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The probability in my mind that I am correct in attributing extensive moral

The probability in my mind that I am correct in attributing extensive moral personhood to other humans is very high. With non-human vertebrate, I attribute slightly less extensive but still quite broad moral personhood, and I am in this too quite confident. But I accept given I am a fallible human being I might be wrong and should give them no moral personhood or moral personhood of the kind I ascribe to humans. Continuing in the same line, I ascribe almost no moral personhood to bacteria and viruses. But again given I am fallible musnt I accept some non-zero probability that they deserve human like personhood? If so, and I am a utilitarian, given the extremely large number of bacteria and viruses on the planet it seems even if I am very sure that bacteria are of only minimal moral importance, I still must make serious concessions to them because it seems doubtful that my certainty is so high as to overcome the vast numbers of bacteria and viruses on this planet. (I am aware it is not entirely clear how...

It's a very interesting question. It's about what my colleague Dan Moller calls moral risk. And it's a problem not just for utilitarians. The general problem is this: I might have apparently good arguments for thinking it's okay to act in a certain way. But there may be arguments to the contrary—arguments that, if correct, show that I'd be doing something very wrong if I acted as my arguments suggest. Furthermore, it might be that the moral territory here is complex. Putting all that together, I have a reason to pause. If I simply follow my arguments, I'm taking a moral risk.

Now there may be costs of taking the risks seriously. The costs might be non-moral (say, monetary) or, depending on the case, there may be potential moral costs. There's no easy answer. Moller explores the issue at some length, using the case of abortion to focus the arguments. You might want to have a look at his paper HERE.

A final note: when we get to bacteria, I think the moral risks are low enough to be discounted. I can't even imagine what it would mean for bacteria to have the moral status of people or even of earthworms.

It's a very interesting question. It's about what my colleague Dan Moller calls moral risk. And it's a problem not just for utilitarians. The general problem is this: I might have apparently good arguments for thinking it's okay to act in a certain way. But there may be arguments to the contrary—arguments that, if correct, show that I'd be doing something very wrong if I acted as my arguments suggest. Furthermore, it might be that the moral territory here is complex. Putting all that together, I have a reason to pause. If I simply follow my arguments, I'm taking a moral risk. Now there may be costs of taking the risks seriously. The costs might be non-moral (say, monetary) or, depending on the case, there may be potential moral costs. There's no easy answer. Moller explores the issue at some length, using the case of abortion to focus the arguments. You might want to have a look at his paper HERE . A final note: when we get to bacteria, I think the moral risks are low enough to be discounted. I...

Is it immoral to keep an animal as a pet, or is this question not within the

Is it immoral to keep an animal as a pet, or is this question not within the domain of ethical philosophy? My reasoning is this, there are other much more self-involved things to do than spend time taking care of a pet, such as reading philosophy or even asking questions on this site. Pets can cause all kinds of problems, especially for its owner, and perhaps do not reciprocate affection.

I'm puzzled. Why would doing something more "self-involved" be morally better than keeping a pet? Perhaps by "self-involved," you mean self-improving, but morality doesn't call for spending all our time improving ourselves. And even insofar as it does, caring for a pet might help some people to become more empathetic and responsible.

Of course, pets sometimes cause problems. But so do cars, DVD players, the computer you wrote your question on, and—for that matter—friends and family. And in any case, morality doesn't call for avoiding all problems. If anything, it arguably calls for the opposite, since if we spend all our time steering clear of difficulties, we're likely to end up stunted and selfish.

Some pets probably don't reciprocate affection; goldfish almost certainly don't, for example. But once again, what of it? Even if a fish-fancier agrees that her fish don't fancy her, how would that make her a worse person?

Maybe I'm missing something, but I'd have thought the moral questions about keeping pets would mostly be about the welfare of the animals. Even if they don't make us better (and that's open to doubt), it's hard to see how they make us worse.

I'm puzzled. Why would doing something more "self-involved" be morally better than keeping a pet? Perhaps by "self-involved," you mean self-improving, but morality doesn't call for spending all our time improving ourselves. And even insofar as it does, caring for a pet might help some people to become more empathetic and responsible. Of course, pets sometimes cause problems. But so do cars, DVD players, the computer you wrote your question on, and—for that matter—friends and family. And in any case, morality doesn't call for avoiding all problems. If anything, it arguably calls for the opposite, since if we spend all our time steering clear of difficulties, we're likely to end up stunted and selfish. Some pets probably don't reciprocate affection; goldfish almost certainly don't, for example. But once again, what of it? Even if a fish-fancier agrees that her fish don't fancy her, how would that make her a worse person? Maybe I'm missing something, but I'd have thought the moral questions...

I find Peter Singer's argument that animals' (specifically mammals') capacity to

I find Peter Singer's argument that animals' (specifically mammals') capacity to feel pain which according to him makes them intrinsically worthy of special status rather faceious as evolution is scientifically proven to not be teleological. If I uproot a cabbage (in the process killing microbes and insects) and eat it, how am I any more immoral than if I kill a cow or a dog and eat it? Why is an organism's place on the phylogenetic tree so special?

I'm having trouble seeing what evolution has to do with it. Many animals, Singer supposes, feel pain. Pain (roughly; the refinements won't matter here) is intrinsically bad, no matter what sort of creature experiences it. Whether animals (or humans) feel pain because of evolution, because a God made them that way, or because we're all sentient animaldroids, designed by mad scientists from Mars is beside the point. Singer's thought is that pain is bad for us, and animals are no different from us in that respect. He isn't making a point about the phylogenetic tree. Cabbages don't feel pain; cats do. So when we're calculating the balance of pleasure to pain, the cat's pain (or pleasure) should be included in the calculation. But since cabbages aren't sentient (so far as we know), there's nothing about the cabbage to add or subtract.

I'm having trouble seeing what evolution has to do with it. Many animals, Singer supposes, feel pain. Pain (roughly; the refinements won't matter here) is intrinsically bad, no matter what sort of creature experiences it. Whether animals (or humans) feel pain because of evolution, because a God made them that way, or because we're all sentient animaldroids, designed by mad scientists from Mars is beside the point. Singer's thought is that pain is bad for us, and animals are no different from us in that respect. He isn't making a point about the phylogenetic tree. Cabbages don't feel pain; cats do. So when we're calculating the balance of pleasure to pain, the cat's pain (or pleasure) should be included in the calculation. But since cabbages aren't sentient (so far as we know), there's nothing about the cabbage to add or subtract.

Is it morally wrong to eat my pet dog? Why is it right to eat beef and pork, but

Is it morally wrong to eat my pet dog? Why is it right to eat beef and pork, but our pets?

I agree with Andrew: the dog/pig distinction won't get us anywhere. And I might even be persuaded that we shouldn't eat animals at all. But there's a sliver of a distinction that may be worth noting.

If a stranger asks me to drive him to the grocery store, I don't have any obligation to say yes. If my friend asks me (and if it's not a lot of trouble to do it) then it's not so clearly okay for me just to say no. If my daughter asks me, the obligation seems even stronger. Our relationships with people can make a difference to how we ought to treat them.

We can and do have relationships with our companion animals. And those relationships could make a difference to how we should treat them. I have an obligation to feed my dog, for example, but not to feed yours.

Now it may very well be that it's wrong to eat animals at all. But even if it's okay to eat animals in general, it doesn't simply follow that it's okay to eat my own pet and the fact that it's my pet is the reason why it doesn't follow. The moral dimension of our special relationships with some of our conspecifics may well have an analogue in our relationships with our pets.

All that said, the point I've made is a very weak one: it's only that my special relationship with my pet might have moral weight. That still leaves us with the serious question of whether it's ever okay to slaughter and eat other creatures.

I agree with Andrew: the dog/pig distinction won't get us anywhere. And I might even be persuaded that we shouldn't eat animals at all. But there's a sliver of a distinction that may be worth noting. If a stranger asks me to drive him to the grocery store, I don't have any obligation to say yes. If my friend asks me (and if it's not a lot of trouble to do it) then it's not so clearly okay for me just to say no. If my daughter asks me, the obligation seems even stronger. Our relationships with people can make a difference to how we ought to treat them. We can and do have relationships with our companion animals. And those relationships could make a difference to how we should treat them. I have an obligation to feed my dog, for example, but not to feed yours. Now it may very well be that it's wrong to eat animals at all. But even if it's okay to eat animals in general, it doesn't simply follow that it's okay to eat my own pet and the fact that it's my pet is the reason why it doesn't follow....

Have animals rights? If so, which ones?

Have animals rights? If so, which ones?

There's no clear reason why animals shouldn't have rights. After all, humans are animals and on our usual view, even infants and the severely mentally disabled have at least some rights. Certain rights – for example, the right to sign a contract – presuppose certain abilities and so non-human animals typically won't have those. Other rights don't presuppose any abilities and non-human animals might well have at least some of those. The right not to be tortured is a plausible example.

Which rights animals have is controversial. To this we can add that there's a lot of controversy about exactly what rights are. On that question, you might find it useful to take a look at this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But for some issues, the notion of rights may be less important than it might seem. For example, someone might reasonably be persuaded that they shouldn't eat animals even if they're not sure that this is a matter of the rights of the animals.

This isn't to say that rights aren't important. It's just to say that the concept of rights isn't the only tool in our moral toolbox.

There's no clear reason why animals shouldn't have rights. After all, humans are animals and on our usual view, even infants and the severely mentally disabled have at least some rights. Certain rights – for example, the right to sign a contract – presuppose certain abilities and so non-human animals typically won't have those. Other rights don't presuppose any abilities and non-human animals might well have at least some of those. The right not to be tortured is a plausible example. Which rights animals have is controversial. To this we can add that there's a lot of controversy about exactly what rights are . On that question, you might find it useful to take a look at this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But for some issues, the notion of rights may be less important than it might seem. For example, someone might reasonably be persuaded that they shouldn't eat animals even if they're not sure that this is a matter of the rights of the animals. This isn't to say...

I was recently thinking about what it means to be count as a vegetarian, but I

I was recently thinking about what it means to be count as a vegetarian, but I think it's much harder than I originally thought. What does it mean to be a vegetarian? There are several cases where it isn't clear for me. What if a self-proclaimed vegetarian accidentally consumes meat, for example because it was hidden inside other food, or they were lied to about the contents of a meal? Are they still vegetarian? Is a person who just happens not to eat any meat, without having any sort of personal rules about eating meat (perhaps because of poverty, lack of interest or sheer coincidence), a vegetarian? If a vegetarian consents to eating meat meat once, it seems they stop being a vegetarian (or maybe never were?); when do they become a vegetarian again, if they don't eat any meat afterwards? Is there a time limit? If a person wants to avoid eating meat but is occasionally and predictably pressured into eating meat by their friends or family, are they only sometimes a vegetarian, or never one? I...

Like a great many words, "vegetarian" doesn't have a fully-precise meaning; it almost certainly means slightly different things in different contexts and when used by different people. Take your case of the person who just "happens" not to eat meat - not by design, not on principle, but just as it turns out. Whether we call this person a vegetarian or not isn't something that usage fully settles. We might, for example, call them a "de facto vegetarian" as opposed to a "deliberate vegetarian." Part of what we generally mean when we use the word "vegetarian" has to do with what people actually eat, and part has to do with what their intentions are, but there's no simple formula here. A person who intends not to eat meat but eats it accidentally from time to time (e.g., because of misleading labels) would probably count as a vegetarian by most people's standards. If the accidents were frequent enough, many people might hesitate to call the person a vegetarian and would qualify what they say.

As for the person who consents to eating meat on rare occasions, my guess is most people would say s/he is a vegetarian who occasionally lapses, or a vegetarian who will eat meat if there's a good enough reason. (After all, the reasons that lead people to be vegetarian are often not beyond all possibility of reasonable exceptions.) But people will no doubt differ over cases, partly because they will differ about how good the reasons are.

So there's no precise answer to your question, but there do seem to be clear cases of vegetarians: people who have made a deliberate decision not to eat meat, who work hard at sticking to that decision and who are successful in their intentions with, perhaps, very rare exceptions. However, there's really nothing special about vegetarianism here. A great many terms clearly do apply in some cases, clearly don't apply in other cases, and generate variations in usage in yet other cases.

Like a great many words, "vegetarian" doesn't have a fully-precise meaning; it almost certainly means slightly different things in different contexts and when used by different people. Take your case of the person who just "happens" not to eat meat - not by design, not on principle, but just as it turns out. Whether we call this person a vegetarian or not isn't something that usage fully settles. We might, for example, call them a " de facto vegetarian" as opposed to a "deliberate vegetarian." Part of what we generally mean when we use the word "vegetarian" has to do with what people actually eat, and part has to do with what their intentions are, but there's no simple formula here. A person who intends not to eat meat but eats it accidentally from time to time (e.g., because of misleading labels) would probably count as a vegetarian by most people's standards. If the accidents were frequent enough, many people might hesitate to call the person a vegetarian and would qualify what they say. ...

Can animals hope or anticipate?

Can animals hope or anticipate?

Yes, because we are animals and we can do both. But as for non-human animals, the answer depends on whether they're like us in relevant respects. In the case of anticipation, the answer at least seems to be yes. Think of a dog getting visibly excited as you get the can of food from the cupboard, for example.

Hope is more complicated because to hope, the animal would have to represent something as possible, want it, and also represent the possibility that it might not be forthcoming. Whether there are non-human animals with that kind of cognitive sophistication is not clear, and it's also not clear for animals without language what sorts of experiments or observations would help us figure it out. However, it's an interesting question, and psychologists are generally much cleverer at designing experiments than philosophers are. So perhaps some day we'll know.

Yes, because we are animals and we can do both. But as for non-human animals, the answer depends on whether they're like us in relevant respects. In the case of anticipation, the answer at least seems to be yes. Think of a dog getting visibly excited as you get the can of food from the cupboard, for example. Hope is more complicated because to hope, the animal would have to represent something as possible, want it, and also represent the possibility that it might not be forthcoming. Whether there are non-human animals with that kind of cognitive sophistication is not clear, and it's also not clear for animals without language what sorts of experiments or observations would help us figure it out. However, it's an interesting question, and psychologists are generally much cleverer at designing experiments than philosophers are. So perhaps some day we'll know.

It is said that animals cannot behave immorally because they are incapable of

It is said that animals cannot behave immorally because they are incapable of discerning right from wrong. But why is this relevant? Chimpanzees murder one another on occasion, for example. If murder is inherently wrong, what does it matter that the chimps don't know it? Surely, we wouldn't allow moral ignorance as an excuse when a human commits murder. (Not to mention the fact that chimpanzees probably shun other chimpanzees who've committed murder, so how can we really be sure they don't have any moral sensibilities?) The only way I can think of this being relevant is that morality actually has nothing to do with the actions themselves, but rather has to do with how human beings relate to these actions. If murder were wrong because of features inherent in the act of murder, than chimpanzees who kill others would be just as morally guilty as humans who do so. Murder must be wrong because of features inherent to humans (as we are the only candidates for moral agency we know of), and the way we...

A man points a gun and pulls the trigger. The gun fires, and the bullet strikes another man in the head, killing him instantly. Was it murder? Anyone who thinks they can answer the question based on what's been said so far doesn't understand the word "murder." Did the man who pulled the trigger do something wrong? Anyone who thinks they can answer the question based on what's been said so far doesn't understand what it means for something to be wrong. Whether what happened was a murder, and whether anyone did anything wrong depends on a lot that's been left out, not least a lot about who intended to do what and who knew or believed what.

Scenario #1. The man who pulled the trigger is a hit man. The person shot was an otherwise innocent witness to a crime. The person who hired the hit man wants to be sure the witness can't testify. This murder and the man who pulled the trigger (as well as the one who hired him) did something deeply wrong.

Scenario #2: The man who pulled the trigger is a police officer, and his job is to protect a witness from being killed to keep him from testifying. The man who was shot is the hit man, and had the officer not fired his weapon, the witness would almost certainly be dead. That's not murder and it would take considerable arguing to make the case that the officer did anything wrong.

Scenario #3: the man who pulled the trigger is an actor. The gun was supposed to be loaded with blanks and has been on every one of the many previous performances of the play. But someone who wanted the victim dead tampered with the gun. This is a murder. But the murderer isn't the man who pulled the trigger, and that man is not to be blamed for what happened.

All of this is legal and moral common sense. It would be easy and might be instructive to add a bunch of other scenarios. But these few will do. Whether a bit of behavior is an act of murder depends on what was in the mind of the person whose behavior is at issue. It may not depend only on that, but it depends at least on that. The same goes for whether a bit of behavior amounts to moral and not just legal wrongdoing.

So now we come to the monkey. (Yes, I know: chimps aren't monkeys. But it sounds good.) For a monkey to commit murder would take a lot of understanding and intending that's quite likely beyond the capacity of a typical simian. We can agree that the death of the monkey is a bad thing, and that this is because of something about what it means for a creature to die. We can also agree that the death of the man in any of our other scenarios is a bad thing -- that it would have been better if no one had ended up dying. But both in the human case and the animal case, whether it's murder or whether it's a case of moral wrongdoing depends on knowledge, intent and in general what's going on inside one or more minds.

None of this gives us any reason to think that morality is mutable, shifty or culturally relative. Related points apply to behavior that doesn't raise moral issues at all. Whether a waving hand is a greeting or a signal to the waiter to bring the check or an involuntary spasm depends on what's going on in a mind or minds. If we focus on mere raw behavior and ignore what's going on in minds, we won't understand action at all, let alone actions like murder.

A man points a gun and pulls the trigger. The gun fires, and the bullet strikes another man in the head, killing him instantly. Was it murder? Anyone who thinks they can answer the question based on what's been said so far doesn't understand the word "murder." Did the man who pulled the trigger do something wrong? Anyone who thinks they can answer the question based on what's been said so far doesn't understand what it means for something to be wrong. Whether what happened was a murder, and whether anyone did anything wrong depends on a lot that's been left out, not least a lot about who intended to do what and who knew or believed what. Scenario #1. The man who pulled the trigger is a hit man. The person shot was an otherwise innocent witness to a crime. The person who hired the hit man wants to be sure the witness can't testify. This murder and the man who pulled the trigger (as well as the one who hired him) did something deeply wrong. Scenario #2: The man who pulled the trigger is a police...

Are animals self aware?

Are animals self aware?

It is true that a number of psychologists treat intelligent use of mirrors as evidence of self awareness. But I am not convinced. Animals can gather information about their own bodies via various forms of perception, including, of course, vision. Some can also use a mirror - extending the range of their vision - to get information about their own bodies. But I don't see how that implies that they have any concept of self. My guess is that lots of animals do have something that we might reasonably call 'self awareness'. But I don't know of any serious evidence for this.

I am an animal, and I am at least intermittently self-aware, so yes. But I'm guessing you wanted to know whether non-human animals are self-aware. We could spend some time trying to sort out exactly what counts as self-awareness, and that would be a lengthy though worthwhile exercise. But the short and plausible answer is that some are and some (perhaps most) aren't. One reason to think that some are comes from research with mirrors. Some elephants and some chimps, at least, seem to be able to figure out that what they're seeing in a mirror is their own reflection. You can read a short account of some of the research here .

If humans didn't exist, would animals still have rights?

If humans didn't exist, would animals still have rights?

We might start by pointing out that there's a controversy about just what rights are and also about whether animals have rights, but let's try to finesse those issues. On one common way of understanding rights, for me to have a right is for people or institutions to be obliged to treat me in a certain way. Whether that's the whole story, it's plausibly at least part of it. But cats, dogs and so on aren't obliged to act in any way; creatures who aren't capable of understanding obligations can't have any obligations.

If we put these two bits together, we get a plausible answer to your question: if there were no humans, then there wouldn't be anyone who had any obligations. (Of course, if there are non-humans who have the right kinds of minds, the story is different.) If there aren't any creatures who could have obligations, then the animals don't have rights.

We can back off this a bit. Let's use the term moral agent for any creature who is of the sort that can have moral obligations. Then even if there weren't any moral agents, it could still be that animals have what we might call "hypothetical rights": if there were any moral agents, they would be obliged to treat the animals in certain ways. But the idea that animals might have rights apart from any questions of how moral agents would be obliged to treat them is hard to fathom.

We might start by pointing out that there's a controversy about just what rights are and also about whether animals have rights, but let's try to finesse those issues. On one common way of understanding rights, for me to have a right is for people or institutions to be obliged to treat me in a certain way. Whether that's the whole story, it's plausibly at least part of it. But cats, dogs and so on aren't obliged to act in any way; creatures who aren't capable of understanding obligations can't have any obligations. If we put these two bits together, we get a plausible answer to your question: if there were no humans, then there wouldn't be anyone who had any obligations. (Of course, if there are non-humans who have the right kinds of minds, the story is different.) If there aren't any creatures who could have obligations, then the animals don't have rights. We can back off this a bit. Let's use the term moral agent for any creature who is of the sort that can have moral obligations. Then...