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.

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I think this is very interesting. 

I am coming to the conclusion that those people who have a need for rules are those most easily persuaded by religious dogma.  It seems to provide them with a structure by which they can live their lives.  Not all people work well with rules.  People who eschew rules unless they accord with their own understanding of morality, possibly find atheism a more valuable approach to life, functioning better without an externally provided route map.

For those who prefer clear and structured externally provided guidelines under which to operate, something like the Moral Hand that you have explained very clearly above, might be the solution for their needs.

Thanks for taking the time to post this.

I don't think your first sentence applies to me :-) I have a need for rules, but I am definitely not the moest easily persuaded by religious dogmas. Nevertheless, my search for a coherent ethical system was partly driven by the idea of finding an alternative for some religious ethic. As a former physicist, I approaced ethics as is approached physics and science looking for basic, unifying rules. The system of the moral hand is the end result of a lot of citical reflection on my moral intuitions. I took moral intuitions as input data, used the method of universalism to construct a coherent system, and threw away the weak moral intuitions that are not compatible with the coherent system, as moral illusions. So every moral intuition and judgment was subject to critical thinking. For example, the intuitions behind discrimination, especially speciesism, are moral illusions for a lot of people; those people have an inconsistent ethical system. Discussions with religious believers are now in some way very similar to discussions with speciesists; it comes down to inconsistencies

I'm not sure if the hand is as philosophically profound as that, but it reads well.

True, Pope Paul, but you have to at least consider the potential - especially if you are considering it as an alternative to religious teachings.  I'm willing to bet that you aren't a rule-addict.  I'm not, in a big way.  But for those that are, this might be a reasonable substitute for ancient obfuscated texts.

Tolerance is only intolerant of intolerance. But since there exists a majority of those whose ideals are different than what is mentioned above, these well thought out stances tend to flail in the wind of day to day life. 

Your principles are admirable, but your comment

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

leaves you with the question; What do you do with those who do not believe the same as you do?

If you were King of the World, you would stop consumption of animals. But you are not KotW, and the majority stakeholders of the world do not believe as you do. So it is not a question of what do you do with them, but what do they do with you? I believe you are on the right side of history, but I also think that you have a hard road ahead breaking through the millennia of built up industry, finance, and infrastructure of those who oppose you.

You are not the first to travel this path, look up Invisible Dictatorship

[t]here is only one power and one dictatorship whose organisation is salutary and feasible: it is that collective, invisible dictatorship of those who are allied in the name of our principle. -Mikhail Bakunin

what I do with those who do not believe the same as I do?

First, I look at common grounds, moral intuitions that we share, and in a lot of cases, I see that people already share some moral intuitions, putting them together in a consistent way brings the resulting ethical system very close to my system of the moral hand. So people who do not believe in veganism often already believe in sufficient moral judgments that will bring them to veganism as a logical conclusion and to speciesism as a moral illusion.

Then there are people who do not share my basic moral intuitions and judgments. These people can construct an ethical system that is consistent, but very different from mine. In that case, all I will keep on doing is trying to convince them of some basic moral judgments, trying to trigger their empathy,... Rational discussions with them will lead to nowhere if they have different basic moral values. Luckily, most people I know have basic moral values that I share and that underlie my argument for veganism. But the same is actually true with most religious believers that we know: they already share our epistemic values and virtues. The problem is, they have illusions, they have blind spots, their beliefs are inconsistent with their own epistemic values. In theory, they can be convinced with logical, rational arguments, but in pracice, due to their psychology.... But at least they share our epistemic values, which means they are not totally crazy :-) We have to celebrate their epistemic values.

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

This is your application of the "Moral Hand" approach, and I am sorry that I did not make my post clearer.  It is the first part of your post with which I concerned myself with.  I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian.  I love my steaks and I'm not about to change my chicken intake either.

Just to be clear...

I see a bunch of stipulations functioning as premises. I don't need to act based on unproven premises. 

You also have a problem right from the outset with vicious circularity. You are basically attempting to prove a moral or ethical theory by appealing to it. For example: 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.

And what is this ambiguity between "must" and "may" all about?

All ethical systems are subjective to some degree (usually a large degree), but being subjective to any degree totally takes away their universal applicability and they become someone's personal code.

In the end, ethics is about people's attitudes, not objective facts.

Finally, an ethic that doesn't help one in a real situation where a quick decision is required is merely an academic exercise. Your system doesn't even lend itself to a pocket card version. 

I suspect your entire purpose is to arrive at something like "be nice to animals," but all that argumentation isn't helpful. If I go out to back my car out of the driveway and I notice that a cat is asleep behind my rear tire, whether I shoo the cat away before starting my car has nothing to do with my ethics and everything to do with who, over my lifetime, I have become.

the five principles are not themselves premises, but are the end result of some thinking based on premises. And these premises were moral intuitions that I have and share with a lot of other people.

There is no ambiguity between must and may, I tried to capture the idea in one sentence, but in fact it should read as two sentences, one with the word "must", one with "may"

Ethics is indeed about attitudes, not objective facts. The only thing I did is start with those attitudes and see if you can make them consistent, using some restrictions, such as the universality criterion.

The five moral fingers are compatible with some heuristics or rules of thumb for quick decision making. In fact, they can be used to test the reliability of rules of thumb. And sometimes we see that some rules of thumb, some moral heuristics, misfire, generating moral illusions. If you are interested, read the sections on moral illusions in

The purpose was not to arrive at "be nice to animals". the only purpose was to arrive at a coherent system that best fits my strongest moral intuitions. Be nice to animals happens to be a result.

It's bad logic to more or less assume within your argument what you are attempting to prove. If you are attempting to arrive at a moral conclusion, you must eschew terms like "immoral," "wrong," etc.

But let's say it's not a true proof, then why present it as though you've generated a new theory of ethics, in which case it's something everyone should consider?

Simply because attitudes are consistent and can be formed into an argument, that doesn't make them good.

Those who exploit common people are criminals.
Criminals must be destroyed.
Jews exploit common people.
Thus, Jews are criminals.
Thus, Jews must be destroyed.

You have to argue with facts, not attitudes.

The whole concept of "sentience" is difficult to apply. Literally, it means "to be possessed of senses." Normally, one has to resort to assuming it, because, if sentience means being in possession of senses, the only senses we shall ever know are our own. Also, how far down the evolutionary chain to attribute senses? Amoebas and ferns seem able to respond to changes in their environment, implying some level of sensory perception.

Recent research shows that plants act in their environment much like animals only slower, battling each other for territory, conducting what can only be described as war. This happens not only above ground but, often, down in the soil as well. Roots forage for nutritional resources, too. The parallels with animals are striking.

Claiming that plants aren't sentient is becoming a losing battle. It's only by using analogies with ourselves (human-centrism) that we can favor animals over plants. The main difference is that animals are animals (animate beings) whereas plants are stationary (or planted). Animals can run, plants can't.

indeed, from the perspective of my ethical system, consistency of attitudes is not sufficient for moral goodness. The rule "be selfish" is consistent, but violates my basic moral intuitions. But I claim that a lot of other people already have similar moral intuitions, and that making their attitutes consistent results i e.g. veganism.

Indeed, I can only be sure of my own feelings, but that is not human-centrism, but egocentrism. All I'm asking is that we attribute sentience to others in a consistent way. No-one believes that s/he is the only sentient being in the world. I attribute sentience to you. Attributing sentience to plants, based on their self-recognition and communication, would not be consistent with not attributing sentience to our immune system, to computers,... However, the recent experiments on fish make it possible to consistently attribute sentience to fish, because they do something more than those plants, something that I can more strongly couple to my own feelings if I had similar behavior. see page 101 in

It strikes me that the five fingers, when wrapped around a dick and moved, exactly follow the philosophical masturbation I just read.


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