Beyond Prejudice: The Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals

Beyond Prejudice: The Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals

by Evelyn B. Pluhar

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In Beyond Prejudice, Evelyn B. Pluhar defends the view that any sentient conative being—one capable of caring about what happens to him or herself—is morally significant, a view that supports the moral status and rights of many nonhuman animals. Confronting traditional and contemporary philosophical arguments, she offers in clear and accessible fashion a thorough examination of theories of moral significance while decisively demonstrating the flaws in the arguments of those who would avoid attributing moral rights to nonhumans.
Exposing the traditional view—which restricts the moral realm to autonomous, fully fledged "persons"—as having horrific implications for the treatment of many humans, Pluhar goes on to argue positively that sentient individuals of any species are no less morally significant than the most automomous human. Her position provides the ultimate justification that is missing from previous defenses of the moral status of nonhuman animals. In the process of advancing her position, Pluhar discusses the implications of determining moral significance for children and "abnormal" humans as well as its relevance to population policies, the raising of animals for food or product testing, decisions on hunting and euthanasia, and the treatment of companion animals. In addition, the author scrutinizes recent assertions by environmental ethicists that all living things or that natural objects and ecosystems be considered highly morally significant. This powerful book of moral theory challenges all defenders of the moral status quo—which decrees that animals decidedly do not count—to reevaluate their convictions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396048
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 636 KB

About the Author

Evelyn B. Pluhar is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The Pennsylvania State University, Fayette Campus

Read an Excerpt

Beyond Prejudice

The Moral Significance of Human and Nonhuman Animals

By Evelyn B. Pluhar

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9604-8



We are moral agents. We are capable of understanding and acting upon moral principles. Unless we act under duress, we are responsible for what we do. Unlike small Children and Cats, we have moral obligations and can be held accountable for flouting those obligations. All moral codes are addressed to us. So are the following questions: Are we, as moral agents, all morally considerable? That is, are others (also moral agents) directly obligated to take our interests into account when their actions would affect us? Are we all equally morally significant, entitled to be treated as more than means to further others' purposes, or should some of us count more than others? Can any beings who are not moral agents be morally considerable? If such beings exist, are they equally morally significant? Are they as significant as we are? In short, who belongs in the moral community, and to what degree? These are all fundamental, extraordinarily important questions. They are also extraordinarily difficult to answer.


Let us begin by considering the kinds of beings who may very well qualify for moral considerability and a high degree of moral significance. They will be considered in descending order of "plausibility." Not co-incidentally, we humans tend to assume that we are the paradigms of moral significance. As other beings depart in greater and greater degree from our model, most of us find it progressively more difficult to accord them our moral concern. How much of this is bias and how much is warranted will occupy many of the later pages of this book.

Full-Fledged Persons

Normal adult human beings are obvious examples of full-fledged persons (or, as I shall usually call them, "full persons"). It will not have escaped the reader's notice that we ourselves are being described here! We have the intelligence, rationality, creativity, and communication skills required for moral agency. None but full persons can engage in debate about moral considerability and significance. A fully developed person is, in Paul Taylor's words, "a center of autonomous choice and valuation." This high degree of autonomy makes it possible for such a being to forge a life plan and to interrelate that plan with the plans of others. If anyone is morally considerable and deserving of a right to life, we believe, such a person is. Many would add that thwarting such an (innocent) being's basic interests may be the only way for a sane, mature specimen of personhood to lose any moral significance.

Persons Lower on the Autonomy Scale

We do not normally restrict the concept of personhood to highly autonomous, mature beings. A good friend once shared his delight with my husband and me about the fact that his one-year-old daughter Katie had become "a little person." At first, he smiled, she was "all brain stem." Another friend beamed about how much fun it was to be with her toddler daughter: "Now Valerie's a person!" Anyone who has spent any length of time with small children in their second year of life can see that they have distinct "personalities," wants, goals, and even plans to achieve those goals (e.g., assembling corn chips in a row on the floor to play with; checking every glass with liquid in it in order to get a taste, then disgustedly tossing displeasing beverages on the floor, etc.). Those who know certain nonhuman animals "personally" commonly say the same about them. For example, our family boxer would whine while resting his muzzle on one's lap when he wanted to be fed. If we children didn't get the hint, he would take a hand gently in his massive jaws and lead his (by then) soggy-lapped victim directly to the refrigerator. We all took it for granted that Tiger was a person, although some philosophers and scientists would find this claim controversial at best.

Joel Feinberg characterizes this less restrictive concept of personhood as follows: "In the commonsense way of thinking, persons are those beings who, among other things, are conscious, have a concept and awareness of themselves, are capable of experiencing emotions, can plan ahead, can act on their plans, and can feel pleasure and pain." Feinberg adds that these traits in combination are not obviously present in humans until they are over one year of age.

Tom Regan's category of "subjects-of-a-life" is the same as Feinberg's "commonsense personhood": "Individuals are subjects-of-a-life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference- and welfare-interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experient[i]al [lives] fare well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object[s] of anyone else's interests." Regan believes that all normally developed mammals over one year of age qualify as subjects-of-lives (commonsense persons).

'Person,' however, is a notoriously slippery term with more than one meaning. Some simply equate 'person' with 'human being,' calling even a just-fertilized human egg a 'person.' Those who do not want to do this but share the same concept will deny that the fertilized egg is a human being, whereupon their opponents accuse them of biological illiteracy (many are the ways of muddying the abortion controversy's argumentative waters). Others simply use 'person' in an honorific way, meaning by it no more or less than 'deserving of basic moral rights.' Most of us, however, think of personhood in more descriptive terms, in the way which links 'person' to 'personality.' In this sense, it is an open question whether a dog, cat, ape, or human baby can be a person, let alone a being deserving moral consideration.

Commonsensical though the commonsense concept of person may be, a number of contemporary philosophers reject it. For example, Paul Taylor, H. J. McCloskey, and Ernest Partridge all restrict the concept of person to the group I have identified as full-fledged persons. Only the highly autonomous and linguistically sophisticated, who are capable of moral agency and able to act on principle, are awarded the accolade of "person." In my writing during the last few years on the subject of moral considerability, I have myself wavered on how high a standard to set for personhood. I have since decided that this is not a merely terminological issue. The insistence that only relatively mature, highly autonomous beings can be persons suggests that all others, including four-year-old humans, are blanks, as lacking in "personality" as fertilized eggs. Calling the children "pre-persons" helps not at all: the same designation can be used for fertilized eggs. Calling them "near persons" is a bit better, but it still suggests that they will soon lose their "blankness" and become individuals (in more than the genetic sense). This seems outrageously unfair, not the least because the qualities so highly developed in the mature person did not spring full-blown into existence on that individual's eighteenth birthday. Those qualities had been present to a lesser but increasing degree for many years before.

Moral agency, for example, is a late stage in a complex, years-long process of moral development. The process begins in early childhood, according to psychologists who study this phenomenon. Similarly, the ability to plan one's life many years in advance has its roots in the ability to make plans to achieve short-term goals. This ability manifests itself very early indeed, as any parent can tell you. Tom Regan calls the ability to act so as to satisfy preferences "preference autonomy." Of course, eighteen-month-old Alex, who spies a bowl of peanuts on a high table, drags a nearby chair close to the table, climbs on the chair, then grabs the bowl of peanuts supposedly placed out of his reach, or the chimp who does the same to reach a tantalizing bunch of bananas, is not highly autonomous. Nevertheless, he has, even if to a primitive degree, the ability that is so much more highly developed in human adults (we drive to the grocery store to get the nuts, put them high on a shelf to discourage excess snacking, then climb on a stool at 4:00 a.m. to grab the darned things).

The more inclusive, "commonsense" sense of 'person' allows for these degree differences in autonomy and moral development. It remains to be seen whether those who are not, and perhaps never will be, full-fledged persons can be maximally morally significant. At least, however, our way of describing them does not load the deck against them by suggesting that they are less than individuals.

Self-Conscious Beings Who Have Little or No Autonomy

Can beings with awareness of themselves fail to be persons or subjects-of-lives? Yes, if their ability to act (even with the most sophisticated mechanical aids) is severely diminished or nonexistent. Such beings may be either physically or mentally incapable of goal-directed action, and their sense of self may be rudimentary at best. Severely damaged humans or extremely young humans might qualify for inclusion in this category. Although at one point Regan claims that such humans are subjects-of-lives, they are not, since they fail to satisfy (at the very least) his action requirement. However, they do have a welfare: their lives "fare well or ill for them logically independently" of the interest others have—or do not have—in them. Their lives matter to them. For this reason, many (although not all!) believe them to be morally considerable.

Merely Conscious Beings

Can beings be aware, in some sense, of their surroundings, but have no awareness whatever of themselves? Drawing on recent work by psychologist T. Natsoulis, ethologist Donald Griffin distinguishes between "perceptual consciousness" (being aware) and "reflective consciousness" (being aware that one is having a given experience). This distinction seems natural and philosophically familiar, but those of us capable of thinking about such matters normally experience both types of consciousness, even if not always simultaneously. We have a difficult time conceiving of a consciousness that is exclusively perceptual. How is one to imagine a life that drifts from moment to moment with no hint of knowledge that anything is happening to it? How could beings with no sense (however undeveloped) of identity over time ever have preferences? How could their lives matter to them? Some believe that many nonhuman animals, even highly developed animals like dogs and cats, fall into this category. If they are correct, the ordinary experiences of those of us who think we know such nonhuman animals well are riddled by misinterpretation. Many, many humans would also lack self-consciousness in that case.

On the other hand, Bernard Rollin has recently argued that beings who could never be more than "merely" conscious, if they somehow came into existence, would have died off exceedingly quickly indeed (unless, presumably, cared for by those blessed with self-consciousness and preferenceautonomy). Natural selection would make very short work of them. If nonhuman animals truly were machines made of flesh, "hard-wired," as it were, to go through invariant sequences of behavior given certain environmental "triggers," perhaps they could survive even though "merely" conscious. However, those who closely study their behavior, as Rollin documents, cannot plausibly reduce it to a stimulus-response model. In a fascinating, positive argument for the contention that nonhuman (and human!) animals cannot have evolved as "merely" conscious beings, Rollin takes a leaf from Immanuel Kant, of all people. (This is a highly ironic move, since Kant took for granted that nonhuman animals have no mental lives.) In order for one to experience, as opposed to simply undergoing an onslaught of discrete sensations, one must synthesize one's sensory input. However, in order to do that, one must have an underlying sense of self. Without a "transcendental unity of apperception" (to give the sense of self its full Kantian title), one could never experience nor, a fortiori, learn from experience. In other words: "What this means is that in order for a being to have unified experience of objects in relations, it must be the same consciousness which experiences the beginning of an event [as experiences] the end, or the top of an object and its bottom ... if it were not the same you that viewed the top of a tall building as the bottom and the middle, there could be no experience of 'the tall building.' But this same point must hold true for animals too; they must be able to realize that an event is happening to them in order to learn from it."

We can summarize this argument as follows:

1. In order to learn from an event, one must recognize that the event is happening to one.

2. In order to recognize that an event is happening to one, one must be self-conscious.

3. Nonhuman animals learn from events.

4. Therefore, nonhuman animals cannot be "merely" conscious: they must be self-conscious.

A critic of this argument would probably not challenge the second premise. So long as 'self-conscious' is understood to imply no more than 'self-aware,' regardless of how peripheral that awareness may be, it is difficult to see how premise 2 could be false. Jean-Paul Sartre uses a stunning metaphor to describe the self-awareness most of us experience at every conscious moment; it is a "horizon" bordering our awareness of the world, always there, seldom in focus, a boundary turning sensory chaos into lived experience. We need not mumble to ourselves, "Gee, I'm having an experience right this very minute!" in order to be self-conscious, nor do we need to do this to know that something is happening to us. No, a critic of the argument is more likely to attack the third or first premise.

Attacking the third premise, that is, denying that any nonhuman animals can learn from events, would be a singularly unpromising approach for a critic to take. I will have more to say about this later, but for now let us only pause to note that even psychologists who express very low opinions about the mental abilities of their nonhuman research "models" take for granted that those "models" can learn from events such as random electric shocks, food rewards, maternal deprivation, and more.

An attack on premise i inspired by recent developments in computer technology seems to be more promising. It can be pointed out that computers can "learn" from events, but they are assuredly not self-conscious. (Even the most ardent supporters of "artificial intelligence" do not claim that we have succeeded in creating self-conscious machines.) Might not some humans and perhaps all nonhumans be in the same boat? If so, the first premise of the neo-Kantian argument above is false.

I do not find this to be a convincing reply. There is a reason for our persistent use of quotation marks in discussion of the "mental" abilities of computers. The reason is that no one claims that we have succeeded in creating a conscious machine. Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has devoted his life to the "artificial intelligence" field, does not hesitate to admit this. They can be programmed to do amazing feats, but they are phenomenologically aware of nothing. Hence, they "see," but they do not see; they "learn," but they do not (yet!) learn. Hence, what they can be brought to do is not a challenge to premise i above. (As Rollin points out in The Unheeded Cry, some psychologists have used quotation marks when referring to non-human "experiences" as well. He argues convincingly that those who have done this have accepted the thoroughly discredited ideologies of logical positivism and behaviorism. We have the same excellent reason to believe that dogs are conscious as we have to believe that babies are. By the same token, if "artificial intelligence" experts ever do succeed in creating genuine intelligence, we ought to drop our quotation marks in descriptions of computer activity.)

Rollin's neo-Kantian argument has not been discredited. However, it does not follow from it that no being could be "merely" conscious. I do not think that Rollin would deny that there could be humans who are so profoundly brain damaged or so extremely young that only the simplest kind of awareness would be possible for them. The same holds for non-humans. Of course, it is highly unlikely that such beings could survive without assistance from those who are better mentally and physically equipped: without that help, they would be "naturally selected out" in no time. It seems to me that it would also be possible for a relatively primitive organism to survive without having to organize sensations into perceptions, but this is an empirical question that others must try to settle. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that "merely" conscious beings may very well exist. Would they be morally considerable? Many would deny it. Not surprisingly, the further we depart from our own characteristics, the less likely we are to extend our moral concern.


Excerpted from Beyond Prejudice by Evelyn B. Pluhar. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Bernard E. Rollin ix

Preface xi

Human "Superiority" and the Argument from Marginal Cases 1

Responses to the Argument from Marginal Cases 67

Speciesism and Full Personhood 124

Utilitarianism and the Protection of Innocent Life 179

Justification and Judgment: Claiming and Respecting Basic Moral Rights 224

Notes 303

Bibliography 349

Index 361

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