy: it spoils the resources and distracts the species from the competition with other species. Cannibalism is indeed limited to particular conditions and species, while cooperative behavior is typical of more flexible and in general fit species. Furthermore the idea of human selection, consequent to the ideologies of eugeneticism and social darwinims, showed dramatically how wrong is the idea for the human to be able to select themselves, and the recent study of biological complexity definitely proved we are not in the position of self-selecting our own genetic characters for any fitness. So as favoring our own offspring is morally sounds, so is favoring our species in any occasion of competition for resources, against competing and prey species.
        I find Dawkin objection interesting, but biologically very weak. Speciation is another key process in biology and evolution. Organisms successfully cooperate as long as they can interbreed, but speciation (the process of accumulating mutation up to the loss of interbreeding capacity) is clearly a process for the selection of the fittest, as it allows concentrating fitness mutation through a biological insulation followed by a necessary competition. If we found a being able to interbreed with humans, it would be simply a human. “Missing links” never existed in nature as species insulation is a valuable way for evolution. Even viable hybrids are infertile. Evolution progress as a tree for resources use optimization, and as two branches never merge, the same two species will not successfully interbreed, making the species-based discrimination criteria not only biologically, but also morally sound.
        I would like also to say that I find the Argument from marginal case unacceptable, not only for the critics found in but above all because the path towards handicap and senility is completely continuous, while species barrier is clearly neat and efficient. Hence, since we could not find any criteria to soundly discriminate human beings, and remembering the infra-specific cooperation is a valuable strategy, we should not adopt any discriminant action, as there is no way to soundly justify it.

      • You’ve said that ‘this behavior is morally solid also because it is biologically sound’ and also that things that aren’t evolutionarily useful are morally wrong. The problem is that it’s extra-ordinarily difficult to show that because X is biologically useful X is morally good. You’ve also moved from X is useful for species to X is morally good for individuals, which is also not a valid conclusion. The reason I should treat my son well is not because it’s a good strategy to propagate my genetic material, and nor is it because it contributes to preserving my species. Rather, it’s because I love him, and I have responsibilities in virtue of helping create a vulnerable and dependent being worthy of moral consideration for his own sake.

        As for the AMC – your continuum of capacities for humans overlaps the continuum of capacities for non-humans. A cognitively impaired human could easily have lower cognitive capacities than an average adult dolphin. The only reason species membership is an efficient means of morally distinguishing between the cases is because you’ve begged the question that species membership is morally significant.

  5. Thank you for your reply. Evolution remains a theory, an interpretation of the biological principles, and as such could not be used as a moral reason, but help to decide. Biological coherence is important, as its consequences will be consistent. Hence it is rather “because X appears morally good and X is biologically sound, then X is more likely to be morally good, it will lead to good consequences”.
    Love by itself has a quite subjective meaning, it is not rational, but rather “hard wired”, instinctive-based. The subjective and collective consequences are to be evaluated. I agree that an offspring is to be loved for responsibility, and the fact that biologically this is consistent with the genetic transmission of characters corroborates this principle, along with its positive consequences. But not responsibility, nor cognitive capacity, is a criteria to take care of your children, otherwise the same would be true for your needy cat. If you had to decide to save your cognitively-non-developed son, or your cat, you would be morally obliged to choose the son, because of its potential, because it is a human, but above all because it is your offspring. Indeed it would be morally justified, if in the same situation with, an unknown child instead of a cat, you chose your own blood.

    Specism has solid biological bases: all species are specist. The less the resources, the more a species is supposed to be competitive. Indeed I think that it is not morally discussible that after a bombing the mother of starving children could kill and eat a pig. But it is not morally acceptable that she kills and eats the Alzheimer-diseased pigeon-minded neighbor. If she did, then she could eat the mildly mind-impaired neighbor, than the not-so-bright-one, and so on. So the “continuum of capacities” principle, that mines the argument for marginal cases, highlights how the morally valid criterion is the species barrier and not the cognitive condition. The cognitive condition can anyhow be a sufficient reason to restrain from exploiting an animal (a dog, a dolphin) as we shall not forget that among morally valuable qualities of humans is also empathy.
    To go back to the flow chart, if kicking a dog could ever be proven to improve human empathy, it would be morally acceptable, like animal experiments are, and not because dogs and rats limited cognitive abilities, but because they are different species and we should keep in mind that a different species are biologically insulated from us and no harm can come from ignoring their sufferance as long as we can do that without losing the empathy for our species and preserve the ecosystem.

    • The problem with the arguments you’re putting forward is that you’re merely asserting your intuitions, along with some biological facts, as if they constituted a complete argument.

      You claim that it’s permissible to kick dogs if it benefits us because dogs are members of a different species, and your argument that species membership is morally relevant appears to hinge on the fact that maintaining the distinction benefits us. That’s circular. Along with that, you appeal to the moral status of species membership by using examples that are premised on species membership being morally relevant – you beg the question.

      It’s also, as mentioned above, a mistake to conclude that X being morally superior to Y permits X to do what she wants to Y (the example of killing a stupid neighbour for food) – that’s simply a mistake.

      Finally, when you write that because we are different species to dogs, ‘no harm can come from ignoring their suffering,’ you ignore that *they* are harmed.

      • Could you please help me in understanding the circularity in thinking that if speciesism is beneficial for us, then it is morally correct?
        I did not say that “X being morally superior to Y permits X to do what she wants to Y”, but that X can harm a P but not a H, because harming P is safe and sound, while harming H leads to unlimited harm.
        Beneficial (for one or more humans) animal harm (of a lab rat) would be acceptable if we question the moral relevance of empathy towards animals (a sort of “emphaty insulation”)?
        I find interesting (and I assume you are familiar with) the “alpha centaurian” and the “human new species” objections, but in both cases I feel it would be impossible to emphatically isolate any human from an equally intelligent alien or non-inter-fertile human. This counter-objection could be said to reintroduce the “argument for marginal cases”, but isn’t it unacceptable because of the continuity in mind capacity, leading to unlimited harm?
        Why should we feel empathy for animals, and to what extent? If the criterion is suffering, would it be morally acceptable to do harm if suffering could be excluded by technical means?
        Sorry for the many questions and thank you, I am starting my journey in speciesism and animal rights and I appreciate very much some route adjustments.

      • You say speciesism is morally permissible because it’s beneficial to humans, but that begs the question about what makes things morally permissible (i.e. that they benefit humans). Your argument for speciesism is premised on species membership being a morally relevant.

        One reason I think we ought to regard non-human animals as morally considerable for their own sakes is indeed because they can suffer. If I think suffering is bad for me, then it’s hard to see how I could think it isn’t bad for others. And if I think others ought not make me suffer, because suffering is bad for me, then it’s hard to see why I could rationally and reasonably think it OK for me to cause others to suffer. However, I don’t think causing suffering is the only way we can harm non-human animals: ending their lives seems like it harms them in many of the same ways it harms humans.

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