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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you still have to explain what anthropomorphisations I made... I did never refer to a capacity that all (or most) humans but no cows have, that I incorrectly attributed to cows.

Asking someone to imagine being a cow, and then asking them what their preference would be.  You can't both be a cow and have the sorts of opinions that a human would have.  Such speculations are fun for children's stories, but not a rational basis for forming adult opinions.

ah, I see. That is not necessarily antropomorfisation. It is compassion. Just imagine being a cow with - of course - having the cow's preferences. I can't really know what it is like, being a woman with woman's preferences (there is no such thing as "women preferences", by the way), but with my compassion I do know that rape is bad. No matter how much the rape victim tels about her experience, what it means for her, I well never have her feelings and preferences myself, but I do have compassion. And it is not andropomorfisation (male projection).

Of course, we have to interpret the cow's behavior and fysiological reactions after her calf is taken away. And the simplest interpretation (ockham's razor) is that she feels sad, upset,... Look at this movie:

use your compassion and ask yourself what the cow feels. I show this movie a lot, and everyone, even farmers, children,... agree that the cow is scared. No-one has problems interpreting this behavior. Being scared is most likely not an emotion that humans do but cows do not have. This is not antropomofisation. Question is: when is it allowed to make someone scared like that? (I am not even talking about the killing here.)

So now you are comparing women to cattle?  What the fuck is wrong with you?  This 'discussion' is over.  You are disgusting.

yes, it happens that both women and cattle have feelings and preferences and that I am not a woman and not a cow and cannot really feel how it is like being a woman or a cow. That's true. That is exactly what women and cattle have in common. You know this, I know you do, so be consistent: this is a comparison between women and cattle. And even you (I suppose you are a woman), cannot really know what it is like being another woman being raped. Even if you are raped, you cannot know this. But you do have empathy.

Anyway, I can interpret your reaction in only one way: once A and B happen to have something in common, all judgments and treatments and stuff should be the same for A and B... I say "all", because if it is not "all", I really don't know what the fuck would be wrong with it. If it is not "all" judgments, then there might very well be a difference in important judgments, i.e. differences between A and B that are important to you. No need for being disgusted.

So, women should eat gras in the fields, and cows should, well...  go to the doctor for a mammography and use the women's toilets, and their calves should go to school. (sorry, this was exagerated)

Were I a cow with intelligence equivalent to a Dutch philosopher, I would not like being psychologized across species lines.

waauw, what do you mean with that? Psychologized across species lines? In a context where I was talking about fear and distress?

Perhaps I should use the strategy that someone else in this discussion did: target the antecedent. You are not an intelligent cow. :-)

Not even if it could save your life?

I would not like the being psychologized part, though. LOL


"I think your reasoning is emotional and confused.  It's philosophically valid to say that in your opinion, because eating meat involves the bodily violation of the animal, it's bad.  It's not philosophically valid to say that for the same reason, eating meat is like rape, and because it's like rape, it's bad."

well, the latter part I am not saying. What I can claim is that the reason why rape is bad is coherent with the reason why eating meat is bad. But if rape never existed and no-one thought of rape, than meat would still be a violation of bodily integrity.

"To claim that killing an animal for food is the same as raping a fellow human being - is nasty, is an unfounded assumption, and is an inappropriate, hidden attempt to appeal to emotion in order to support your argument."

in a sense, you are right, I make an appeal to emotion. Sorry that you interpreted it as a hidden attempt. Anyway, I have a need for consistency, and most people have, and they feel bad when they donj't have consistency. I appeal to that emotion of frustration.

 "Argument from analogy is a weak form of argument, primitive and folklorish.  Instead of trying to describe the qualities of eating meat in terms of the qualities of rape, you need to justify your argument on direct grounds or not at all."

I definitely don't agree that argument from analogy is weak. It is the basis of consistencdy, applying the principle of universality: if A is X and B is like A in the relevent respect, then B is X. Besides, in discussions, a lot of meat eaters give me arguments with analogies. What about pets, are you wearing leather, can a baby drink milk, aren't plants sentient as well, what about predation,...? All these questions/arguments are based on analogies. And I like it, because I like coherence. In my e-book "the ethical consistency of animal equality", I discuss more about universalism and kinds of analogies.


"... the reason why rape is bad is coherent with the reason why eating meat is bad..." 

I don't think this means anything, and it certainly doesn't support any argument about eating meat.

"I have a need for consistency, and most people have, and they feel bad when they don't have consistency. I appeal to that emotion of frustration."  

If you set out to describe the world, and don't like what you find, and then bend your perceptions until they become attractive to you - you won't get very far. 

"... the principle of universality ..."  - what is that?  It sounds like the Principle of Vague Wishful Thinking.  Am I right that you're a physicist?  I can't imagine you invoking a Principle of Universality, and analogies, whether poor or not, in order to support research in the field of physics.  This stuff is not a parlour game - to some people it can be life or death. 

"Besides, in discussions, a lot of meat eaters give me arguments with analogies."  Two wrongs don't make a right, this is a basic moral principle. 

"All these questions/arguments are based on analogies." - they're based on direct facts.  

"And I like it, because I like coherence." - but the world is the way it is, not the way you want it to be. 

"If you set out to describe the world, and don't like what you find, and then bend your perceptions until they become attractive to you - you won't get very far."

I don't know why you say this here, but it is true.

The principle of universalism corresponds with the thumb principle: for example equal judgments for morally equal situations. Universality is a necessary requirement for physical laws. I don't feel like writing everything here. More on universalism (in ethics and science) is in my book "the etical consistency of animal equality. (Yes, I have a PhD in physics; now I am doing a PhD in moral philosophy)

questions/arguments "based on direct facts"? I disagree with that. yes, there is the fact that I was not wearing leather shoes and that I answered that babies are allowed to drink breast milk and that a predator eats meat. But these are all analogies. The losses of well-being in rape and in slaughterhouses are also facts.

Your other responses seem trivially true to me, although I don't know why you wrote them here. Of course the world is not the way I want it to be. I'm glad you're here to tell me these things. ;-)


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