Singer argues that animals deserve moral consideration and do have moral rights somewhat comparable to humans because they are sentient (i.e., have the capacity to experience pain and pleasure). By contrast, Cohen argues that animals do not have moral rights comparable to humans because they do not belong to the moral community (Note: pay careful attention to the characteristics Cohen lists as requirements to belong to the moral community). In this essay, I ask you to discuss ONE of the topics listed below:
(A) First, develop a criterion other than Singer’s or Cohen’s that will determine whether animals do or do not deserve moral consideration. Secondly, determine if animals do or do not have (at least some) moral rights comparable to humans. Make sure you defend your position with cogent arguments. Then, compare your position to either Singer’s or Cohen’s.
Or, if you cannot develop your own criterion:
(B) State whether you agree with Singer’s position or Cohen’s position, expressing the reasons for your choice. Then, defend your position with cogent arguments.
Short writing assignments must be no less than two hundred (200) of your own words. This means that quotations do not count against the two hundred words. I will not even read assignments shorter than the required minimum of 200 words (I use a program to monitor word-count) and you will automatically receive zero (0) points for any such assignments. I expect a professionally written essay that is well formulated, without spelling and grammatical errors. I will deduct points for sloppily written essays (see the rubric below). In your essay you should address the question posed directly and thoroughly. You do not need to waste too much space on background unless the question of the essay specifically demands such background.
Notes From Instructor:
Notes to accompany Singer (2007) and Fox (2007).These notes are not a substitute for reading the text.
Peter Singer probably is one of the most well-knownphilosophers alive today. He has been in the public spotlight anumber of times for taking controversial moral positions basedon an uncompromising utilitarianism. He was one of thepioneers of the animal welfare movement, starting with his 1975book, Animal Liberation. I mention all of this because you aremuch more likely to encounter his name outside this course thanmost of the other authors we will be reading. Article #14represents very early work, apparently published a year beforethe first edition of Animal Liberation.
2 The argument
Singer’s thesis is that we ought to extend to (non-human)animals the same equality of consideration that we extend tohuman beings.
Here’s how I think the main contours of his argument shapeup:
1. The only criterion of moral importance that succeeds inincluding all humans, and excluding all non-humans, issimple membership in the species Homo sapiens.2. However, using simple membership in the species Homosapiens as a criterion of moral importance is completelyarbitrary.3. Of the remaining criteria we might consider, onlySENTIENCE—the capacity to ex- perience things likepleasure and pain—is a plausible criterion of moralimportance.4. Using sentience as a criterion of moral importance entailsthat we extend to other sentient creatures the same basicmoral consideration (i.e. ”basic principle of equal- ity”) thatwe extend to (typical, sentient) human beings.5. Therefore, we ought to extend to animals the same equalityof consideration that we extend to human beings.6.
3 Details3.1 The only criterion of moral importance thatsucceeds in including all humans, and excludingall non-humans, is simple membership in thespecies Homo sapiens.
Singer argues for this simply by pointing to variation amonghumans. If we examine the usual chracteristics that people sayall humans, and only humans, share, we always find that thereare human beings who lack those characteristics:
Like it or not, we must face the fact that humans comein different shapes and sizes; they come with differingmoral capacities, differing intellectual abilities, differingamounts of benevolent feeling and sensitivity to theneeds of others, differing abilities to communicateeffectively, and differing capacities to expe- riencepleasure and pain. In short, if the demand for equalitywere based on the actual equality of all human beings,we would have to stop demanding equality. (Singer2007, p. 173)
The only characteristic that every single human has incommon, that no animal1 has, is membership in the humanspecies. If you want to say that every human is morallyimportant, and humans are the only creatures that are morally important, your criterion for moral importance must be basedsimply on species membership.
3.2 However, using simple membership in the speciesHomo sapiens as a criterion of moral importanceis completely arbitrary.
Singer seems to think this is fairly obvious once it is stated. Ifthere is, in fact, no relevant difference between your group andsome other group, there is no rational ground for thinking thatthose who belong to your group deserve greater considerationthan those who belong to the other group. Although it is fairlynatural for people to think of their own group as more importantthan others, for no other reason than because it is their group,Singer thinks the obvious parallels with racism are so striking asto invalidate that natural impulse.2
3.3 Of the remaining criteria we might consider, onlysentience—the capacity of a being to experiencethings like pleasure and pain—is a plausiblecriterion of moral importance.
Singer argues for this in two ways. First, he argues, by example,that the other criteria are poor criteria, because (again) they willexclude people who we think ought not be
1For the sake of brevity, I will, throughout most of theremainder of these notes, use the word ANIMAL
in the colloquial sense, designating all NON-HUMANANIMALS specifically.
2This is a typically consequentialist way of thinking; youshould consider how deontologists might look at thisgiven the allowance for “duties of special relationships.”Is common species membership an appropriate “specialrelationship”? Should it be?
excluded. For instance, we don’t really think that it would bepermissible to disregard the well-being of someone who hasmuch lower intelligence than average, so we can’t possibly thinkthat intelligence is a suitable criterion for moral consideration.
Second, Singer argues that it is only by virtue of beingsentient that anything can be said to have INTERESTS, so thisplaces sentience in a different category than the other cri- teria:“The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisitefor having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfiedbefore we can speak of interests in any meaningful way” (Singer2007, p. 175). That is, Singer is trying to establish that if a beingis not sen- tient, then the idea of extending moral considerationto it makes no sense. This negative argument is important,because one common criticism of Singer is that his criterionends up excluding humans who are no longer sentient (such asthose in an irreversible coma). Singer is content to accept thatconsequence, but it is important that he show why the exclusionof some humans by his criterion is not problematic, given that hehas criticized other criteria for their exclusions3.
However, establishing that non-sentient creatures do not meritmoral consideration, falls short of demonstrating that sentientcreatures do merit moral consideration. Singer doesn’t supplymuch argument for the latter claim, but probably has the samekind of rationale in mind as other utilitarians: clearly, each of usrecognizes our own suffering as a bad thing, so there should bean automatic extension of that to the recognition that allsuffering is bad. And if all suffering is bad, then it must be badfor any creature to suffer.4 So, if we want to make a radicaldistinction between our suffering and the suffering of othercreatures, the burden of proof is on us. Looking again to thearguments above, it is clear that Singer thinks this burden ofproof cannot be met—our criterion of moral importance must besentience.
3.4 Using sentience as a criterion of moralimportance entails that we extend to othersentient creatures the same basic moralconsidera- tion (i.e. “basic principle of equality”)that we extend to (typical, sentient) humanbeings.
I need to unpack all of this carefully for you, because whatSinger means by it often is misunderstood, and he doesn’texplain himself in enough detail in this article to preventmisunderstandings. Let’s be clear: Singer is not saying that weare required, in practice, to treat humans and animals identically.Extending to animals the same moral consideration we extend tohumans means that we count the interests of animals equallywith compa- rable interests of humans. However, not allinterests necessarily are comparable. In other words, we cannotgive the interests of animals less weight just because thecreatures that have them are animals, but we can give lessweight to some of the interests they happen to have if thoseinterests just do have less weight.
To clarify, it will be helpful to introduce a distinction Singermakes outside of this arti- cle: that between persons and sentientnon-persons. Singer defines a person (a creature with
3And this is precisely what his negative argument tries todo
4Though not necessarily so bad that we must eliminateall suffering—remember that Singer is a utilitar- ian.
personhood) as a creature that has awareness of its ownpersistence over time5. Because of their awareness of theirown existence over time, persons are opened up to specialforms of suffering that sentient non-persons cannotexperience. A sentient non-person, for in- stance, can feelpain while dying, but only a person can experience the extradread that comes with awareness of its own mortality. Asentient non-person can experience pain, but only a personcan feel the hopelessness brought by awareness that his orher pain will last for weeks, months, or years into the future.In other words, persons have some interests that sentientnon-persons do not. As a result, taking into equalconsideration the comparable interests of all sentient beings, no matter what their species, does not dictate that we must,in practice, treat all sentient beings equally. If, for instance,you can save either a dog or a human adult from a burningbuilding, Singer would say you must save the human adult,because the balance of pleasure over pain will be greater ifyou save the adult, than if you save the dog.
However, Singer argues, situations in which one is facedwith that kind of choice are unusual. There are indeeddifficult cases, such as animal experimentation, where weneed to sit down and weigh carefully how much totalsuffering our possible courses of action will cause; allSinger asks is that we do the calculation in those cases,instead of dismissing the suffering of non-humans from thevery start. Most of our practices toward animals, however,are very easy cases to Singer: in the vast majority of ourpractices toward an- imals, we sacrifice important animalinterests (such as life and freedom) for the sake ofabsolutely trivial human interests (such as satisfying a tastefor meat). In these cases, the interests in question are stillnoncomparable, but in the other direction; for instance, thesuffering inflicted on factory farm animals vastly outweighsour enjoyment of cheap and convenient meat. All suchpractices, Singer concludes, quite clearly lack any moraljustification, and must be eliminated as quickly as possible.
I am going to close this section on Singer with somestatistics that I found surprising. The following are theUnited States livestock and poultry slaughter statistics forthe year of 2009 (with a bit of rounding), from the USDANational Agricultural Statistics Service:6
33 million cattle
1 million calves
114 million hogs
2.5 million sheep
8.5 billion chickens7
5Personhood is not coextensive with humanity—Singer contends that adult chimpanzees are persons,but human infants are not.
04-29-2010.pdf Poultry stats: http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/PoulSlauSu//2010s/2010/PoulSlauSu- 02-25-2010.pdf
7Yes, with a b.
240 million turkeys
23 million ducks
If one agrees with Singer’s argument, these statistics offer a glimpse of a moral prob- lem so immense, that it must dwarfvirtually any other moral problem imaginable. On the otherhand, if one disagrees with Singer’s argument, then perhapsthese statistics rep- resent the pinnacle of human achievement inefficiency and mastery over the world. I’ll leave it at that.
4 Fox’s response: Autonomy and the moralcommunity
Fox believes that of all of the creatures on Earth, only humanbeings have moral RIGHTS.8 The division between humans andother creatures is not based strictly on membership in the speciesHomo sapiens, but the gap is unlikely to be crossed by anynonhuman form of life on Earth.
According to Fox, the division rests on participation or lack ofparticipation in a MORAL COMMUNITY. A moral communityis a collection of individuals who recognize their moralobligations to one another. Participation in a moral communityrequires an in- dividual to have an entire cluster ofcharacteristics, not an individual characteristic such as the ones Singer considers (and rejects) one-by-one. The characteristics inquestion are the ones required for a being to function as a moralagent, or (what amounts to the same thing, for Fox) thecharacteristics needed for autonomy:
• critical self-awareness• the ability to manipulate complex concepts• the ability to use a sophisticated language• the ability to reflectively plan and choose a course of action• the ability to accept responsibility for one’s choices
To sum up, for Fox, possession of the above cluster ofcharacteristics makes one au- tonomous, which means one canfunction as a moral agent. Autonomy, or moral agency, in turn,allow one to participate in a moral community. Finally, it isparticipation in a moral community that gives one rights.
Ascription of rights, and a claim to them for oneself, occursonly within a moral com- munity. Here are two passages whereFox makes the point:
8It is worth emphasizing that Singer would agree thatanimals lack rights. However, he would deny that humanshave rights either. Since the concept of moral rights is adeontological concept, Singer does not believe there aresuch things as moral rights at all. But it is not as thoughSinger and Fox are talking completely past one another:they do disagree about whether there is any reasonablebasis on which to count the interests of humans as moreimportant than the comparable interests of animals.
 The ascription of rights…is an act signifying therecognition that others are beings [possessing theprerequisites for autonomous, rational behavior andhence for moral personhood] and expresses in symbolicform the resolve that they shall be related in a mannerappropriate to the autonomy and personhood thusperceived. (Fox 2007, p. 185)
 Assigning rights to others and claiming them foroneself is tantamount to issuing a declaration ofnonintervention in the self-governing lives of others, byacknowledging the sort of being they are, and acquiringmoral guarantees of this type by tacit agreement. (Fox2007, p. 186)
Why can only autonomous beings perform such acts asascribing or claiming rights?
Because being autonomous means that:
• one has the ability to act freely and responsibly.• one recognizes that this ability is of defining importance tooneself.• one recognizes the autonomy of other agents, and thedefining importance of their autonomy to them.
Animals can be trained to obey standards, but not tounderstand the rationale behind them. They do not possess therequisite cluster of characteristics, so they are not au- tonomous,and cannot function as moral agents. Being unable to participatein a moral community, they, therefore, cannot have rights.
5 “Deficient” humans
But Singer’s challenge comes back at this point: Fox’s criterionwould exclude infants, the mentally disabled, people in comas,and any other human who is deficient in the cluster ofcharacteristics. Fox is not unaware of this challenge, and hasseveral things to say in response:
• Many deficient humans9 are potentially members of themoral community, in ways animals are not.• Natural feelings of kinship are adequate to make us includedeficient humans into our moral community.• The natural feelings just alluded to are the “cornerstone ofcivilization,” and erosion of them could lead us down aslippery slope to the elimination of “undesirables” whoactually are proper parts of our moral community.• Personal prudence counts in favor of ascribing rights todeficient humans, since we ourselves, individually, may oneday become deficient.
• Medical breakthroughs might remedy supposedly permanentdeficiencies.
In sum, deficient human beings are “borderline cases” andshould be seen as part of an “immediately extended moralcommunity and therefore as deserving of equal moral con- cern”(Fox 2007, p. 190). Is the introduction of extended moralcommunities speciesist? Fox thinks not: (i) it is required bycharity, benevolence, humaneness and prudence, and these areconsistent with giving central status to autonomy; (ii) anyanimals that are also borderline cases should likewise beconsidered in such an expansion.
COMMENT: It is unclear to me exactly how Fox intends theidea of the “extended moral community” to work. There seem tobe two possibilities: either (i) Fox thinks the members of theextended moral community actually have rights, or else (ii) Foxthinks the members of the extended moral community do nothave rights, but nevertheless should be treated as though theyhad rights. Although Fox seems to me to talk as though heintends the first option, such a move would invalidate his entireargument, since it would mean that a living being can have rightswithout having any of the cluster of characteristics he considers.The second option is easier to square with his overall argument,but then it leaves one with the question of whether we have goodreasons to exclude all other animals from the extended moralcommunity. You will have to judge for yourself whether Fox hasgiven adequate reasons.
Fox, M. A. (2007). The moral community, in H. LaFollette (ed.),Ethics in Practice: Third Edition, Blackwell, Malden, MA,chapter 15, pp. 181–191.
Singer, P. (2007). All animals are equal, in H. LaFollette (ed.),Ethics in Practice: Third Edition, Blackwell, Malden, MA,chapter 14, pp. 171–180.
Sample A Paper From Instructor:
Personally, I agree with Singer. I think it is important to take into consideration that animals can feel pleasure, and especially pain, because during these animal experimentations, they are most of the time undergoing a significant amount of pain. Cohen’s point of view, that animals do not have moral rights as humans do because they are not part of the moral community, doesn’t really take into consideration the suffering that the animals experience, which I think is something that humans should give more thought to.
In Singer’s essay, he states that we should extend the equality of humans to other species. He also talks about speciesism, which is bias against a being because of the species it belongs to. Humans are a major example, because of the way we treat animals in experiments and killing them for food. Singer says that if people argue that since humans have higher intelligence, making it so humans cannot be used for experimentation purposes, then how does that entitle humans to take advantage of animals? Singer also argues that if a being is capable of suffering, there is no reason for refusing to acknowledge that suffering and to take it into consideration.
Cohen argues that animals do not have the same moral capacities as humans, so animal experimentation isn’t a violation of their rights because they don’t have any rights. He also says that rights are claims, or potential claims, and can only be defended by beings who are actually able to make moral claims against one another. Cohen lists attributes for the moral capability that human beings have, and mentions that the most influential one has been the emphasis on the human possession of a moral will and the autonomy its use entails. He believes that just because an animal is alive, does not give it a “right” to its life.
After hearing both points of views, I most agree with Singer because he believes in thinking of how the animals feel, rather than disregarding that and only thinking of humans and how it could possibly be beneficial to them. Cohen’s argument comes off as though he doesn’t really care about the pain the animals experience at all. I also don’t agree with him saying that animals do not have rights at all. If something can feel pain, I think that humans should realize that it is wrong to be making them go through that, especially since animal experimentations are unsuccessful a decent amount of the time.
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