The moral hand, a complete and coherent ethic, applied to animal rights

The moral hand is a metaphor of five basic ethical principles, one for each finger, summarizing coherent ethic. It is the result of a ten year study of ethics and it captures my complete ethical system. Each principle generates a principle of equality. To start a discussion on e.g. animal rights and veganism, I will apply the five principles to our consumption of animal products. 

-The thumb: the principle of universalism. You must (may) do what everyone who is capable must (may) do in all morally similar situations towards all morally equal individuals. Prejudicial discrimination is immoral. We should give the good example, even if others don’t. Just like we have to place the thumb against the other fingers in order to grasp an object, we have to apply the principle of universalism to the other four basic principles.

-The forefinger: justice and the value of lifetime well-being. Increase the well-being (over a complete life) of all sentient beings alive in the present and the future, whereby improvements of the worst-off positions (the worst sufferers, the beings who have the worst lives) have a strong priority. Lifetime well-being is the value you would ascribe when you would live the complete life of a sentient being, and is a function of all positive (and negative) feelings that are the result of (dis)satisfaction of preferences: of of everything (not) wanted by the being.

-The middle finger: the mere means principle and the basic right to bodily autonomy. Never use the body of a sentient being as merely a means to someone else’s ends, because that violates the right to bodily autonomy. The two words “mere means” refer to two conditions, respectively: 1) if in order to reach and end (e.g. saving someone) you push a sentient being to do or undergo something that the being does not want, and 2) if the body of that sentient being is necessary as a means for that end, then you are not allowed to treat that being in that way. A sentient being is a being who has developed the capacity to want something by having positive and negative feelings, and who has not yet permanently lost this capacity. The middle finger is a bit longer than the forefinger, and so the basic right is a bit stronger than the lifetime well-being (e.g. the right to live). The basic right can only be violated when the forefinger principle of well-being is seriously threatened.

-The ring finger: naturalness and the value of biodiversity. If a behavior violates the forefinger or middle finger principles, the behavior is still allowed (but not obligatory) only if that behavior is both natural (a direct consequence of spontaneous evolution), normal (frequent) and necessary (important for the survival of sentient beings). As a consequence predators are allowed to hunt. Just as lifetime well-being is the value of a sentient being, biodiversity is the value of an ecosystem and is a function of the variation of life forms and processes that are a direct consequence of natural evolution. The valuable biodiversity would drastically decrease if a behavior that is natural, normal and necessary would be universally prohibited (universally, because you have to put the thumb against the ring finger).

-The little finger: tolerated partiality and the value of personal relationships. Just as the little finger can deviate a little bit from the other fingers, a small level of partiality is allowed. When helping others, you are allowed to be a bit partial in favor of your loved ones, as long as you are prepared to tolerate similar levels of partiality of everyone else (everyone, because you have to put the thumb against the little finger).

-The palm: universal love and solidarity. Do not hate or despise anyone. Love all living beings with respect and compassion. The palm holds the moral fingers together.

The forefinger, middle finger, ring finger and little finger correspond with resp. a welfare ethic, a rights ethic, an environmental ethic and an ethic of care.

These five fingers produce five principles of equality.

-The thumb: the formal principle of impartiality and antidiscrimination. We should treat all equals equally in all equal situations. We should not look at arbitrary characteristics linked to individuals. This is a formal principle, because it does not say how we should treat someone. The other four principles are material principles of equality. They have specific content and are generated when the thumb is applied to the four fingers.

-The forefinger: the principle of priority for the worst-off. As a result of this priority, we have an egalitarian principle of well-being: if total lifetime well-being is constant between different situations, then the situation which has the most equal distribution of well-being is the best.

-The middle finger: basic right equality. All sentient beings with equal levels of morally relevant mental capacities get an equal claim to the basic right not to be used as merely a means to someone else’s ends.

-The ring finger: behavioral fairness. All natural beings have an equal right to a behavior that is both natural, normal and necessary (i.e. a behavior that contributes to biodiversity). E.g. if a prey is allowed to eat in order to survive, a predator is allowed to do so as well (even if it means eating the prey).

-The little finger: tolerated choice equality. Everyone is allowed to be partial to an equal degree that we can tolerate. If you choose to help individual X instead of individual Y, and if you tolerate that someone else would choose to help Y instead of X, then X and Y have a tolerated choice equality (even if X is emotionally more important for you than Y).

The five moral fingers can be applied to the production and consumption of animal products (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, leather, fur,…):

-The forefinger: compared to humans, livestock animals are in the worst-off position due to suffering and early death. The loss of lifetime well-being of the livestock animals is worse than the loss of well-being that humans would experience when they are no longer allowed to consume animal products. Livestock and fisheries violate the forefinger principle of well-being.

-The middle finger: the consumption of animal products almost always involves the use of animals as merely means, hence violating the mere means principle of the middle finger.

-The ring finger: animal products are not necessary for humans, because a well-planned vegan diet is not unhealthy (according to the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics). Biodiversity will not decrease when we would stop consuming animal products (on the contrary, according to UN FAO the livestock sector is likely the most important cause of biodiversity loss). Hence, the value of biodiversity cannot be invoked to justify the consumption of animal products.

-The little finger: we would never tolerate the degree of partiality that is required to justify livestock farming and fishing. Hence, tolerated partiality cannot be invoked to justify the consumption of animal products.

It follows that veganism is ethically consistent, and the production and consumption of animal products are ethically inconsistent.

-The thumb: give the good example, even when other people continue consuming animal products. From this principle, it follows that veganism is a moral duty.

Tags: animal, ethical, justice, principles, rights, veganism

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Okay, but that's no more than a stipulation, not a fact. And it doesn't even correspond with common usage. That last part about contributing to well-being in particular is not something most people would include in their definition.

well, in fact I could define well-being by claiming it is composed of the positive feelings, so it can be deleted in the definition of sentience. ;-) A more accurate definition of well-being is: the composition of positive feelings resulting from a satisfaction of needs.

It is a definition, not a fact, indeed. Definitions are not facts, and you asked for a definition. I'm not sure whether it doesn't correspond with common usage. What would the common definition of sentience be?  Anyway, the morally relevant thing are the positive and negative feelings, and the well-being as defined above, because that is one of the things that strongly matters to me, to you, to others.

Normally, a definition has to reflect how people speak, unless you are engaging in jargon and are talking to professional peers, not the public. 

For example, in philosophy a materialist is a philosopher who believes that all that exists is either matter or some phenomenon or epiphenomenon related to matter. To the public, a materialist is someone who is comforted by wealth and by possessing material objects.

Granted, sentience is difficult to find in most everyday conversations, but it still strikes me that most people, if asked, are going to say something like this: it means possessing senses. That's a bit circular, so let's ask what is a sense? I believe most would agree that it's a faculty for perceiving one's surroundings and one's place in it. 

ok, that might be their definition, but they would not give a moral value to that kind of sentience. Imagine that you have senses and perceive your surrounding etc. But you don't have any positive or negative feelings about it. You experience touch, but no pain; sound, but no joy of music. You see other humans, but feel no friendship. Would such a state be better than being in a coma or being dead? I doubt it. You would lose something very precious to you. So, even mere perceptual consciousness (without well-being, without positive and negative evaluations) is not enough, morally speaking. 

Y'all are confusing me, bigtime. Do you humans really have philosophies so inconsistent with each other, yet believe your own is so self-consistent?

Omg, I can't wait to hear what plants have to say about this, whenever we figure out how to enable their expressions of feelings, and what-not! (No, wait, maybe it's like dreams... if they cannot yet be described in "meaningful" terms, perhaps we must just assume that it's all nonsense, and in every being's case. End of discussion.)

Sorry it that sounds too negative or cynical. I just stubbed my toe and I'm blaming myself for it. (jk, folks... dark humor creeping into my cold spaces, has to get out, more)

"Speak slowly now. Oh, yeah, I forgot. You already are."

Haha, I need to write this stuff, wait a minute, proofread it, repeat... then (usually) submit it.

You forgot something important: reasons.

You offer no explanations and no reasons. Your entire "ethic" is a series of commandments, not logically laid out arguments, despite you efforts to make it seem so by using labyrinthine language.

we must do this, we must do that,

this should be done, that should be done

we have to do this or that

this is immoral, that is immoral

It felt like reading a holy book, and no point was the question "Why?" answered. Somewhere in there I was half-expecting you to say that life is sacred.

The palm: universal love and solidarity. Do not hate or despise anyone. Love all living beings with respect and compassion. The palm holds the moral fingers together.

Again, this reads like religious doctrine. First, again, it's a commandment. Secondly, you cannot love all living beings, it's not possible, thinking so is evidence of naivete, and demanding it is only a way to induce guilt in people. Same trick religion is trying to pull.

It follows that veganism is ethically consistent, and the production and consumption of animal products are ethically inconsistent.

Hah. No.

Indeed, I did not give the lengthy justifications, the arguments how I came to the moral hand principles. But I can give moral dilemmas to make you see the importance of the mere means principle, and I can point out some tought experiments such as the veil of ignorance to derive the forefinger principle.

Yes, ethics has to do with (im)permissions and obligations. But that is not a poblem, because you definitely have a moral should principle (e.g. one should not steal for fun). And the why question at the end gets an answer: because it is consistent with a coherent set of moral intuitions. Beyond this I cannot go.

Yes, I love all living beings with respect (and the sentient among them with compassion). Love is no way to induce guilt.

If veganism does not follow, you should point at the flaw in the reasoning, or you should say that your assumptions (your intuitions and moral values) are so different that they do not match mine.

Why did you go with hands instead of feet?

Did you mean "the hand instead of feet"?

Did you mean "the hand instead of the foot"?

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