Bright Lines and Fuzzy Circles - DRAFT

Alt Titles: The Drawing of Lines and Circles, What We Owe Them

Theme: geometry (lines, circles, triangles, squares)

Phil 23026 Animal Ethics

Nathan Laurell

December 7th, 2022

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. … Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.

— Aldo Leopold writing on the extinction of the passenger pigeon[1]


Debates about animals and what consideration we owe them typically revolve around drawing lines based on specific capabilities, assigning a form of moral status to animals with those capabilities, and then arguing for rights or obligations for those who hold that status.[2] As we will see, one of the consequences of this approach is the introduction of speciesism (i.e. a prejudice based on a biological attribute along the same lines as racism or sexism).[3] On the surface, this sounds right, none of us wants to be a speciesist. However, we can’t help but feel an obligation or duty in relation to our self, to our family, to our tribes, and to our species above animals. [As Cora Diamond says “something else is going on here.”]. Reconciling this commitment we feel to our species with speciesism, and the rights or duties we might have in either case, is the subject of this paper. To do this we look at two states—the state of society and of nature. We argue that in a state of society we have moral obligations in a way that we do not in a state of nature. We introduce one obligation (not to be cruel in society) and one right (right to defense in nature). We argue this simple system gets us to a very similar place as the capabilities approach while providing exceptions in certain situations to choose your species over animals. [Lastly, we observe that that the creation of such a system is possible only because of us being human.]


Thinking about animals in terms of capabilities seems like a logical place to start. We can catalog where we might be the same, where we might be different, and assign various rights or obligations to each group. Two of the more common arguments for capabilities involve sentience or the ability to feel pain in the case of Peter Singer[3] and animals with some minimal form of self consciousness or subjects of a life in the case of Tom Regan[4]. Both Singer and Regan draw lines and use them as a form of moral standing and further argue for various rights or responsibilities to animals with these capabilities. But one of the facts of evolution is that capabilities vary[5] and they vary both inter and intra-species. Thus lines drawn based on capabilities cut across species which leads to a situation where any bright line we draw likely includes some, but not all humans and some but not all animals. Singer uses this fact to argue that any assignment of rights or status solely to humans is a form of speciesism which is wrong in the same way that sexism and racism is wrong (i.e. a prejudice based on a biological attribute).[3]

Compounding the issue is that drawing these lines is hard, and consequently, we have a long history of drawing them wrong (not to mention the bias of us being the ones drawing them). Rene Descartes famously thought animals were automata and thus did not feel pain (animals lack standing from a lack of feel pain derived from not having a soul). More recently it was thought only humans could pass the mirror test (animals lack standing because they are not self-conscious), but then chimpanzees passed it[6], and dolphins[7], and elephants[8], and now we think dogs can pass it when we account for their primary sense being smell[9]. It seems not a week goes by when some cognitive (or emotional) ability we thought unique to humans is discovered in animals. Take a recent headline “Crows Perform Yet Another Skill Once Thought Distinctively Human”.[10] In this case it’s a concept called recursion which is required for grammar (animals lack moral standing because they can’t use language has also been used as a defense). As the weeks and months go by the lines are redrawn again and again. It’s unclear when, if ever, this stops.[11]

The point is that the drawing of lines based on capabilities is complicated and has a long history of being grossly wrong. The consequence of this is that the line for a philosopher like Singer has to be very low (i.e. can feel pain) to be defensible. This forces the grouping of an enormously diverse group of beings (Never mind that people with congenital insensitivity to pain and anhydrosis (CIPA) can not feel pain—should they be excluded?). Additionally, it leads to uncomfortable comparisons. Take the cognitive capacity of a small child or a severely cognitively impaired adult vs. a chimpanzee—technically, by some measurements they are the same—should they be treated equally? should we think of them as equals? Singer and Regan would argue all else being equal, yes. Do we not have a right or an obligation to our family or our species above others? Singer and Regan would argue no. [How do we reconcile all this?]


Let’s take a big step back, rather than compare capabilities, I want to compare two situations and try to discern what differences we can: the first being a human killing and eating a cow and the second a lion killing a gazelle. In the first case, we cause the cow to come into existence for our benefit through deliberate breeding, control all aspects of its life, restrict nearly all its bodily freedoms, and control when and how it dies. While we may not think of this situation as society or civilized, it is the opposite of a state of nature. In this sense, the raising of the cow to eat, happens in a state of society by which I mean a state that is the opposite of nature and that is controlled by and created by us as a direct result of our actions.[12] Contrast this to our second case, the lion did not bring the gazelle into existence nor does it control all aspects of its life. They are in some sense equals in that on any given day the gazelle may outrun the lion. Lastly, and importantly, they exist in a struggle to survive with each other. The lion has to eat meat in order to survive—it is quite literally a life or death situation. The last point is important and what I mean by a state of nature by which I mean a struggle for survival typically involving life and death.[13]

Let’s look at the difference of these two states: In the first example we cause the state to exist, are in a position of power, and we eat meat as a preference (we like the taste better than plants). Compare this to the lion: who exists in the wild, struggles as roughly an equal, and who has to eat it in order to survive. One of the tells between the differences here is how we talk about the lion and gazelle—we say lions kill gazelles—we do not say the lion really shouldn’t kill the gazelle. That they ought not kill a gazelle makes no sense to us. Borrowing from the work of John Stuart Mill, Nature is an “is”; it’s not an “ought”. And further, “conformity to nature has no connection whatever with right and wrong” and thus Mill finds nature to be both irrational and immoral.[14] From this we might say that any decision in a state of society requires us to consider our actions (i.e. we are in the domain of moral consideration). The corollary being any decision in a state of nature does not require those same considerations (i.e. an amoral domain).

Iterating all the rights and obligations that may or man not come from these states is not within this scope of this paper, but I want to frame what one right and one obligation[15] might look like. The first is a right to defense by which I mean a right to defend ourselves, our family, or our species when we are in a state of nature. In this sense, when the right to defense is used to defend your species it could be thought of as cases where it is actually ok to be a speciesist. The second is an obligation to not be cruel by which I mean the exchange of pleasure for pain by someone in position of power or in a state of society.[16] Think about a bully stealing someone’s lunch because they enjoy it. Not being cruel seems like a minimum in a state of society.

To summarize where we are: We have two states—a state of nature which is amoral and a state of society which through our creation inherently creates a requirement for moral consideration. In the state of nature, a condition not of our making, we’ve defined a right to defend that includes our species. In the state of society we’ve defined an obligation not to be cruel or extract pleasure from other beings pain when we are in power.


One could argue against our two states and in doing so they’d be saying that there are in fact situations, that we created, where our actions do not need to be considered. That seems dangerous and irrational, but maybe there are situations. Maybe we don’t need to consider the rock when we turn it into a brick. But quickly, the question becomes where do you draw the line? who is in and who is out and based on what attributes? We’re back to drawing lines and all the problems that come with it. If we don’t accept some premise similar to our two states we are back to drawing lines.

Let’s push harder on our obligation to not be cruel. One could argue with our definitions and their application. To argue against animal pain would be against science which is a hard position to argue from.[17] To argue that you need to eat meat in order to survive again would put you against science since we can clearly eat plants and continue to live[18]. One could argue that it’s painful to not eat meat and thus its pain for pain and not cruel. But it is painful to be hungry and to starve. Eating meat is not a life or death situation. We eat meat because it’s pleasureful—we think it tastes better. Lastly, one could say that it is in fact ok to be cruel—that the use of power to extract pleasure from other beings pain is ok. But what kind of society would that be? and would any of us one to live in such a society especially if the tables were turned? And how do we determine what beings we can be cruel to? We’re back to drawing lines.

Defenders of eating meat will often say “it is natural”, but as as we just showed it’s the farthest thing from the state of nature—nothing about the process is natural. The “natural” defense is a crutch—the reality is we’ve won the evolutionary lottery[19] and created a state of society—we’ve traded the struggle with nature for the domination of nature. Yet, we try to rationalize our actions (eating meat or often hunting for example[20]) by pointing to nature—nature is cruel so we can be cruel but these activities don’t happen in nature and they aren’t a matter of survival.[21]. Even more problematic we are using an amoral state, as we defined it, to justify our actions.

Let’s push on the right to defense and to do that we’ll turn to a favorite situation for ethical philosophers—the lifeboat dilemma. Imagine a scenario where you are on a boat and you have to make a choice between the survival of two individuals (never mind the mechanics—why you have to make the choice, etc.). In all these cases, we are in a state of nature—a struggle for survival where the choice is between life and death and presumably in a situation that we did not create (i.e. a storm blew in):

The choice is between your wife and a random human and you choose your wife. What you are saying here is you have a right to defend your family and you value this more than a random human. In this situation would you be a familiest similar to a speciesist? would anybody fault you for that choice?[22]

The choice is between a random human and a random dog and you choose the human. What you are saying here is you have a right to defend your species and value a random human life more than a random dog’s life.[23]

The choice between your dog and a random human and you save your dog. Maybe you think of your dogs as part of your family and thus have a right to defend your family and you value your family more than a random member of the same species.

The thing is, by our definitions, we are in an amoral state. You can exercise your right to defend and you can apply however you feel best. There is a natural is vs. a societal ought. These outcomes just “are” they are not “oughts”. There is no right answer here—you choose. Lion’s kill gazelles. People save their families. Period.[24]


Our little system here of two states, a right, and an obligation has brought us to a very similar outcome to those that argue various approaches based on capabilities[25]. But we’ve done so in a way that is not based on specific capabilities and while preserving and recognizing a right to defend ourselves, and in certain specific situations, to choose our family or species over other beings.

The human circle…The bigger our circle the more human we since it’s this creation of obligation, morality of you will, that defines us from nature. Creation of a society by definitino is human activity and only by that do we extent ethics to them and in this sense being human and them being the other allows us to extend morality, and justice to them.

It’s a circle to be pushed out not a line to be drawn. A world of circles with gradients of colors at edges… pushing out awkwardly; not one of bright lines drawn in black and white. push that circle to mammals… to birds… continuing out to nature… to trees to plants…. such that our reason allows us to preserve and protect the planet.

Our task then is one of drawing circles around nature and society. We have a long history of expanding the circle of who is considered from white men, to all men, to women, to sexual orientation, and on and on the struggle goes with the circle pushing out farther and farther. And per our definition, anyone or anything we bring into our society—we take out of nature—deserves our consideration. And at a minimum we should not be cruel to them. At the same time, we can and should preserve a right to defend our selves in very specific and narrow circumstances. What this requires is an honest analysis of when we are in a state of nature (nearly never) and when we are not (almost always). We need to narrow one circle and expand the other as large as possible.

What’s interesting here, and this brings us all the way back to Cora Diamond, is our argument was constructed using reason and requires the definition of a state of society (the opposite of nature). While not unique to humans (as we saw capabilities varies), we have capacity to reason, capacity for empathy, a capacity for imagination[26], a capacity to understand cruelty (and also to be cruel), a capacity to mourn the loss . And it is these capacities which we must rigorously apply. Too often we use the harshness of nature to justify our actions when we should use our capabilities to transcend it, to overcome our biology and extend compassion. Morality is thus a recognition of and often overcoming of our nature. Or said another way we should seek to do better than nature, as Leopold said “to mourn the pigeon”, and to be more human.


  1. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949)
  2. James Rachels, Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Direction (Oxford University Press, 2004), Chapter 7 Drawing Lines
  3. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Harper Collins, 2009), Chapter 1
  4. Tom Regan, A Case for Animal Rights. In M.W. Fox & L.D. Mickley (Eds.), Advances in Animal Welfare Science 1986/87 (The Human Society of the United States, 1986), p 179-189
  5. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species. In From So Simple a Beginning, The Four Great books of Charles Darwin 2006 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), Chapter 2 Variation Under Nature
  6. Gordon G. Gallup, Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition (Science 167, 1970) p 86–87
  7. Diana Reiss and Lori Marino, Mirror Self-Recognition in the Bottlenose Dolphin: A Case of Cognitive Convergence (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98, 2001)
  8. Joshua M. Plotnik, Frans B. M. de Waal, and Diana Reiss, Self-Recognition in the Asian Elephant (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103, 2006)
  9. James Gorman, “Dogs Recognize Themselves in Test Based on Smell, Not Sight,” New York Times, September 22, 2017
  10. Diana Kwon, “Crows Perform Yet Another Skill Once Thought Distinctively Human,” Scientific American, November 2, 2022
  11. For a set of attributes a, b, and c there is likely always some other attribute d of an animal that we can’t understand such that we’ll never know what it’s like to be that thing. As Thomas Nagel put forth in What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, just think about bats who use sonar to see. Each being has their own umwelt.
  12. It should be noted that by this definition a field in which we grow crops is in a state of society as well. The definition here is not unique to animals and would create a more broad obligation to the environment at large that we manage. providing we control and cause it to be something other than its natural state.
  13. Our definition of nature here is much more in the line of Thomas Hobbes (nasty and brutish)—it’s not an idyllic pasture or noble.
  14. John Stuart Mill, On Nature, Lancaster E-text, prepared by the Philosophy Department at Lancaster University, from Nature, The Utility of Religion and Theism, Rationalist Press, 1904
  15. For our purposes a right means the option to exercise some action as opposed to an obligation which would involve the requirement to exercise some action. There would be no duties or obligations in nature but individuals and species could have some inherent rights.
  16. One way to think about relationships here might be to think about pleasure, pain, and power. Nature is a struggle between equals where the trade off is pain for pain. Once, one side has power they often exercise it by exchanging others pain for their pleasure which we defined as cruelty. The opposite exchange could be thought of as charity or benevolence, those in power voluntarily under going pain or at least for going pleasure for others. The last quadrant then would be an exchange of pleasure for pleasure which might be defined as situations where both sides flourish. In this way we evolve from nature to cruelty to charity to flourishing which seems to track many of our relationships over time.
  17. Rollin, B.E. (1985). Animal pain. In M.W. Fox & L.D. Mickley (Eds.), Advances in animal welfare science 1985 (pp. 91-106). Washington, DC: The Humane Society of the United States.
  18. While some have argued plants maybe sentient, as of now, they are not thought to feel pain. If they did, however, we would need to eat them to survive and thus could be rationalized.
  19. We won the lottery in the sense that we are the dominate species through no choice of our own—we were born human. We happen to have descended from the species that won. A similar concept to Buffet’s ovarian lottery which was borrowed from Rawls.
  20. When we think of hunting, trophy killing (a lion to mount on your wall) seems worse than a hunter who kills and eats the animal (deer for example). We seem to be more comfortable with the killing for meat. In a way nature gives us cover here to rationalize this in a way we can not when it is hunting for trophy.
  21. There’s just one paragraph on nature in Animal Liberation but Singer does come to a similar conclusion. Saying that rationalizing our actions based on nature is dangerous (i.e. it’s natural to eat meat or natural to go to war). He accepts nature as an is, but his concern is when do you stop this rationalizing?
  22. In a non life or death situation this could be wrong and in fact we often view nepotism as wrong in society. [Also related to defense of cognitively disabled child in the paper]
  23. Any species would almost inherently have to have this right otherwise they would not exist. A species that does not exercise this right would go extinct and thus the question of defense here is existential.
  24. It should be noted here, you could also elect to sacrifice yourself. This is your right and your choice but it is not required—we don’t require people to kill themselves to save others. That being said, there are many examples of altruism (self sacrifice to further the species) in nature. See the work of E. O. Wilson on ants as an example.
  25. Singer spends a lot of time on animal testing. Using our framework, if we elect to test on animals we would need to be in a state of nature (a struggle for survival) and thus exercise our right to defense. For example we could elect to test a vaccine on animals to fight a virus that threatens the human species. Contrast this to testing sensitivity of cosmetics—again we find one is a trade off of life and death and the other is a form of cruelty (exchanging pain for a tool of beauty). In order to test vaccines on animals then we should be ready to evoke and defend our right to defense and show it is a legitimate struggle for survival. In this case and many others we end up at a very similar situation to Singer but with some important exceptions.
  26. Cora Diamond, The Importance of Being Human (PUBLISHER, DATE)

[x] Pleasure pain foot note
Other Notes (Placeholder for ideas not used)
Original Outline (endo/exo pain actions)
References not used
Notes on duties and obligations
Terms and understanding