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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Can you show that it is the livestock industry that drives the grain and soy expansion?  Up until a few decades ago, cattle, for example, were raised in pastures.  The use of grains is a more recent development in agriculture in the US.

You just offered vegan agriculture as an alternative that would function as a solution.  What about replacing a lot of the fields with pasture and allowing cattle to graze?  For some reason that seems like an alternative that includes livestock production and is less destructive.  In fact, the reason it is so inefficient to raise cattle now is because they do not easily digest grains.  It is a race to see which kills the cattle first, the butcher's knife or sickness.  They should be pastured rather than confined to feed lots where the only food offered to them is not the source they are adapted to.

The dive of the soy expansion (livestock) is studied by the FAO. See also "The Protein puzzle" and other studies. Extensive (pasture) livestock farming is in some sense less efficient than current (cropland) intensive livestock farming in terms of production per unit input. You need more pasture land. It is possible that a much lower meat consumption, such that only the less productive pasture lands are used for livestock, might be more efficient than a pure vegan agriculture, but that difference is uncertain and small, and livestock generates a violation of the mere means principle that will easily trump the slight uncertain increase in efficiency. We don't have to use maximally efficient agriculture if we violate someone's basic right to bodily autonomy.

If we could safely turn omnivores in herbivores, if that is feasible, then we should do so, indeed. As B12 supplementation requires a conscious proces, it is not natural, indeed. It's like toothpaste: we need it due to a unnatural diet. Eating meat is not necessary, not even for athletes, sayd the academy of nutrition and dietetics. We can thrive just the same.

Animals may always be killed in agriculture. But the accidental death of mice on soy crop fields is not the same as using animals as merely a means (because the mice do not have to be present for our food production). All we have to do is minimize harm by being more careful, using mice-friendly agricultural practices (no pesticides, less tilling,..). The same for monocultures that destroy biodiversity: use agro-ecology. Luckily, the environmental impact of a plant-based diet is less than our omnivorous diet. Indeed there are new ways to raise crops that better respect the five principles, but new ways for livestock are impossible: they always violate the mere means principle. Livestock farming can improve on well-being (forefinger) and biodiversity (ring finger), but less so than vegan agriculture, and it cannot imprive on the mere means principle which is automatically satisfied in vegan agriculture. So you see how the five fingers work together towards veganism.

No, it looks like you want them to, but they don't necessarily.

You say that it is impossible due to the fact that it violates your five finger principle.  Considering that your five finger principle was created with veganism in mind, that's not surprising.  To ignore other options that can be involved in raising cattle, such as a local system, pasturing cattle, etc, is to ignore viable options that are less harmful or maybe even slightly beneficial by getting rid of some of the monoculture that exists today.

An unnatural diet is the reason we need toothpaste.  An unnatural diet is the reason we need B12.  Shouldn't we not only use it to help us overcome the unnatural diet, but also try to figure out what it is about our unnatural diet that is causing the need for it?  Band-aid solutions don't solve underlying problems.

I had veganism in mind when I constructed the five fingers, yes. But I tried to falsify veganism, derive a consistent ethic that satisfies my most basic moral values and intuitions, and that allows meat consumption. I did not succeed, in fact, I moved towards the five fingers that way.

Monocultures are often bad, but that is not related to veganism and livestock farming: both can operate with and without annual monocultures. The benefices of pasture farming do not trump the mere means principle. Using pasture livestock can only be allowed if either human slavery or discrimination are allowed, so I'd say we stick to antislavery and antidiscrimination, at the cist of oving towards a vegan agriculture (that is feasible and will increase food security and environmental efficiency compared to the current system)

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with unnatural diets. Unnaturalness is dificult to define (the best I can come up with is captured in the ring finger principle, related to the value of biodiversity). the only problematic diets are the ones that cause harm, are unhealthy or have a high environmental impact. But naturalness as a lot of people use it, sounds like a religious kind of purity. Just do something unnatural if it is moral.

It's like toothpaste: we need it due to a unnatural diet.

We don't need toothpaste because of our unnatural diet—that's silly. We invented toothpaste because it cleans our mouths better. It is a technology. It would have had the same benefit for cavemen as it currently has for us. 

I was informed differently. I thought indigeneous people and animals in the wild are less vulnerable to dental caries. We consume too much sugar, starch, soft drinks...

@Stijn Bruers

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.

"Intuition" is a meaningless word to me. I perceive, I think, I don't intuit. 

Good, so it's not a fact that we need to protect animals. It's in that vague and blurry area you describe as a "moral value." Some people's moral values include stoning adulterers, never planting two crops in the same field, lynching blacks, eradicating Jews, and so on. So, there's nothing particularly good about a moral value. So, how do we know a good moral value, then? 

Setting aside how one knows The Good, values are basically nothing more than attitudes. If one feels a need to protect animals, of course they'll develop the attitudes to go along with their inclinations.

If you're peddling the idea that most people feel this or that, a forum populated almost entirely by skeptics is the wrong place, but I do have to admire your pluck.

As for your inconsistency regarding pets, if we are to ascribe rights to pets similar to those we ascribe to humans, certainly a right to self-determination is among them. In other words, to be free from even well-intentioned adoption and body modifications. We spay our cats, but our cats would certainly prefer to mate and have kittens and, generally, to be cats. No?

On the other side of the coin, if we set their rights aside in order to promote animal welfare, why stop with cats and dogs? The population of humans is getting out of control and threatening the planet in a way cats and dogs never could! The idea that we should do it for animals but not that not speciesist?

Sorry Unseen, but you do intuit :-) Unless you are psychologically so special? but then I want to do psychological research on you.

From within my system of ethics (a coherent system based on my moral values), I can see what values are immoral. Values are attitudes, yes. But I put a strong constraint on them: consistency!.That is the key. Most people who believe in God are atheists (they don't believe in zeus, apollo, krishna,...), but they are inconsistent atheists. You see? People who consistently believe in all possible gods, are at least consistent. But these people are rare, I don't know anyone like that. People who consistently believe in lynching blacks, are rare as well.

Spaying cats is for the benefit of (other) cats, birds,... And it does not harm cats too much. Spayung humans is an option, and yes there is human overpopulation, but for humans we have another equally efficient and more ethical option than forced sterilization: creating fair circumstances for a voluntary pregnancy limitation, using family planning techniques. So we should invest in family planning, give money to IPPF, UNFPA,... That is what I do. Family planning and veganism are the two major win-win-win-win situations (yes, at least four wins for both, that's a record ;-) ).   


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?

Stijn Bruers:

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.


I'm not arguing purity or anything ethical. I'm arguing that what's natural is what a species normally does as an expression of its nature. If you're going to argue that, actually, there is no such thing as a creature's nature, then you're going to have say that it's just a huge coincidence that all hawks kill mice, birds, and other prey items, that it's a coincidence that all cows like eating grass, and that it's a coincidence that wolves and people are omnivorous.

The so-called "naturalistic fallacy" doesn't enjoy the status of a formal fallacy. There's no way to prove it the way we can demonstrate the invalidity of a syllogism. If you accept it, fine. I'm under no obligation to do so. I do think species act in a consistent way we can call their nature. Defining a species is hardly impossible, and for higher creatures it's really quite easy: if two types of beings (e.g., dogs and wolves) can mate and produce viable offspring, they are the same species. If not (e.g., horses mating with donkeys, producing barren mules), then they are different species. 

Penguins are the so-called "exception that proves the rule" the rule being that birds fly, except for some descended from ones who did. BTW, penguins do fly...under water. Their wings are simply adapted to an aquatic life. 

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.

Hence, we are omnivores, and the omnivorous diet is the best one for those of us who don't want to sit down and make sure we got enough of this and enough of that. It's the easiest diet to maintain. A vegetable-based diet is like hopping on one leg by comparison. So, our omnivorous diet is natural, and it's only open if we want to ignore our natural inclinations. 

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.

But wouldn't the world be a far better place for their prey items if tigers and other predators didn't exist at all? Basically, for you predators are bad beings we sadly need to tolerate, hoping someday that we can get them on a healthy vegetable diet.

your concept of a creature's nature is still a mystery to me. Either it is something mysterious, or it is very trivial. So trivial that it is ethically irrelevant, like "natural is just what someone does"; try to apply this to a murderer... (yes, what a coincidence that all murderers kill, and yes, the act of a murder is consistent with being a murderer) What do you mean with acting in a consistent way?

Yes, you refer to an easy definition, although that definition becomes complicated: if you and I happen to be infertile, we still belong to the same species, because you have close family members that could have gotten fertile ofspring with some of my close family members. But the taking such counterfactuals into account... Anyway, let's say it is a nice and clean definition. Then what? What is the moral relevance of having close family members who could have fertile offspring with others? Why close family members, why offspring, why fertile? Such a rule is way to farfetched.

Yes, penguins are exceptions. But all in all that is morally irrelevant. There  no essence related to birds (some birds don't fly, some non-birds do fly), and even if there was such an essence, it would not yet be morally relevant. It becomes relevant only if the essence is something that matters from an impartial point of view, such as sentience (having a well-being), or when it is related to a moral virtue (such as compassion), or when there is a non-farfectched link between the essence and rights (e.g. sentient beings have and experience interests, rights are tools to protect interests, so this link is not farfetched in a rights ethic. Other examples: in a fairness ethic: being able to cooperate; in a social contract ethic: being able to make agreements; in a duty ethic: being able to understand duties,...).

I said what we eat is open. I don't eat meat. So I am not an omnivore. But I am a human. By the way, omnivorous need to make sure that they get enough of this and enough of that as well. If they don't get enough protein, it is unhealthy, so they should not forget to eat protein food. But the same applies to vegans. What is the difference between not forgetting steak and not forgetting seitan? An omnivore diet is easier, because it's a habit and accessible in stores. But as it is inconsistent with an ethic based on the values of impartiality, well-being, autonomy and biodiversity, we have to make sure that a vegan diet becomes easier.

As a vegan I am not hopping on one leg. In fact, I eat a much much higher variety of food products compared to an average omnivore. Increasing this variety with animal products is like having ten different colours of m&m's, and now you add another color. It's no real difference. Are you really willing to hurt someone, to harm someone, just for this extra color? How irrationally greedy could that be? There are thousands of vegan recipes, isn't that enough?

And be aware of those 'natural inclinations'. Before you know it, rape and violance are natural in a similar way... I don't care about natural inclinations if they are not fixed, I care about ethics: compassion, impartiality, well-being,...

Finally, as predators harm others, we should hope for healthy feasible vegan diets for them. It might have been better if they never existed, but now we are not allowed to wipe them out.


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