19 April 2004


I received the following letter from a reader:
Professor Burgess-Jackson:

Forthwith, I am no expert in the field of animal ethics. . . .

However, as a constant reader of your site, many of your posts prompt internal questions. The following came to mind upon reading your plant/animal dichotomy [see the previous post], and since I've heard many make a similar point in regard to animal rights, I'll ask you (perhaps you could deal with it on your blog someday).

Where does one draw the line, and is the line arbitrary? I'm thinking here about insects. Surely, building one's home not only displaces but destroys many thousands of insects. Are we to take this issue weightily or lightly? Mosquitoes stinging us? Stepping on ants as we walk through the grass? Etc. I guess I'm asking whether insects have rights, and how far one may go before an ordinary swatting of a gnat away from one's ear deigns moral responsibility?

I think you get the point. Now, I'm honestly not offering this as an "argument" against your views—I would just like to hear something said about it. Surely, it seems to me, such considerations are stronger than the "plant" examples to which your interlocutors alluded?

One final request: could your answer entertain a non-utilitarian mode of argument? As a non-utilitarian, I am less likely to be convinced by such an argument (though I can readily see how the argument would be formed on utilitarian grounds).

Just food for thought.

Take care, Allan
Here is my reply:
19 April 2004, 2:15 P.M. Allan: The line is not arbitrary. If a being is sentient, it has moral status. There are two kinds of case: (1) those in which it is clear that the being is sentient and (2) those in which it is not clear that the being is sentient. Let's call these cases, respectively, "easy" and "hard." Cows, pigs, and chickens are easy cases. Insects and mollusks are hard cases. Let's not commit the fallacy of inferring the absence of easy cases from the presence of hard cases. In other words, from the fact that it's unclear whether insects are sentient, it doesn't follow that it's unclear whether cows, pigs, and chickens are sentient. As to your final question, I'm a deontologist. It's wrong to harm others. Suffering is a harm. So it's wrong to inflict suffering on others. You don't have to be a consequentialist (or, more particularly, a utilitarian) to think that suffering matters, morally. kbj
Keep those cards and letters coming!

No comments: