Moral Behavior and Moral Significance

Dear Colleagues:

Humans usually seek to justify their oppression and exploitation of nonhumans by pointing to supposed empirical differences. One of the many claimed differences is that nonhumans, unlike humans, are unable to think or act morally. That is, we claim that only those who can recognize and act on moral obligations to others can be members of the moral community and since animals are supposedly incapable of such conduct, we are justified in treating them as things without moral significance.

This argument is problematic for at least two reasons.

First, there is a problem of simple logic. Let us assume that we have two humans–one who is normal and one who is mentally disabled and incapable of recognizing obligations to others. Are these two humans different? Most certainly. Is any difference between them relevant to how we treat them? Yes, of course. If someone is mentally disabled and incapable of recognizing obligations, we may not want to allow them to enter into binding legal contracts. But is the difference relevant to whether we treat such a human as a nonconsenting subject in a biomedical experiment, or as a forced organ donor, or exclusively as a means to our ends in other ways? Most of us would be horrified at the suggestion that we should use mentally disabled humans as experimental subjects or as forced organ donors or as slaves. We recognize the complete irrelevance of this disability to the morality of exploiting these humans as resources for ‘normal’ humans.

Second, there is the problem of empirical fact. Is it the case that only humans are capable of moral reflection and action? There are countless examples of reports of animals from many species who risk their own physical safety in order to help others–conduct that we consider to have high moral value. Dogs go into burning houses to rescue humans; raccoons risk their own safety to help other raccoons who are blind; nonhuman primates imprisoned in zoos act to protect humans who have fallen into the zoo enclosures.

One such example was brought to my attention by the students in the course on human rights/animal rights that Anna and I teach at Rutgers University. A dog in Chile risks her/his life to help another dog who has been hit by a car. I am not saying that the dog sat around and pondered her/his moral obligations before acting in the same way that we would. But so what? The dog acted in an altruistic way. This conduct cannot be explained away as some sort of ‘instinct’ or self-interested behavior. The dog quite clearly and deliberately engaged in conduct that presented a serious risk to her/his life.

And the humans, who are supposedly ‘special’ because, unlike the dog, they are moral beings, did not bother even to stop or slow the speed of their cars.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione