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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Who Counts?

Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer

For over eight years the three monkeys immobilized in harnesses have sat staring helplessly from their cages. Their paralyzed limbs dangling at their sides have been useless appendages since researchers eight years ago cut their nerves in experiments. According to the director of the National Institutes of Health, they now "give evidence of frequent, unrelievable pain." Experimenters plan next to surgically remove the tops of the monkey's skulls, insert electrodes to take brain measurements, and finally kill them, all as part of a research project on spinal cord injuries financed by the National Institutes of Health.

Clearly, the experimenters would never have done to humans what they did to these monkeys. Their moral principles and ours dictate that inflicting such massive insults is a shockingly abhorrent injustice. But, like some of us, the experimenters apply their principles to humans and not to animals: animals don't count. In fact, one of the most fundamental dividing lines in morality is the one we draw between those who count in our moral considerations and those that don't, or, as ethicists sometimes put it, between those who do and those who don't have moral standing.

What is moral standing? An individual has moral standing for us if we believe that it makes a difference, morally, how that individual is treated, apart from the effects it has on others. That is, an individual has moral standing for us if, when making moral decisions, we feel we ought to take that individual's welfare into account for the individual's own sake and not merely for our benefit or someone else's benefit.

Take, for example, a doctor who attends to the physical welfare of her patients and believes that it would be morally wrong to mistreat them. Suppose that she believes this not because of any benefits she will derive from taking good care of them nor because she is afraid of being sued, but only because she has a genuine concern for her patients' well-being. Her patients have moral standing for her. On the other hand, take a farmer who looks after the welfare of his cows and who also believes that it would be morally wrong to mistreat them. But suppose he believes this only because mistreating them would decrease their milk production and their milk is an essential source of nourishment and income for his family. Although this farmer considers his cows' welfare, he does so only for the sake of his family and not for the sake of the cows themselves. For the farmer, the cows have no moral standing.

The oldest and most prevalent view of who has moral standing is the belief that only human beings have moral standing; only human beings ultimately count in matters of morality. This anthropocentric or "human centered" conviction is usually linked to the idea that only creatures with the capacity to reason (perhaps as expressed through language) have absolute value and consequently they are the only creatures whose well-being ought to be taken into account for their own sakes.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, viewed nature as a hierarchy, believing that less rational creatures are made for the benefit of those that are more rational. He wrote "Plants exist for the sake of animals, and brute beasts for the sake of man." In a similar vein, the seventeenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that "So far as animals are concerned, we have no direct moral duties; animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man." For these thinkers, therefore, only human beings have moral standing, so the welfare of other creatures matters only if they are useful to humans.

The conviction that only human beings ultimately count in morality doesn't imply that we have no moral obligations whatsoever toward nonhumans. Even anthropocentric views hold that it is immoral to destroy plants or animals needlessly since by doing so we are destroying resources that may provide significant benefits to ourselves or to future human generations. Some anthropocentric positions also hold that all cruelty toward animals is immoral because, as the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas put it, "through being cruel to animals one becomes cruel to human beings." Non-humans count, however, only to the extent that the welfare of human beings is affected.

Although every anthropocentric ethic holds that, morally speaking, only humans can matter, there is wide disagreement about exactly which humans matter. Some anthropocentric views hold that any human creature that has at least the potential to be rational has moral standing. According to this view, a fetus has moral standing. Others hold that only those humans who are already rational count morally. From this perspective a fetus doesn't count. Other anthropocentric views claim that both present and future generations of humans count, while still others argue that only currently existing humans count.

In the eighteenth century the view that only humans count was challenged by several philosophers, including the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. According to these philosophers our only moral duty is to maximize pleasure which they claimed is the only fundamental good, and to minimize pain, the only fundamental evil. In making moral decisions, therefore, we have to take into account all creatures, rational or not, that have the capacity to experience pleasure or pain. As Bentham wrote, "The question is not, Can they reason nor Can they talk, but, Can they suffer?"

This early view, which extended moral standing to animals, set the stage for the "animal rights" movement. Following in the footsteps of Bentham and Mill, utilitarians in the 1970s began vigorously defending the view that it is as immoral to inflict pain and suffering on animals as on human beings. For humans to fail to recognize the moral standing of animals, they argued, is discrimination on the basis of species and is as wrong as discrimination on the basis of race or sex.

Some defenders of animal rights, however, argue that the welfare of animals matters morally not only for utilitarian reasons, i.e., minimizing pain, but also because animals have moral rights that should not be violated. They claim that the rights of animals are based on the idea that animals have interests, and moral rights exist to protect the interests of any creatures, not merely those of human beings. Others have held that animals have a life of their own deserving of respect. Advocates of animal rights have concluded that in addition to freedom from pain, animals have a right also to protection of their interests or to respectful consideration of their independent lives.

During this century an even broader view of what has moral standing has emerged, one which holds that all living things have moral standing. The most well-known proponent of this view is Albert Schweitzer who claimed that all life merits reverence. More recent philosophers have based their stand on the view mentioned above that anything with interests has moral rights. They point out that all living entities, including plants, have interests, exhibiting certain needs and propensities toward growth and self-preservation. All living entities, therefore, have rights to the protection of their interests and we have an obligation to take their interests into account in our moral deliberations.

Perhaps the broadest view about what counts morally is the view that entire natural systems count. This "ecocentric" view was first put forward by the naturalist Aldo Leopold who argued in favor of a "land ethic" that gives all of nature moral standing. He wrote: "The land ethic... enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land." For Leopold and many others, whole ecological systems, such as lakes, forests, or entire continents, have an "integrity" or a "welfare" of their own that should not be harmed or damaged.

Which of these views on moral standing is correct? The answer we give to this question will depend on the moral importance we attach to rationality, the capacity to experience pain and pleasure, to the interests of all living things, and to the integrity and "welfare" of our ecological systems. A great deal hinges on our answer. If we believe that only humans count, we will not voice strong objections to painful animal experiments that benefit humankind. But if we believe that all sentient creatures have equal moral standing, then we will demand that the welfare of these animals be taken into account, and perhaps lobby for legislation to protect animals from painful experiments or industrial uses. And if we believe that all natural things count, then we may oppose as immoral any activities that threaten to harm our forests and wilderness, such as logging or real estate.

Of course, deciding "who counts" doesn't tell us whose welfare or interests should be given more or less consideration when competing interests are at stake. But it does make us more aware of our boundaries of moral concern, and the criterion we use to establish those boundaries.

This article appeared originally in Issues in Ethics V4 N1 (Spring 1991)

Jul 1, 1991