30 August 2011

W. D. Ross (1877-1971) on the Moral Significance of Pleasure and Pain

William David Ross (1877-1971) [T]he fact that a sentient being is in a state of pleasure is always in itself good, and the fact that a sentient being is in a state of pain always in itself bad, when this fact is not an element in a more complex fact having some other characteristic relevant to goodness or badness. And where considerations of desert or of moral good or evil do not enter, i.e. in the case of animals, the fact that a sentient being is feeling pleasure or pain is the whole fact (or the fact sufficiently described to enable us to judge of its goodness or badness), and we need not hesitate to say that the pleasure of animals is always good, and the pain of animals always bad, in itself and apart from its consequences. But when a moral being is feeling a pleasure or pain that is deserved or undeserved, or a pleasure or pain that implies a good or a bad disposition, the total fact is quite inadequately described if we say 'a sentient being is feeling pleasure, or pain'. The total fact may be that 'a sentient and moral being is feeling a pleasure that is undeserved, or that is the realization of a vicious disposition', and though the fact included in this, that 'a sentient being is feeling pleasure' would be good if it stood alone, that creates only a presumption that the total fact is good, and a presumption that is outweighed by the other element in the total fact.

(W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988], 137 [first published in 1930]) 

Note from KBJ: Since the concepts of desert and good or bad disposition do not apply to animals (who are not moral agents), their pleasure is intrinsically good and their pain intrinsically bad. (Animals, unlike humans, never deserve to suffer or to be happy, for they are not morally responsible for their behavior.) For beings (such as normal humans) to whom the concepts of desert and good or bad disposition apply, things are more complicated. Pleasure is good when, and only when, it is deserved. Pain is bad when, and only when, it is undeserved. We can say, therefore, that animal pleasure is always good, whereas human pleasure is only sometimes good; and also that animal pain is always bad, whereas human pain is only sometimes bad.

Animal Rights

Tibor Machan makes the common mistake of confusing moral agency with rights possession. One wonders whether he has read any of the literature. Human infants are not moral agents, yet nobody doubts that they have rights. Senile people are not moral agents, yet nobody doubts that they have rights. The severely retarded are not moral agents, yet nobody doubts that they have rights. The insane or mentally ill are not moral agents, yet nobody doubts that they have rights. Machan seems unaware of the distinction between autonomy rights, which only moral agents possess, and welfare rights, which all sentient beings possess. The most prominent welfare right is the right not to be harmed. (Being made to suffer is one type, though not the only type, of harm.) Machan can claim, truly, that animals lack autonomy rights. But then, nobody denies this. His claim, therefore, that animals lack rights is either trivially true (if he means autonomy rights) or false (if he means welfare rights).

01 August 2011

Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) on Animals

Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) 2 We have next to consider who the "all'' are, whose happiness is to be taken into account. Are we to extend our concern to all the beings capable of pleasure and pain whose feelings are affected by our conduct? or are we to confine our view to human happiness? The former view is the one adopted by Bentham and Mill, and (I believe) by the Utilitarian school generally: and is obviously most in accordance with the universality that is characteristic of their principle. It is the Good Universal, interpreted and defined as 'happiness' or 'pleasure,' at which a Utilitarian considers it his duty to aim: and it seems arbitrary and unreasonable to exclude from the end, as so conceived, any pleasure of any sentient being.

(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981], bk. IV, chap. I, sec. 2, p. 414 [italics in original] [first published in 1907; 1st ed. published in 1874])


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