Gary Steiner

 

On his book Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship

Cover Interview of May 20, 2009

In a nutshell

More than fifty-three billion animals are killed worldwide for human consumption every year, and yet we give little thought to the inner subjective lives of animals and the remarkable extent to which their lives are in important respects very much like our own.  If we were to acknowledge the fundamental similarities between human and non-human animal life—for humans, too, are animals—it would be impossible for us to ignore the moral implications of the ways in which we use animals to satisfy our desires.

In Animals and the Moral Community I examine recent animal behavior research and philosophical reflections on the mental lives of animals, and argue that animals merit moral status comparable to that of human beings.  The Western philosophical tradition has long argued that human beings are cognitively superior to non-human animals in virtue of possessing reason and language, and that this cognitive superiority entails a categorical moral superiority over animals.  Very few Western philosophers have challenged the conventional wisdom that language and reason are morally significant capacities.  Even when this wisdom is challenged, ways are almost always found to justify practices such as vivisection and meat eating.  In recent years, philosophers and others concerned with the treatment of animals have begun to acknowledge that non-human animals have rich mental lives, that animals have a moral status much higher than has been traditionally recognized.

I argue that capacities such as reason and language are irrelevant to considerations of moral status.  The fact that animals have rich subjective lives that matter to them is sufficient by itself to confer on animals a moral status comparable to that of human beings.  Many contemporary thinkers resist this conclusion on the grounds that it would impose unreasonable burdens on human beings.  Instead, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge the extent of our moral obligations to animals.  Such an acknowledgment does not require a sacrifice of the individual liberty that forms the foundation of liberal society.