Even among supporters of animal rights, there is a common belief that death per se is not harmful to non-human animals. That is, it is morally permissible to kill an animal so long as you do so in a relatively painless way. On this view, while animals are harmed thought experiencing conscious suffering, they are not harmed through being painlessly killed.
The justification usually offered for this view is that most non-human animals lack self-awareness-a concept of themselves as persisting subjects of conscious experience. Because non-human animals lack this capacity, they can’t attribute value to their own live in such a way as to have an interest in continued life. So while animals certainly have an interest in avoiding suffering, they have no comparable interest in continuing to exist. As such, there is nothing prima facie wrong with killing most non-human animals in painless ways.
I will argue that this common sentiment is mistaken. Many non-human animals have an interest in continued life even if they lack a robust sense of self.
The Moral Importance of Interests
Let’s start with a moral basic question: But what are interests and why are they morally relevant?
To say that an entity has interests is to say that it has a welfare— it is capable of being harmed or benefited by what happens to it. To have moral rights and standing is to be the sort of being whose interests are considered from the moral point of view.
Said another way, when we give entities moral consideration, we give consideration to how our actions can harm or benefit them. Having interests entails “having a stake” in how one is treated so to say. From this, it follows that interests form the basis of moral consideration. Hence, if non-human animals have interests, then we must consider them in our ethical decision making.
Consciousness Forms the Basis of Interests
What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a being to have interests? Aaron Simmons gives a simple yet sensible answer to this question: consciousness.
We should start with the observation that Interests are inherently evaluative. For a being to have interests means that certain things have value for that being, certain things are good for that being. For example, a being having an interest in life implies that life has value for that being.
So then, what explains the nature of this value, where this value comes from, and why certain things have value for some beings? I think a being’s capacity for desires provides the most reasonable explanation for the idea that certain things are of value to certain beings.
To start with, it seems clear that there is a basic link between desiring and valuing . When we desire a thing, we regard that thing as good to some degree, meaning simply that we have some positive feeling toward that thing.
It is unclear where that value is meant to come from if not, in some sense, from an entity’s capacity to desire or care about things — that is, if not from an entity’s capacity to have positive feelings toward certain things, to regard things as good. If an entity completely lacks the capacity to desire or care about things, then it is perplexing how things could have value for it.
Hence, the best explanation for the value imbued in interests is the presence of mental states such as desires and goals that relate to intrinsically motivating qualitative states like joy and suffering. In other words, a system of consciousness is both necessary and sufficient for the possession of interests. Therefore, non-human animals count morally.
Non-Human Animals Have an Interest in Continued Life
We are now in a position to determine whether non-human animals have an interest in continued life. In order to have an interest in continued living, an animal must be harmed by dying. On my account of personhood, a being can only have a right to life if they have an interest in continued living. That is, they must be harmed by dying. The central question becomes what desires, goals, and aims can be thwarted by death.
The most straightforward answer would be any future-oriented mental state. If a being has desires, hopes, and dreams about the future, then killing said being deprives them of a future that is valuable to them. It annihilates everything they take to be important about their conscious lives. To a being that cares deeply about their conscious future, their continued existence or untimely death makes a difference to their lives as experienced.
This is true for both conscious and dispositional desires. You have dispositional desires even when you aren’t currently focused on them. For example, If you love your children, you don’t stop loving them the moment you focus your attention on something else, like a football game. Other desires can be dispositional too. Consider how the various long-term desires or projects that many people have such as a desire to get an education in college, or a desire to find romantic love. A person does not actively experience these desires perpetually, yet they still exist.
On my view, the right to life can be grounded in dispositional desires relating to the various enjoyments present in one’s conscious life. To enjoy something entails that one experiences a feeling of satisfaction or mental pleasure (distinct from a purely physical, bodily pleasure) upon having or experiencing that thing. Moreover, it entails that one likes the thing that one enjoys, meaning that one has and experiences a positive feeling or attitude of approval or favorability toward that thing.
In this way, one’s enjoyment of a thing entails that one desires that thing. One has a feeling of care toward the thing one enjoys, in such a way that one is disposed or motivated in one’s behavior to pursue that thing. In this sense, a being’s enjoyments count as desires (and thus, are the kinds of things which can be satisfied or thwarted). In many cases, enjoyments should be viewed as dispositional rather than temporary experiences.
Building off of this, to the extent that many animals periodically enjoy forms of play, it is reasonable to think they have an enduring disposition to feel enjoyment over playing, even when they are not presently experiencing that enjoyment. This disposition can be explained in terms of non-occurrent mental states that psychologically connect different states of consciousness together.
As long as a non-human animal has dispositional desires about various enjoyments in life, such as those relating to family and other social relationships, forms of play, exploring the environment, environmental comforts (e.g., a warm day, a coolbreeze, etc), physical activity (e.g., running, swimming), learning, etc then they can have a right to life. Death can be bad for an animal if dying denies them a future of activities, relationships, experiences, projects and pleasures that they are disposed to cherish and care about. The right kind of psychological identity over time to accommodate dispositional desires is the only thing required.
In particular, a being must have conscious states at different points times that are psychologically connected by such things as memories, desires and intentions. If there were no psychological connections, there would be nothing to explain the persisting beliefs and desires that encompass one’s conscious enjoyments in life. Thankfully, there is good evidence that many non-human animals possess these kinds of mental states. Non-human animals have an interest in continued life in virtue of their desires(both occurrent and dispositional) relating to the various enjoyments in life.
It is plausible to think that many non-human animals have an interest in continued life even if they lack a robust level of self-awareness. This due do the fact that dispositional desires regarding the goods of consciousness in life can be thwarted by death. Consequently, even painlessly killing non-human animals(such as cows, chickens, and pigs) represents a moral harm.
The upshot is that even “humane” farming is prima facie wrong as it violates the animal’s interest in continued life. Defenders of so-called humane farming must present substantial argument in order to outweigh this prima facie violation of moral rights. This task is rather difficult since, as argued elsewhere, the human interests at stake in consuming animal products are no where near sufficient to justify the harm done to animals. Until that is done, the current analysis of the wrongness of killing strongly supports ethical veganism/vegetarianism.