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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Replies to This Discussion

I do not agree with you, and you are now just looping back onto things with which I've already disagreed.  Conversation over.

most vegans don't need histidine supplements, because they sufficiently eat it in soy products, rice, nuts,... Every vegan needs B12 supplementation. (with vegan supplements I mean all products not based on plants or macrofungi. Like B12, they can be derived from bacteria)

One can rarely go wrong nutritionally by eating a balanced diet of vegetables and meat. We do eat too much meat in our culture, but to cut meat out entirely means a lot more managing our diets to make sure we get a good balance, which means it's being done in defiance of Nature.

The lesson is that an omnivorous diet is the most natural diet. I'm willing to eat less meat if I feel it'd save the planet, but to cut it out entirely is to buck Mother Nature and risk ill-health if I don't pay much more attention to what I'm eating.

Very, very few cultures eat exclusively vegetable-based diets, and most of those that do, do so for religious (unnatural) reasons. 

If you want to promote vegetarian diets, stop being an atheist and start promoting Buddhism.

your language about Nature (I leave out the Mother) sounds religious to me. My ring finger principle is the farthest I am willing to go in this naturalness language, because I can give value to biodiversity. But your kind of naturalness, that sounds mysterious to me. 

Religious? How so? I don't tithe for it. I don't go to worship services. I don't participate in any ceremonies to honor it. So, you need to be careful what you conclude based on how things "sound" to you. 

You do believe that every species acts according to its nature, don't you? It's the nature of birds to fly, fish to swim, tigers to kill, etc. And each over time has established a feeding pattern indigenous to that species. That's not religion; that's an observation.

If one day a miraculous tiger were born with the intelligence of a human such that he could comprehend your philosophy, would you say it's the duty of that tiger to become a vegetarian? 

Unseen, I was refering to this kind of naturalness=purity analogy. (religious ethics often contains the notion of purity) It seems very problematic to consistently ascribe moral value to those kinds of naturalness that people (like you?) refer to. If those people have to define the concept of naturalness, that is already difficult, and then we can demonstrate that according to their definition, something immoral would be allowed, because it corresponds with the definition. For example, rape can be considered as a natural act if you don't watch out with your definition. And then there is the danger of the naturalistic fallacy... Not easy, working with a notion of naturalness in a consistent way in ethics

A species is an abstract (and very complicated to define) set of beings. I don't see how abstract sets can act according to a kind of nature. Be aware of essentialistic thinking, because that violates evolutionary biology. (and penguins are birds that don't fly ;-) ). Yes, its in our nature to eat, if that means that we develloped mechanisms to eat, we need food to survive, and we do eat something. But what we eat, is open. And we have no problem with wide openness in diets. We even like to eat things that do not grow in nature (cookies...), we even drink milk from other mammals, we brush our teeth,... Why should you make so much noise about naturalness? I can agree that if naturalness relates to biodiversity, it relates to something that is at least a bit meaningful to give a moral value. But that is not what you mean, is it?

The intelligent tiger argument is discussed in my book I referred to. That tiger is still allowed to eat meat if he does not have a healthy alternative. For that tiger, meat remains natural, normal and necessary, meaning that if that tiger is not allowed to eat meat, then no predator is, resulting in huge biodiversity loss.

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.

Sentience in common parlance HAS no moral dimension. It's a mere descriptor. It's neutral. I'm sorry you don't like the way people use the term, but you're kind of stuck with it.

when people use the word sentience (or well-being) in an ethical context, it is the definition which has a moral dimension.

Research is demonstrating that plants are a lot more sentient than we ever thought before. They fight for territory, try to kill each other, conduct all out war, etc. They also forage for nutritional resources both above ground (sunlight) and below (chemical nutrients). They are just slower than most animals, though some, such as sensitive plants and some of the carnivorous plants, can be surprisingly quick.

but you need more for sentience than that. There are more accurate ways to estimate whether something has feelings (again, see p101 in http://stijnbruers.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/the-ethical-consiste...). And speed is not important either.

I rarely even read the entirety of long posts. I'll stop as soon as I discover a problem. Now, you send me to a 195 page document. No thanks. Define sentience for me. Briefly. If you can't do it briefly, then it's not a useful definition.

The definition is simple: having positive and negative feelings (qualia, subjective experiences) that contribute to well-being. The criteria to test this, that is something that requires more space.

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