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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So, there is no particular accuracy attached to intuition. How could there be if it is automatic and unreflective? Intuition seems to be something to be stamped out, if it exists at all. We don't want people acting unreflectively. In particular, YOU don't.

indeed, intuitions are the starting point, the input data, as in science. The comes the critical reflection, turning the intuitions into a coherent set of universalized ethical principles. That is not easy, just as deriving universal laws of physics are not easy when looking at the input data from experiments (moral dilemmas are the thought experiment analogs of scientific experiments, triggering intuitive responses can be compared with interogating nature). Very importantly: when some intuitions cannot be made consistent with a strong coherent system of universalized ethical principles, they have to be dismissed as moral illusions (like optical illusions and cognitive biases). So we should not blindly trust all our intuitions. But we have to start from intuitions (just like we have to start from data in science).

The method is called reflective equilibrium, for a reason. That is how I approach ethics and science. Start with a bunch of unreflected input data, and then (reflectivelly) construct a coherent system of principles or laws.

Besides direct hunting pressure, wild animals compete with us for resources, especially the apex predators. They need their range and their prey animals to survive. We are destroying their habitat and making it our own, namely farms and ranches. We are decimating their "biodiversity".... both to grow vegetables... and to develop our domesticated meat and dairy animals and by fishing low in the food chain. This damage also extends to ocean water chemistry.

So yeah, I do agree that these freaky human engineered cows, chickens, and pigs have rights and their usage is cruel and anything but green, but let's face it, If a vegan has more than one kid, it's a short-sighted view and I'm not impressed. Human population and decimation of the planet is the real killer and will be our own end as well.

You could say it's a double insult that we're murdering animals in order to fuck the planet. 

but let's face it, If a vegan has more than one kid, it's a short-sighted view and I'm not impressed. Human population and decimation of the planet is the real killer and will be our own end as well.

Kudos. Too few people are aware of the real problem: overpopulation. We can try to be as green as we can, recycle and be vegans, but none of it means anything if we just keep multiplying and spreading like a scourge of locusts.

“The multiplication of our kind borders on the obscene; the duty to love them, on the preposterous.”

― E.M. Cioran

The cows that graze in the pasture below my home have a wonderful life. There caretaker provides them with plenty of green grass and hay in the winter. They have a lovely flowing stream to drink from at any time. They do not suffer and are quickly terminated once there grazing days are over. While this may not be the case for all livestock it does illustrate that animals, fish included, can be raised humanely and terminated in the same manner. 

I have neighbors who are vegan and they're great people/friends. Their lifestyle is not for everyone. The fact that I can predate on an animal/fish for sustenance does not mean I cannot appreciate the life that was sacrificed. I do take pause for considering such things. That is a lot more than the wolf or coyote considers. So the question is "How do you teach the critters of the world to quit eating each other?"

In nature, a cow would likely not lay down and die a quiet death. Rather she would be run down by wolves, taken down by a bear, or pounced on by a big cat. In Africa, animals are brought down by packs of wild dogs who literally dismember them before they are dead. At least a big cat kills its prey first, then eats it. 

What we humans do in our slaughterhouses is no worse and often could be kinder than what happens in nature. If anyone wants to make it more humane, I'm all for it, but I see no advantage to animals by throwing them to the other predators. All I see in efforts by Bruers is to keep human hands clean with little or no actual benefit to the species we eat. They will likely not simply lay down and die. They will be identified as weak by predators and killed in ways which can be far more horrific than having their brain destroyed in an instant in a slaughterhouse.

If one has concern for the animals, let a human kill them. Generally, it will be a less painful death.

I'm aware that from time to time inhumanities are practiced in the meat industry and those should be prosecuted with such vigor that anyone in the industry should be afraid of a conviction. Animals should not be subjected to needless stress and certainly not to torture, but the destiny of every animal on Earth, humans included, is to provide sustenance to some other living thing.

Bruers and his ilk would benefit the world far more by finding ways to reverse human population growth. If, in 200 years, the human population has been reduced by a third, that would benefit the world far more than were everyone to become vegan.

Do I smell a false dichotomy here? I guess you eat meat AND don't help prey. Anyway, it is consistent to say that predators are allowed to hunt, that you don't have a duty to interfere, but you may.

The fact that aboriginals can be worse of in the wild (droughts, parasites, illnesses, bad weather, food shortage,...) is no reason to capture them and use them as slaves, even if as a slave they would have more access to food and protection from parasites.

I don't have and don't want children due to overpopulation, and I campaign for family planning, because that is the most effective of the ethical strategies to combat overpopulation. But I want to do more: reduce population AND do not use slaves are sentient beings as merely means AND help some humans and animals in the wild AND give money to charity AND lower my ecological footprint.

Slave owners said that the destiny of black people is to serve as slaves. But of course we know that is a bad ideology. Be aware of bad ideologies when you say that the destiny of someone is to be harmed in a way. It might be a good ideology, but you are on dangerous area...

Would I help a prey item escape a predator? No, I would not. If animals have rights, then predators should be allowed to be whatever they are as well. A cat is entitled to be a cat, a wolf a wolf, and a barracuda a barracuda. It seems that you think, in an ideal world where we could save all the prey animals , the predators would be stamped out. So much for biodiversity, I guess. 

You obviously believe that it would be wrong to help aboriginals if we had to enslave them in the process, so we come back to your hostility even to keeping animals as pets. 

While I believe that our attitude toward slavery is time- and place-bound and is on local cultural attitudes, I feel enslaving humans is not something I want in my culture, though I do recognize, as you believe, that it can have advantages even to the enslaved. 

If you're not having children, great. I wholly approve.

Depending upon how one defines harm, virtually all animals will die of some sort of harm on the day they die. As I have said, most of them will not lay down and die of old age. If I lunch on a critter that is otherwise likely to die in the jaws of a large predator, they will likely suffer less if its due to a shot to the head, instantly scrambling their brains. I'm sure they are in distress in a slaughter house, but how can one say it's better or worse than being chased for an hour and finally brought down by a pack of wolves.

"So much for biodiversity, I guess."

That's an odd reaction in the light of my ring finger principle. Loss of biodiversity is one of the most important reasons why we do not have a duty to protect prey.

animals as pets are not necessarily used as slaves. Children are not slaves. Breeding and selling pets would be like breeding and selling slaves. But taking care of someone doesn't make you a slave owner.

If you didn't kill that animal, than the animal would experience a positive well-being for at least a few hours. That is preferable to an earlier death. We should not kill someone without good reason, even if someone else is going to kill someone. (as a test, you can think of moral dilemmas where your intuitions agrees with this)  If a murderer is going to heavily torture someone to death, we are not allowed to painlessly kill that victim the day before to use him as merely a means to our ends. If the killing of the murderer is natural, necessary and normal behavior, e.g. if the murderer is a predator who needs meat in order to survive, then you can try to painlesly kill the prey and give the prey to the predator if the predator is not able to kill the prey painlessly. (But you do not have a duty to do that; if you don't like killing) 

It seems you again make a false dilemma in your last paragraph. We are not talking about euthanasia.

What do you mean with "once there grazing days are over"? That sounds like euthanasia. Anyway, if you were a cow living on those pastures, would you prefer to be killed or not?

Good that you take a pause for considering things. There is value in there, and indeed, wolves can't do that.  

Why is it that you can understand that wolves lack the capacity for such considerations yet you continue on with your childish anthropomorphisations of cattle considering such things?


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