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Are Nonhuman Animals Moral Beings?

2022-01-14 来源: 51Due教员组 类别: Essay范文



      Protecting animals has become a globally recognized ideal. But what is the moral basis on which humans should do this? Are nonhuman animals moral creatures, or simply empty flesh? What exactly is the difference between humans and animals on a moral level? Philosophers and social ethicists have provided various theories for examining this issue. Among all the theories, animal rights theory is the most thorough and radical one. This theory argues that animals are also subjects of rights and have the same intrinsic value as humans do, and this concept is now widely supported. However, after an extensive review of both new and classic research studies, I still believe that animals are not moral beings and that they do not hold equal rights despite humans having the obligation to treat animals kindly.

What Does Moral Mean?

There are many definitions of morality and there are many areas of conflict. It can even be said that the concept of “morality” is the inherent negation of “human instinct” and all the selfishness it implies. “Morality” and “instinct” are not always in deep conflict or operating on the same level, but “morality” generally rejects the use of “instinct” as the sole criterion for action and obligation.

It must be admitted that even today, many human behaviors may still come from the same survival instincts as those of crickets, worms, and even more primitive organisms. However, a great deal of human behavior is not driven by natural instincts. The difference between human morality and animal instinct is that human morality, once it emerges, has its own vitality, it will be separated from its initial circumstances and limitations it had when it was born; it will have an independent influence on human subjects, and sometimes it will be anti-rational or violate survival behavior. An example of this would be loyalty to an abstract nation-state in times of war, when it might be more rational simply to flee in the face of danger, and any animal free to choose its own behavior would do so. This is the sort of definition that one might find in classic Veneer theory of all non-human animals being explicitly non-moral beings, although recent research on empathy and other ethical traits in primates would seem to have basically disproved this theory in itself (Kitcher, 121), few if any researchers claim that animals have higher moral functions or considerations, and thus animals are not fundamentally moral creatures, though some individual animal behaviors could be seen to be ethical acts.

This ties into the biological definition of altruism, to promote others’ reproductive success at a cost to one’s own reproductive success. Some animals, especially mammals with higher levels of brain function, display this behavior, but none other than humans on a systematic or expansive and consistent basis. This difference becomes even clearer if we use the psychological definition of altruism, which is a complex idea that involves the adjustment of desires, intentions, and emotions based on the perceptions and needs of others (Kitcher, 126), which de Waal notes are virtually impossible for animals to achieve, since even the most complex non-human mammals are only able to internalize other animals’ needs on a very limited basis (174).

In a basic state, the self may face simple economic and social pressures and simple survival issues. But as society develops and group pressures become more complicated, moral requirements to the group may provoke individuals to act in ways that do not directly benefit themselves, or even harmful to themselves at a benefit to the group. Other moral issues may be ones of simple obligation, and specific balances of benefit may vary from group to group. Thus, a group’s only fertile female may limit reproductive behavior out of obligations to an individual or remain chaste, or an individual may sacrifice themselves to save an abstract group of strangers. For animals, there is no “trolley problem,” even for animals that would be hypothetically capable of understanding such a dilemma. Constructing a proper model of morality makes it clear that only humans are qualified to be named as moral creatures, though evolutionary precedents obviously exist, as do basic behaviors which have indisputable ethical characteristics, as they act in violation of self-interest and seem to express a subjective internal obligation felt by the animal.

Some Theories and Debates

      Some support the idea that animals have rights. Regan refuted three different points of view concerning the rights and status of animals. The first is the indirect duty approach that believes that humans have no responsibility for animals at all. This theory is widely opposed nowadays since being cruel to animals might also hurt human interests. The second theory he raised popped is the cruelty kindness view, which only requires humans not being cruel to animals, and this is also not valid or sufficient. The third is the utilitarian theory. This method shows that animal interests should be consistent with human interests. It also believes that it is necessary to achieve the optimum balance between satisfaction and frustration (Regan, 2004). However, Regan considers this view flawed. It denies that individuals have inherent value. In this case, if the end result is good, any action can be justified. Regan used his own ideas to refute these ideas. He believes that everyone (including animals) has intrinsic value, and it is wrong to regard subjects of value as inanimate or passive resources. He also talked about the concept of correct behavior, which basically means respecting everyone and not using them for other interests or purposes.

      Another theory that could help us is de Waal’s three levels of morality (p. 166), and he notes that the first one and a half seem to basically exist in other primates:

      1. This level consists of moral sentiments (empathy, reciprocity, fairness), basically basic moral feelings and relationships. These exist in other primates, and occasionally show up in other mammals. De Waal gave the example of female chimps resolving disputes between males by engaging males in grooming behavior to resolve social conflicts in which they are not directly involved.

      2. Social pressure: insisting that everybody follow a set of rules, involving rewards and punishments, as well as reputations. In animals, this is much less systematic and not concerned with the big picture or general society. De Waal gave an example of a group of chimps beating up other chimps for not coming home on time, to encourage them to come inside earlier and not delay the group’s feeding time (p. 170).

      3. Judgment and reasoning: understanding others’ need and goals to judge our own behavior, including indirect behavior, and self-reflection. Often uses logic. Some animals may consider others’ needs and goals, but this is the total extent to which this occurs.

      De Waal also noticed the existence of “targeted helping” among other animals, especially dolphins, elephants, and other large-brained mammals, but noted that they display no real ethical behavior (p. 180). It seems clear that no animal can truly be compared to humans in moral terms; animal behaviors that seem to resemble moral codes are basically responses to environmental pressures. But morality is more than this; it is highly abstract, it can be communicated and transmitted, and its violations have consistent and meaningful consequences.

Moral Behaviors Not Equal to Moral Codes

So, how do we explain the "altruism" of animal behavior and other animal behavior that seems to be very moral?

Cohen (1986) believes that although there are such behaviors in animal groups as members who care about each other and help each other, they are far from “moral” because their behavior is not based on free will and self-consciousness but natural law (for example, pro-selection behavior). And an important element of morality is moral consciousness, just as "crime" is a combination of criminal behaviors and criminal intent. Therefore, just as animals cannot commit crimes, animals cannot be moral.

With regard to the current animal behavior research, many seemingly unreasonable "altruistic behaviors" in animals are still fundamentally based on genetic self-interest. A large number of higher altruistic behaviors, such as “helping to support future generations”, are mostly performed on close relatives of helper and assisting the weak still helps spread a genetic structure fundamentally similar to the subject. In the more extreme case of hymenoptera, a worker bee whose gene is identical to its sister is more than 25% identical to its daughter (if it has a daughter), and from the point of genetic self-interest, its infertility may be more conducive to their own genetic types than fertility (Ayala, 2010). In the end, this is a survival strategy, not a moral impetus.

Ultimately, animals have no rights and no intent, but we are obliged to animals. The view that animals have no rights but human beings have direct obligations to animals is seen as “weak anthropocentrism”, which is different from the belief that people live apart from or above animals. There is also a belief called contractualism or "strong anthropocentrism," where only owners of animals bear responsibility for any animal at all, and only humans have moral standing (Sapontzis, 1980). Rights and obligations do not correspond to each other: obligations are necessary conditions for rights, and rights are not necessary conditions for obligations. Rights require obligations, because rights owners need others to respect his rights, and it is an obligation for others to respect his rights. But obligations do not exist only when rights arise. For example, your son may not have the right to ask you to pay tuition for him, but you may be obliged to do so. The same applies to animals. We are obliged to treat animals humanely, but not because animals have rights. Therefore, we do not need to treat animals like subjects of rights.


      In short, a large part of this paradox comes from the controversy of moral autonomy itself, and the question whether it comes from human nature. In connection with the above studies, I tend to think that the possibility of human beings demonstrating moral competence is innate, and the realization of this possibility is acquired and socially constructed. Therefore, the "moral difference" between humans and animals is actually a difference in the display of the natural potential of moral competence. In other words, people have the potential to form moral concepts in addition to the emotional experience of morality. So human morality has some evolutionary roots, but nobody can really compete with us. They have some basic empathy and some occasional behaviors, but no real system or structured internalization.

      However, I also wonder whether it is possible to completely assert that this potential is unique to humans, and how we will recognize this potential in artificial intelligence. This debate actually involves the subject's ability to grasp language, as language and thinking are closely linked, and if the animal can master the language (there is such evidence: chimpanzees can learn North American sign language and spontaneously teach to future generations), it may develop the ability to form abstract concepts, and thus to some extent has potential for ethical standing. Even if animals conclusively never master language, we cannot exclude the possibility that some animals may form moral concepts through other means, because language only represents the communication of these concepts in human terms.



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