Final: Bright Lines and Fuzzy Circles

Bright Lines and Fuzzy Circles

Final Paper / Prompt 3

Phil 23026 Animal Ethics

Nathan Laurell

December 7, 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 pigeon1

Debates about animals and what consideration we owe them typically involve drawing a line based on specific capabilities, assigning a form of moral status to animals with those capabilities, and arguing for rights or obligations emanating therefrom.2 As we will see, one of the consequences of this approach is the concept of speciesism (i.e., a prejudice based on a biological attribute analogous to racism or sexism).3 On the surface, comparing speciesism to other -isms seems reasonable enough. However, we also can’t help but feel a commitment or obligation in relation to ourselves, to our families, and to our species above (other) animals. Reconciling this commitment to our species and the rights or duties that may imply with the capabilities approach and its consequence of speciesism is the subject of this paper. To do this, we will examine two states: the state of society and the state of nature. We then 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 (the obligation not to be cruel in society) and one right (the right to defense in nature). We conclude that this simple system arrives at a very similar resolution as the capabilities approach while providing exceptions in certain situations where we may logically choose our species over animals.

Thinking about animals in terms of capabilities is a logical place to start. We can catalog our similarities and differences and assign various rights or obligations in each case. Two of the more common arguments of this type involve a form of sentience. For Peter Singer, this means the ability to feel pain.4 For Tom Regan, this means being subjects of a life, a minimum form of self-consciousness.5 Both Singer and Regan use these capabilities to draw lines of moral standing and argue for various rights for or responsibilities to animals with said capabilities. But one of the facts of evolution is that capabilities vary6 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.7

Compounding this issue is that drawing these lines is difficult, and we have a long history of doing it poorly (not to mention the bias inherent in humans being the ones drawing the lines in the first place). For example, René Descartes famously (or rather, infamously) thought animals were automata and did not feel pain as a consequence of not having a soul and thus no sensory perception8 (erroneous assumption: animals do not feel pain). More recently, it was thought only humans could pass the mirror test (erroneous assumption: animals are not self-conscious). But then chimpanzees passed it,9 then dolphins,10 then elephants,11 and now we think dogs can pass it when we account for their primary sense being smell.12 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.”13 In this case, it’s a concept called recursion, which is required for grammar (erroneous assumption: animals don’t have the capacity for language). As time passes, the lines are redrawn again and again. It’s unclear when, if ever, this stops.14

The point is that drawing lines based on capabilities is complicated and has a long history of being grossly wrong. One way around this, as is the case with Singer, is to set the threshold very low (i.e., animals can feel pain). This forces the grouping of an enormously diverse group of beings and leads to uncomfortable comparisons. Consider the cognitive capacity of a small child or a severely cognitively impaired adult versus that of a chimpanzee—technically, by some measurements, they are roughly the same. Should this child, adult, and chimpanzee be treated equally in similar situations? Singer and Regan would likely argue yes. But do we not have a right or an obligation to our family or our species above others in similar situations? Singer and Regan would argue no. How do we reconcile all this? (And this doesn’t even address people with CIPA, the congenital insensitivity to pain and anhidrosis, who don’t feel pain but are otherwise cognitively typical; should they be excluded?)

Other philosophers have argued against capabilities, reasoning that there is something non-biologically unique about humans15 or that our relationship to animals creates a kind of standing.16  We take a similar approach here in extrapolating a state that is uniquely human (and non-biological), and implied in this state is a relationship with obligations. To demonstrate this, we must first take a big step back and compare two situations and their discernible differences: the first is when humans raise and kill cows for food; the second is when a lion kills and eats a gazelle.

In the first example, we cause the cow to come into existence through deliberate breeding, control all aspects of its life, restrict nearly all her bodily freedoms, subject her to painful and coerced procedures such as forced and repeated pregnancies, and control when and how she dies. While we may not think of this situation as civilized, it is highly contrived and does not occur naturally. 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 controlled and created by us as a direct result of our intentional actions.17

Contrast this to the second example: the lion did not bring the gazelle into existence nor does it control all aspects of its life. The lion and the gazelle are in some sense equals in that on any given day the gazelle might outrun the lion. It has self-determination in a way that a cow bred for food consumption never does. Lastly, and importantly, the lion and the gazelle coexist in a struggle to survive. 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: a struggle for survival typically involving life and death among or between parties who are roughly equal.18

Let’s delve further into the differences between these two states: in the first instance, we cause the state to exist, are in a position of power, and eat meat as a preference (we like the taste better than plants, but there is no biological imperative to consume meat). Compare this to the second state: the relevant parties exist in the wild and struggle roughly as equals with no artificially imposed power dynamics, and the lion must eat the gazelle in order to survive (it is an obligate carnivore with limited food sources). Even the very way we speak of the states reveals their inherent dissimilarities: even the most sensitive among us never say that the lion shouldn’t kill the gazelle. Indeed, that a lion ought not kill a gazelle makes no sense to us. Quoting John Stuart Mill, nature is an “is,” not an “ought,” and “conformity to nature has no connection whatever with right and wrong.” In this way, Mill finds nature to be both irrational and immoral.19 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), while any decision in a state of nature does not require those same considerations (i.e., we are in an amoral domain).

Iterating all the rights and obligations that may or may not come from these states is not within the scope of this paper, but I want to frame what one right and one obligation20 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 case, it is acceptable to be a speciesist. The second is an obligation not to be cruel, by which I mean the exchange of pleasure for pain by someone in a position of power in a state of society.21 Think of a bully stealing someone’s lunch because s/he enjoys it, not because s/he is starving.

To summarize where we are, we have two states—one, a state of nature that is amoral and, two, a state of society that through our will 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 by saying that there are in fact situations where our actions do not need to be considered. That seems dangerous and irrational, but maybe such scenarios exist. 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 again and all the problems that come with that.

Let’s push harder on our obligation to not be cruel. One could argue with our definitions and their application. However, to argue against animal pain would contradict science and is an indefensible position to put forth.22 To argue that you need to eat meat in order to survive is again scientifically unsound since we can clearly eat plants and continue to live (and thrive).23 One could argue that it’s painful to not eat meat, and thus it’s pain for pain (rather than pain for pleasure) and thus not cruel, but even the most cursory examination of this claim exposes its falsity. It is painful to be hungry and to starve, but eating meat is not a life-or-death situation; eating meat is not the only way to avoid hunger and starvation. We eat meat because it’s pleasureful—we think it tastes better. Lastly, one could say that it is in fact acceptable to be cruel—that the use of power to extract pleasure from other beings' pain is not problematic. But what kind of society would that be and would any of us want to live in it, especially if the tables were turned? And even if we accepted cruelty in some cases, how would 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 modern-day animal agriculture couldn’t be further from the state of nature—absolutely nothing about the process is natural. The “natural” defense is a crutch; the reality is we’ve won the evolutionary lottery24 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 hunting, for example25) by pointing to nature—nature is cruel so we can be cruel26—but these activities as perpetrated by humans don’t happen in nature and aren’t a matter of survival. Even more problematic, we are using an amoral state, as we defined it, to justify our actions, an argument Mill called a case of reductio ad absurdum if ever there was one.27

Having closely examined the obligation not to be cruel, now let’s push against the right to defense, and to do that, we’ll turn to a favorite situation: the lifeboat dilemma. Imagine a scenario where you are on a boat and 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 (e.g., a storm blew in).

There are various combinations in our lifeboat thought experiment. For the first, the choice is between your spouse and a random human, and you choose your spouse. What you are saying here is you have a right to defend your family, and you value your family more than a random human. In this situation, would you be a familyist, similar to a speciesist? Would anybody fault you for that choice?28 You are simply saying you value someone you know and love more than a random human.

Now the choice is between a random two-year-old human and a chimpanzee, 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 chimpanzee’s life.29 This is the speciesist position.

Now the choice is between your dog and a random human, and you save your dog. Maybe you think of your dog as part of your family and therefore this is analogous to saving your spouse in the first example: you have a right to defend your family, and you value your family more than a random member of the same species.

In all these lifeboat scenarios, you are in an amoral state. You can exercise your right to defend, and you can apply it however you feel best. This is the natural is versus the societal ought. There is no right answer here—you choose. Lions kill gazelles. People save their families. Period.30

Our little system here of two states has brought us to a very similar outcome as approaches based on capabilities31 but in a way that is not based on specific capabilities and that preserves and recognizes a right to defend ourselves and, in certain situations, to choose our family or species over other beings.

While the definitions of a state of society versus a state of nature might be fuzzier than drawing lines, this system allows us to preserve a right to defense and to extend our obligations not to be cruel in our state of society. This realm of obligation can be thought of as a circle, and we have a long history of expanding that circle—from white men, to women, to all races, to all sexual orientations, and yes, to mammals, to birds, to all animals, and to nature. The boundaries are blurry, and it’s often awkward, but our job is to push that circle outward as much as possible while shrinking the state of nature—to be honest about the few times, if ever, we really are in those survival situations, to accept and limit the times we are speciesist. Our task then is one of drawing inclusive circles and not lines.

What’s interesting here—and this brings us back to capabilities—is that our argument was constructed using capabilities like reason to define and create a uniquely human state of society that is inherently moral. We are capable of reason, empathy, and imagination,32 and it is these capabilities that we must rigorously apply to create a just state of society. Too often we use the harshness of nature to justify our actions when we should use our capabilities to transcend nature, to surpass our biology and extend compassion. Morality is thus a recognition and often overcoming of our nature.33 Or said another way, we should seek to do better than nature and, as Leopold suggested, mourn the pigeon.


  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. Singer
  5. Tom Regan, A Case for Animal Rights. In M.W. Fox & L.D. Mickley (Eds.), Advances in Animal Welfare Science 1986/87 (The Humane Society of the United States, 1986), p 179-189
  6. 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
  7. Singer
  8. Wikipedia, Wikipedia’s “René Descartes” entry; Wikipedia’s entry on René Descartes in the On Animals section
  9. Gordon G. Gallup, Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition (Science 167, 1970) p 86–87
  10. 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)
  11. 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)
  12. James Gorman, “Dogs Recognize Themselves in Test Based on Smell, Not Sight,” New York Times, September 22, 2017
  13. Diana Kwon, “Crows Perform Yet Another Skill Once Thought Distinctively Human,” Scientific American, November 2, 2022
  14. 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?” consider bats who use sonar to see. Or said another way, each being has its own umwelt that we will never fully understand.
  15. Cora Diamond, Eating Meat and Eating People (Cambridge University Press, 1978)
  16. Keith Burgess-Jackson, Doing Right by Our Animal Companions (The Journal of Ethics, 1998)
  17. 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 assign a more broad moral status to the environment at large that we manage, providing we control and cause it to be something other than its natural state.
  18. Our definition of nature here is much more in the line of that of Thomas Hobbes (nasty and brutish)—it’s not an idyllic pasture or noble.
  19. 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
  20. 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.
  21. One way to think about the 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 define as cruelty. The opposite exchange could be thought of as charity or benevolence where those in power voluntarily undergo pain or at least forgo 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.
  22. Rollin, B.E., Animal Pain In M.W. Fox & L.D. Mickley (Eds.), Advances in Animal Welfare Science (The Humane Society of the United States, 1985), pp. 91-106
  23. While some have argued plants may be sentient, as of now, they are not thought to feel pain. If they did, however, we would still need to eat them to survive and thus this could be rationalized under the right to defense.
  24. We won the lottery in the sense that we are the dominant 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 Warren Buffet’s ovarian lottery which, I think, was borrowed from John Rawl’s veil of ignorance idea in A Theory of Justice.
  25. When we think of hunting, trophy killing (a lion to mount on the wall) seems worse than when a hunter kills and eats the animal (deer for example). We seem to be more comfortable with killing for meat. In a way, nature gives us cover here to rationalize this in a way we cannot when it is hunting for a trophy.
  26. 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 where do you stop this rationalizing.
  27. Mill
  28. In a non-life-or-death situation, this could be wrong, and in fact, we often view nepotism as wrong in society.
  29. 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.
  30. It should be noted here that 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 eusocial species like ants as an example.
  31. Singer spends a lot of time discussing 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 exercising 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 in a very similar situation to Singer but with some important exceptions.
  32. Cora Diamond, The Importance of Being Human (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, Vol 29, 1991)
  33. Mill