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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The trouble I see with this being applied to all 'animals' is the use of 'sentient being' as such a core principle.  Is an oyster sentient?  Is a sea sponge sentient?  Is a cow sentient?  I suppose your answer to all of these would depend on how one defines sentient.  Also, arbitrarily throwing in the 'natural life span' makes this system further arbitrary - as many creatures have a much longer lifespan in captivity than in the wild.

Also, the 'middle finger' seems to give a big middle finger to gestation of a fetus - using another life form as a means to an end.

I leave it up to scientists to find out whether someone is sentient. Based on current science, I believe sentience is a product of brain activity, so science has to say something about it. According to current scientific consensus, cows and fish are sentient, oysters are not. At this moment, we can use "being vertebrate" as a simple rule of thumb for "being sentient" (including perhaps squids and large decapods).

With sentience I mean having qualia that are positively or negatively evaluated. The quale of feeling a book is neutral, the quale of feeling a needle in your finger is negative, it makes you want to withdraw your finger. Those evaluated qualia (feelings and emotions) contribute to well-being.

The life span was thrown in to avoid some problems such as the replaceability problem. I am not allowed to kill you and put someone else on earth with an equal level of momentaneous well-being as you. Replacing someone will lower the lifsepan well-being of the worse-off, but not necessarily lowers the momentaneous well-being of the worse-off. I don't know why you added the word 'natural'. It is unlikely that the captivity of animals, as we are used to capture them, contributes to their lifetime well-being without using them as merely a means. First, the capture of livestock animals is a use as a means. second, taking away their freedom lowers their momentaneous well-being, and third, most livestock animals live a very short time (six weeks for chickens, six months for pigs). But I don't know what the average lifespan of birds and pigs in the wild is. Do you know whether it is shorter than six weeks and six months?

Gestation of a fetus is not a use as merely a means. You don't do something the fetus doesn't want. You are allowed to use someone as a means, but not merely a means.

So on the one hand you 'leave it up to the scientists' but then you jump into arbitrary categories of sentient creatures without citation.  Why not just state what you consider to count as 'sentience'?  Does an organism need to be able to identify itself from others in its group?  Does an organism need to have thoughts of tomorrow, next season, next year?  Science can determine if organisms express these properties, but it is not up to science alone to determine whether or not these properties qualify as 'sentience' <- that is more a job of philosophers, wouldn't you say?

Did you know that many plants respond to negative stimuli?  Many have defense mechanisms.  Does this make them sentient?

It sounds to me like you just threw in lifespan to bolster your arbitrarily determined morality.  Are cattle in a pasture being held captive or are they being protected from predation/violent death?  Would domestic pigs even exist if they didn't taste so good?  What objections do you have to dairy products?  Why?

I wasn't suggesting that anything negative was being done to the fetus - I was suggesting that your definitions prohibit the fetus from taking advantage of the host in the way they do.

I thought I just stated what I mean with sentience. You can read a bit more about it in a section (the sentience problem) in

An organism doesnt have to be able to identify itself, have thoughts of tomorrow,... to be sentient. Defining what is sentience is indeed a job for philosophers, so that is what I did. After the definition, it is up to scientists to determine who has it.

Those plants are not sentient, and yes I knew about even their self-recognition and communication skills. But that self-recognition is not yet conscious. Computers can be programmed the same way without them getting a consciousness. I was talking about perceptual consciousness (the qualia). My immune system also has  complex self-recognition and communication skills, but that doesn't yet mean my body has two selves, two consciousnesses.

If you protect the cattle in a pasture from predation, then they are protected, yes :-). But then you should also protect them from slaughterers (the more so, because for humans, eating beef is not a necessary need; for carnivores it is, end then we look at the ring finger).

Those domestic pigs would not exist if we stopped eating them, because then we would stop breeding them. That is correct. Bred slaves would not have existed if slavery did not exist, but that does not justify slavery, because we should not treat someone as merely a means. We do not have a duty to give birth to potential beings. And if giving birth violates the middle finger, then we should not give birth. Furthermore, it is not allowed to breed on purpose some very bodily disabled beings such as the current domestic pigs, chickens and cows. Those animals have serious growth problems; if humans would have similar growth problems, we would speak of serious disabilities that might cause extra suffering. But even healthy slaves should not be bred.

Problem with dairy: using someones body in a way that she does not want. Dairy cows are disabled (too big udders with high risk of infection, producing too much milk), artificially inseminated each year, calves taken away (as a mother you would not like that), early deaths,... The natural life expectancy of a cow in the wild that survived her first years is roughly 20 years. A dairy cow that survived her first years is slaughtered at 5 years of age, even when she is pregnant, because her milk production decreases and she is exhausted after those five years of pregnancies and production of more than 20 liters a day. If we would treat women like that, everyone would be horrified.

A fetus is allowed to take advantage of the host, as long as it is not against the will of the host. The middle finger gives an argument pro abortion, even if fetuses are complete persons. A fetus should not use a woman as merely a means, so if the woman does not want the pregnancy, she can decide over her body. She has bodily autonomy that trumps the right to life of the fetus.

Ok, the job of defining sentience is one of philosophers and you have put forward your philosophy.  I have a different philosophy of sentience.  Because of this, your 'hand' is, to me, riddled with inconsistencies.

Although a balanced diet can be achieved on a vegan menu supplemented with vitamin b12 and histidine, it is a difficult diet to maintain and requires a lot more planning than a diet that includes animal products.  Given the challenge already faced by many families here in terms of maintaining a balanced diet, I feel that the inclusion of animal products is essential to assuring the health of youngsters.

Slaves were sentient - pigs are not (at least not by my philosophy).  I find the comparison disgusting and hope you will not again compare slaves to pigs - have you no humanity?

You are attributing human characteristics to dairy cattle and I find such behavior childish.

So you have no problem killing a fetus, but you do object to eating fish.  Again, I must ask what happened to your humanity.

At the place where I live, planning a vegan diet is not so difficult. It has to do with habits and access, but also a omnivorous diet needs habits and access to make it easy enough. Even poor families in western europe are able to buy vegan food, because it is on average less expensive. And everyone can live healthy with a well-planned vegan diet, including younsters, athletes,... (says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)

Why are pigs not sentient? They can feel pain, fear, joy and stress. I compared slaves with pigs because they share this crucial capacity. If slaves were insentient zombies, I would not have a problem with using them. The reason why slavery is bad, is because you treat them in a way that they do not like, i;e. they have negative feelings towards that treatment. But the same is true for pigs in farms. Humanity means compassion, and you can have compassion with all sentient beings. And humanity also means respect, for bodily autonomy, but that also applies to other sentient beings.

What (exclusively) human characteristics did I erroneously attribute to cattle?

Markets must be very different between here and there then - because here it is very expensive to get enough fresh produce to feed a family.  The poor live on far too much refined starch products, supplemented by cheap meat to get their full array of aminos.

Even given access to more produce, a lot of variety is required to get a sufficient supply of aminos - and even after that, B12 and histidine supplements are usually required, with some people finding that they need vitamin D supplements as well, and most women needing Iron supplements, and sometimes calcium supplements.

Not everyone requires all these supplements, but they are often lacking in vegan diets - even when variety seems rather diverse on the surface.  If one ignores the nutritional obstacles and requirement of supplements to the vegan diet - one still has to ask why anyone would want to bother.  I realize you've provided a rhetorical construct that artificially represents your moral stance as a logical one - but it doesn't fly, sorry.

You continue to compare slaves to pigs, which I find repugnant and extremely offensive so I will not address such repugnant rhetoric.

When it comes to cattle, you describe farming and then ask, "How would you feel?"  Well, cattle do not have human sentience and therefore how I would feel is irrelevant - it's just an anthropomorphic fallacy.  Having worked both dairy and meat operations I can tell you first hand that the vast majority of animals live lives immensely less stressful than their wild counterparts.  If you want to discuss human emotions - ask me how I feel a homeless fellow might feel this morning, not knowing whence his next meal will arrive.

regarding the "how would you feel", the same question applies to slaves; in fact it is the basic of the golden rule and compassion. It doesn't mean that it is human sentience, because there is no such thing as human sentience, white sentience, primate sentience, mammal sentience, male sentience,... There is only individual sentience. Sentience is not related to belonging to an arbitrary group such as the group of white men or the group of primates. It's not anthropomorphy, nor primatomorphy, nor andropomorphy, nor ay of these things. You can call it egomorphy if you like.

Point is, we cause suffering to the cow by taking away the calve. You can see her behavior, measure her stress hormones,... She does what we expect someone to do who is in distress like that.

Yes, we should relieve stress in the wild (except for the predators and other things that might harm biodiversity - see ringfinger), but we definitely should not cause such stress ourselves.

Yes, there is human sentience - because we are a different species.  I'm sure you can understand that just because chimpanzees use 'language' does not mean they are equipped to take part in presidential primary debates.  I'm sure you understand the difference in sentience as well.

Are you trying to suggest for a second that if we measured the bio-signs of a cow as a calf was taken away, we would see an equal spike compared to the bio-signs of a human woman as her baby was taken away?  If so, you are delusional.

We should relieve stress in the wild?  Are you nuts?  I think your parents let you pay with stuffed animals just a little too long.

...we definitely should not cause such stress ourselves.

That is your attitude. What raises it to the level of a definite truth? Stress, especially at the end of life, seems natural and endemic to being a relatively highly-involved mammal.

Also, what does your system say about keeping pets? They are basically slaves, aren't they?

Heather, we are a different species, as we are a different order (of primates), a different class (of mammals) and a different whatever. But that does not mean that there is something like primate sentience. Its against evolutionary biology to claim that there is a kind of essence to our species. Be aware of speciesism as a moral illusion (

We do not see an equal spike as with humans. but we do see a spike, and the point is that causing the spike was not necessary, we do not have a sufficient reason to give someone so much stress (even if women would get more stress if we takeaway their babies).  serious wrong does not justify a slighter wrong.

And yes, we should relieve unnecessary stress in the wild for the simple reason of consistency. Use the veil of ignorance: what would you prefer if you were really impartial, if you could be the human, the dog, the mouse,...? It is impartiality and compassion that matters (as long as biodiversity is not threatened), we only have to apply these two values more consistently. Stuffed aniamls did not have anything to do with this (unless you want to make an ad hominem?)

Unseen, most people have the intuition that causing unnecessary suffering is not allowed. Your trivial needs do not trump someone's more basic needs. It is not a definite truth, because there are no truths in ethics. But it is a moral value that most people, except that most people are vulnerable to moral illusions, which means that they are not consistent in applying those values. They want animal welfare laws to protect animals from unnecessary suffering, but still they cause unnecessary suffering.

Pets, like children, are not necessarily slaves. Breeding and selling pets, that is slavery indeed. Adopting pets and taking care of animals is fine.


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